Friday, January 25, 2019

Education for every child: a teacher’s mission

By Victoria Laroche Creux

Seng Noeun is driving back home seven children after class.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Victoria Laroche Creux

Phum Krouch Village, Prey Veng, Cambodia, January 2019: 
It is a beautiful sunny day in the village of Phum Krouch, 70km away from Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh. From a distance, water buffalos and cows are grazing among the rice fields, and palm trees are rising from the tall grass. Phum Krouch community preschool is hidden on the side of a small dusty road. It is difficult to find the preschool without a local guide. Every morning, when the sun rises, Seng Noeun, a community preschool teacher, arrives at school with a full cart of students.

Like many of her pupils, Seng Noeun lives three kilometres away from Phum Krouch preschool. A few years ago, she realized many parents could not bring their children to preschool because no one could drive them.

“The grandparents of some of my students asked me to bring the children to the preschool as we were neighbours. So, I started to bring five children to the preschool every day in a borrowed cart,” explained Seng Noeun. “I expected that the number of children would decrease after some of them would be off to primary school, but it kept increasing,” she added.

Every day, the committed teacher now drives up to 12 children to preschool and has been doing so for the past five years in a borrowed cart attached to her motorbike. She picks up the students at their homes early in the morning and brings them back at around 9 am when class ends.

“No one helps me to fill the tank with gas,” she confided, but that won’t stop Noeun from bringing the children to school and making sure that they all have access to education.

Seng Noeun has been the teacher at Phum Krouch community preschool for the past 15 years. Out of 30 children in the class (15 girls and 15 boys), four have disabilities including one with severe disability and one with Down syndrome.

Five-year-old Chhun Sopheay, is one of the four students with disabilities
enrolled at Phum Krouch community preschool.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Victoria Laroche Creux

Chhun Sopheay is one of Seng Noeun’s students. He is five years old and was enrolled in the community preschool at the age of three. As his mother works in Phnom Penh selling corn, he and his brother both live with their grandmother in Phum Krouch. Sometimes, when his grandmother cannot bring him to school, he walks to the preschool with some of his friends, as it is only a ten minutes’ walk away from his house.

Chhun Sopheay was born premature at seven months old and has been suffering from different illnesses since his birth.

“At first, he couldn’t even hold a pen. He was sick often and absent four or five times during the month,” told Seng Noeun. “But he is really improving and he will be able to join Grade 1 next year,” she added.

Seng Noeun at Phum Krouch community preschool, the school materials that she made behind her.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Victoria Laroche Creux

Seng Noeun participated in training on inclusive education, implemented by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS), delivered by the Provincial Office of Education in Prey Veng and funded by UNICEF. The aim of the programme is to provide training to teachers on specific skills needed for teaching children with disabilities.

Preschool teachers spent a full week learning about inclusive education for children with disabilities, equipping them with skills to identify the signs of disability and impairment and ways to support children with disability. Their training involved disability typology, detection of disabilities, techniques to include children with disabilities in the classroom and referral options to social services including health centres.

Phum Krouch community preschool has been part of the programme since 2011. In 2010, one of Seng Noeun’s students was deaf which made her realize the importance of participating in a training on inclusive education, so that she could be better equipped to understand the needs of children with disabilities in her class. Thanks to her firm commitment and her willingness to include every child in the preschool, Seng Noeun turned Phum Krouch community preschool into a role model for other community preschools. Indeed, the preschool is now recognized by the government as achieving quality education standards, and will from now on be financed by the state.

“It would be good to have more games and more puzzles at the preschool, that would be better” Seng Noeun reflected.

In Cambodia, 68.5 per cent of five-year-old children are enrolled in preschool, and 43 per cent of three to five-year-olds are enrolled in preschool, meaning that many children – especially those in rural and remote areas – miss out on preschool education in Cambodia.

Seng Noeun during class at Phum Krouch community preschool.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Victoria Laroche Creux

“I am very tired and having one student with a severe disability in the class this year is a lot of work. It is challenging but I get used to it and the children are performing well so I am happy,” said Seng Noeun.

Seng Noeun became a teacher in 2003 after the former teacher at Phum Krouch Community preschool, who worked there since the school opened in 1997, left the job to move to Phnom Penh. “I used to work as a farmer in my family’s land until the village chief asked me to replace the teacher at the preschool for a while.” She has been the only teacher ever since. 

As she was part of the commune council, she used to be involved with women and children from the community. Despite only having completed primary school until Grade 4, her commitment to children made her an obvious choice for the village chief.

“At first, I didn’t really want to be a teacher, but after two years I started to like the work. Now, after 15 years, when I am on holidays I miss the children a lot,” said the 55-year-old teacher, who also has six children of her own and ten grandchildren. 

Some of Seng Noeun's students leaving Phum Krouch community preschool after class.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Victoria Laroche Creux

Despite all Seng Noeun’s efforts to include every child in the preschool, capacities are still limited and she cannot enrol all the children from the community.

“Some children were three years old and they will be accepted next year [when they turn four]. Otherwise, the quality of class won’t be that good. With more children with disabilities this year, it’s difficult to keep more children in the class,” said Seng Noeun.

In 2017, 42 children were enrolled at the beginning of the school year at Phum Krouch community preschool, and 47 were present at the end. This year, 30 children are enrolled in the class but over 40 are there as the older siblings often join the class before going to primary school later in the day.
“I have ten students of the age of five who should join primary school next year, so I will be able to enrol more children in the preschool,” said Seng Noeun confidently. 

As Phum Krouch community preschool is from now on recognized by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS), as meeting minimum education standards, more funds and materials will be allocated to the preschool. This is largely thanks to Seng Noeun’s determination to provide the best education to her students.

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