Phnom Penh: Teaching is more than giving – it is also receiving (Day 4)
Today I learned that teaching is an art. Not to say that I previously thought it was easy, but I also did not think I would struggle as much as I did: I’m smart and I know the English language very well, so it should only make sense that I’d be able to teach it, right? If I can’t always be right, I’m glad that I can at least prove myself wrong. Teaching is not a job anyone can do. It is a learned skill, one that I quickly realized takes an immense amount of time, energy, patience, and intuition to master.
Standing in a room full of curious little faces, I had no idea what was expected of me. I started to feel a bit nervous. What could I teach that would provide value for these children, and more importantly, what did they want to know? I didn’t have the answer. But often times, that’s just how it is – we can keep guessing and hoping an answer falls from the sky, or we can give it a try, see what sticks, and learn as we go. I opted for the latter, and just started talking. I introduced myself and was pleasantly surprised to see that many of the kids had remembered my name from yesterday’s introduction. I decided to begin my lesson by teaching them words for feelings, tapping into my extensive use of emojis in texts to draw different faces on the board. I couldn’t help but smirk to myself at the irony that my iPhone addiction carried me through this impromptu lesson plan.
eaching is already hard enough as it is. It’s even more challenging when your pupils don’t quite understand what you are trying to say. My poor drawing skills could only get me so far – too often, I found myself often agitatedly gesticulating (I’ve never been so thankful for my expressive Italian genes) and sending the assistant teacher not-so-subtly desperate visual cues for help translating. By the second class, I was at a loss for what to teach next. Bordering on exasperation, I asked a staff member what else I could teach today to fill in the gaps. His answer was so simple, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it myself: just get to know the children. Of course. I was here to help them, but how could I do that without knowing them and their needs?
And so, I switched strategies. Rather than picking random subjects to talk about, I started asking them questions about themselves. Their name, birthday, age, and hometown. It was only then that their personalities began to shine through. I began to see all the usual stereotypes emerge: there was the class clown, the runt, the know-it-all, the mischievous one. It’s funny how, regardless of where in the world they are, at the end of the day every kid is just that – a kid.
The livelihood of a child’s spirit is ultimately dictated by how quickly circumstance and misfortune erodes their innocence. These kids were significantly more enthusiastic about having human contact than they were about learning. These past two days made it abundantly clear that they are deprived of human connection once they leave the school. They likely only understood a fraction of what I taught, yet as they piled out of the classroom, every single one of them offered me a smile, a warm hug, a hand squeeze, friendship bracelets, or tiny, folded up notes bearing my name and a heart. They definitely weren’t thanking me for the quality of my teaching. They were thanking me for being there.
It reminded me, again, of the importance that non-profit schools like these have on the lives of these children. They come here for much more than an education: this is their haven, a place where they can escape the stresses of their everyday lives and be taken care of by people who are invested in their well-being. As I spent more time with the kids, I began noticing details that I missed in the midst of my excitement to meet them the day prior. Their uniforms were quite dirty, their hair disheveled, and at the tender ages of 5-11, some teeth were already beginning to show signs of decay. I had so many questions for them. Are your parents taking care of you? Are you being taught proper hygiene and personal care? Do you have a roof over your head, and are you comfortable at home? There is so much I want to know about them, but we cannot understand each other through speech, and so I am just left wondering what their lives are like beyond these walls.
Yesterday I wrote about discovering a new definition of happiness while meeting these kids. I wondered about how people who have nothing can find happiness, and didn’t realize until this morning that I already had the answer. Years ago, I discovered that the secret of happiness can be summed up into one word: gratitude. And that is exactly what these children have – a streaming flow of gratitude for the strangers who are consistently showing up to love them, strangers who are equally grateful to receive the great amounts of joy and energy they have to give.
Today, after drawing them a chart outlining the basic feelings (happy, sad, angry, sick, tired, crying, etc), I turned to the class and asked: “How do you feel?”
Without hesitation, everyone shouted: “I am happy!”
I’m starting to think I’m the one who’s being taught.