So, I’ve been asked to write about my TEFL experience in Cambodia. I’ll begin by stating that there are no ‘usual’ TEFL candidates, or at least that’s what I’ve found. We come from incredibly varied backgrounds both professionally and personally. I’ve met TEFL teachers from over a dozen countries and we each have our life stories that have led us to where in the world we are today.
I used to work in politics in the United Kingdom. I was a Labour Party Councillor in Manchester, and it was a role I loved, being in the cut-and-thrust of day-to-day political life and local government. In 2015 though, I took a much-needed month off and travelled South East Asia, like so many people do. At 35 years old then, I thought I’d be a touch on the old side for shoving a backpack on and hitting the road, but as it turns out, there are people of all ages travelling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, having the time of their lives.
Each of these countries is truly amazing and utterly unique too. But ahhh Cambodia… there’s something about the people here that helps it stand out amongst these other beautiful lands. The Khmer people as they’re known, are warm, friendly, and very funny – when they’re having a good day, you’ll know it! And equally if they’re having a bad day, they won’t hesitate to let you know too! I find that refreshing. But no matter their mood, they’re incredibly polite and nothing is too much trouble for them when it comes to helping you out.
I returned home from that month-long holiday, knowing that having spent just 8 days in Cambodia, I needed to return to really get to know the place better. Beyond Angkor Wat (stunningly beautiful and awe-inspiring), there is a country here that has suffered like no other. From the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970’s that took the lives of a quarter of the country’s people – 2 million died out of a population of 8 million – to the 1980’s, a lost decade of misery, to the civil war that raged in the early 90’s, followed by the ignominy of being the only country in history to be wholly taken over by the United Nations – Cambodia has had it as hard as any country I can think of. But I needed to know more; how the Khmer have managed to survive and are now recovering their country, their economy and their unique culture.
So I got back on the plane in May 2016 and spent 28 more days here. In the course of that second trip, I met some teachers in a bar in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, a glorious hodge-podge of old French Colonial architecture and a grid plan street system that is utter bedlam when it comes to traffic! Those teachers give me the best advice I could ask for. They told me that if I wanted to live here (which I was beginning to feel I might), that I should return home, complete a TEFL training course and get my backside back on another plane out! So, after another lovely holiday, I did.
A quick aside – part of what drew me to Cambodia was rock ‘n roll. Back in the 1960’s, Cambodia was one of the most liberal countries in Asia, with a thriving arts and music scene. Their particular passion was psychedelic rock ‘n roll music. Home-grown singers like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron filled the airwaves with music that was inspired by the West, but that had a Khmer filter attached to it that led to songs like ‘I’m Sixteen,’ ‘Dance A-Go-Go’ and ‘Have Visa No Have Rice!’ I went on to find that the psychedelic music scene hasn’t died, and there are still bands today, like The Cambodian Space Project, Bokor Mountain Magic Band and Dengue Fever that are keeping the 60’s spirit alive. Indeed, I’m lucky enough to call The Cambodian Space Project personal friends these days.
Anyhow! I returned home and enrolled with Tefl.org.uk on the 140-hour Premier course that they offer. It really did help prepare me for teaching, with practical, engaging modules and a great online tutor who always got back to me within an hour of me asking a question, and who was always constructive and helpful when it came to assessing my essays and other work. I attended a training weekend in Manchester too (these are held all over the UK) and that was great. A dozen or so of us shared a classroom with a very experienced TEFL teacher who taught us a lot of good teaching techniques and built our confidence in ourselves as teachers.
Just six weeks later, I’d successfully completed the course and booked a flight back to Cambodia. When I say ‘a flight back to Cambodia’ that’s actually three flights as a general rule! It’s a long way, roughly 7,500 miles from the United Kingdom and you should be prepared for a bump or two along the road!
Within three weeks of arriving back here, I’d moved into a beach bungalow in a village called Otres, 50 metres from the Pacific Ocean (Gulf of Thailand), just outside of the city of Sihanoukville, on Cambodia’s south-west coast, and I’d found work, at a small school in the city. I also learned to drive a 125cc motorbike (a Honda Air Blade) – pretty much essential for getting around in Cambodia, on some of the most pot-holed roads in the world. But those roads, as tricky as as they are to drive, also provide a spell-binding experience, with beautiful views to make you stop dead in your tracks. And the traffic in Phnom Penh is like nothing else you’ll ever experience either!
The job interview was short – there is a real demand for TEFL teachers here, and as long as you’re keen to work and have a good attitude, finding work is very easy indeed. My first day was of course scary. You go from this idea of teaching with all your bells and whistles a-wavin’ and a’clangin’, to the hard reality of 25 kids staring at you, and asking ‘Hi teacher, who you?’ ‘Teacher, where you from?’ and ‘Teacher! Why you want teach Cambodia? Silly teacher!’ These are just some of the random questions fired at me within 30 seconds of walking in the door! But, I answered honestly, and simply, and the kids seemed to like me. By the way, your job title of ‘teacher’ is pronounced all across South East Asia as ‘Tee Cha!’ This does take some getting used to!
I taught at my first school for a year and a half, with a couple of trips home in-between, and formed some great professional working relationships with my students, mostly kids between 8 and 18 years old. I had 140 children to teach in total, across 6 classes a day. It was tough going, a real challenge, but one that I loved.
In that time, I fell in love with teaching, I fell in love with Cambodia, I fell in love with a lovely woman here (alas, heartbreak in the end!) and I thought at the end of that relationship that I’d fallen out of love with Cambodia as quickly as I’d fallen in love.
I returned home to Manchester in March this year (2018) and I was ready to settle down again in England, but I couldn’t reconcile the country I left in 2016 with the one I’d returned to just over two years later. So much has changed in the UK – I couldn’t put my finger on all of it, but perhaps I’d changed too, to the point where I didn’t feel at home in my home country anymore. I came to the realisation after 6 months back, that Cambodia is now my home – a fairly stunning revelation.
So, I started to look online for work in Cambodia again. I saw an advert for a teaching job in Phnom Penh, on a Facebook group, and I sent my CV and covering letter off. A week later, it’s 4am Greenwich Mean Time and I’m doing a Skype interview with a university! And I scored a truly amazing job, teaching English to undergraduates here. I started work again today, and I’m writing this post after my first day in my new role as an English Lecturer! Working conditions are excellent, with a very good salary and benefits package, and a work week where I teach for 15 hours and have 25 hours to thoroughly plan my lessons with the support of a university faculty team. I feel like the luckiest TEFL’er in the world!
Training to be a TEFL teacher has changed my life massively. I never ever imagined I’d be the kind of person to end up living in South East Asia, but here I am. And the experiences I’ve had out here are enough to fill a book – one which I will get round to writing soon! Life here is intense. Every day is an experience. It can be scary sometimes – we’re a long way from Kansas, Toto… so to speak. But if you keep your wits about you, a smile on your face and are willing to be led into a weird and wild world, you can do a lot worse than Cambodia, aka The Kingdom of Wonder. It’s like no other place on the good earth, and in comparison to the United Kingdom, it couldn’t be more different if it tried. And therein lies its true charm.