I have now spent almost 8 months as VSO volunteer in Cambodia working as part of a ten person team of Education Management Advisers based in the second city of Battambang. This city has a real provincial town feel to it.
Why I decided to volunteer
Having held the position of Principal at Schull Community College in Co. Cork for the past 15 years, I decided a change of career/lifestyle was desirable.
VSO has provided me with an opportunity to do something completely different in a country which I had not previously visited or indeed had little knowledge. Of course, we have all read about and vaguely remember the horrific atrocities that took place under the Khmer Rouge regime and subsequent turmoil in this beautiful country, but to live and work amongst the welcoming and smiling Khmer people is an experience not possible to witness through the written words of others.
My work has me based at the Provincial Office of Education (POE) as an adviser with four main objectives in strengthening the sub-national education system. These include supporting the
• Co-ordination of technical and educational sector working groups,
• Planning the Education Strategic Plan and Annual Operation Plan,
• Management focus on organizational development and
• Monitoring and reviewing, including analysis of, school and district data to develop interventions in supporting underperforming districts.
Many members of the POE are busy and underpaid. They struggle to support their families but they are always very willing to listen to advice and, more recently, have begun to seek advice from me on a regular basis. The building of trust and relationships is extremely important in the Khmer culture. When trust is built, one is seen as a colleague and not as a threat.
I have concentrated my efforts over the past couple of months in the area of School Development Planning with school directors in three districts. This will assist in school improvement in the medium to long term. Other areas of focus include proposal writing, school inspection and offering advice sought either officially or personally. These are small steps along the way towards achieving programme and personal goals.
Life in Cambodia
Having arrived in Cambodia in early January, although hot, I was spared the sudden immersion in the baking heat of March/April and May when temperatures rise to over 40*C.
The heat is accompanied by high humidity and everyone, locals included, complains and long for the arrival of the first rains which bring some respite. The beautiful early mornings and evenings of July and August encourage one to get outdoors and exercise with many Khmer individuals and families along the banks of the river Sangke be it walking, jogging or participating in an outdoor form of badminton.
Here the locals are pleased to greet the Barang (Khmer slang for foreigner) and even more pleased if one attempts to communicate in the local language. This sometimes leads to outbursts of laughter as words are incorrectly pronounced, misplaced or plainly wrong, but at all times encouraged and welcomed!
At the start, I signed up for a 12 month initial placement, but I am now considering extending my stay with VSO in Cambodia. This has been a very positive experience but my consideration of an extension is a reflection on the pace of progress here. As in all societies, change, development and progress require patience and time. Rome wasn’t built in a day!!
Advice to teaching colleagues
This experience has energised and challenged me in equal measures and I’ve no regrets around taking such a life changing decision.
Long may it continue!