Should I Stay or Should I Go?

These could not possibly be the same kids I was playing Uno and Legos with all afternoon.  Not the ones who jumped all over me for hours at the swimming pool on Sunday, or who won’t let me walk through the neighborhood without carrying my backpack for me and holding my hands.  Those kids are innocent angels who have nothing but love to share.  The kids in front of me were, well, monsters.

So innocent

Yet, they had the same names (that I still can’t pronounce), wore the same clothes and looked identical to my angels.  Why was I having such a hard time teaching them?  Why did I want to stop the lesson, grab my backpack and leave?

Volunteering does not come without challenges and this particular site has many.  After an amazing time working with McTery in the Philippines, and a month at the well-organized and effective Honduras Child Alliance last summer, both of which presented their own challenges,  this school in Kratie, Cambodia has challenged me in new ways.

Even before I arrived here last week, I was questioning whether or not I should fulfill my commitment to coming.  There was a serious lack of communication which left me stranded in a hot city on the Mekong River after a long, bumpy ride in the back of a packed van without air conditioning.  The reason I continued on, without even knowing where I was supposed to go, was because the reviews for this volunteer program were the most glowing reviews I’ve read.

At least one student was paying attention

I finally did arrive, a day late, and met a few other volunteers who had experienced similar frustrations.  It turned out to be school vacation week, so there was not much to do.

Questions about what to teach or who to teach or even when to teach went unanswered or we were given information that confused us even more.  There was one young volunteer who had been there for six weeks and filled us in on many details, but he had little to say that was positive.

First I wondered if I would make it through the week, then I began to think about leaving the next day.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t stay for the three weeks I had signed up for.  The heat and giant cockroaches didn’t help, but I did have my own room and private bathroom, which I was not expecting.

The Ninja Legos I brought back from Phnom Penh were a hit.

And then I started to connect with people. I met Sara and Melissa, two volunteers from Minnesota who arrived the day before me and would be staying for a week.  We were the only volunteers not in our late teens or early twenties and quickly became friends, sharing many meals and conversations.

The kids are fast learners with my camera.

I also starting meeting the kids, who are always around, whether class is in session or not.  It was fun hanging out with the kids, showing them how to use my camera, practicing English with them and playing lots of games.

They love shooting their ninja creations.

After a weekend in Phnom Penh to visit with my brother-in-law’s cousin and her husband, and for a dose of air conditioning,  I returned feeling that I could handle the remaining two weeks, especially since our formal classes would start and I would have more to do.

A weekend with Krissy and Mike rejuvenated me!

That’s when I met the monsters in class.  Every teacher will know what I mean when I talk about school nightmares.  My nightmare came true with these kids.  It was impossible to get everyone to listen or do anything I asked.  I spent an hour trying to teach, feeling completely useless, and thinking of all the ways this program could be improved with more structure and organization.  I was right back to thinking I wanted to leave.

There are moments when things are going smoothly.

Now I’m taking things one day at a time.  Some classes have improved, but other frustrations have arisen.  One director wants the students to be copying from the board into their notebooks.   Students with no notebook should be sent home (most never have them).  The other director wants me to play games for at least 30 minutes each class, and constantly interrupts my teaching to correct things I am doing “wrong.”  I still have no idea what to teach, but I kind of have a regular schedule of just two classes a day for now.

So why have I stayed this long?  During my many hours of free time, I hang out with the kids, who are angels once again.  I ride the bike to town (about 15 minutes away) and sit in cafes to write, work on future projects and eat.  I love riding through the streets of this small town while people, especially children, wave and say hello.  I pull up to vendors on the street corner and order fried bananas or some mystery snack for just a few cents. Volunteering gives me a chance to feel like I live here, which is really a great feeling.

And the kids really are angels.  I have the best of both worlds now.  I can hang out with the kids at the school where I am living and teach the kids at the other location, a ten-minute bike ride away.  I never tire of hearing shouts of “Teacher Tim” as I arrive on my bike after class.  These kids share everything and play for hours on end with the simplest toys.  No one complains about each other or fights over the limited toys we have.  They are creative, smart, funny and compassionate.  It is a joy to be around them.

