Friday Finale – first week of TEFL done and dusted

I can’t quite believe how fast this first week of teaching has gone. It’s been intense, but grand I think.  Not everything I’ve tried has gone according to plan, but on balance I’m pleased (and relieved) with how this week has gone.  It still feels very unreal, that I’m suddenly catapulted here to Phnom Penh and have a whole new identity as a TEFL teacher, yet here I am.  Ostensibly living it and doing it.  There is certainly no backing out now.

My Thursday lessons were ‘OK’ but didn’t entirely fly, erratic I think.  I tried some things that didn’t really work as intended, and had moments when I was writing on the whiteboard and enthusing to students externally whilst internally experiencing an entire 360 degree immersion experience of absolute angst.  ‘Why am I here?’   ‘What am I doing?‘ ‘How is this even possible?’  That sort of thing.  Ironically, these being open ‘WH’ questions (yes, even the ‘How’ in this context) they are really just the thing for stimulating discussion in a TEFL class, so that’s fine and dandy really, when you come to think about it.

I do really like my students, but have panics when I just wonder if I really can move them on when communication is so difficult.  On the other hand my head tells me give myself a break.  It’s only been a week.  Half my students have yet to appear and in any case, as the whole programme is based around ‘Conversations with Foreigners’ as long as the students remain engaged and talking to me that has to count for something right?

So Thursday Wobbles: Good Manners and Bad Manners.

The topic for yesterday (from the book) was about appropriate behaviours in Cambodia and in the UK, bringing out cultural differences and introducing new vocabulary and concepts relating to ‘you should’ and ‘you should not’.  The book wasn’t a massive amount of help, and in the teachers’ guide (which to be fair can be good) it just gave the spectacularly unhelpful tip as follows:

TIPS!  lower level students need lots of activities to remember target language  Think of games to jazz up any teaching of new vocabulary.  Be creative!  What game(s) could you play with your students to make remembering this list of new words fun and engaging!

Hmmm, quite.


Oh well, undaunted, I came up with a lesson plan and a whole heap of ideas, some of which fell flat, some of which I failed to communicate and some of which went OK.

I wanted to get across the concept of what is polite in England, so I came up with the cliché of how we do like to queue!  I therefore gave each student a number as they arrived in class, that corresponded with the sequence of their arrival. Then, I got them to form a queue, and one at a time step forward when I rang a bell, and give their name for the register.  In the first group there were only four students so although it worked, it didn’t really have the intended impact.  With the second group, it worked really well as it was a bigger group, and when I explained about queuing and asked about what happened in Cambodia, one student confidently asserted she never queues, much to the horror of everyone else, which did make it a lot more fun.  I was able to demonstrate pushing in which was a lot of fun

I then used a worksheet I’d created with various ‘bad’ manners, in the UK, and went through all the meanings, and basically got them to discuss whether these would be OK in Cambodia or not.  They didn’t entirely grasp the activity, and honestly, although it didn’t completely bomb, all of them were discussing with me, rather than each other, which really wasn’t the idea at all.  It is hard to get the interactivity going with such a small group of four.  I had fun demonstrating the activities though, so obviously that’s the most important thing.

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From this, I moved to the workbook.  Students had to discuss whether they could or could not do certain things in Cambodia.  Touch people’s heads, point your feet at someone.  In the first group it was somewhat stilted, but in the second it was much better, as students really did disagree violently on some points.  One young woman was completely horrified at a younger student who said it was OK to point at people as long as it was below chest height and say a teacher pointing at a student.


In the second group (which was bigger with 7), there was also more helpful mischief-making.  You couldn’t wear a bikini in class say, and with the topic of eye-contact we got into flirting and staring competitions using eyes which worked well.  I suppose this is the confusing thing really.  Things that work with one group won’t necessarily work with another.  It isn’t always the case I’m doing something spectacularly wrong, it’s partly to do with group dynamics.  We went very slowly though.  I never even got to the section on getting them to give me advice about e.g. visiting the pagoda.  Oh well.  The first group was proud of what they did achieve, we finished up with scrawling a lot of their ideas on the board, and it was they who wanted the group shots.  I’ve asked CWF to share on their main Facebook page, which hasn’t happened yet which is disappointing.  Oh well, one day.

