In late February 2018, volunteer teacher Rachel Morgan took a leap and left her home in the bustling city of Brisbane, Australia. She landed in the small rural village of Svay Chey, Cambodia. At the time she describes it as ‘the scariest and most exciting experience of my life to date but twelve weeks later, Rachel can’t imagine life without her time there.
Rachel has generously shared a reflection on her time volunteering as a teacher at Svay Chey village school.
Read on to learn about this life-changing experience in her own words.
(Volunteer teacher Rachel Morgan with students)
I arrived in Siem Reap on a Saturday afternoon and was greeted at the airport by Ty Soviet, Step2Foundation’ s man on the ground and my new host brother. He began to tell me about the school, the village, and his family (some of whom were to be my new host family). I could feel his passion and enthusiasm for this project right from the very first second, and I was feeling extremely proud to be involved and determined to make a difference.
After spending the first night in Siem Reap, I was collected on Sunday morning to join Soviet on a tour of some of the local sights, before being taken out to Svay Chey. To reach the village we had to first drive along the highway and then make a turn onto a small red dirt road. If you’d had blinked you’d have missed the turn. This was the road into Svay Chey.
Svay Chey village consists of one main red dirt road running all the way through, with homes spotted along on each side of the road. As we slowly made our way down the road, Soviet showed me the school and pointed out the two water filtration systems Step2Foundation built in the village.
I had so many emotions running through me as we finally pulled up at my new place of residence. Excitement, fear, doubt, love. This was the first time I had seen what country life in Cambodia was like, and this foreign place was to be my home for the next three months. I needn’t have had any doubt though; my new host family showed me great warmth and love throughout my entire stay.
I had only been in the village an hour and was almost constantly in a pinch-me state as I unpacked my things. It was now Sunday afternoon and school started the next day, so I was shown where I can shower before having an early dinner.
Using the bathroom (the outdoor wash house) was a place I almost always found myself smiling. I used a large cup to scoop cold water from a giant tub and pour it over myself to get clean. It was so unusual to me and took a little getting used to, but it was an experience that I was truly grateful for. Every evening when I came home from school and clumsily washed before dinner, I was reminded of where I am and why I am here.
(Students collecting rubbish during a community clean-up of the highway)
The next morning I walked the short way up the road to school in preparation for a 7:00 am start, still unsure exactly what to expect. It wasn’t long after I arrived that I saw the Head Teacher Sok coming into the driveway on his motorbike (I had no idea at that time how much of an incredible support this person was going to be for me during my time here), and just before 7:00 am the students started filing into the classrooms. I will never forget that first class.
The class has only just begun, when suddenly there was loud music blaring right outside the classroom! At that moment I was sitting beside Teacher Sok who was addressing the students, and the music was so loud that I was unable to hear what he was saying. I thought to myself if I am unable to hear him then how can the students? And where is this music coming from? And why is it playing at 7:30 am in the morning? And why is it SO loud? I looked outside the classroom and saw nothing to answer my questions. I could only see a big old tree standing in the middle of this charming little playground surrounded by red dirt.
That moment was so unusual and beautiful I simply couldn’t wipe the grin from my face. What was going on?
It turns out that the Wedding Season in Cambodia had begun. This wouldn’t be the last time we would need to work around this loud music, which proceeded to play on a loud speaker throughout the rest of the day and the night. How absolutely magical it was! Although it seemed the students and Teacher Sok weren’t actually phased by the loud music and chanting, for them it was just another day!
Some of the students were a little apprehensive towards me at first, but it was only a few minutes after the first class break before they had me in a circle outside the classroom sitting down and playing hand-clapping games while they practised some of their English and asked me questions about where I am from. This was the first day of 12 weeks.
I found myself almost every day walking or cycling to school with a grin from ear to ear as students and locals called out from their homes to greet me as I went past. Each new day brought new experiences, challenges and enjoyment. Every class and age group was an absolute delight to work with, and it was really special to experience first-hand the progression these students were making with their vocabulary and confidence in speaking in English.
During my time in Cambodia, I visited two other schools. The enormous impact that Step2Foundation is having at Svay Chey was immediately obvious. One school had no English program, and the students spoke no English at all. Given that most of the Cambodian economy is built on tourism, I feel that employment outside of farm work will be severely limited for those who aren´t able to speak English.
As well as that, Step2Foundation is supporting five local Khmer people (Head Teacher Sok and 4 young ladies) by sending them to Teacher training every week. This gives the students a structure and consistency they can rely on. It also means their learning isn’t conditional on a volunteer being there.
In Grade 7-12 classes, it is special to see how many students there are working towards becoming Teachers and Doctors, among other admirable professions. I firmly believe that the influence of Step2Foundation and the amazing work of the Svay Chey Teachers will help see their students’ dreams come true!
(The dedicated teaching staff at Svay Chey village school)
All in all my time in Svay Chey was extremely positive and one which I will never forget. Through experiencing a new and completely different culture, I experienced a lot of personal growth and countless special moments.
A few of these moments that I wanted to share:
- A student brought to me in class a hand-picked coconut from a tree nearby, which had been cut open and given to me with a straw while I was teaching in class
- Enjoying a cooked lunch at school with all of the teachers, including the Khmer Government School teachers and the English Teachers from Step2Foundation
- Joining the school as the entire student body, teachers and other locals worked together to collect rubbish off the Highway
- Working together with Sok and Step2Foundation to implement some new teaching resources for the school
- Pushing the little ones on the swing in the playground and playing tag with them
- Enjoying fresh mango and chilli with the older students when the mangos started ripening on their trees at home
- Attending the wedding of my host sister and experiencing first-hand the traditions and customs that take place at a Khmer Wedding
- The support and love I received from my new family and the teachers; especially the Head Teacher Sok, who brought so much laughter every day to myself, the students and the other teachers
- And finally, celebrating Khmer New Year with the entire school! Walking through the entire village with teachers and students, inviting everyone to the school for our Khmer New Year party. We celebrated the New Year in classic Khmer style; there was loud music and dancing, water fights, talcum powder, games, delicious food, and so much happiness.
Words cannot express my gratitude towards Step2Foundation, Zeynep & Soviet, my host family, to the teachers at school (especially Sok, Sophea, Vannsi and Phalla). Thank you so much for opening your doors to me and contributing to this incredibly special experience. Every one of you and the beautiful students will be forever in my heart and the work that is being done here really is changing so many lives.
All the best,
(Celebrating the Khmer New Year in the grounds of Svay Chey Village School)