Enjoying lunch after our morning class with Sara and Melissa

The bottom line is that the men running this program are providing a much-needed service to the children of the community.  Learning English can make a huge difference in their lives.  It may not be the best-run program at the moment, but it is making a difference.  I support what they are doing and wish them every success.  

Here are some more photos from the happy moments.  Some of the kids have been very fast learners with my camera, so this is a mixture of their pictures and mine, as well as Melissa’s, who grabbed my camera to take photos while I was teaching and swimming.

School Time

I ride a bike ten minutes to another location for a class in the morning and one in the afternoon.
My transportation
These ladies sell fried bananas and another unidentified sweet snack.
The kids play games between classes. No materials needed, just their sandals.
I try to teach, but am interrupted frequently.
Great shot, Melissa!

Play Time

My floor has become the desired spot for Legos.
I left for a minute to talk to another volunteer and they took over my bed.
Cool shot by one of the kids
Trying Teacher Tim’s sandals
Workers putting a cement floor in the classrooms
The kids learned Uno fast and are totally addicted (They don’t even ask for my computer anymore).
Play area right outside my door
They are very creative with their Legos, taking them apart and inventing new things every day.
Even the boxes are a hit.
A pile of stones is fun to play on.
Melissa made one for each kid who asked
Melissa and a student
I don’t know which kid took this, but they are a great photographer!
Saying goodbye to Melissa and Sara 🙁

Pool Time (i.e. crawling all over volunteers)

Fighting over the hot sauce
Too much hot sauce!
Picking mangos on the way home


Comments (18):

  1. Lori

    April 28, 2017 at 05:47

    Of course you stayed!!!! Wonderful story, Tim……’s all about making connections with those beautiful children….looks like you have that part nailed!

    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:52

      I’ve had a lot of practice.

  2. Melissa

    April 28, 2017 at 07:54

    Great post. You captured the kids and the school perfectly. Glad you are hanging in there. We are contemplating what to write for feedback. Love all the pics! You are great with the kids. Miss you!

    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:56

      Thanks, Melissa. You and Sara are very much missed here, but I’m sure we’ll see each other back in the States or on the road again. Even the new volunteers are questioning the feedback we all read. On another note, I just had a giant spider drop from the ceiling next to my bed, so be happy you’re in Japan now!

  3. Paula Agins

    April 28, 2017 at 08:03

    Great entry! You explained it so well that I could feel your emotions and thoughts! Again, can’t wait for your return!

    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:57

      Thank you, Paula!

  4. LInda A Wight

    April 28, 2017 at 08:28

    Your always teaching whether in the classroom or outside. TIm, hang in there. It’s nice to see the children’s photo and the ones they capture of you. I’m sure it is difficult for the kids to have so many different teachers too. Hopefully, some of your tools will help others to continue. Good luck.

    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:58

      I do wonder how it is for the kids to have so many volunteers coming and going. It’s something to consider when choosing a place to volunteer. One more week to go, and things have improved a lot.

  5. Sharon Eash

    April 28, 2017 at 10:11

    WOW! What a glimpse into the challenges and the joys you are having!

    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:59

      Nice to hear from you, Sharon!

  6. Vicky Ann Deledda

    April 28, 2017 at 13:44

    Love the hot sauce face picture
    and your true feelings on this teaching adventure!

    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 10:01

      It’s a long way from Otres II, but it’s an adventure nonetheless.

  7. Julie Aquilizan

    May 2, 2017 at 19:41

    Those children are adorable and what a gift they have in you!

    • Tim Flanagan

      May 6, 2017 at 00:50

      Thank you, Julie.

  8. Deidre Toole

    May 2, 2017 at 20:32

    TEACHER TIM! Love it! How can you resist those beautiful faces and expressions. They all look so full of energy.
    You must sleep well!

    • Tim Flanagan

      May 6, 2017 at 00:51

      Sleeping is still hard – must be because decaf coffee doesn’t exist here.

  9. Linda

    January 28, 2018 at 13:01

    Your doing such worth while job. its so evident in the pictures the the kids adore you. I’m sure VA is green with envy! So, enjoy your blogs!

    • Tim Flanagan

      February 2, 2018 at 22:57

      Thank you, Linda. We’ll have to meet for another meal with Vicky Ann sometime.


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