In both groups I used the ‘disappearing words’ technique. You get students to read out sentences that have been written on the board, and then remove more and more words until they have to do all of the sentences by recall. It is incredibly effective, and the students loved it. Strange but true.


Reflecting back on Thursday, I did achieve more than I thought, but the session didn’t really flow, and I had a confidence wobble mid way through, particularly with the first group when it just felt dull, confused and mutually stressful. The students seem broadly forgiving though. We got through it!  Oh, and one point of particular interest.  At the start of the first session there is one student who always arrives early.  I think he does this deliberately to practise English. We got talking about how hot it was, and he got across to me (with some help) that he comes from the countryside where it used to be much cooler, but now all the trees have been cut down and it has caused the climate to change.  So I gave him the vocabulary for ‘climate change’, ‘deforestation’ and ‘environment’.  All of which he got.  He’s only level two, that’s maybe 12 months tops of English Language tuition.  I suppose it demonstrates how well motivated these students are.  It also makes me feel better if the formal lesson content doesn’t always work, students being able to get vocabulary that is genuinely relevant to them is way more important!  It was only later I recalled that one of the big taboos here is around the politics of illegal logging.  Oh well.  He raised the topic, and I didn’t actually stray into government corruption and bribes being at the heart of forests being more than decimated as valuable mature trees are stripped away and taken on the back of motos to Vietnam and/or exported to China under the blind eyes of officials all along the way.

Friday was brilliant though.  I love my students.  They are really funny, and they really want to communicate.  The plan was to do a continuation of ‘good manners and bad manners/ should and should not’ but best laid plans and all…

In the first group I only had two. They are both particularly able and engaged students.  I thought we might get a couple more, so I started off asking them about their day.  One of them had been to a film and I said I’d be going to see one this weekend with some of the other teachers.  A look of incomprehension from both gazed back at me.  There is a board with all the teachers’ pictures on it in a hallway. I took them to see it.  I demonstrated ‘all’ and then pointed out the ‘some’ who might also go to the cinema with me. That was OK, and even better, one of my male students is a nurse, and I could point out the volunteer teacher who is also a nurse, but the best bit was that one of the other teachers emerged from her class, so I was able to point her out, and then my students went to introduce themselves with the language we’d covered earlier in the week.  ‘Who’s that woman over there?’  ‘I don’t know, let’s go and say hello…’ and so on. I was so proud of them, and grateful to the other teacher too who played along beautifully with polite and slowly intoned responses.  Result!


So back to the classroom and I used an ice breaker of noughts and crosses whilst the first two students were waiting for others to arrive.  The gist is that you do a grid, and put words they find hard to pronounce that have been introduced that week to the students.  STudents take it in turns to pronounce the word corresponding to the square they wanted to take, but I would only allow them to do this if their pronunciation was ‘perfect’ (within realistic parameters for each student).  These two students LOVED it, we could have spent a whole session just on that. Result.  The photo was towards the end of the session when I used the same technique as a recap, but you get the idea.


So I’d got loads of prep lined up for this Friday session, but it was pretty much all abandoned. Instead, I had a warm up plan – borrowed from another student. To get them to do a couple of tongue twisters.  So I did the vocabulary for tongue and twist and explained that we’d work on pronunciation.  I then wrote up the classic

‘She sells, sea shells, by the seashore’

We had fun with the words, I got in a knot with seashore, and ended up with ‘beach’ which isn’t the same really but hey ho.  The students also came and drew things on the board so we could work it out between us.  The thing was though, that it turned into the most fantastic exercise. The students enjoyed the challenge (and it was really hard for them) but it genuinely improved their pronunciation, and they did get it, albeit it was a struggle.  For me, the most interesting point was when the younger of the two, who I would say is the most fluent in the class by a very long margin and who can communicate easily on most topics, was asking is ‘she’ the same as ‘see’ and I had no idea at all what he was talking about. Eventually, we all worked out that he had always said ‘she’ as ‘see’ and only through doing this exercise had spotted the different pronunciation. This was an interesting lesson for me.  Because his contextual vocabulary is excellent (he has gaps but easily filled) I had never noticed that anomaly in his pronunciation.  It was great to have ‘fixed that’.  Similarly, there was a point about an hour into the lesson, when the other student said ‘teacher, that clock is wrong!’.  We had spent the whole time repeating and playing with the tongue twister, and the time sped by.  He was amazed we’d been at it a whole hour, as indeed was I.  We moved onto another example (again, I took this from a more creative student who offered it up into the fold)

