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March 6th 2016
Published: March 19th 2016
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What a special time. With Kratie English School, at home sweet home, with a kind Cambodian family, a grand group of fellow volunteers, wonderful friends.

I ride up in the morning dust on a tuk tuk, welcomed warmly by the teachers, English and Canadian accents, big smiles.. And up at the teachers table (under welcome shade and with breakfast bananas) I watch the 10am lesson in motion. There's two outside classrooms at Rith's family home, adorned with student drawings and name tags and colourful charts. Football kitted arms up waving, pick me, energy and enthusiasm to learn, definite cheekiness. The current gang - Charlotte, Robyn, Jaydon, Jess and Shawn - give me the lowdown, I was excited to get started. Timetables, lesson plans, insights and ideas. It was a group who would share so much, I would learn from them, some experienced teachers, some newbies with a natural buzz with the kids. It was a special group, everyone here to help and contribute; the students so fond of them. As was I!

Soon I'd meet Rith and his family, and over time I'd really come to feel part of the nest here. Chatting and playing Lego or running about as dinosaurs with their bright lovely children. Enjoying the most delicious Khmer meals, being with Rith at his new guesthouse as guests arrived, sharing a jolly evening with their friends (plus local whiskey and a 90s music fiesta.. the best of Celine Dion, wow.). A very fun birthday night for Jaydon on Koh Trong, complete with party hats (Charlotte) and cards against humanity (Roo).

I'd assist in the day's next lessons, a big rowdy intermediate group with a confidence in speaking, as they learnt clothes and associated phrases.. spotting and helping kids who were a little behind, or encouraging quieter ones to answer, as Jess and Robyn led brilliantly. Good fun! With a game at the end to leave everyone hi fiving and the kids onto their bikes back to normal school in good spirits.

I'd make some really good friends here, bonding in this lovely environment and in working through things together; and friends to also share time with again in other parts of Cambodia and beyond..

After seeing and working at a language project in another part of Cambodia, Rith returned to Kratie and determinedly, and in ever positive spirits, set about quickly creating a school for local kids at his home. It is a poor area, and the kids attend a somewhat sporadic-timetabled school where English is not taught, unlike others in the region. This school (and its open home environment) gives them access to something between their other classes, to a different learning environment and also a place they can just come to safely play and be with friends during the day. (See Kratie English School on Facebook or workaway)

I'd often wake up and on going outside find a group of kids sweeping up the classrooms and writing dates on the boards, way before 8am!

It's a new project, 5 months in, which has expanded quickly (with smiles and new words multiplying) and during my time more kids would join and more class groups created. Its an open, humble and happy environment; you might often spot Rith watching on at lessons with a beam, and his 4 year old daughter sat attentively in any of lessons with her own exercise book.

Over my first ten days, at the school in Kratie town, I'd get to know many of the students - their ways, humours and likes and abilities - we had some brilliant lessons and good times. With me and (the ever positive and fun) Jaydon holding the legacy of the past week, and with 5 new volunteers, Monday to Friday was a busy time to begin with! -

- my first lesson teaching the high school kids (17-18), it was so enjoyable! I remember standing there in the middle of the classroom chatting with the students on what opinions are, their big eyes and bright answers back at us. It felt good, I realised I felt pretty comfortable here and we'd work up to some interesting presentations on each side of different opinions. They were a great group, and the 5pm lessons always an enjoyable way to end the days.

- teaching my first class with the energetic ten year olds, on feelings 'how are you feeling?' - different activities, packed around the second classroom benches. It was good to see them do well, even those initially reluctant, the lesson plan working. Then being impressed with their charade game antics of picking out feelings to act. The next morning, I'd hear one student say he was feeling awake when asked by a passing teacher (cool!), another, feeling angry! (uh oh..).

- we had a lovely new student arrive into one of our usual classes, conscientious and shy, with fantastic pronunciation and writing. One lesson (with a change to the local school times) it was just him, raring to learn, and boy did he learn well. I know me and Bene will long remember 'frrogg - green, small.' with a big smile.

- and it was nice being called teacher so much! 'Hello teacher..', 'Teacher!'.. 'How are you teacher?' - really good thank you.

