Erica Hiorns, School Improvement Advisor and a member of the the Learning Improvement team since 2013, has recently returned from a 3 week visit to Cambodia working with local teachers to help them to make a sustainable difference in their teaching practice.
Erica has been an education professional since 1988. She was a high school teacher specialising in Languages and Head of Post 16. She has a long interest in supporting pupils from deprived areas to make progress, both locally, nationally and, now, internationally!
Here she describes her Cambodian experience and shares her thoughts on the differences between education in Cambodia and the UK, reflecting on her view that good teaching is not dependent upon good resources.
My Cambodian Experience
Over the summer I was lucky enough to take part in a three week fellowship organised by Limited Resource Teacher Training charity (LRTT). LRTT began in Uganda in 2012. It is a global teacher movement which brings teachers together from the US, Britain and Australia to support quality education for all. Teachers take part in 3 or 4 week fellowships during the school holidays in different parts of the developing world working with local teachers to help them to make sustainable improvements in their practice.
I am grateful to Kat Hall, head of maths at Royds School, who drew my attention to the project, and to Phil Mellen, Deputy Director of Children’s Services, who allowed me to take part.
LRTT’s partner in Cambodia is Teach for Cambodia, an organisation similar to Teach for America and Teach First. It was started by Moni Siv, a Cambodian from a single parent family who went to America to complete his education, took part in Teach for America and wanted to use the same blueprint to improve the quality of education in his home country. The organisation recruits outstanding university graduates and young professionals who commit for an initial two years as teachers in high need schools.
The challenges facing schools in Cambodia are huge and are routed in its turbulent history. From 1976 to 1979, the country was ruled the Khmer Rouge whose desire to return to a purely agrarian way of life coupled with its repressive and autocratic policies led to the torture and genocide of a quarter of its population. This was primarily intellectuals, professionals, including doctors and teachers, and even anyone who wore glasses. A trip to the ‘killing fields’ during my stay in Phnom Penh was one of the most troubling, brutal and sobering experiences of my life.
As a result of the Khmer Rouge literacy levels diminished and there are comparatively few older teachers who are able to act as role models and mentor new entrants to the profession.
I was assigned to Chroy Changvar School in Phnom Penh as part of a team of five to mentor staff, observe lessons and deliver training. On our first visit to the school the Director met us at the school gates wanting to know if any amongst us spoke French. Apparently, during the Khmer Rouge regime, his father, a teacher, covertly taught French to all the children in the village. That story certainly gave a new perspective on the value of language learning!
Our team was composed of two Britons, one Australian and two Americans. Two of us were secondary trained and three came from a primary background. One of the first challenges was to ensure that we all had a common understanding of good pedagogy before we delivered training. Some of this was at the most basic level of vocabulary; for example ‘no hands up’ is known as ‘cold calling’ by the Americans. I learnt a lot from the other members of the team, particular the other Briton, who delivered strong training on coaching using the GROW model.
Another challenge for us was that the lessons we saw were primarily delivered in Khmer and any feedback we gave had to be translated, as did our training sessions. This made me reflect really carefully on what the key messages were I wanted to disseminate. I started with my main points in observation feedback and actually scripted training sessions so that the language was pared down and accessible.
As you can imagine, there were some startling differences between education in Cambodia and that in England. The most pertinent for me was the total lack of accountability. Teachers are not routinely observed. Marking in books was sketchy at best. Many pupils choose not to attend school and my impression was that relatively little is done about this. Teachers are also frequently absent. On one occasion I went around school trying to find a class to observe and found only one where there was a teacher. Pupils without teachers are not supervised so play outdoors, or crowd at the doors and windows of classes that are taking place. Walls are unadorned and the school estate is scruffy. Some of this will have been exacerbated by the fact that it was the end of term when we were there, but the overriding impression is of a country where education is not valued.
And yet some things were surprisingly similar. The pedagogy of the Teach for Cambodia fellows was very sound and closely aligned to what I see in this country. Some staff were totally committed to their jobs, with a sense of moral purpose and a determination to enhance the life chances of pupils in their country. The values which underpinned the school were not dissimilar to a school vision statement you might find on any school website in the UK. Whilst it is an obvious truth that the schools in Cambodia have fewer resources, I was left with the lasting impression that good teaching is not dependent on good resources. Good teaching is good teaching! And the areas for development I saw in terms of pedagogy, particularly around assessment for learning, were almost identical to those that I see in the UK.
So did we have an impact? This is the question I have asked myself countless times since I got back. The teachers at our school were absurdly, and embarrassingly, grateful for the CPD we delivered. And the very next day I could see some of the strategies we had covered being introduced in lessons and making a positive difference. But will these be sustained in our absence in a system where the overriding challenge appears to be weaknesses in leadership and management rather than teaching and learning. However, as one person reminded me when I was in Cambodia, I shouldn’t underestimate the impact upon the teachers and schools in Phnom Penh with which we were partnered of the fact that 25 people had come from all corners of the globe to work with them because we believe in the value of education.
Find out more about LRTT here: https://www.lrtt.org/