‘Some students sells shoes, some students sells socks’

Same again.  Brilliant.  They have a tendency to miss of the ‘s’ at the end of words, and struggle with the ‘sh’ sounds too.   I really enjoyed the session, and the students both got an enormous amount out of it. I was wondering a bit if I should have brought it back on topic but then again, it was friday, half the class was missing, this was valuable, this was fun and ended the week on a really good note.

The second class was similarly engaged.  Six of them turned up, all of them with unusual, but creditable punctuality.  To start with I asked them all ‘how are you today?’ as I do every session. But this time, I pushed them to say a bit more than ‘fine’.  It didn’t entirely work, but I got a few changes ‘I feel wonderful, I feel great, I feel fantastic, I feel a little bit tired, I feel a little bit hungry’.  They got the idea though.

The noughts and crosses pronunciation idea totally bombed with this class, because their pronunciation was good enough it just became a not very interesting game of noughts and crosses which no-one would ever win.  This was abandoned.  Then I went with the tongue twisters again. Again, it was surprisingly succesful.  There are a couple of more able students so I really pushed them to say it faster and faster.  Then we did a game with them all in a circle, everyone had to repeat the tongue twister once, then we went round again and they did it twice and so on, but if they made a mistake they were out.  Again, they were really up for this, and I started dishing out dollars as prizes.  You would be amazed how much they loved this. I’d been backing off using this technique as it seems a bit patronising, but no worries there.  I also did the tongue twisters wtih disappearing words, and then each student having a word in turn.  I got the students in each class to write their name on a card and put it in an envelope. To randomly select students I just take their names out of the envelope in turn, but it also allows me to take a register without having to formally go around the class.  I’m struggling with the names.  Part of the problem is I never seem to get the same students.  Oh well.

‘Red lorries, yellow lorries’

was especially hard.  Oh, and entertaining.  We went through some colours on the way to that one.

Although they did enjoy the tongue twisters and games, I couldn’t stretch it out for the full 90 minutes, so we moved back into revision of should and should not.  I split them into teams men v women, and gave each team a different coloured pen. They had to take it in turns to write down as many ‘should’ and ‘should not’ statements as possible. This wasn’t entirely understood, and new random ones appeared such as ‘you should eat with your family’ and ‘you should go to school with your friends.’  Oh, OK then.   I don’t like to crush any contributions!

I gave cash prizes to the team with the most correct statements.

To finish, I did a sort of pictionary, which students found bizarrely hard, given we had just recapped all the language from the day before (to sit cross-legged, to stare etc).  Basically, each student came up in turn, I handed them a slip of paper on which was written one of the phrases from yesterday. They had to draw a picture of that phrase/ example of bad manners under the relevant heading (should or should not), the rest of the class had to guess the picture and if they did they got $100.  Fabulous.  No work for me, and incredibly engagement from the students. I am perpetually perplexed by what they are up for. You’d think this might be considered a bit childish, but hell no.


This took us nicely to the end of the session, so I wished them all a good weekend, and that was that.  Job done!

I can’t believe how quickly the week has gone.  It has been intense, but definitely enjoyable and rewarding.  Most of the other volunteers are also having broadly positive experiences as far as I can tell. We’ve all had some things work better than others, and frustrations over practical things (lesson prep when there is no internet, a broken printer and a lack of basic resources like scissors or pens is challenging), but some are already talking of maybe coming back again. It is a fun set up.  Honestly, I would have preferred a group with more advanced English-speaking skills, but my students are great.  They are funny, highly motivated, engaged and engaging. Communication can be hard, but we get there.  I really want them to improve, and it will be amazing to see how they progress.  It’s interesting how even when language is limited you get personalities shining through. The mischievous students who deliberately  give wrong answers, the keen to please, the conservative who greet me very correctly, the independent spirit who is happy to admit to ‘never queuing’ and the quiet under-confident woman who politely told me at the end of the session that she wont be coming on Monday as she has to go to her sister’s wedding. She also apologised that she finds speaking hard, she has been learning English a long time, but (as far as I could gather) from just one children’s language book.  She is struggling a bit, but so motivated.  I suspect she will be a slow burn. Once she has tuned in to my way of speaking, I think suddenly many things will fall into place.   I worry that I am going too fast for her, but then again, I take heart that she feels able to approach me, and she said she is enjoying the classes.  All the students are all smiles at all times… apart from the odd gaping mouthed moments of incomprehension.