It is hard work to teach, of course. I felt I learnt a lot - from other volunteers, from the kids, from trying this and that, within a wonderful environment. Sometimes it was tricky to get the kids back on task, they'd run away on a game and were now bouncing around; some were very cheeky or a little disruptive, some keen to do their own thing; or many of the classes would have such a mix of ability that you had to manage to hold back any boredom in more advanced students or frustration, disengagement from those newer to English. Some kids would be amazing at speaking, but you could then find out they had little grasp of writing, the letters and sounds not yet taught or grasped.

Then I could sometimes sit down to do a lesson plan and be pretty blank! But that was where sharing with others and taking on ideas could then get it rolling and bam you had a productive lesson ahead. Asking other teachers I trusted was a useful tool indeed.

And we were fortunate to have some great new volunteers the second week. Though not everyone would or could contribute or be appreciative to the same level, it was a new mish mash to bond and we'd get into a nice motion as a group.

And some special friends arrived. Roo brought such warmth, a big heart and great new ideas.. and I'm sure I'll be using her exhaustive bank of activities and approaches (me note taking of course) in the future.

Me and Bene would often teach together, and also took on the workaway and helpx jobs - a brilliant person to work with; joyful, embracing, focussed on doing it well. And, big plus!, she would put up with my incessant email reply edits (oh comma there please!) beside her on her Mac! We'd later to move to Koh Trong to volunteer, a very special time.

Between classes we'd ride bicycles to a local pool; fruit shakes in hand and lesson planning in our little teams. That first jump in to the cool water was always satisfying! I have some very fond memories with the other teachers, kicking back after lessons, sharing our stories. Or indeed after a terrifying walk back from a late pool session with Roo and Charley, local dogs revved up and potentially rabied, climbing back over the school fence and embracing at making it!

Generally though I knew this was a nice and easier way into teaching, with our breaks and teaching pairs. I wondered how I could do in more structured and longer teaching days.

A highlight was a weekend trip led by the high school kids on nearby, beautiful Koh Trong island on the Mekong. We had a bicycle tour where they showed us sights, got to chat with us separately in english and we had a lot of fun. The island and its community are charming, authentically beautiful. I remember two of the boys, usually so shy in class, polite and sweet too, where today they'd excitedly ask if I had my bamboo ball - cue loud, laughing football on the beach, and then all of us in the water throwing and splashing about. The students would also write sweet messages in the sands and, with the lack of a sea tide, the messages would still be there when I left Koh Trong island's sunset a week later.

The next weekend we'd take the younger kids to a local indoor football pitch. Loved it! The kids turned up at the school for us an hour early, with their luminous boots and socks, raring to go. A big game of skills, goals and sweaty tops. I won't deny, I was nutmegged many a time by the other team's star - no, not Steven!, but a little barefoot Cambodian Messi! Amazing skills. The kids were great, it was cool to see them outside the classroom. And they wanted to keep going after our two hour slot, cheekily grabbing the balls from under our arms. Sunday, 10am, exhausted!

With the group of volunteers there was some real good fun in the evenings too. Green bar back in the main town was ventured to a few times - baileys, cocktails, angkor beer (plus ring pull wins), games, laughs, good chats and late tuk tuks to grab post-drinking baguettes! (Sorry Bene)

It was tough to leave this school and the students I taught, I was getting into a flow and was so fond of it all here.. but there was new things for next week.

--- ---

The second half of my time with the project was on Koh Trong island. A bike ride, a bike carry, a little busy boat and a sandy beach and hill away -

Big white cows roaming, no cars, no street lights, warm hello how are yous, the one dusty path; skipping chickens, familiar faces and smiles, clear blue air. A slow, dancing pace. It was gorgeous. Safe, embracing, beautiful.

A special place and community, I felt lucky to be there. Many of the people made their living in the island's farming and produce cooperatives, or in the food and essentials stalls, whilst there was a cafe with a TV between 7 and 10pm that heads would pop into. The island had begun an eco tourism cooperative, of which Rith's guesthouse was one, whilst there were two lively schools with huge fields. Bene and I came over, and here we'd stay and help at the guesthouse and teach the very friendly kids. Charlotte and Robyn had done a great job the previous week and their hand over and encouragement made it easy. Kyle would then come join as Bene moved on in her travels. We all wanted to help and it was a nice two person gig here. They were both great to do it with; long chats by night, river sunsets, teaching buddies and fellow appreciators of island life.

