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When the student becomes the teacher

James Elrington / Khmer Times Share:
Chea Lach during class at Kres Primary school in Poy Commune. UNICEF Cambodia/ Antoine Raab

A teacher trained to teach children in their native language, is making a positive impact on keeping indigenous children in school and completing their studies. James Elrington profiles Chea Lach, one of two teachers at Kres Primary school in Poy Commune, Ochum district, Ratanakiri Province.

For many children, school can be a daunting place. But for those children who don’t understand the language their teacher speaks, it can prevent them from going to school altogether.

There are thousands of indigenous children in Cambodia, mainly in the north-eastern provinces, where there is low preschool enrolment, high drop-out rates and many students repeating grades. But teachers like Chea Lach, who are trained to teach children in their native language, are making a positive impact on keeping indigenous children in school and completing their studies.

As an indigenous girl, Chea Lach benefitted from multilingual education when she was at school which ensured she stayed enrolled and was eventually inspired to become a multilingual teacher herself. She now teaches using the multilingual curriculum at a primary school in the neighbouring village to where she grew up in. The student is now the teacher.

“I became a teacher because of the support of my parents. The reason why I teach multilingualism is because I think firstly, I am an indigenous person and the second is not to lose the traditions and cultures of indigenous people,” says Chea Lach.

An early start

A little boy during class at Kres Primary school, Ratanakiri. Photo: UNICEF Cambodia/ Antoine Raab

22-year-old Chea Lach’s day begins early. She gets up just before daybreak and by the light of her torch prepares breakfast for the families’ pigs. As the light grows, so do the noises and activities of the village around her, as the community prepares for the day ahead. Quietly and diligently, Chea Lach goes about her daily routine, and by the time the village is bathed in the orange glow of morning light, she is ready to leave for her school.

Chea Lach is one of two teachers at Kres Primary school in Poy Commune, Ochum district, Ratanakiri Province. The school sits at the edge of a forest opposite the main village of Kres, an indigenous community of around 64 households whose ethnic language is Krueng.

A critical problem facing many children whose first language is an indigenous or ethnic minority language is that they often feel excluded from schools because they, and their parents, can’t understand the teacher. However, in Kres Primary School, the teachers have changed the lives of the children and their families, thanks to the introduction of the multilingual education curriculum in the school and their ability to teach it.

“For me, teaching multilingualism is very important, it’s about not giving up. When I teach the multilingual programme, students speak firstly in their own language, which makes them less afraid, and secondly, we teach in Khmer,” says Chea Lach.

Chea Lach and the school director Yorn Lida are both trained in Multilingual Education (MLE) and since they started working at the school, they’ve seen a significant increase in the numbers of children staying in education after the curriculum was first introduced in 2016.

Before MLE was available, children and their parents from the community often felt excluded by the lack of a shared culture when entering a school in which the teachers didn’t speak their language.

“In my opinion,” says Chea Lach, “multilingual education is very important to me. Because the indigenous children do not drop out of school.”

Making education accessible for every child

Chea Lach feeding the families’ pigs before leaving for school. Photo: UNICEF Cambodia/ Antoine Raab

In 2014, the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) developed, in collaboration with UNICEF, the first Multilingual Education National Action Plan (MENAP) which now supports thousands of indigenous children in rural communities throughout the country to stay in school.

Education is provided in preschool and the first three years of primary school using a short “bridging” model in which the Indigenous language and Khmer are used in preschools and primary schools with a unique curriculum for MLE. By the time they reach grade four, the children will have transitioned to the national curriculum in Khmer.

Indigenous children have benefited from new opportunities to enroll in school where they can understand the teacher and the curriculum includes culturally-based content, relevant to them. Parents are more likely to send their children in school and encourage their regular attendance.

Local authorities are strong supporters of MLE and advocate for its expansion to include more children and a wider range of indigenous languages as demand is growing. Many district and provincial officers are also advocating extension of MLE to grade 6 to enable children to consolidate their reading and writing skills in their Indigenous language while concurrently becoming proficient in Khmer.

“Multilingual education programmes are important for indigenous children to learn,” says Mr Pha Sotha, Deputy Director of Education, Youth and Sport in Ratanakiri Province. “Because they learn quickly and get knowledge. We see a small rate of children repeating class or dropout after we created the multilingual programme.”

In collaboration with partners, Primark and SIDA, UNICEF is supporting the Multilingual Education National Action Plan implemented by the Royal Government of Cambodia. There are 38,327 indigenous people (around three per cent of the total population) from over 10 ethnic groups and the multilingual education programme is helping to overcome the multiple obstacles faced by ethnic minority children in accessing quality education.

A teachers’ commitment

Chea Lach gets ready for work. UNICEF/ Antoine Raab

Chea Lach’s training in multilingual teaching enables her to ensure indigenous children access quality education which is meaningful to them, increasing their confidence and keeping them in school, leading on to academic success.

“UNICEF helps us with giving trainings such as methodology training and personal studies,” says Chea Lach. “I think I get a lot of benefit from the trainings. When I get the knowledge, I will use this new knowledge to teach my students.”

As a student who benefitted from multilingual education, Chea Lach knows how important it is for schools to offer a curriculum which is relevant to their indigenous culture, to make school a safe and reassuring place where they can understand the lessons and make sure they stay in school, all the way through to graduation.

Chea Lach is making a huge impact on the lives of indigenous children, giving them a chance to stay in school and receive a quality education. UNICEF Cambodia


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