Cambodia: Last Refuge of the Failures?

Cambodia: Last Refuge of the Failures?

The truth about the stigma!

If you can’t hack it as a teacher anywhere in Asia there is a special place for you: Cambodia. Well, that’s the general perception anyway.

Since the beginning of TEFL time Thailand has been branded the first stop of the failure in terms of TEFL teachers; and most other professions for that matter. The almost talisman like teachers who ply their trade in Korea and Japan could barely say the word Thailand without breaking out in giggle fits at the plight of teachers in ‘the land of smiles’ whilst simultaneously reflecting on the TEFL nirvana they have achieved in the English teaching Mecca’s of Seoul and Tokyo.

But now the teachers of Thailand rejoice as there's a new kid on the block, a new whipping boy, a kid with a reputation so bad as to even make Thailand look like it has a cutting edge EFL industry staffed by true professionals. Cambodia enter stage right. The mere word Cambodia sends shivers down the spines of some, their only contact with the country being the headlines of the nine o’clock news which through the seventies, eighties and early nineties in production line like fashion would report the latest horror story to rear its ugly head in the infamous Peoples Republic of Kampuchea.

Cambodia has an EFL industry in its infancy with the first large scale demands coming in the early nineties with the arrival of Untac (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) along with scores of international aid organisations and NGO’s, a whole industry formed around the presence of these westerners with many businesses springing up to relieve them of their hard earned foreign dollars. As with all countries that came before Cambodia in the ‘redevelopment’ stakes this industry’s growth went hand in hand with the demand to learn English and the TEFL industry of Cambodia was born.

Over the last ten years as the political landscape and stability of Cambodia has changed so has the motivations behind the growing masses of Khmers wishing to learn English. Their motivations no longer lie in peddling services and goods to western aid workers, instead their needs are now very similar to Thailand with Intermediate English being needed for most higher education programs, in a country where even floor sweepers in Lucky Burger need a good level of spoken English to even be considered for a position.
As the country has evolved so has the core of English teachers working here, the first were the trail blazers of the early nineties who were looking for adventure in a country that had plenty to offer, this is the image of the TEFL industry in Cambodia that has stuck, cemented by Amit Gilboa’s writings in the book ‘Off the Rails in Phnom Penh’, the books follows the ‘true?’ story of a group of English teachers in the capital who divide their time between taking heroin, sleeping with young taxi girls and buying guns, needless to say Mr Gilboa isn’t exactly top of the Christmas card list of most teachers in Cambodia as this is the image that follows them around all over Asia even today six years after the book went to press, and I’m sure no one will argue the fact that six years is a lifetime in the rapidly developing Kingdom of Cambodia.

The face of the modern day TEFL industry is a very different one to that of years gone by as chains of schools from all over Asia move into stake their claim in this profitable and rapidly growing industry. The EFL schools mainly fall into one of three categories, at the bottom you have the low budget and low cost language schools that have very few native speaking teachers who will take on just about anyone who is willing to accept the $5 or less per hour that they are willing to pay.

In the second bracket you have the larger language schools which are often part of a larger chain or group, these schools are mainly aimed at Cambodia’s growing middle classes. These schools usually employ as many native as non-native teachers and pay between $7 and $12 per hour, in a perfect world these schools would like their teachers to have a TEFL and a degree, but I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that Cambodia is far from a perfect world meaning these schools often have to take what they can get. As a result there are many teachers working in Cambodia who have neither a degree or a TEFL, which arguably makes the industry at this level the same as Thailand just with the Khao San Road counterfeiters taken out of the equation.

Finally the third bracket is the cr่me de la cr่me of the international schools, these schools teach the rich Embassy kids and won’t even look at you as a teacher unless they have nine or ten letters after their name.

