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.2 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.”
They were soon read to share their knowledge, and planned a two-day pilot workshop for 18 teachers. Matthews used role-playing and other strategies to help prepare Narap and Kethya to lead it. Necessary materials were carried down muddy tracks to Samlaut on the back of Narap’s motorcycle. They set up the room for group work, not for the lecture format familiar to Cambodian teachers.
“We started early because the school had no electricity. Reading participants’ body language, I could see there was some miscommunication between what was intended and what was received in Khmer. Overall, though, the workshop went really well,” Matthews says proudly.
By now, with her one-month contract coming to an end, Matthews had been working seven days a week from morning to night, battling the heat and rain, and working in an unfamiliar language. More remained to be done and her goals were ambitious: “I wanted to leave a plan outlining the next year’s projects and timing. The plan continued to build relationships with stakeholder groups such as village councils, the district and provincial education offices, and UNICEF. These links are now an important part of Samlaut’s network and ensure the previously neglected region stays on the government’s radar.”
If, after that initial visit, Matthews thought she was leaving Cambodia behind, she was gladly mistaken. She has returned twice, in March and again in November 2008. On that last visit she had company: Beth Gunding, former ESL coordinator for the Peel District School Board, provided three days of intensive literacy training to Samlaut’s Primary teachers, and Right To Play’s Julia Porter spent five days training two village sports coordinators.
During her follow-up visits Matthews focused on revising the plan and found time to visit teachers in their classrooms. The rapidly expanding project now includes kindergarten classes, after-school sports programs, and school libraries that also welcome parents.
This month, when Matthews makes her fourth trip, she will be accompanied by two Canadian interns who will work with the MJP team to develop community preschools and after-school EcoRanger clubs for 10 to 12-year-olds.
When asked how she was able to achieve all this and more, Matthews points to her 32 years of teaching: she taught every elementary grade before moving into a staff position at ETFO where she delivered professional learning programs to teachers. She also credits her interest in strenuous outdoor activities and the time she spent travelling independently in Asia during a self-funded leave.
Those who seek to follow her example have big shoes to fill. They would have to be physically and mentally fit, creative and persistent, and treat problems as challenges and mistakes as opportunities for learning. They would also have to be respectful of other cultures, capable of building broad networks, and able to recognize that effective strategies are informed by the experiences and expertise brought by all.
Matthews says, “Everything I have ever learned has been useful in Samlaut. While we work very hard, the MJP team and I have an enormous amount of fun. And the Cambodian people are amazingly resilient, quick to embrace change, and want to build better lives for themselves and their children. It’s an honour to help them do so.”
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1 For more information visit righttoplay.com.
2 Established by Angelina Jolie in 2003, the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation provides direct support to local villages and to endangered wildlife and habitats, with the aim of achieving a path to sustainable social, environmental and economic development by 2012. Visit mjpasia.org.
3 The Millennium Village Project, also known as Samlaut2012, incorporates the principles of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Visit endpoverty2015.org.