For decades, schools in rural and remote areas had difficulties in recruiting teachers. It was even more difficult to retain them in these remote postings. But there are more exceptions nowadays, and we would like to introduce you to one of them, Mr Kheoun Vandor, school director in Bousra High School.
Vandor was born in Kandal province, near the capital Phnom Penh, in 1981. This was in a period of serious social upheaval. The Khmer Rouge Regime had just been toppled by the new government with the backing of the Vietnamese army.
It was not the beginning of peace, but a period of a long civil war between the remnants of the Khmer Rouge troops, government troops and warring factions. It was also a period of famine and hardship for most Cambodians. Against this backdrop, Vandor and his six siblings grew up with their farmer parents. Although his parents did not have enough food to feed the family three meals a day, they still sent all their kids, including the daughters, to school. They were convinced that education was the best way out of poverty.
The small boy walked ten kilometers a day to primary school and when he went to secondary school he used a bicycle to cover the 13 kilometers each way. He completed Grade 12 which was exceptional in that decade war.
The decision to become a teacher was made by his parents, as at that time a teacher still had a high social status and it guaranteed a steady, albeit, small income. But it was a decision when a primary school student, he looked up to his teachers as his role models. He wanted to follow in their footsteps.
Nowadays there is an increasing appreciation for teachers, but some ten years ago it was not a popular choice for young people. After his graduation from teachers college in 2004, he was requested by the government to move to the remote province of Mondul Kiri, along with four fellow graduates. He had preferred to stay closer to his home village and the vicinity of Phnom Penh, but there were advantages for this remote posting.
In his home province there was high competition for the teacher posts, and in Mondul Kiri there was a beautiful environment with clean air and much safety. Living near the famous Bousra Waterfall was also something special, as all Cambodians have heard about that place of natural beauty, but most Cambodians had no opportunity to see it for themselves. It was also easy to set up a small business to work on after teaching hours and settle in that area.
He admits that it was not all roses. His parents were deeply concerned about their young son, exposed to diseases such as malaria which still is a health hazard in the north east of the country. When he left his parental home, his parents gave him a small bag with stones and sand from his home village, as a token of his roots in that village. He remembers how lonely he felt in the beginning, and that his closest colleague lived in in faraway Koh Nheak District, many kilometers away along a track in the jungle.
Nowadays he is the well-respected director of Bousra High School. He is a calm and mild-mannered gentleman. He is proud of how big his school has grown and that they now offer all the grades up to Upper Secondary.
He is proud when his students have high scores. However, it is not always easy to manage all teachers in the remote post. The teachers often come from outside the province and they long to get back to their families after some time. But over time more students from this province study in Phnom Penh and come back with all the qualifications to become a teacher in this province. Vandor introduces his latest arrival, an enthusiastic young man, just fresh from college in Phnom Penh, who will start teaching English in this new academic year.
He says he is happy to be back in his beautiful province, near his family and to help educate the young people at this school.
It is also Vandor’s job to keep strong relations with the community and the parents. He sometimes needs all his diplomatic skills to do so, as some parents can complain heavily, if their kids have gotten into a fight, or if they received poor marks. But overall, parents here are supportive because, as his own parents in the past, they see how important a completed education is for the future of their children. The parents are very supportive of Information Technology, STEM and sex education. They see the role of technology all around them and how it is changing society.
Over 70% of all students are enrolled in the STEM subjects. Nowadays in biology lessons, teachers use the curriculum on adolescent sexual reproductive health; they feel more comfortable about teaching this subject now. And as the schools are paying more attention to sex education, and the communities are getting better informed about the negative impacts of early marriages, Vandor sees a slow but steady decline in these early marriages and unintended pregnancies.
When asked about the future of his three children, he smiles and looks away into the sky. ‘As long as they have a good education, they can contribute to these communities. And in what capacity, that is for them to decide’, he says. Clearly, he and his family have taken root in this remote place.