Though our time together came to close, the four weeks you gave me will always be unforgettable. From the moment I first met you, all eighty of you, running towards me on that fateful February day, I knew that this would be an incredible experience. Excited but intimidated, I waved and smiled and said my timid “sua-sdey,” and embraced all your sweaty hugs and sticky high fives. Though I agreed to teach the elementary school students without realizing what it meant, I know now it was meant to be.
For four weeks I raced between your four different classrooms, trying to balance four sets of four lessons plans following two different curriculums per week. I felt stressed and at my wits end, waking up early in the morning to research ESL teaching techniques and invent ways to develop the “Art through English” curriculum the school director sprung on me last minute. I panicked on how to make a lesson on the letter “I” last an hour, and banged my head against the wall trying to figure out how to make teaching personal pronouns interesting but also clear. You all watched me and struggled with me that first week, when I showed up wearing my best attempt at a brave face that we could both see through.
It took a while before things became easier. While they were never truly easy, they eventually grew less difficult. Those first few weeks, standing at the front of the class and looking at all of your adorable but expectant faces staring back at me made me want to cry and run back home. My voice rang out with a fake confidence, adopting the “don’t let them see you sweat” mindset my dad once taught me. But I was sweating, and you could see it. From both the heat and my nerves, my attempts to hide my initial discomfort were in vain.
Teaching was not completely foreign to me. I tutored in high school, teaching Spanish to elementary school students. I taught a computer skills class in university. I knew how to plan lessons, explain subjects, and at the very least, stand up at the front of a room and talk. But I was not ready for the other side of things. The constant fight for classroom management, the battle between being a likable but also realistic teacher, and the continual strain on my voice from constantly calling out “Keep Silent” and “Listen, copy down.” These were things I was not used to, and did not expect.
You all tested me. You tried my patience, my optimism, and my stubborn determinism. It wavered at times, unfortunately a lot of the time, but I would like to think it was not lost completely. For through all the struggles, at the end of the day, we made it through each lesson, and for how much I vented at the end of the day to blow off steam, I always came back in the morning.
We surprised each other, I think, with our out of the ordinary qualities. You were used to teachers that came and left after two weeks. You did not expect me to stick around, to stick to the curriculum, or to want to teach you English. My formal lesson plans and insistence on the occasional grammar exercises, rather than playing games all class for an hour, threw you off at first. But you shocked me as well. The initial fight you all put up over completing your assignments shocked me. I did not anticipate spending the majority of our time in class together reasoning with you all to complete the sentences, or having to explain why it did not matter when I refused to write “very good” and “100/100” every time after you copied down the word “nose” five times.
Discrepancies between our educational systems were not something I was foolish enough to think did not exists; however, I did not imagine that I would be stepping foot into anything quite like this. Explaining what a “spelling test” was, trying to teach the concept of answering a question rather than repeating it; it was hard for me to believe that your Cambodian English teachers had not covered this information with you all, especially if I was expected to teach it. My role as a volunteer English teacher was meant to be a “co-teacher,” a supplement to English you were already learning. Discovering that was not the case threw me through a loop, and forced me back to square one.
I was frustrated. Not just for me, but also for you. I cared about you all, and I wanted you to learn. What use were my lessons if you did not understand them?
But soon, despite my feelings of uselessness and my tears, and we found our rhythm. You learned English, and I learned how to teach it to you. All our initial stand offs faded away. When I walked into the classroom, we both smiled and took a deep breath, ready to get through the next hour together. It was no longer an impossible or daunting task, but our adventure to accomplish together.
In first grade we learned the alphabet, from letter “I” to letter “O.” We repeated after me, we traced, and we copied. We drew pictures of our families and animals, crowded around too small desks with melting crayons.
In second grade, we learned words. We took spelling tests, wrote new vocabulary, and tested our memories. We played hangman, learned about sports, and talked about the importance of honesty and not cheating.
In third, fourth, and fifth grade we learned about grammar. We struggled with personal pronouns and attempted to learn prepositional phrases. We sang songs about Princess Pat and camels, and laughed about Peter Piper and his patch of pickled peppers.
For all the stresses of our days, every hour ended in accomplishments and happy faces. It ended with hugs and smiles, and races to erase the whiteboard. It ended with staring contests, taking selfies, and playing patty cake.
It ended much too quickly. Four weeks flew by. But I know we are both going into beautiful and transformative phases of our lives. You all will continue to learn and grow so much. I saw what you are capable of, you have the ability to soak up information like sponges when you want to. If you let yourselves, you will truly go far with your English, and whatever else. For whatever it is worth, teacher believes in you.
Thank you my students, for everything you gave me. I tried to give you all of me, but in reality I gained all of you. Your smiles, your hugs, your love: I will never forget you, my eighty new little brothers and sisters and babies. For every day when you ended class with “I love you,” I was falling in love with all of you too.