My 2009 Fulbright Specialist project at the National Institute of Education (NIE) was enlivening, enriching, and likely unrepeatable now. Although I had provided faculty and staff development in Cambodia previously—at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and at Social Services of Cambodia—I had not taught before at NIE, and I was their first Fulbrighter.
NIE trained between 700 and 1000 of Cambodia’s teachers and administrators, and employed over 100 teacher-trainers. At NIE, I conducted workshops and individual consultations for 57 graduate students, all future English teachers who would teach upper secondary school, mostly in rural provinces.
My NIE students were particularly interested in exploring new methods and materials for enhancing learners’ writing and thinking skills, and also in learning theory and best practices for classroom and tutorial teaching. So, during our work together, my students and I examined new pedagogies using role plays and case studies drawn from the Cambodian educational context that I wrote for the project. We also spent time strengthening their English language listening and writing skills. When I told my learners that I hoped they would enjoy writing, one student looked at me incredulously: “Enjoy writing?” She shook her head as her classmates giggled in agreement. I wrote ENJOY! on our class whiteboard, and the word became our multi-purpose refrain, expressing both frustration and achievement—and also what we all shouted at our group photograph commemorating the end of our time together, when we were all looking forward.
I had a small apartment in Phnom Penh and I walked to NIE every day, absorbing the edgy energy of the city. I usually met with my students for workshop sessions in the mornings and early afternoons, then held individual consultations with them after that. Most were as eager to investigate and employ new teaching methods as they were thoughtful and open about the circumstances under which they would teach: very large classes (up to 60 students) and low pay, about $50 per month. They would need supplemental employment to care for themselves and their families. They also faced limited resources: scarce text books and meager supplies, nonexistent or poorly-stocked libraries, monitored and expensive internet access. Even at NIE, the computer I used to play CDs was an unreliable vintage model, and my students had few native English speakers with whom to practice the language they were expected to teach.
Still, the learners often told me that they would “teach the student, not the book,” reflecting their own awareness of individual students’ needs—and revealing their more contemporary approach to education, away from lecturing and rote-learning models. But as scholars Neil Loughlin and Astrid Noren-Nilsson noted in 2021, Cambodia’s political structure is now “hegemonic authoritarianism.” Many Cambodian educators are paid better, but the cost is constraint. In 2009, my NIE students’ commitment, enthusiasm and curiosity reinforced for me the ongoing challenges all educators face: to remain fresh, current, thoughtful, and engaged. As I consider contemporary Cambodia, I am reminded how mighty those challenges can be.
Debra Carney – Fulbright to Cambodia 2009