In Cambodia, a bold teaching program draws on international models and local context

Siv Monirath speaks with children who stopped attending school in Phnom Penh. Photo by: Teach for Cambodia

PHNOM PENH — This month, Teach for Cambodia will officially launch and begin recruiting its first group of fellows. If all goes according to plan, 30 recent college graduates, young professionals, and existing teachers will be selected, trained, and distributed among some of Phnom Penh’s poorest schools starting next year.

The program is the first of its kind in Cambodia, where founder Siv Monirath, or Moni, hopes the global model can gain a foothold in his country. A staunch advocate for educational equality, Moni has firsthand experience of the difference that the right or wrong type of schooling can make. Born and raised in Cambodia, Moni spent the first 16 years of life in five different Phnom Penh public schools.

After moving to the U.S., he completed the last year of high school in California, graduating valedictorian. Moni later joined Teach for America, working as a science teacher in a Camden, New Jersey, high school. The experience was formative. He completed a master’s in education and began to think about how such a system might be adopted to Cambodia.

Quality, long-term education in Cambodia remains out of reach for most. Though primary school enrollment is high, at about 98 percent, that figure drops precipitously as pupils get older. In 2015, the most recent year for which there is UNESCO data, less than 50 percent completed grade 9, and only about one in 10 finished high school. In rural areas, access to lower secondary and secondary school remains limited, and children are often compelled to drop out of school to help their families. Low salaries and limited educational opportunities mean many teachers themselves lack tertiary education, while petty corruption within schools has stymied progress. In the past five years, however, a newly appointed minister of education, Dr. Hang Chuon Naron, has taken pains to reform the system — raising salaries, building new schools, and rolling out a raft of policies to combat corruption and improve education.

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For Moni and Teach for Cambodia, the timing of such reforms couldn’t be better. Unlike most NGOs, the Teach For model requires intense government partnership and support, given that the fellows will eventually be placed in government schools. “In terms of the government, we’re looking at what are the key policies that the government is trying to achieve and we’re looking for opportunities to support those priorities and making sure they’re happen,” Moni told Devex. With a five-year memorandum of understanding with the ministry recently inked, Teach for Cambodia is pushing ahead.

Enter with a clear mission

With his range of experiences in the Cambodian and American school systems and Teach For school model, Moni began the project with an insider’s knowledge of the situation. For him, that has helped keep the group’s goals laser-focused.

“Our mission is to build a movement of leaders for educational excellence, a local leadership, local force for that,” he explained.

At the moment, Cambodia has the youngest population in Southeast Asia with about two-thirds under the age of 30. “3.2 million students are in public school today — that’s the future of Cambodia,” said Moni. With the right support, Cambodia’s youthful population “means massive potential.” Which is why it has increasingly become a key area for reform.

“Primary and secondary school is an extremely high stake. If Cambodia can raise the quality of classroom teaching today, it could make or break our direction in terms of economics and social progress in the next decade. That’s why it’s a priority,” he said.

Be honest about the challenges

But the way ahead is not easy. There’s a million challenge in terms of startups in general,” Moni admitted. The group is focused on how it can build what it calls “local champions,” funders who will buy into the overall project and offer ongoing, not one-off support. Then, there is the challenge of talent. “The success of our program itself is relying on getting as many as possible Cambodian future leaders to join the program,” he said. But that can prove difficult in a small country with a small talent pool. To that end, Teach for Cambodia has gone after what Moni calls “an ambitious but feasible” size that can be scaled up. The biggest challenge will likely be how to place a new system into an old one.

“We want [the fellows] to make all this change, but we also recognize the challenges of that ecosystem that they are going to be in. So we are thinking about what type of mechanism allow us to be successful and really demonstrate change. In the immediate future, but also long term.”

Communicate values clearly

While Teach for Cambodia focuses on teaching, imparting leadership skills is also a cornerstone of its program. Indeed, in order to get scores of talented, highly marketable college graduates to forgo well paying jobs, it is crucial they “get back” as well.

“Ultimately we need to be clear about who we’re looking for and we want to listen. We want to listen to their needs, their long-term goals, their motivations and barriers. And we will figure out in terms of strategies and resources that Teach for Cambodia has and in terms of strategic relationships that we build externally — how can we address their needs in the short term and also long term?

“It’s really about building that relationship over time. We want to be honest with our potential fellows that this is probably going to be the toughest thing you’re going to do. It’s very challenging.”

In order to get them on board and be sure they feel supported over the two years, Moni said it is key to ensure they have the resources to help them grow and perform. This includes training and regular outreach, but it also includes focusing on how the fellows themselves can grow as people and leaders.

When Moni worked for Teach for America, he went into schools trying to “figure out what is the vision for the students … I need to think strategically about what it takes to get there, how can I build a relationship with my students? What partnership with the parents, the other teachers in the school is needed to take my students there? What I didn’t know is that as I set that big vision to get my students there, I invested in my own capacity to get there with them. So as I raised my capacity to overcome the challenges with them, my leadership grew and I learned more about them and more about myself.”

The program serves as a “transformational” experience, both for the students and the fellows.

“Whatever career they’re going to pursue, they’re going to bring this amazing insight, knowledge, and skill to every sector that they are in.”

Align your funding

Teach for Cambodia has sourced funding entirely from private donors and foundations. Moni says that has allowed them to avoid being bogged down by traditional donor requirements. But focusing on such a funding model has its own set of risks.  

“It’s a question of volume and depth,” he explained. “If you are really small capacity and you focus on volume, you try to get 100 partners with all their logos on your branding, then the cost is that you’re not going to have good experience with them, and they’re not going to have a good experience with us.” Instead, said Moni, it’s key to think “strategically.”

“Initially we want to have a small group of partners that really believe in our mission, that don’t influence our independence, that come in clean and really passionate about this work.” For NGOs looking to go this route, Moni advises them to consider a fundamental question. Ask: “How can we help you, rather than how can you help us. In the process of helping we’re also gaining something — that’s why we’ve been very successful in our funding so far.”

Update, Oct 19: This article has been changed to clarify the range of participants, and the timeline of Moni’s education.

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