On the whim of a New Year’s eve quarter-life crisis, I found myself signing up to TEFL Org’s 120-hour online course without much forward thought (in all honesty, the sale really grabbed me). Having relentlessly pursued a (failing) career in the media industry since leaving university, I was craving a change to push my confidence, skills and challenge myself to do something I had always wanted to try. And on the 31st of December 2018, this was my way of proving it.
Fast forward a few months and I had a one way ticket to Cambodia, after completing my TEFL and accepting a placement at an international school. In all honesty, I felt unprepared. Make that extremely unprepared. As I sat in seat 64G of my double-decker plane, I rattled my brain for every single lesson plan and assignment I’d created as part of my online course. Trying to pluck out the best ideas, the key grammar points and the tips that my tutor had given to me. Although I felt I’d been so confident in my work throughout my course, I realised I was now going to have to apply it all. To a new school. To actual people. Who were actually reliant on MY teaching. Talk about pressure.
When I arrived at my school, I was made to observe lessons for a week before I started to teach. To this day, this was the most unexpected blessing I could’ve possibly had upon arrival (well , that and finding out I was going to have aircon in my bedroom). This first week gave me a chance to settle in before throwing myself into work. I got my bearings around my small, little city school in Phnom Penh, I got to meet some of the children and most importantly, I saw how the teachers were teaching.
In my school, I was teaching up to 35 children, aged around 6-12 all in the same classroom. This classroom maybe had 4 tables, was around the size of a small bedroom and was very, very hot. Before I could even implement teaching a structured lesson in terms of content, my first challenge was figuring out how to simply attempt to teach in these conditions. Although my TEFL course had prepared me for teaching large groups, I was initially overwhelmed at the sheer lack of space in each classroom, with many children huddled round a 2 person desk. And although my classes were sorted by grades, there was still a clear divide in ability.
This description is in no means trying to critique how my school was run, this was just a reality of many of the schools in Asia that I was not prepared for. Looking back now, in my final few weeks of being here, I can honestly say I’m glad for it. Because I believe this pushed me to become a more confident, adaptable and quite frankly, better teacher.
Getting through your first few weeks of teaching can be tough. And that’s not normally because of the material you’re teaching. It’s because everything you know has been flipped on it’s head, turned upside down, shaken a few times, dunked under water and then pulled back up again. It’s wildly different to how you could ever imagine it. And if you can’t imagine it, it becomes seemingly impossible to prepare for.
It’s all fine and well for me to sit here and tell you to ‘Make sure you bring stickers!’, ‘Oh don’t forget to play bingo at the end of the lesson, they love that!’ And ‘No matter how many whiteboard pens you bring they will run out!’. But what I can’t prepare you for is the changes that you will go through as a person, and the things that you will learn and grow from, which are so much more than what you just experience when teaching.
You will see how children learn and grow from everything you do. Like, everything. You say something once, and that’s it – they’ll be saying it until the day you leave. They’re sponges, literally soaking up every ounce of what you say and do and doting on your every move.
You will understand that no matter how many times you can prepare for the unexpected, something will still not go to plan. The one day a student decides to act up, is the day that your class has the highest rate of attendance, you have no other teaching assistant and you’re trying to teach a lesson, deal with a breakdown and keep all 40 children focused on the present continuous tense.
You will learn that children at the end of the day, are still children. They need to be able to be kids, go crazy and have fun with their learning. As teachers, although our aim is to educate, it’s also to create an engaging and inspiring environment where these children want to learn. To encourage them to challenge themselves, be better and increase their own knowledge. No child I’ve ever met has got excited about going to a lesson where they simply copy down facts from a whiteboard for an hour.
You will come to know that every day is different. And that the tone of a class should be adapted to how your students are feeling. You will come to know that although it may be easier for you to teach in one way, it may be easier for your students to learn a different way. And you will come to know that after the first few weeks, this won’t even be a conscious decision anymore. Because you will come to know that creating the best environment for your students to learn in, will be second nature.
You will realise that you become part of that school. As the days continue to go past, you will realise that you are playing such an integral role in the lives of many students and other teachers. The sense of community and family that can be built in such a short space of time is immense.
Day after day, I am reminded of this. And this is what I believe will always keep you going.
Nearing the end of my first term in Phnom Penh, I can say I am tired, I am sweaty but most importantly, I am so fulfilled.
They say that those that can’t do, teach but I say those that can do, teach. Seeing improvements lesson by lesson in your students gives you a feeling that’s hard to describe. The sense of pride you can have for each and every child when they learn a new spelling, count to a higher number or read you a story is incredible. These aren’t my achievements, they are theirs. But knowing I helped support them and encourage them to meet these goals is enough motivation for me to continue to want to teach them each and everyday.