Sharleen Weber-Smith, a teacher, shares her volunteer experience with CCF and why she has extended her stay
‘Sousadai. Knyom chmoua Sharleen’, (Hello, my name is Sharleen), or ‘‘Sang-Leen’, which is my sort-of adopted Khmer name. It’s tough to say ‘sh’ if you’re Cambodian!
I am currently volunteering as a Teacher Development Advisor| Learning and Teaching Coach. I’ve loved the experience so much that I’ve asked to stay longer. It seems this is not an uncommon experience. While CCF’s vision continues to transform impoverished communities, it seems it can also touch other people’s lives beyond the former city dump zone of Steung Meanchey.
Five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me my life was going to completely change. Back then, I would not have been labelled as the most adventurous person in my circle of family and friends. I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me I would eventually give away most of my earthly possessions, sell my house and car in the leafy suburbs of Adelaide, Australia.
I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me I would exchange this for several teaching contracts over several years with international schools on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Bali, take up trekking as a new hobby to haul myself up Mt Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, cross the interior of Indonesian Borneo from East to West, successfully complete the Everest Base Camp trek in the Himalayas, go solo trekking in Scotland, and gain an advanced scuba diving ticket in Sulawesi.
My life has undergone an almost complete transformation. However, some other things have not changed for me. I still believed that education has the power to change lives. I know this to be true because education changed my life and I wouldn’t have had those experiences I just mentioned unless education played a major part. I wouldn’t be here writing this piece about volunteering in another part of this planet.
I had volunteered in my spare time in several short-term projects and had enjoyed the rewarding experiences. Mention was made of Scott Neeson and CCF. When I checked his story out, I realised I had read about it several years earlier in Adelaide’s newspaper, ‘The Advertiser.’ When I compared CCF to other NGOs, I was drawn to the sustainable and transformative effect CCF seemed to have had with the community of Steung Meanchey.
I wasn’t interested in a FIFO (fly in, fly out) one-off travel experience or ‘voluntourism’ package, and was glad to see the minimum self-funded volunteer commitment was for three months. I almost instantly applied for a volunteer role in the field of education and within a few days, a Skype meeting was arranged with CCF. The question was raised, “How soon can you start?” Five months later, I now wonder if my question will be, “Does this have to end?”
So, here I am in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, creating a new life chapter with these delightfully, endearing kids at the satellite schools in Steung Meanchey.
I have the privilege to share my skills with them as they create their life chapters for their own Cambodian stories.
Creating stories together is our favourite thing to do. We have already created and ‘published’ several fold-out books and a Powerpoint e-book, despite their limited English and my limited Khmer. I’m pretty sure ‘What am I?’ ‘The Ginger Giraffe’ and ‘The Green Tree’ are going to become bestsellers!
I’m hoping there will be many more stories I can help the children to create before my time is up. It would be a dream of mine to see some of their own stories produced into Khmer-English bilingual multi-media texts.
I currently have a dual role which means I am mostly based between the Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA) and the ‘Back Blocks’( BB) satellite school.
I work closely with the Teaching Development Team and the Curriculum Coordinator to suggest sustainable initiatives for teacher development and best practice. I develop and create teacher resources, locate and demonstrate the use of available resources, demonstrate lessons and co-teach with local teachers and mentor staff. I also facilitate training seminars for CCF teaching staff and assist/ facilitate adult ESL classes for teaching staff.
One of my professional highlights was to create and run several lunchtime seminars after seeing a need for teachers to find practical ways to incorporate differentiated teaching and learning practices to meet the diverse needs of their classes.
It has been exciting to see teachers attempting to utilise different aspects of differentiation in their classes and to begin to share their professional practice with each other.
Perhaps the greatest gift is watching the students enjoy taking part in this approach towards learning.
These approaches take time and commitment which can be difficult to implement in just a few months of a voluntary stint.
A friend had just been part of a team visit to Finnish schools, currently recognised as a world leader in effective education systems. It made me feel hopeful when she told me it had taken Finland ten or more years to implement change across their schools.
When the statistics indicate 80% of Cambodia’s teachers had been lost by the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, you have to be amazed at the progress made by the Cambodian education system since that time. It has been a difficult road and there are certainly many challenges to overcome. For this reason, I am glad to be associated with CCF who recognises education as the primary way to transform Cambodia’s children into tomorrow’s leaders and innovators.
This experience wouldn’t be what it is if it were not for the people in CCF who help to ensure you are welcomed and are treated as a valued member of the team. The CCF staff are a friendly, supportive bunch to work with and they make sure your time here is a memorable one.
Then there are the CCF kids. Scott Neeson and the many people that make up the CCF organisation who have created something very special here and it is felt throughout the entire community.
If you are considering a volunteering role in education with CCF, you may find yourself gaining much more from the benefit of experiencing some of life’s important life lessons as much as you do imparting your knowledge and skills to others.
It’s not necessarily a walk in the park, it will keep you humble and you will regularly be thrown a few curve-balls. However, I have no hesitation in recommending the Cambodian Children’s Fund to others as an organisation providing integrity, sustainability, compassion and meaningful long-term support to the Cambodian people. I trust that Scott’s vision and CCF will continue to burn boldly and brightly long into the future.
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