I get knocked down, but I get up again…

Chumbawamba.  That takes me back.  Sigh.  Who doesn’t want to jump up and down and sing along to that refrain ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down‘?

It is a gratuitous song insertion I admit, for old time’s sake.  However, it is sort of apt, it’s been a week of teaching ups and downs, and the only way is to get knocked down and get up again, and use the adrenalin kicks to your advantage.  Well that seems to be the only way for me in any case.


The story is this. I’d had a totally transformative session with my students when they had truly astonished me with their linguistic capabilities when talking with passion about their jobs.  This was great, but maybe gave me a false sense of security about what they can do.  The topic for the next day was study at university.  I decided to use this as a spring-board for them to talk about skills gained from academic studies. It’s my subject really, working as a Careers Adviser in Higher Education I’ve done loads of work on transferable skills.  I thought they’d love it.  I researched materials, created new dumbed down worksheets for them to use and had a go with the first group.  Hopeless.  The group just couldn’t get it at all.  It is the weaker of the two groups for sure, but I thought they’d be OK with it with appropriate scaffolding and help.  not so.  It was a slow-motion teaching car-crash basically.

In my defence I think the issue is partly to do with lack of critical thinking skills as much as language.  I should have known better really, I’ve worked with international students enough (and many UK students too to be fair) and many really struggle with the notion you need to be able to identify, articulate and evidence transferable skills gained within a degree course.  It is an entirely alien concept that you don’t just slap down your degree certificate or whatever and then stand back and wait for the applause.  I abandoned my bolder vision early on, in favour of just trying to tease out one solitary example from each student about a time they’d given a presentation. They have after all given them in my class, so I knew we had a last resort option.  It was still excruciating. They found it so hard, and perplexing, they didn’t get why we were doing it.  They co-operated, and once I’d elicited examples and written them up they did photograph the white board for potential future reference, but it was all pretty joyless.  At the end I asked them if it was just too hard, and they basically said it was. It is good they felt able to do that, as culturally they are inclined generally to say what they think is polite and wanted.  However, given their comments I couldn’t really ignore that feedback. This is the down side of being student-centred, you ask students what they think and want, they tell you and then the logical next step is you have to do something differently next time. Curses.  More work.  I promised them a ‘super – fun’ session the next day (crap, pressure).

I decided to abandon the lesson plan for my next group, and instead revert to safe but dull text-book stuff.   I opened the page and my heart sank.   It was all about study at university.  Oh dear.   The presumption seemed to be that all present would either be current students, have previously graduated or aspire to study at university in the future.


Not so.  True of the majority for sure.  However, on this particular day a student who hasn’t attended in about four weeks suddenly put in an appearance. She is noticeably weaker than her peers.  She would have been OK if she ever came, but has missed massive chunks, whole weeks at a time – I thought she’d dropped out. Anyway, she works in a beauty salon and is not a graduate, and of all the people I’d have liked to have made feel included and valued she is the one. She lacks resilience, the text-book was not doing her any favours.  It was difficult even to know who to pair her with. She is older than most students and seems quiet to their more extrovert types.  I did my best, but it wouldn’t have been a session that helped her confidence.  I tried to direct it towards ‘let’s talk about learning English’ because at least I know they all study that, but it was forced.  It wasn’t that the session totally bombed, but it was all a bit joyless, and I felt bad because I pride myself on trying to be inclusive and being sensitive to the different contexts of my students and I don’t think I did a good job.

Self-flagellation aside though, there was still a moment of unexpected gloriousness.  I asked about pros and cons of studying English in Cambodia.  The pros were all fairly predictable:

  • English is really important to communicate with foreigners
  • I want to speak English as in my job you need it to get a promotion and a well-paid position
  • I want to travel
  • English is very important, it is the second language in Cambodia
  • English is an international language, we need it to be important and grow in the world
  • Cambodia is still a developing country, we need English so we can learn new things and import new things, people and knowledge

I thought the cons they’d identify would be along the lines of ‘it’s really hard’ or ‘it takes a long time’ and they did come up. But the one that made me stand up and take notice was the student (who had also astonished me the day before) said:

  • The disadvantage of learning English is that we will lose our own language.  Young people cannot write in Khmer any more. We will lose our stories and heritage. (I’ve paraphrased a bit, but the gist was all there.)

