Feature

Adventures in Leadership: Brining a Lifetime of Learning to Rural Cambodia

Charlotte Morgan

Wendy Matthews loves a challenge. She found one worthy of her talents in Samlaut, Cambodia.

In 2007, as Matthews was preparing to retire as ETFO's coordinator of Professional Services, the federation was approached by Right To Play, an international humanitarian organization that uses sports and play programs to promote development in countries affected by war, poverty, and disease. 1 Right To Play was beginning a partnership with the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation (MJP), a conservation and community development organization with a special focus on the impoverished villages in northwest Cambodia. MJP's Millennium Village Project needed a seasoned professional to help define its education component. 3 This would be a one-month contract.

Matthews was soon en route to Samlaut, an impoverished area in northern Cambodia that had been the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. She became MJP's education advisor.

"I arrived in September, Cambodia's rainy season, " Matthews recalls."It was at least 30 degrees, and very humid. Thick mud made the roads almost impassable. Flooding encouraged mosquitoes and malaria. Acclimatizing to the environment was a challenge.

The Samlaut Millenium Village Project consists of 10 villages with a population of 5,000 spread over 600 square kilometres. The area contains most of the region's forests, fresh water, ecosystems, and endangered species. It also has more landmines than any other place in Asia. "Apart from the climate, the most obvious challenge was language:· Matthews says."I was fortunate that Narap Ourm, MJP's education coordinator, was able to translate into Khmer for me. Initially I was struck by everything that wasn't there in terms of infrastructure. Then I shifted focus to see what  was there and to build on it to make a difference."

Traditionally, Cambodian students learn by rote. With class sizes of 40 or more and  fewmaterial resources, teaching and learning is a challenge. Teachers earn about one dollar a day, leaving them well below the poverty line. To make ends meet, some teach twice during the staggered school day once in the morning and once in the afternoon and also engage in private tutoring.

To understand what change was necessary in Samlaut's four primary schools and one junior secondary school, Matthews quickly studied existing school governance, curriculum, and teacher qualifications. She, Narap, and his assistant, Kethya, worked together to develop some practical goals, one of which was to encourage active learning for both students and teachers.

“It was serendipity that the Cambodian government’s recent child-friendly school policy also supported active learning,” Matthews said. “However, that information was slow in reaching Samlaut, and it wasn’t supported by curriculum or resources. We decided to define what the policy meant for us.”

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