Smiling Gecko School and Kindergarten
Hopefuls with a heavy backpack
Here we go. The first teacher I get to talk to is Vat, who teaches Khmer at our school. Before he came to us, he worked at a school in a suburb of Phnom Penh. I ask him what he likes about the state school system in Cambodia and what he finds less good. He nods briefly and then starts: “First of all, the accessibility of the schools is very good. Every community has at least one primary school and this is open to all children in principle, as it is basically free.”
He continues: “These children are aware that their education here is not comparable to what they would learn elsewhere. Their siblings and friends in public schools cannot read and write in Khmer even in grade 5 and 6, whereas in our school they can after grade 2. This knowledge helps them to be focused. It is clear to all of them that later they will be responsible for feeding the whole family. And there is always the hope that domestic violence will stop in this case too.”
What an incredible responsibility these little beings bear.
Take a breath and move on. The second person I can talk to is Sovann, who also teaches Khmer at our school.
When I first ask her what she particularly likes about our school, Sovann beams. She talks about how quickly the children develop when they are allowed to go to school with us. And how wonderful it is to witness this.
But our school is also a special place for the teachers themselves. Sovann mentions her walking disability, with which she would never have found employment elsewhere. She also appreciates having developed herself through her job at Smiling Gecko. As an example, she mentions her English skills, which she only really acquired with us. And they are pretty good, I think. We don’t need an interpreter but conduct the interview in English without any problems.
I also confront Sovann with a critical remark that we in Europe hear from time to time regarding our school. It is about the daily showers and the cleaning of the school uniforms. She shakes her head and then says: “You know, the hygienic conditions here in the country are very problematic. Many people are sick because of it. If our children are not clean, they also get sick. Then they can’t go to school and they don’t learn anything. And of course, it is completely impossible that the families could take care of a sick child properly. We have to take care, otherwise we won’t achieve our goals.”
Sam, whom I will interview later, speaks up. “If we gave the school uniforms to the parents to wash, they would be unusable in no time. Because they don’t have the possibilities. It would be much more expensive.”
Lastly, I ask Sovann about her personal experience in relation to our ‘one child per family’ approach. Is this a problem when talking to parents?
Yes and no. Of course, she would be asked privately again and again whether families from her neighbourhood might not send their other children to us. She then always answers: We want to help as many families as possible in the communities around the campus. That is understood. The parents also experience at home how eagerly our school children pass on what they have learned to their siblings. his last statement coincides with what the children themselves told me: They all talked about teaching their siblings. Nice!
My last interviewee is Sam, the Deputy Head at our school, whom I have already met and spoken to several times, as he also supports us with our scholarship programme , among other things.
I would like to hear from him about the challenges that all the teachers have talked about before: The family environment of our children. The poverty, the alcoholism, the violence.
Sam’s answer: “Our children live in two different worlds. The campus is heaven for them. They get something to eat, people talk to them decently, care about them. At home it’s completely different. What they have to experience there is shouting and destruction.”
What can the school do here, I want to know from him. Sam thinks all teachers and school management need to engage with parents. They need to point out to them what they are doing wrong. Explain to them what they should do differently.
“And does that work?” I ask. Sam answers: “The parents know they can’t give their children a great life. With toys and what we might imagine. But being good parents doesn’t necessarily require an income. But you don’t have to yell at them or ask them to do things that are dangerous for them. Like harvesting cashew nuts, for example, which has already caused two of our children to have accidents and broken bones, which we then had to treat at our expense. So yes and no.”
I ask Sam if he thinks there is a way out of poverty in rural Cambodia. He says that would be problematic because poverty is systemic. Which is related to how the country is structured. Everyone would know that there is only a way out of poverty with education. But education is dictated by politics. He goes on to say that there are governmental efforts to reform the education system. But it would be too expensive and take too long. Practically 100% of the money that flows into education goes into the salaries of the teaching staff. There would simply be no money for the reforms.
But it wouldn’t be any better in the families either. If there is any money, it goes for material things. A mobile phone, make-up, alcohol. No one would use its earnings to take computer lessons or learn a language.
To break this cycle, it takes a political commitment. A real effort to want to change something and not just talk about it. But Sam doesn’t see that yet. On a small scale, it would take our school to at least convince parents of the importance of education. With success. For example, the attendance rate at our school is 97.3%, while public schools usually barely reach a rate of 40% here.
Next, I confront Sam with another concern that is often voiced in Switzerland about the sustainability of our school: What sense does it make to run a lavishly managed school if the children would move to the cities or even abroad after graduation?
For Sam, this is not an issue. He assumes that even the most successful students will have a lasting connection to the region. Otherwise, he personally doesn’t really care whether they live here or elsewhere. His goal is to give the children the tools to lift themselves out of poverty. His idea: They have a job. They have a family. They don’t cause any expenses for the state. And that is exactly what he and his colleagues give everything for every day. Our school may not yet be old enough to be able to prove the correctness of this thesis, but there are other examples. For example, the Australian-Cambodian NGO “Cambodian Children’s Fund”, founded in 2004, whose first year students have already graduated from university.
The last thing I want to know from Sam is whether it happens that children leave our school prematurely. He nods. Yes, that happens. Even if it is rare. The reason is always the same: The parents find a job in Thailand or in Phnom Penh and there are no other relatives living in the area who could take care of the children. The latter, however, is quite often the case. For example, the children are with the grandparents and the parents only see them at weekends or on big holidays when they come home.
It is important to know in this context: People in Cambodia are very fixated on their families. No matter how poor a family may be and how bad the living conditions are: They always want to live together in the extended family. For Sam, this is one of the after-effects of the Khmer Rouge regime. At the time, the Khmer Rouge deliberately separated families, for example by deporting spouses to different regions of the country. The fear that this could happen again is still omnipresent.
What a terrible idea. But all the more reason to keep our fingers crossed for our children and teachers that life off campus will one day be at least close to what they experience here. They all deserve it.