It’s true of course, but I’d not even considered that possibility, that this rush to learn English might lead to the dominance of English and the complete erosion of Khmer.  I should have seen it though, because you can already see how opportunities are constrained for those without it, there is a linguistic apartheid in terms of what you can access depending on your English fluency.  I tried to explain to them about Wales and the problem with the Welsh Language being eroded and how some people tried to keep it going.  I don’t think this was meaningful to them.  But I hope I did at least convey that I agreed it was very important to have both.  More than important, crucial.  Stories, history, culture are all tied in to native tongue.  Again, the students challenged my thinking.  If I come back to Cambodia ten years from now, will English be dominant. That would terrible but ironically that is the aspiration for individuals.   Even at the Olympic Stadium, locals are so keen to try to communicate in English, they don’t seem to mind that our Khmer is lamentable to non-existence, that is seen as understandable.  The onus is presumed to be on them to learn English not otherwise.  The occasional blurtings of my greetings and thanks prompts huge smiles and gales of laughter, but is not ever taken as a serious opportunity to take our communication in Khmer any further.

It didn’t help that my head was thumping, phlegm accumulating and I felt dizzy with fatigue.  I finished my evening lessons feeling utterly deflated and annoyed with myself for such utter misjudging.  I also fretted ridiculously about what to do the next day.  ‘Super-fun’ I’d promised.  Bloomin’ brilliant.  Not.

So I spend a lot of the next day, yesterday, fretting about what to do.  I decided to do something on awards. Getting them all to allocate each other awards for various things from ‘most press-ups’ to ‘best poster’ and with the option to come up with other names.  I had wanted to do this as a last week activity, but think they’ll find it fun. The focus is not so much on the actual awards, more on their acceptance speeches.  Anyway, that was the original plan, but in the event I did something different.  I wanted it to be simple, not stressful but some educational valued.  A fellow student shared their plan which I sort of adapted.

I just took all the lists of occupations we’d looked at (astronaut, archeologist through to lawyer, customer services assistant – fun because it was especially hard to say) and all the subjects of study (nursing, English etc). I generated bingo cards, using an online auto thing.  Then I took the call card, and cut out all the words and put them into an envelope.

For the first part of the class I did my now ‘usual’ What date is it?  What time is it?  What day is it?  What day was it yesterday?  What day will it be tomorrow? What date was it yesterday?  What date will it be tomorrow?  They are getting marginally better at the dates and days, time telling is hilariously lamentable, but delivered with alarming self-belief.  I mean I want my students to feel confident, but I’d prefer it is well-placed and justified confidence over time telling at least.  I mean, unless you have experienced it for yourself, it is impossible to imagine how many possible permeatiations there are for twenty to seven.  None of which incorporate the actual time, nor indeed any time that might crop up during our 90 minute lesson from 6.30 to 8.00 p.m.  It is is extraordinary, and very, very funny.   It does explain though why meetings don’t always happen as planned.  Crossed communication can happen however clearly language has been stated if you have no idea that you have said something entirely different to what you meant to.  Happens all the time I’m sure!