Back in the real world most people are in agreement that you do need a TEFL in order to hit the ground running when you first start teaching. Teaching TEFL is like driving a car, it is possible to teach yourself but you are highly likely to have some bumps along the way if you haven’t had any basic instruction. Although there is a core of superb teachers working in Cambodia unfortunately a lot of the schools are forced to make up the numbers by taking on teachers who are intending to learn in this manor, the schools often have no other choice due to a lack of experienced TEFL teachers coming to Cambodia to find work. Many people often ask why so few teachers actually make it to Cambodia? When there appears to be such a large interest.

The reason is simple Cambodia has fallen into a cycle of employing people who see teaching English as a way of extending their holiday rather than as a career, which in turn creates a high turn over of staff as the ‘have a go teachers’ walk out when they feel like it not giving the poor future reference from the schools they are leaving a second thought as most aren’t ever planning on teaching again. As a result of this huge turnover of staff, school directors don’t advertise available posts as often they need someone who can start in two hours rather than two months, so in strolls the next hard up backpacker and so the cycle continues.

How must this little employment merry-go-round look to the experienced teacher? If a teacher is interested in teaching in Cambodia they will trawl the internet and find no job listings, then contact some schools just to be palmed off with some non-concrete promises about possible work. Most people would say it looks as if there is no work for good TEFL teachers in Cambodia and nothing could be further from the truth.

This inability to make even basic work arrangements from outside of the country is what I believe to be the Achilles heal of the whole industry here in Cambodia meaning the good teachers are lost to Thailand and others whilst a steady stream of the ‘I think I will have a go English teaching for a few months’ posse fill the vacuum.

I have yet to meet a single teacher with a TEFL who has had any trouble what so ever finding work, the TEFL industry is exploding in Cambodia and is only set to get bigger but until the schools sit down and start looking long term instead of planning no further ahead than the day after tomorrow I doubt much will change. So in the mean time whilst the powers that be formulate a plan to change the face of teaching so as to attract the ‘right’ staff, the rest of us carry on as normal.

Unlike many other countries Cambodia’s TEFL industry has yet to develop the class structure that has evolved amongst the teachers of many other countries such as Thailand, Korea and Japan where snobbery in regards to ones salary, position and qualifications is rife. The simple reason for this being that if you are prepared to work as many hours as you would back in the west then money is a non-issue as you will be hard pressed to spend more than $1200 bucks a month in a land that has one shopping mall, not one western cinema and restaurants that are considered the best in the country charging less than $10 a plate. But if the lines had to be drawn to Categorise the teachers of Cambodia then the main difference would how many hours people work per month.

At the bottom of the pile are the Boeng Kakers as they are affectionately known, Boeng Kak being the main backpacker ghetto in Phnom Penh and a place that makes the Khoa San Road look like the Sunset Boulevard. These teachers usually arrive in Cambodia on a year out and hear on the grape vine that English teaching work is easy to come by for native speakers and before they know what’s happening they find themselves working for one of Phnom Penh’s sterling educational institutions, as a rule of thumb people who fall into this category are usually looking to do as little work as possible and start out only looking to stick around for a month or two despite what the contract they have signed says to the contrary. Most people in this boat seem to work for between five and fifteen hours a week earning then between $150 and $450 per month which is all you need to live a basic but easy life at Boeng Kak Lake.

At the other end of the scale you have what I would call the career teachers who have longer term ambitions in both teaching and living in Cambodia who need to work more hours if they are to create a home for themselves and have a comfortable life, most of the teachers who fall into this bracket work for between twenty and thirty hours a week for which in return they will receive between $680 and $1250, for this extra work and resultant extra cash they can afford to have their own place to live, their own transport and altogether quite comfortable life this feeling is sadly personified by the grinding poverty that anyone who lives in Cambodia will see around them on a daily basis.

To sum I would have to say that calling Cambodia ‘The last refuge of the failure’ is a false statement as it indicates that the bad teachers in this country are here because they couldn’t cut it teaching else where, when in reality most of the teachers who aren’t up to scratch have never taught before and fail because they are simply dropped in at the deep end with little in the way of training or instruction to see whether they sink or swim.