March 18, 2010 — In a classroom of seventh-grade students divided equally between girls and boys, Tim Sophanny, a 30-year-old teacher at Sre Preah Secondary School in Keo Seima district of Mondulkiri, is writing the lesson on a dark-green board with one hand while covering her nose with the other to avoid inhaling chalk dust.
She turns to her students and asks: "Who knows what a Cambodian house is usually made of?" Several students raise their hands. Her question relates to one of the subjects she is now teaching at grade 7 since being promoted to working at a secondary school in the middle of last year after four tough years as a kindergarten teacher.
"It was an important day for me," she recalls of her first day teaching at secondary school. "I felt a little afraid, but I was committed to rise to the challenge."
Sophanny finished high school in Battambang provincial town, about 720 km from where she lives now. She passed the entry exam for teacher training in 2001 and became a teacher in 2003. After teaching a kindergarten class for four years, she felt frustrated and began looking for an opportunity to find a job that matched her education.
"I wanted to upgrade my knowledge and my skills to teach at a higher level," she says. "I wanted to get a better salary for living," she adds, laughing.
Sophanny teaches Khmer Literature and Home Economics. She teaches 18 hours a week and expects to get around 260,000 riel (US$65) a month, up from only 190,000 riel ($47) a month teaching kindergarten.
Sre Preah Secondary School opened in 2007. Sophanny's arrival relieved a teacher shortage. Sre Pheah Secondary School Director Chhen Socheat said she welcomes and supports Sophany teaching at grade 7.
"Now we have almost enough teachers at our school," she says.
Another promoted teacher, 25-year-old Yim Sokhunthea, now teaches at O'Rang Secondary School after four years teaching at Rokar Primary School around 60 km from his home in the provincial town of Mondulkiri. He teaches Khmer Literature, Civics and Fine Arts to students at grade 7 and 8. This is his first year and it has some challenges, but he feels proud and confident of his promotion.
"I am so happy to be here teaching at secondary school," he smiles. "This place has made it possible to move to teach at a higher education level."
By being promoted, Sokhunthea also gets better pay and has more time than when he was teaching at primary school to prepare his teaching methods and to continue his university study. He spends his weekends studying for a Bachelor of Arts in Khmer Literature at the University of Phnom Penh. He hopes one day he can teach at high school and university.
Choy Veasna, Director of O'Rang Secondary School, where 90 percent of the 155 students are of Mondulkiri's Phnong ethnic group, welcomes the new policy of upgrading and assigning more teachers for secondary schools. At his school, teachers used to teach more than 30 hours a week, but now many teach a maximum of 20 hours. However, for some subjects such as Home Economics, Computers, and English, it is still a challenge to find enough teachers, so some teachers are still teaching over 30 hours a week, much more than the standard 18 hours.
Sophany and Sokhunthea are among 2,500 primary school teachers around Cambodia who have been trained and upgraded to become basic education teachers under the Cambodia Education Sector Support Project (ESSP), supported by the World Bank and implemented by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.
Basic-education teachers were introduced in 2005 to relieve the shortage of quality teachers in lower secondary and primary education.