Then I put up the bingo caller’s table, which has every word on it, got them to see if they knew them all and checked pronunciation. They all gathered round the picture, and expressed supreme (and entirely misplaced confidence in their knowledge).  They did so repeatedly.  I knew they didn’t really know, but that was part of the fun for me.  I have said before that occasionally I just regard the whole process of having classes to teach as an elaborate enrichment activity for me to help my time in Phnom Penh pass with interest…


Yes, I know that I’ve got ‘singer’ down twice.  It was a mistake.  I then distributed the bingo cards, and got out the envelope of words, each student in turn had to take out a word, and then describe it, without using the words.  The other students had to guess it, and then they could cross off the relevant occupation or subject from their bingo card.  It was hilarious, it took for ever and got really heated. They do like that fake money as an incentive.  One wanted to change his word, I asked why, as i knew he understood it ‘because if I call it out, my neighbour will get a bingo’ he said.  I admire that honesty, it was like showing super-integrity and super-subtefuge simultaneously.  Great.  Contradictions, love that.  I had to teach him and another student ‘let’s take this outside’ as they got to a play fisticuffs over the whole exchange.  Love it.  I’m still bemused by the intertwining my students do.  This pair of young men in their late twenties comfortably sit with their arms round each other throughout.  Occasionally one will drop their hand and let it rest companionably  on the other’s knee.  It’s absolutely not sexual, but it is so culturally different to what would be usual in the UK it is noticeable.  I’m glad that it’s not taboo, but it does feel odd.  I am not being facetious when I say I wonder if the extent to which people are comfortable touching in this way and sharing each others personal space is partly because of how everyone travels squashed up against one another on the back of motos.  People don’t have much personal space here at all. We are all crammed in together. Thus my fellow volunteer buying a cap on the way back from the Olympic stadium was an interaction shared with stall holders from adjacent stalls and miscellaneous passers by without any awkwardness at all.  Life is conducted in public, for better or worse.

So Bingo took up the whole time.  In the second class it culminated in a tie break of tongue twisters. It was good. Phew.  And I can still do the awards lesson tonight, which I hope will be a lot of fun even if it does deplete my ideas portfolio for next week.  Oh well, there’s the weekend to do more thinking I suppose.  I was just so relieved to be back on track.

Also yesterday, for the first time, a member of the local staff (or indeed anyone) came in to speak to my students.  It’s a bit of a moot point actually, there is a growing suspicion that our students don’t know we are volunteers.  Someone was supposed to introduce us to our students at the beginning and explain this, but it never happened.  I appreciate from the outside you’d think you might be able to do that yourself, but with my lower level groups it was too hard to communicate early on, and the moment passed.  It never occurred to me that they didn’t know, because, well, we’d been told they did.  and they don’t. See the problem?  It is an issue because the talk was about two things.  Firstly, do they want to re-enrol for another semester.  If they do, they can get a discount as a returning student. Pleasingly, all of mine are enthusiastic about doing so.  I choose to take this as a compliment, that they have had a positive experience.  Of course another interpretation is that they’ve learned nothing, so need to do it all again.  ….

The second point, was to make sure they know about the student party. There was a big reaction to this part of the talk.  I shrugged my shoulders and asked what had caused the outpouring of protest.  It seems they had asked the local staff member if the school will pay for the party, and she had said ‘no’.  My students were a bit horrified.  I feel bad.  I don’t want them to be skint, I don’t think they need to spend any money for a party, but also I don’t want to have to pay.  If they know I’m a volunteer then they won’t expect it, but if they think I am a well-paid teacher then that really shifts the dynamic.  Oh well.  Party on eh, party on.


The main thing is, it’s been a bit of an extreme of ups and downs this week.  I have felt really rough, and that has made me feel under siege. I’m quite looking forward to tonight’s session though, and hoping they embrace the awards idea.  Then that will be my last full week of teaching done and dusted.  Hard to believe.  The final few days I expect to be anarchic and mixed. Student party Thursday, Staff party Friday – though we’ve heard nothing about it, and then suddenly I’ll be catapulted home (metaphorically, not literally, though literally might be more fun and blog-worthy).

Who knows what the future will bring. Still, I hope I’ll look back on the teaching rollercoaster ride and remember it as more fun than not. Type two fun probably in part. That is fun which is only appreciated retrospectively, not fun at the time at all, but somehow transformed in the remembering.

I may not be entirely sure if I enjoyed myself, but I’d have been dead pissed off to have missed it after all.  That much is certain….



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