Sao Sothy’s home is small and the furniture is sparse. There are no tables or chairs. In one room, there is a small bed, but her family of four sleeps on mats in the living room. Hanging on the otherwise bare walls is Ms. Sothy’s teacher’s certificate.
Both Ms. Sothy and her husband, Chhorn Thy, teach for a living, but they don’t make enough to live on. As an educator at Sothearos Secondary School in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district, she has a second job teaching part-time at a private school, and a third job tutoring students after class is out.
“It’s difficult,” said Ms. Sothy, 31, who has a 6-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. “But it’s important to support my family.”
It costs Ms. Sothy about $5 a day to feed her family, or about $150 a month. She makes only $127 a month from her teaching duties at Sothearos Secondary School. Including her husband’s salary, the family has about $100 left for expenses other than food.
The modest raise given to public school teachers last year—10 to 15 percent salary increases across the board, and a minimum monthly salary of $100—was quickly overtaken by inflation, Ms. Sothy said.
“It seems like the food price is always increasing when the salary of teachers increases,” she said.
The Ministry of Education has taken a number of steps to tackle rampant corruption in the school system in recent months, including a complete overhaul of the grade 12 national exam. However, teachers’ salaries remain critically low, a problem that education experts say will stifle efforts to stamp out graft and promote accountability.
“We want the teachers, especially those who work in the hardship areas, to get paid more,” said Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who was a secretary of state in the Ministry of Finance before his promotion in September.
“It will take time,” he said, “But we have started.”
Mr. Chuon Naron said that the ministries of education and finance are currently reviewing the possibility of providing additional allowances to teachers on top of their base salary. The new education minister has also fast-tracked efforts to have teachers paid directly through bank accounts, eliminating opportunities for graft.
However, the message coming from above Mr. Chuon Naron isn’t as encouraging. Prime Minister Hun Sen told a crop of new teachers at their graduation ceremony last month that they should be thankful they weren’t paid in rice, as teachers were in the years following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
Earlier this year, the Cambodia Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA) organized a piecemeal strike among its members to demand $250 per month. “$250 is enough if the price of goods does not increase and is stable,” said Ouk Chhayavy, deputy director of CITA.
Low pay is the top cause of teacher dissatisfaction in Cambodia, according to a 2012 report by the international development group VSO. About 67 percent of teachers, like Ms. Sothy, must take a second job to make a living, according to the report.
“They can potentially earn a lot more money with their second income, so their focus is on their second income,” said John Friend-Pereira, head of programs at VSO.
A previous report by VSO found that teachers not only demand bribes for passing grades, they sometimes teach only part of a lesson, leaving the rest for after-school courses that students must pay for. Many teachers also set up small businesses in schools—selling snacks or stationery—and reward students for their custom.
The Education Ministry and the Anti-Corruption Unit have attempted to promote accountability by eliminating cheating during the grade 12 national exam, imposing harsh penalties on those found to be cheating. But Chin Chanveasna, executive director of the NGO Education Partnership, believes such efforts will be useless if teachers’ salaries remain stagnant.
“In the Khmer Rouge regime, if you stole a piece of potato, when you’re found stealing, you would be executed,” he said. “But people were stealing because of their stomachs. They won’t stop. It’s the same thing [with underpaid teachers]. You cannot stop people from extorting the money from students if you did not provide enough for their living.”
If the government were able to pay teachers $250, about 55 percent of teachers with a second job could leave it, and 78 percent would be able to spend more time preparing for class, according to the VSO report.
As a teacher at Boeng Trabek Khang Tbong Primary School, Eng Sophors used to drive a tuk-tuk in his spare time to bring in extra income. But driving a tuk-tuk was so much more lucrative than teaching that Mr. Sophors eventually gave up his job as a teacher.
“If I spent time with my family, I wouldn’t have enough money to feed my family,” Mr. Sophors said of his time as a teacher. “I wouldn’t have stopped [teaching] if the teacher salary was enough.”
But Mr. Sophors still hopes to get back into the classroom one day.
“I want to be good teacher who can transfer my knowledge,” he said. “I can also educate students to be good and ethical.”
(Additional reporting by Hay Pisey)