“I AM WHERE I SHOULD BE”: Xavier School sponsors English teacher for Jesuit school in Cambodia

“I AM WHERE I SHOULD BE”:                               Xavier School sponsors English teacher for Jesuit school in Cambodia
Me at my grade 2 class. We are learning how to blend CVC sounds.

Ms. Kristina Velez is an English teacher sponsored by Xavier School to teach at the Xavier Jesuit School in Sisophon, Cambodia, in partnership with Jesuit Service Cambodia. Kristina started in 2019 and is now on her second year of service at XJS. She shares her experiences with us in this article, and expresses her  gratitude for the opportunity to serve. Kristina’s program is funded from the proceeds of Xavier School’s annual Christmas Drive and School Fair. 

VELEZ, MA. KRISTINA
Volunteer Teacher, XJS, 2019
2021

As a teacher

My hands were a bit sweaty; my heart was pounding in my chest; and my throat and tongue felt chalky and dry. It was the first day of school. Not for me as a student, but rather, for me as an English teacher at Xavier Jesuit School – Cambodia.

Last 27th August, as I was aboard my flight from Manila to Siem Reap, there was a plethora of emotions under my throat. It was until my departure came when reality they started to kick in. It was only then that I realized that it was happening — I am about to come to Cambodia and I am going to teach English in a remote place. As I landed at Siem Reap International Airport, Bu Chok, XJS’s on-call taxi driver greeted me and brought me to my real destination — Banteay Meanchey Province.

Two days after I arrived at Phnom Bak, here at Banteay Meanchey, I have met with XJS’s school director, Fr. Quyen Vu. He is originally from Australia and was assigned to supervise the development of Xavier Jesuit School. He immediately asked me to take Khmer classes. Every day, I used to have 90-minute Khmer lessons with Teacher Sinat, our family liaison officer. The Khmer classes lasted until the end of September.   

Attending a seminar on traffic safety. Most of our students drive motorbikes and bicycles in coming to school

My hands were a bit sweaty; my heart was pounding in my chest; and my throat and tongue felt chalky and dry. It was the first day of school. Not for me as a student, but rather, for me as an English teacher. I entered my Grade 7 classroom, tried to speak a few phrases in English, greeted with awe, and disrupted by an awkward silence. From then, I realized it would be a challenging year. 

Orientation for the scholarship students

Apart from Grade 7, I also handled one section each from Grades 1 to 5. More than one-third of the students I handled has almost zero knowledge in English. Reflecting back, I also have almost zero knowledge and experience in handling students at this level. However, I took it as a challenge. Every night, aside from preparing my lessons, I also had to prepare some translations of the key ideas I would want to discuss the next day. For the first two months, I employed this approach: providing translations, gradually skimping on them, until not having to rely on them anymore. I also redirected my lessons by focusing more on listening, speaking, and reading fluency. 

My grade 7 students creating a poster

Each day, the students would come in with bright, excited eyes and an enthusiasm that was infectious. I could not help but smile when I met with each students. With my lessons, I tried to incorporate fun games and activities, contests, crafts, songs, and rhymes. Through these activities they did even realize that they were actually learning and improving their language skills. 

Throughout the six months I had with them, I got to know them better on a personal basis. Their candidness was refreshing and something I looked forward to. They never ceased to surprise me whenever they try their best to express themselves in English outside the classroom. 

Unfortunately, due to pandemic, the school was closed for two months. After two months, the Ministry of Education announced that the schools should find ways to provide continuous learning opportunities for the students. To address this, XJS started to provide online classes, video lessons, and study group sessions at the village. I, myself, taught at the village with all the other teachers. From Monday to Thursday, a number of motorcycles would drive out of the school carrying two teachers each. We were off to either Deylo or Phnom Bak where we would hold 2 to 3 hours of study group sessions. 

In August, the school year 2019–2020 ended. We held the final exams, finalized the scores, announced the final results, and started planning for the coming school year.

 

As a community member

Participating in a mass and meditation session on top of a mountain

One major thing I learned in this community is the sense of detachment. As community members in this kind of environment easily come and go, it is truly difficult to be attached not only with the other members but also to the place itself.

No doubt, Xavier Jesuit School offers one of the best and most serene places among Jesuit locations here in Cambodia. The school boasts 19 hectare of vast land covered with grass, trees, flowers, and low-storey structures that keep the fresh air flowing in the vicinity. There is even a lake and a river surrounding it. 

Initially, there were seven of us in the community, Fr. Quyen (school director), Br. Deepak (CLC director), Jonathan (arts teacher), Katherine (music teacher), Jungsoo (computer teacher), Matthias (PE teacher), and I. The community runs in routine. Work starts at 7AM, lunch at 11AM, work resumes at 1PM and ends at 4PM. At 6:15, we would have our weekday mass and it would be followed by dinner. We also have our own tasks such as preparing the chapel, preparing the dinner, refilling the water bottles and ice, checking the stock, feeding the dogs, and taking out the trash. My task is to set the table before dinnertime.  

On Saturdays, we are pretty much on our own after our 7:30AM mass except when we have duty at high school. On Sundays, we have the privilege to wake up until before 9AM. At 9AM, we are off to Sisophon Church to join the Sunday mass. Each month, we would also have extended community sharing. It is the time where the members of Sisophon Church, Fr. Greg, Sr. Amor, Br. Wongyu would come to school and join us for mass, dinner, and adoration.

Eventually, our community changed. Some people had to leave and some new people came to join. Fr. Jinhyuk joined us in December. Sohna arrived in February. Guilhem came and left in March. Matthias and Jungsoo had to leave on the same month. Br. Deepak had to move to Phnom Penh in April. From 10, our community was down to 6 — Fr. Quyen, Fr. Jinhyuk, Jonathan, Katherine, Sohna, and I. 

On my first year of being here at XJS helped me realize many things. It helped me realized that my academic experiences, volunteer experiences, as well as my experience in the workforce have fostered tremendous personal drive, and have helped me to become an independent, self-sufficient, and hardworking individual. It has also taught me a great deal of discipline and time-management. Further, due to this exceptional experience, I have strengthened my ability to adapt my teaching method in order to fit my learners. And no matter how much I miss my family and being at home, the circumstances would always conspire to make me feel I am just right where I should be. Definitely, this year heightened my consciousness of a broader world and plurality of culture.

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