A multilingual student goes the distance to become a teacher

Meet Chea Sam, who became the first member of the Bunong ethnic minority in his village to graduate high school and today is passing the torch to new learners as a teacher.

December 08, 2021 by Sina Sam, UNICEF Cambodia , and Jesse Lee Gray, UNICEF Cambodia
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4 minutes read
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Shea in front of his school. Credit: UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Nang Maly
Shea in front of his school.
Credit: UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Nang Maly

Sam Chea is 21 years old and just starting out as a teacher in a multilingual education primary school in Kratie province. He comes from Sre Chhouk village in north-eastern Cambodia, home to many of the country’s indigenous ethnic minority communities.

Chea’s mother tongue is Bunong. As with many remote villages, keeping up with education, especially beyond primary school, is not always easy.

School and home may be far apart and could involve crossing land and river to arrive; these same distances put pressure on family income for basic livelihood, sometimes causing children to prioritize work over school; so children from remote villages tend to be more vulnerable to school dropouts.

But Chea has a passion for learning and was determined to continue his studies. Even when he was studying in Sandan High School, he found a way to overcome the 80km of distance from home to the high school.

He was an excellent student, particularly in physics, earning the top score among his peers in Kratie province.

Chea receiving the outstanding student award in Physics as a grade 12 student, from Kratie Provincial Office of Education, Youth and Sport in 2018.
Chea receiving the outstanding student award in Physics as a grade 12 student, from Kratie Provincial Office of Education, Youth and Sport in 2018.
Credit:
UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Kong Min

After passing his high school exit exam in 2018, Chea continued his studies at the Provincial Teacher Training College in Kratie, graduating in early 2021. Chea was selected to teach in Sre Chhouk Multilingual Primary school in Sre Chhouk village where he grew up.

He was proud to return to his home village to teach. “I feel excited, as the first Bunong person in my community to complete high school. It feels amazing that the knowledge I have gained can be used for contributing to my community by working as a teacher. People in my village are happy to see me return to work in the village and help their children learn.”

Chea, photographed by his younger brother, in front of his house in Sre Chhouk village, Rolous Meanchy commune, Sambo district, Kratie province. Credit: UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Kes Smey
Chea, photographed by his younger brother, in front of his house in Sre Chhouk village, Rolous Meanchy commune, Sambo district, Kratie province.
Credit:
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Kes Smey

The school is fortunate to have a skillful and knowledgeable teacher like Chea especially because he is Bunong. “When my students don’t understand a difficult word in Khmer, it can be hard to express in the Khmer language for them. I can speak Bunong to explain it and they understand more quickly.”

Chea applies his teaching skills and relevant academic knowledge not only with his students in the classroom but also in coaching his MLE teacher colleagues. “I meet them often, usually 2 times per week, and explain how to develop a good lesson plan.”

This peer support goes both ways. Chea could not write Bunong that well when he arrived, so the other MLE teachers are helping him improve his Bunong writing.

Due to a large-scale national outbreak of COVID-19, the school where Chea teaches, closed in March 2021. As this was not the first COVID-related school closure, other teachers in the school had gotten used to the challenge of distance teaching.

They already had experience arranging students into small learning groups and using alternative methods of communication with their students. But for Chea, this latest closure was his first time dealing with the challenge of distance teaching and learning.

Chea worked with the school director to prepare a schedule for small group classes of less than 10 students per group, across 6 different villages. Once the schedule was done, the next challenge was transportation. He and his fellow teachers needed to travel through a dense forest and across the river to get to some of their students.

Chea and other teachers travel by boat to teach a small group of students in a village. They came prepared with hand sanitizer. Credit: UNICEF Cambodia /2021/Sam Chea
Chea and other teachers travel by boat to teach a small group of students in a village. They came prepared with hand sanitizer.
Credit:
UNICEF Cambodia /2021/Sam Chea

Although Chea is a novice teacher, he is confident and capable. Since he was recently a student himself, he understands first-hand the situation of students during COVID-19 and how it can impact the pace of their studies.

When Chea noticed that the level of progress and understanding was not the same among all his students, he adjusted his teaching practice. Chea added more variety to help his students learn better.

“I created joyful activities for them, like playing games so they won't feel bored. I also encourage them to be brave and show them good role models as examples.” Chea continued, “I explain the content of lessons clearly in both languages. For low-performance students, I explain more. For students who catch onto lessons quickly, I explain less. I also ask them to read lessons in advance so that they can prepare questions and get excited to know more during our session time. This helps them learn faster.”

Lengthy school closures due to COVID-19 create a high risk of students from vulnerable families in remote provinces dropping out of school, particularly students from indigenous ethnic minority communities. Motivated multilingual education teachers like Chea, who can relate so well to their students, are crucial to keeping students engaged.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, UNICEF has worked with the Government and partners to find ways to allow children and adolescents to continue learning at home. Distance learning materials and videos were created and distributed across Cambodia, and technical and operational support was provided, including study materials and training for teachers.

For students speaking indigenous languages, learning materials and content were produced, with generous funding from GPE. These included multilingual teaching programs broadcast through radio, a valuable medium available even in the most remote areas.

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East Asia and Pacific: Cambodia

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