A Day at School

In Put Sar Village, Many Obstacles Block Children’s Education

This is the third in a series of stories about life in a typical Cam­bo­dian rice-growing village. The stories, by different teams of reporters and photographers at The Cambo­dia Daily, will follow the course of this year’s rainy season rice crop in the village of Put Sar, about 30 km south of Phnom Penh. The village is home to 1,408 people in 320 fam­ilies and lies six kilometers away from the nearest market. Eighty percent are poor, and virtually all grow rice. We hope to show the importance of rice to Cambo­dia’s mostly rural population, to describe the hardships and rewards of village life, and to listen to voices not often heard.

put sar village, Takeo Province – Break time at the Chambok Bit Meas primary school ends and children scatter as the school’s deputy director shouts and clangs six times on an old truck wheel.

Inside, fourth graders begin a lesson about the value of knowledge. Teacher Em Sien tells them education can bring an influential position in the government, a job in Phnom Penh and a car to drive back home for a visit to the village.

“No one can steal knowledge from you,” says Em Sien. “Gold and luggage can be stolen, but knowledge cannot. You have a pair of shorts when you go to Phnom Penh, and you can come back with a pair of trousers.”

Em Sien, 24, commutes 9 km by moto every day from Kandeng commune, where he lives with his wife and does a little farming when he has the time. He has a 12th grade education and enjoys teaching, “but I’m a teacher be­cause there are no other jobs available.”

There are approximately 51,000 teachers in Cambodia’s schools today—not enough to fill the nation’s classrooms. Besides low pay, schools in the countryside also must deal with the difficulty of attracting trained teachers to their remote villages.

Many teachers that do come to rural schools end up leaving after a year or two because of inadequate housing and the low salary, according to Soy Yeng, administrator of the primary education department at the Ministry of Education. “If they did have a nice house and good pay, I might go there myself,” he said.

Chambok Bit Meas school’s administrative office, located in the middle of the long yellow building constructed during the French protectorate, is busy as the school year resumes. Teach­ers sit at wooden tables working on census reports to send to the district office, leaving children in classrooms to do exercises on their own.

More than 700 children from the surrounding villages attend first through sixth grade at Chambok Bit Meas, with about 150 coming from Put Sar village.

Sao Sukim, 32, lives in Put Sar and teaches the school’s other fourth grade class. There are 44 students, which is better than last year, she says, when she had to contend with more than 50 children in one room.

“But it is still difficult. I can’t take care of them all because some of them are noisy.”

Meng Sereyrith, 40, simultaneously teaches fifth and sixth graders. At any time during the school day, fifth graders on one side of his classroom are learning one subject while sixth graders are being taught another. “Sixty-three students in a class is big,” he says.

The school recently hired five new teachers, but class sizes are still too big for teachers to give students needed individual attention, says director Cheng Sovan. There are 15 teachers, but 18 classes. The pay, more than $200 annually, doesn’t make recruiting easy, he says.

The Ministry of Education hopes to increase teacher salaries across the country, but will have to ask for private donations to do it. Pok Than, secretary of state at the ministry, says Cambodia has a teacher shortage, a problem that has worsened in recent years.

“Who is going to come to teach here besides those who live in nearby villages?” asks Chambok Bit Meas deputy director Vat Veng, who teaches a class in addition to his administrative duties. “We have such low pay.”

After a three-month break, the new school-year began Oct 9.  Enrollment will continue throughout the month, as families and their children are kept busy with work in the rice fields.

The school day begins at 7 am and ends at 11:10 am. Children walk home in groups along Put Sar’s main road, chores and lunch waiting up ahead.

Five girls, neighbors of each other, walk together. They pass four men squatting close to the road, watching two roosters stalk each other in a circle. Farther up ahead, a dozen men are well into a volleyball game, with another dozen watching from the shade.

They pass the cockfight without stopping. “It’s for boys,” says 11-year-old Vanna.

At home, first-grader Pech Sokhana’s takes her family’s pregnant cow behind the house to graze. Later, she’ll feed the ducks and chickens before getting to her homework.

At most, Put Sar’s children do one hour of homework a day. Teachers know students don’t have time for much more.

But Pech Sokhana’s aunt, Phouk Chan, wants her niece to take school seriously.

“We want her to be a doctor, a policeman or something else. We don’t want her to have to farm or catch crabs forever,” she says.

Down the road, 12-year-old Yem Kunthea feeds the pigs and ducks while looking after her little brother. She’s the sixth child of eight, and the only daughter.

“I don’t know what I want to do in the future. I want to stay home,” she says.

Her father would like to have higher aspirations for her, but  he is also pessimistic about his daughter’s future. “We are afraid she couldn’t find a job even if she graduates from school,” he says. “We don’t know any important people.”

Most children say they hope to be a policeman, a teacher or a doctor when they finish their schooling.

“We have many patients, but few doctors, in my village,” says 11-year-old Thorn Sambath. “People here get dengue fever, intestinal sicknesses, diarrhea. I want to cure people of flu and high temperature. I am scared of AIDS the most.”

Some students return to school in the afternoon for English lessons at 200 riel a session.

On the road in front of the school, one boy shows a worn workbook and his notebook, a picture of Prime Minister Hun Sen on the front.

When asked if the lessons inside the workbook are difficult, he nods his head yes. But an older, bigger boy standing nearby speaks up with confidence. “No,” he says. “It’s easy.”

School in the morning centers around four subjects: Khmer literature, mathematics, science and the social sciences, which includes history, geography, art and moral behavior.

Agriculture is also taught, but most of this is passed down through families as they work together in the field, says Cheng Sovan. Students who go on to secondary schooling near Tonle Bati, however, can learn more ad­vanced farming methods.

This year, about 40 students who completed primary school study in June at Chambok Bit Meas are now making the daily 10-km commute to secondary school. Most make the trip by bicycle.

But keeping students in school seems to be a constant challenge for Cheng Sovan. Many students have to periodically drop out to help with the rice, the village’s first priority. “We are rural people, after all,” he says.

When they return, the children find they have fallen behind. Even with special instruction during the three-month break, it can be difficult to catch up. One result is that children of widely-varied ages are crowded in a single grade level.

But only 25 percent of the country’s population has a primary school education, according to a 1998 Cambodian census report, casting a harsh light on a bleaker result of the country’s rural leg­acy: sometimes Cambodian stud­ents just don’t go back to school.




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