Volunteering as a teacher in Cambodia

In the teacher education in Finland, we have a joke that the three main reasons to become a teacher are June, July and August. I have to admit it feels pretty amazing to have such a long summer vacation to truly reset to zero and charge again. I felt like I wanted to try something new. Maybe even do something useful while enjoying my first long summer vacation.

I’ve had this dream to volunteer as a teacher somewhere abroad, so I booked a trip to Asia for 6 weeks and started to look for volunteering jobs on Workaway. Teaching English and IT in Asia sounded like a good choice, so I contacted a small private school called Angkor Legacy Academy in Lolei Village, Cambodia.

I arrived to Lolei late in the evening on Saturday the 30th July and stayed for 10 days. The village is located 15km from the city of Siem Reap. The school provides free English classes at 3 different levels from Monday to Friday for the children in Lolei, aged 5-12. Sovannarith, the founder of the school, also teaches Chinese in the evenings. Luckily, he gets many volunteers year around to help him with the English classes because he is also running a food programme in Lolei to help the people living in poverty. In addition, Sovannarith wants to start computer classes for the children once the school gets a better internet connection and more computers. The local primary schools don’t teach English or computer skills, which are key subjects to get a job and break out of poverty. Find out more about Lolei village and Angkor Legacy Academy (ALA) here.

Angkor Legacy Academy in Lolei Village, Cambodia.

In her blog, Melody from California describes the school, the village life and the work of volunteer teachers as I also find it a year later. You will find her post about volunteering in Lolei here. The muddy rural roads were flooding from heavy rain and drying again, leaving deep tracks on the road. On my first day, we tried to fix the road by digging and filling in the potholes together with Sovannarith, the village kids and the other volunteers to make it more even, and therefore more safe for motorbikes and bicycles. It was amazing to see how eager the kids were to help with sumi hard work even when it started to rain. They knew how to make the most out of it by bathing in the mud puddles!

Fixing a road in Lolei.

Monday was the first day as a volunteer teacher. Since we were altogether six volunteers, three per class, it was easy to split the groups and organise teaching so that everyone gets support with their learning. At the beginning, I found it challenging to get the students’ attention because we didn’t speak the same language. However, I must say I’ve never seen such motivated students to learn English than the level 3 groups (age 10-12). Already after the first day, I realised how good their comprehension was even though we were still studying the basics.

As the volunteers come and go all the time, the students aren’t used to any classroom routines, except saying good morning to the teacher. However, even in 6 days of teaching it was possible to create some small routines to calm down the class and make sure they have a peaceful learning environment. We started with raising our hand when we want to share something and respecting the others by listening what they want to say. They also really enjoyed playing games and singing songs in English. Moving on to a next exercise by clapping rhythms or playing a little game was an effective way to catch their attention. Having these little playful exercises as part of the lesson plan seemed to make a big difference as well to their learning, as these children are used to more formal school culture.

One of the three classrooms at ALA.
Learning vocabulary by drawing together.

With level 3 students I got to try a little bit of programming. As I think programming is more than just learning codes, I wanted to introduce digital thinking to these children. The goal was to understand how you can give orders to the computer by using codes. Since we only had one day for programming, we split the class so that I took two students at a time to play a coding game while the others were learning the directions and orientating in English with the other two volunteers. We played Programming with Harvester, where you practice some basic programming tools like different functions and loops. The students loved it! They got the idea very quickly and were able to follow my instructions in English. I was happy to see so many enthusiastic faces when they cracked the code! ”Good job!” *high five*

Programming with code.org at ALA.


This week it was time to thank my students for our first semester together and celebrate my first semester as a classroom teacher! It has been an amazing journey so far and I’m very lucky to continue with the same group to the next grade in Autumn. In this, the last post of the semester, I will reflect on my adventure in Sweden so far; why it was a good decision for me to take this job and stay in Stockholm, and how I did as a teacher according to my pupils.

Since I got to assess such a talented class, I thought it would be fair if the students also gave me an assessment. Last Friday one task was to have a feedback meeting (luokkapalaveri) where the pupils would assess their work as a team and my work as their teacher. We gathered in a circle to discuss the funniest things that happened during the semester (the red square), where the students succeeded together (the blue cloud), which 5 exercises they thought were the best (the flower), what the teacher has learned during the semester (green text) and what she should still practise (pink text) and what their team goal will be for the next semester (the flag). Last but not least, they gave a general assessment of my work. I can happily announce that even the teacher passed all subjects with hög grad (check out Assessment) and gets to continue to the next grade!


The assessment form for the feedback meeting with the class.

We had the last day of school on Tuesday. In our school, the skolavslutning is more like a graduation ceremony for the ninth grade rather than Finnish kevätjuhla (“spring festival”) where all the classes perform something to the parents. After the ceremony, we had our own gathering in the classroom. I was extremely nervous the day before when I realised that I was not only expected to give a speech to the students but also to their parents! My first speech in Swedish! Everything went fine though, and the parents were happy as well. How you manage your job as a teacher has a surprising amount to do with maintaining a successful collaboration with the parents, especially when you’re a novice.

In Sweden, the teachers keep on working on so-called “in-service” days after the students are gone. Yes, I will work until midsummer unlike my colleagues in Finland who take off immediately after the traditional spring psalm Suvivirsi has been sung. I guess that makes up for those many holidays we had during the spring semester, haha! I must say that I found these first three in-service days to be pretty calming though. You have time to clean and organise the classroom and your desk. Time to reset and look back on the eventful semester.

So why was it a good decision to stay in Sweden? Firstly, signing my first employment contract as a teacher felt very important as it currently doesn’t seem that easy in Finland. There are many newly graduated teachers looking for their first job with no luck. This, dear Sweden, could be one way to fix the big lack of qualified teachers here. Some Swedish school headteachers have also realised there is a resource of well-educated teachers in Finland. They have organised recruitment events where they try to tempt graduating teacher students, who can speak Swedish, to come and work in Sweden. If you’re ready to go, you may have a chance to negotiate close to a doctor’s salary for yourself. Secondly, it seems more likely to get a permanent teacher’s position in Sweden which is a huge benefit compared to Finland where young teachers nowadays go from one temporary contract to another.

Nonetheless, I can’t emphasise enough how much of a huge challenge it is to start working in another country with different school laws and a different curriculum, where the work is at least partly in a foreign language. I wouldn’t recommend doing this as a first teaching job. There are so many practical things to learn after graduating so it’s good to do at least some longer substitute work in Finland before considering working in Sweden. Otherwise, I can highly recommend doing it! I think it’s eye-opening to see different education systems and learn from them.

The main thing that makes me want to stay in Sweden for another semester, perhaps even a full academic year, is the social integration which in my case was successful. Knowing the language at least a little bit gives you a good start. For Finns, it’s just about daring to speak aloud the Swedish which we have learned in school and forgetting about our thick accent! (You probably guess what the thing I still have to practice next semester is, haha…) Social networking, traditionally or via social media, is said to be hard in Sweden, especially in Stockholm, but once you’re active and open-minded, you’ll find hospitable locals and other like-minded foreigners.