Next fall, Vichet Un and Theary Chhoeun will start their work as full time career counsellors at the Wattamoem Secondary School in Battambang. They are amongst the ten teachers selected to become the first ever career counsellors in Cambodia.
Career counselling is just being introduced to the Cambodian school system, so the training had to be planned from scratch.
Kyösti Timonen, an education adviser for the Finnish network Teachers without Borders responsible for the planning, was cautious with his expectations because in addition to teachers, some officials from the Ministry of Education and the districts were also to attend the training.
”At first the officials were a bit shy of their new role as students, but ended up being amongst the most enthusiastic learners of the group. The principle is that all are equal participants in the training. For this reason, we were all, students and trainers, barefooted during the whole three day training”, Timonen explains.
Learning in a group without lecturing and sitting behind desks was a new experience to Cambodians, who are generally more used to hierarchy and things being led from above. Mild confusion in the beginning aside, Timonen feels the training kicked off in a very positive mood.
”The only negative feedback we got was that the three day intensive period was too short. And there were complaints about the food, but unfortunately we had no control over that”, Timonen laughs.
The teaching profession is not valued
Vichet Un, who has been working as an English teacher at the Wattamoem Secondary School, is clearly excited about his new post. However, he seems a bit worried about what will happen after the seven month training period.
”Even though the profession of teacher is not valued in our society, I always wanted to become a teacher. I hope in the future I will be able to work as a career counsellor full time and get paid accordingly.”
The biggest challenges for the Cambodian school system are the lack of respect towards the work of teachers and the fact that teachers are underpaid. The weekly working hours are also quite moderate, from 15 to 17 hours, so almost every teacher has a second job, sometimes even two.
Many teachers earn additional income from extra lessons they give to students, although in principle education is free of charge. This has increased inequality amongst students in a country where the poorest children already drop out of school easily.
Vichet, who has gained most of his English skills from Buddhist monks, has also been giving extra English lessons alongside school teaching. ”I earn better with private lessons, but I have still wanted to continue teaching at school. Teaching is important and even though the pay is not good, it is still a stable income.”
The career counsellors to be will be working full time, and in between training periods they will learn about their new job by working in their designated schools under supervision. The compensation is related to the amount of work – for the duration of the training, the teachers receive approximately 210 euros a month, while the average pay of a Cambodian teacher is around 130 euros a month.
”You will end up as nothing”
Theary Chhoeun, Vichet’s colleague from Wattamoem Secondary School, says she is very happy to have been selected for the training. ”I have already learned many new things and now I want to share what I’ve learned with my students. One of the most important things has been understanding what guidance means, that it is different from vocational orientation.”
Kyösti Timonen understands the importance of guidance not only from a professional perspective, but also from personal experience.
”While I was still in school, a vocational guidance psychologist told me that I belong to the seven percent of students who will end up as nothing. In a delicate age that of course felt bad. After wandering around for a while, I half-accidentally ended up studying to become a teacher and from there in career counsellor training. And here I am,” says Timonen, happy with his own career choice.
Timonen also addresses what is worrying Vichet.
”Assuming the training continues as well as it has started, I have no doubt that its objectives will be reached. The most important thing, of course, is that career counselling and the training of career counsellors become permanent elements of Cambodian schools.”
According to the preliminary plan, all 1,800 secondary schools and high schools in Cambodia will have their own career counsellors by the end of 2020. So a lot is still to be done.
Career counsellor training is carried out by Finn Church Aid together with the Cambodian Ministry of Education and education specialists from Teachers without Borders Finland.
Text and photos: Ursula Aaltonen