Jen McCredie is a semi-retired teacher from Australia. Her teaching career in Australia has seen her wear many hats in primary schools, from classroom teacher to teaching and learning consultant in mathematics, to Assistant Principal of a large school on Sydney’s Northern Beaches; mentoring many teachers in her educational journey. In her ‘retirement’, Jen has continued mentoring teachers in Sydney. Her connection to SeeBeyondBorders has seen her involved in many ‘Teach the Teacher’ visits to Cambodia, and with her head down planning maths Workshops with Kate Shuttleworth and Priscilla Chang in the early days back in Sydney. Mentoring teachers, to build sustainable practice, is her passion, and is what brings her back to Cambodia in 2023. She has written the piece below as her time in Cambodia concludes.
‘… because Cambodia gets under your skin and into your heart,’ is always my response when people ask me why I keep coming back here.
I arrived in Cambodia early in January this year to participate in SeeBeyondBorders’ (SBB) ‘Connect Program’ – something new. It was the most emotional arrival I had ever experienced. Walking out of the airport with friend and colleague, Jen Sawyer, I was met by a sea of beaming faces from the Siem Reap office of SBB, bearing the Australian and Cambodian national flags, that we all held up proudly for the compulsory ‘family photo’. I cried, of course. I always do when I am emotional – just ask my kids! Happy tears, of course, that were no doubt triggered by a huge sense of relief; because when the pandemic hit in 2020, I didn’t ever think I would get back to Cambodia, ‘to give and to get’… and here I am, again.
My first visit to Cambodia, in 2011, took me to the far northeast of Cambodia, to Ratanakiri Province. SBB had partnered with VSO (a British NGO) to offer maths workshops to teachers who worked in rural schools around Banlung, its capital. I know, on that first trip, I thought I would be giving so much to the teachers and children of Cambodia, and I would say that I did – running workshops in Early Years Maths and supporting teachers to develop effective pedagogy in mathematics had been my bread and butter in the years leading up to this trip, so I jumped right in ‘to make a difference’. Little did I realise how much I would get in return; some things confronting and others so uplifting.
Cambodia’s teachers are special people. They teach classes of up to 50 students in rural schools, with little in the way of resources, although that is changing with the support of SeeBeyondBorders. They turn up every day, they smile, and are so appreciative of the time and expertise people, like me, give them. What do I get from that – a giant dose of humility! Khmer people have such great respect for teachers – I’d really like to ‘bottle it’ and take it home!
It doesn’t matter how much you read and hear about Cambodia’s history; coming here adds layers you never expect – every time! This is my fifth trip to Cambodia, so you’d think I would have my head around a lot of its history; however, having been based in Battambang for the past couple of months, I have visited places I haven’t been to before and talked to people I haven’t encountered on previous trips, which has given me a much richer fabric to wrap myself in, and a much deeper understanding of the trauma that remains.
Currently, I have the privilege of working alongside people I have known since 2011, and a groundswell of young, bright minds new to SBB – well, new since I was last here in 2019, anyway. I see this combination of ‘old and new’, ‘experience and expertise’, taking SeeBeyondBorders and education in rural schools further forward. It really excites me!
Mentoring has once again been the theme of my time here. Cambodian children in rural schools really missed out during the pandemic. They missed out on 64 weeks of education – almost two years of education, when you realise that Cambodia’s school year is 36 weeks. No online learning…
In January, with colleagues from Australia and Ireland, I mentored the ‘Changemakers’; 5 women, who as a part of SBB’s ‘Women in Leadership’ program were completing a ‘Masters of Education’ and learning from a Master Teacher in rural schools throughout their studies.
Visiting schools to observe learning and having conversations with the Changemakers about ‘best practice’ in schools, offering guidance on providing effective feedback and planning next steps in children’s learning made me feel that this initiative is a seismic shift for change in rural schools. Four of these women are now ‘Teacher Development Officers’ for SBB – mentors in classrooms with no class load of their own – just like in Australia! The other changemaker is now working for another NGO in education transferring her skills and expertise there. We, the visitors, also had the privilege of attending the graduation of the Changemakers – more tears from me!
In recent weeks, I have been guiding planning with the SBB team for another initiative – ‘Peer Mentoring in Literacy’. Many of Cambodia’s teachers are used to working with a senior, more experienced teacher as a mentor, but ‘side-by-side, learn together as we go’, is something completely new for teachers in the schools supported by SBB. This is another huge step towards sustainable practice in education. I am not sure about the balance of the giving and the getting with this one because my heart has just been ‘singing’ the whole time!
Working alongside Cambodian teachers in rural schools, and SeeBeyondBorders staff, here in Battambang, is such a privilege. I like to hope that this time, when I finally return to Australia, like every other time; what I have given is enough to balance the scales on what I have gained.