Over time we'd get to know a little the women over the road at the shops; 'whiskey man' who we'd pass walking back from the beach and often do business and/or drink with; the lovely woman who brought us a pot of khmer tea in the mornings and the coffees for guests; and we met the famous island chief who was keen to have English teaching consistently at the schools. There was a happiness and a peace.. very soon, if not immediately, I was there too, settled into lovely days (and I never even wanted to lie in!)

And on the Mekong again, its been a key part of my travels. Here, cows used in farm work would be walked in a few times a days to cool and rest in the water; in the late afternoon families would come down to do their washing, the children keen to go splash about, come say hello, and us - after school we'd head down, swim (the fresh water with strong current and sandy floor was perfect) and hammock swing. Then it was sunset watching, holding onto the aftermath before nodding, knowing we'd better get back as the dark came.

The cycle back was enchanting, cycling forward with perhaps a phone light if we remembered, seemingly into nothingness but knowing the path line, with stars now seeking above. One night I was walking back, barefoot and relaxed, but knew it was about to get very dark; passing the occasional barking dog and saying hi to people out their fronts, when a lovely woman stopped and took me home on the back of her scooter. Arkun.

It really felt like home sweet home here. I fondly remember times with Bene and Bastian; sat on the wooden benches, chatting, laughing, beering or whiskeying, sometimes doing our own things with our blogs and writing beside each other. Or in finding an animal song online and rapidly drawing dozens of animal flash cards with Bene! - her horse the pick of the bunch. Banana shakes at the island's fancier resort as the see you later drinks. Sunsets.

The schools here were different to the one in Orusey village in Kratie. Another NGO had started with a very dedicated couple who set out english learning, and it was so good to get a taster in Robyn and Charlotte's last class, how to manage the classroom environment. Whilst at another school there was a different structure in place, and i guess the kids didn't know what to expect yet. Most of my teaching (the schools now had English between 1and 3) was at the second school further up the island, starting English lessons there. I remember when me and Kyle first walked in, just behind the island chief who'd taken Kyle up on his motorbike. Heads all moving together, eyes fixed on us excitedly, so many faces! Rith popped up and later counted, 61 kids! From teeny learners at the front to 13year olds at the back.

Some of the older kids had very good English, it was great to have them able to show us what they had - before, during and after class. We found a good way to teach here was to do conversation basics, with many volunteer groups coming up to the front. And thankfully lots of hands would go up, especially after a few confident kids would start. And of class wide games on numbers and body parts. With so many students, we'd just try to get everyone speaking through the lesson, in their volunteer time and in their groups. Kyle was great at quickly grabbing their attention when need be with some silliness and a loud kind voice. But mostly the kids gave us their attention throughout, amazingly. I think they were just so keen to learn and were friendly and kind towards us novel newbies. I hope it continues well there, it would be a special project to spend time with.

Home sweet home guesthouse was the family's new baby. A big wooden house at the village entrance, with character and open areas to sit, a simple traditional kitchen and comfortable beds. From bed in the mornings, the opening of the wooden slack windows revealed palm trees, blue sky, village life. Staying here was really peaceful, especially once the evening electricity generator next door stopped! We had a few long stayers too - the frogs, who'd pop out in the common area in the evenings and slip back into pipes later. There was also the bat and the crickets (like a little jazz bad).

Here we were lucky to still have meals cooked by Rith and his wife, yummy.. Pumpkin, cabbage wraps, onions, peppers, eggs - the veg all seemed to taste better than back home - with rice and, in my and Kyle's case, plenty of chilli. It was always different, always so natural and warming.

Here we'd keep the guesthouse tidy, welcome and chat with guests who came in for a drink, help look after staying guests and sort the and agoda websites (both had terrible help centres, argh! Whilst agoda hold the booking payments for a month after, hmm). It was so nice to see Rith enjoy the guesthouse and seeing people arrive or enjoy his food. To help him get ideas done. At the weekends the whole family would come over, and the second time I was lucky to get a lot of play time with Rith's 4year old daughter as others went around the island, we had a lot of fun!

Unsurprisingly it was very hard to leave. Visa coming up. Some Cambodia to see. But a real, lovely groove here. Given time..

We also talked about me coming back, and I'll be keeping in touch with Rith.

And as for schoolin', I think I'd like to do it more, watch this space?

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