I was standing in the shower about this time yesterday, wondering what possessed me to travel half way across the world to volunteer to teach in a hot and humid place where I can’t speak the language or navigate the streets. My head was pounding and I was indeed madam grumpy-pants. What’s the point of being a volunteer if I feel compelled to go and teach when I feel this crap. What’s the point of trying to teach when I have no idea if I can make a difference? What’s the point of volunteering when I don’t really know if my efforts will raise funds to cross subsidise a rural NGO or not?
Fortunately, as it happens, I am ever conscientious if not keen. I had committed to teach, and teach I would, it might not be one of the best ever lessons, but it would be OK. I had done the prep. I would turn up. I would speak English. I would smile and nod and be encouraging.
Then the rain came. It is supposed to be the dry season now, but no-one has told the rain clouds that gather overhead. When it rains, it really rains. It is strange, because, unlike in the UK, rain doesn’t really bring relief. It thunders down on metal roofs and pelts the streets which flood almost instantly given the inadequacy/ non-existence of drainage. Some don ponchos or rain coats in a futile attempt to keep dry. I see no point in this at all. It just makes you sweat even more in the non-porous plastic and that’s before you even get into the mechanics of how to squelch a western sized physique into one of the Cambodian sized plastic ponchos. They are definitely entertaining, but not practical. I paddled to work with even less enthusiasm. The rain can paralyse the city pretty fast. The students may struggle to get in, or just not even bother to try. It is understandable.
My class starts at 5.00p.m. By 5.15, not one student had shown up. This is really unusual, with one notable exception who always comes at 5.25 (I’ve given up protesting, she has such a winning smile) the rest are usually early if anything. I was experiencing existential angst. How pointless this all is. Other teachers were similarly gazing round empty classrooms. You could hear only the rain overhead and the tumbleweed rolling round the dark corridors. This was not going well.
And then. My first student burst in all smiles. She stopped abruptly, ‘where is everyone?’ she wanted to know. I couldn’t answer. ‘It’s OK, we can just talk‘ I said. and we did. So we began by talking about her day, and I helped her work out linguistically elegant ways to express what she had been up to. It’s amazing how interesting this kind of detail is, you find out what people eat, when they rise, how full their lives are.
As we finished, another student appeared and we did the same for him, and then another came and soon all six were there a full house! It was like waiting for new friends at a rendezvous point and thinking you have been stood up, only to discover they have organised a surprise party for you just around the corner! The class had gone off on a different trajectory from usual. We were not using the book, or following the course we were just talking, and it was really good.
Once everyone was assembled I went to pick up the text-book, but one of the students wanted to ask me questions. So I said that was fine. It was so interesting. They were really curious about me and my motivation for coming to Cambodia. ‘Why are you here?’ ‘What will you do when you go home?’ ‘Where have you seen in Cambodia?’ ‘What other countries have you travelled to?’ The conversation took us in all sorts of new and fascinating trajectories. I found that I have visited provinces where their families live. I found out when telling them I would be going on an adventure tour involving cycling, kayaking and hiking round the Mekong that very few of them can swim. You sort of take it for granted in the UK that most adults will learn, but here that isn’t the case. I suppose there aren’t the facilities and in some places where the current flows fast, although you’d think the proximity to water would mean that people would prioritise learning to swim it isn’t really safe to do so in such water courses. One who could swim, could do so because he had spent three months working on a boat. I couldn’t work out quite what sort of boat, he said it had over 100 people living and working on it, so that sounds huge. Oh well, some things will have to remain a mystery. He used a rod to catch shark and nets to catch fish. There he learned to swim because you had to get into the water to work the nets. The topic for today was supposed to be famous singers, but we didn’t get there. I did draw a picture of a sheep for some reason which now eludes me. I’m not sure they get what it is, they are not animals you see in S. E. Asia!
This for me is surely what the purpose of this exchange is, to actually communicate, to find out about each others lives. I was telling them how I liked learning about what they did. They were pleased. They asked about what I will do next. I asked them for ideas. ‘You should teach!’ they chorused ‘you are a good teacher!’ I could have cried with gratitude. It seemed sincere. The conversation went on. I tried to find out which of them have studied here at CWF before. Only one had. I made a joke about how she knew more about teaching and learning English than any of the rest of us. ‘no no,‘she protested. ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘because before I never went to class,’ she explained. She said she did not like her previous teacher so she did not go. ‘Does that mean if you do not come to my class again you hate me?’ I asked. ‘no, no,’ she protested again – adding ‘I cannot come tomorrow’. At this point the class disintegrated into hilarity again ‘you hate the teacher‘ the other students chorused ‘you hate me?’ I gasped with a wounded indignation and wavering voice. ‘No, no!’
Call me shallow, I am, needy too, but this session felt like a gift. Just the shunt of positivity I needed to restore some confidence. It may be that the fact that my students like me does not necessarily mean that I am helping them learn English effectively, but I think it does mean they are motivated to attend and to communicate and confident enough to try to use the English they do have. For my part, I felt like we are developing a meaningful connection. I felt reassured that whatever mistakes I am making teaching wise (and I’m sure they are many and manifest even if you overlook my lack of a risk assessment before bringing balloons into the classroom) that my students are forgiving and they see a value in attending. It dawned on me that although I perceive attendance as erratic, and it is, if you factor in students who give warning that they will not attend, as opposed to those who just ‘no show’ for this early class it has actually been at 100% for some while. They are even sad not to have classes next week. I hope I can reward their faith. But whatever happens, I will try to package up this session as a gift, and file it away in my ‘happy thoughts’ folder to access again in future if I’m having a bad day.
Also, as I was off book, didn’t use my lesson plan. Yay. No planning tomorrow – if I can keep the second group slow and steady… which I did.
We talked about describing people, it was a lot of fun. I basically drew bad pictures on the whiteboard and got them to learn the vocab to describe them. I have told them on Friday they will have to do their own presentations about a celebrity of their choice. I’m not 100% convinced they will deliver, but nothing ventured eh? We had a lot of fun working out who is the tallest amongst us. I kept being short compared to the guys in the class and was exaggeratedly grumpy about it until one of my students came to stand alongside me and crouched, just so I could be tall in that moment. They are so funny. They all say I have silver eyes though, not blue, so that was a bit strange. I got one of them to sing for me – he has a great voice. Impressive. Explaining pony tails was fun too, getting everyone with a pony tail to march about so it bounced appropriately. It’s surprising what you can do.
The new student was asking though why we don’t cover everything exactly like it is in the book. He has come from a class that was more text-book focused. Erm, well because I think it’s too dull is the real answer. I said it was because we could do things in different ways, which we can. Fortunately a new poster has recently gone up around the school explaining that as volunteer teachers we do all bring our own style to the proverbial party. I think it will be ok…. lucky he wasn’t in the first group though, maybe he would have been a dissatisfied customer! There is no room for complacency here.
One student was very concerned with the meaning of the word ‘eye bell’ I could only really think of zombie film in terms of how you might need the word eyeball for describing people. So I posted a picture up on Facebook later. Hope that helped.
So now I’m about to go and teach again. Yesterday’s interlude has made me no less apprehensive about what tonight will hold, but then again, I take some comfort from it. Bring it on!