I don’t know quite what next week has in store – weddings is the topic, and Friday will be carols so cracking on.   There are only ten teaching weeks, and that’s one down already.  Another is lost in the ‘end of term party wind-down’ that we have been told about.  It is traditional for students to take teachers out for the last lesson of term. Which could be interesting if it means two meals out in consecutive hours!  Apparently it is usual to get presents. The problem with this is that now we have been told this, if I end up all on my own in a restaurant with nothing but tumbleweed around me and not a solitary Angkor Wat penholder in sight, I’ll feel like I’ve failed. Such are the inevitable pressures of teaching…

Ideas I’ve not yet used:

  • Give each student $500 as they arrive, but tell them they will lose $100 every time they speak Khmer in class – this is becoming a bit of an issue in one of my classes, but I’m ambivalent.  It is a very highly motivated student, and he is using Khmer with another student who then translates his question, so they are ‘on task’ but it is distracting.  I need to just monitor the situation I suppose

So, some of us celebrated the end of our first teaching week by heading off to Strange FruitsStrange Fruits, no, not a reference to the Billy Holliday song, but a gay bar. One of the volunteers knows the owner.  It is near the Royal Palace and a tuk tuk ride away on Street 19z. Off street 19. Close to street 240.   A group of us went from the apartments, facilitated in our journey by one of the volunteers who has been living and working in Hong Kong.  It was good of him to do so, but I fear he has a rather over-bearing manner and I thought he was extremely rude to the tuk tuk driver who couldn’t find the place, which wasn’t surprising as it is tucked away, and also it turns out there are two streets called 19z.  It was all a bit excruciating, and even worse on the way back, when he ended up getting out of the tuk tuk and remonstrating with the poor driver, repeating ‘Russian market’ ever louder as if that would aid comprehension (it is near where we live).  Admittedly we had ended up at the Central Market, but being aggressive and angry was just horrible and inappropriate.  The tuk tuk driver had only quoted us $3  – it was $5 heading out, so that was an early clue of a misunderstanding had we but heeded it.  I’m not sure how to work around this.  I don’t feel confident enough to head off in tuk tuks, and I don’t have a bloomin clue where I am or where anywhere is, but I felt really uncomfortable with how my colleague handled the situation.  I’m sure humour and smiles would have served us just as well.

The bar itself is really tucked away down a quiet residential side street. There was no sign, you just head up some dark stairs, there was a tiny inside space, and then an outside rooftop area, with a view across adjacent roof tops.  It was a low-key chilled sort of place.  We met the Cambodian staff and owner, all of who had excellent English. They weren’t really geared  up for our group. We drank them out of beer, and I had a single gin and a single vodka exhausting their supplies of both. So we literally drank the place dry, despite most having only 2 beers or a couple of shorts.  It was nice though.  I got a chance to chat to some volunteers I’ve not really talked to before, and it was good to share experiences from the first week.

The bar shut at 11pm.  Tuk tuk back through quite streets, via an unexpectedly scenic route. We gave the tuk tuk driver $4 instead of $3, whether that was worth it for the way he was treated I’m not sure.

Tomorrow, cinema.  I’m knackered, but I think it is important to do something different, and not just spend all weekend worrying about lesson planning for the week ahead.  Star Wars is the plan.  It is just released and on at the grand AEON Mall, which I ‘ve not been too. I have a horrible feeling it will be Phnom Penh’s answer to Meadowhell in Sheffield.  Oh well, I do always try when traveling to do at least one thing everyday that takes me out of my comfort zone or is different from what I might get up to in the UK.  It will meet those criteria at least. Plus I have to get a tuk tuk there possibly independently.  Eek.

I wonder what I will be sharing this time next week?

Have fun y’all.


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