Teaching English in Cambodia

The street where Dolphin School of English is located

We are in a neighborhood of Kratie teaching English to underprivileged children whose parents cannot afford to pay for private English lessons. Cambodian government schools officially offer English as a subject, but it appears that the actual teachers don’t speak English, so in effect English is not actually taught. Instead the lesson time is used for other activities like cleaning the schoolyard or sport. For a developing country this lack of English proficiency is a serious problem as it is limiting the younger generation in terms of their career options. Mr Yuth works for a local NGO in Kratie, and in 2016 he started his own initiative to offer free English lessons to local children in his neighborhood. As his Dolphin School of English is self-funded, he relies on volunteers and donations to keep the school running.

Dolphin School of English – accommodation up at the top, with the school below.

At the moment the Dolphin School has level 1 – 4 classes five days a week offered at the rudimentary school on Mr Yuth’s property. He has built a traditional Khmer house with three bedrooms to house volunteers, and a kitchen, bathroom and common area. Under the house, which is on stilts there are three partially open-air classrooms, and an enclosed computer room. A fourth classroom is located under a tin structure on the property.The Dolphin School also offers free English lessons to staff of local restaurants and hotels when there are sufficient volunteers, and sends volunteers to the local school to assist teachers with pronunciation during English lessons.

Meily – Mr Yuth’s smart daughter

There are numerous schools similar to this school operating throughout Cambodia on the basis of volunteers receiving accommodation for 7 days in exchange for teaching 3-5hrs a day for 5 days of the week. In Cambodia meals tend not to be provided for free, but we are paying $5/day per person for three basic Cambodian meals per day, which usually consist of rice, two different main dishes and fruit for dessert plus water or a drink. We use www.workaway.info  and $5/day is the maximum charge permitted for meals, etc. I have heard of several scam schools charging foreigners hundreds of dollars to volunteers at their ‘school’ – avoid these!

Kids playing in the rain during a massive downpour…

After teaching around 40 kids each day over the past week, Akhona and I are in agreement that a strictly volunteer-based school faces several challenges, mainly linked to the fact that many volunteers are not teachers. It became obvious that the children prefer playing than sitting in the classroom learning grammar and vocabulary. We suspect that many volunteers were unable to actually teach anything of substance, so they just resorted to playing games with the kids and taking them to the local swimming pool, which charges $1/child entry.  While I’m sure that both the volunteers and the kids had lots of fun, very little English was taught over the past 8 months. We tested the children’s ability to count, tell time, describe themselves and where they live and we also tested very basic vocabulary…A somewhat dismal picture emerged. The kids have a very limited attention span and have already learned the bad habits of talking amongst themselves during lessons and copying each others work. So Akhona and I have decided to go back to teaching them the basics, with a bit of discipline thrown in. As we speak no Khmer, and only a few kids actually understand any English it’s quite a challenge, but we try to use images, gestures and drawings as means of getting our points across.

Kids climbing a tree in our garden during an hour-long torrential downpour

We are here for another week, and we hope during this time to at least get the older kids up to speed on counting up to 40, telling the time accurately and speaking a few simple English sentences. As the school is massively under-resourced we are also going to try to help Mr Yuth set up a fundraising initiative by photographing some of the kids, writing a little piece on each of them and shooting a short video on the school. An easy way for people to donate to the school also needs to be set up as In Cambodia you cannot receive funds using PayPal for instance. All we can hope to do is make some small difference in the lives of the people we meet while we travel and volunteer – we can’t change the world, but we can hopefully start a tiny ripple in life’s pond for a few people…


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Derek Antonio Serra is a photographer and filmmaker who has run several successful businesses in the film, tourism and advertising industries. He has recently embraced the nomadic lifestyle after selling his businesses and home. His passions are photography, travel and writing.

2 thoughts on “Teaching English in Cambodia

  • 03/09/2017 at 12:33 pm

    Beautiful photos Derek. The video and photos of the children as a fundraising initiative is a great idea.

  • 05/09/2017 at 6:46 pm

    Gee, this gives me goosebumps. THIS is what life is all about. I am so glad that u two decided to do this and make a difference in the world. well done!!!!

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