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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at

Education Opinion

How Teaching in Extremely Poor Conditions Changed My Life

By Peter DeWitt — June 30, 2019 6 min read

Today’s guest blog is written by Charly Boerboom, a teacher of English who works at a secondary vocational education school in the Netherlands. He also works for the University of Rotterdam, where he guides and assesses teachers in training.

Two years ago, my girlfriend Dainara and I got on a plane to go on a nine-month trip across the globe. We had both saved our money for years, and I took an unpaid leave from my job as a teacher in the Netherlands. Over many months, we traveled through countries we always dreamed about visiting and learning about.

To be honest, a nine-month world trip is as amazing as it sounds, but I missed teaching. After leaving her job, Dianara had a strong desire to give something back to the world. With a two-month gap on our trip, we decided to go online to look for voluntary work, and that’s when we found two teaching positions at a school for underprivileged children named ‘Happy School’ in Phnom Penh Cambodia.

It was exactly what we realized we needed ...

As we entered the school building, students from all different ages came running up to us giving us hugs, giggling, and shouting excitedly,

''Teacher! Teacher!’'

''Where you from?’'

''What’s your name?’'

What is The Happy School?
The Happy School was initially established as a local community initiative in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, in response to the large number of children who simply couldn’t afford to go to school. The project was run by three monks, one teacher, and a school director, named Men Sovan. Later on, a couple of foreigners were asked to help out by teaching English and art. When they turned up for work one day in April 2003, they saw that the school had been blown away in a storm from the previous night.

The volunteers started a fundraising campaign and eventually raised enough money to build a storm-proof classroom and cover the school’s operational costs for the next 18 months. The classroom was christened ‘The Happy School’ (Happy School website) and opened for business on the 15th of June 2003.

The students welcomed us with so much love that we felt at home from that first instant. However, that moment of happiness was soon met by a feeling of dismay when we walked into the school and discovered the poor state it was in.

Many people describe their schools as “high needs” or “high poverty,” but this school was even more extreme than that. We expected that there would be no air conditioning. Most of the fans didn’t work so the temperatures were sweltering. Remember, it’s Cambodia where it is hot and humid.

A lot of the chairs and the tables in the classrooms were broken, and some of the electric lights were not working. There was one shared toilet of which the door had a hole in it. 144 attending students in the adjoining classrooms and hallway were exposed to a very unpleasant odour.

Next to the school, there was a garbage-disposal area of severely damaged trash cans, and with an average of 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer, you can imagine what happened to the remnants of the disposed food. Let’s put it this way, I could occasionally see what the students who had to take out the trash had for breakfast that morning as they had emptied their stomachs on the floor.

Doors and windows were kept open to allow for some breeze to flow through the building; this often meant dusty floors. It was at the end of our first day of teaching when I, and probably the rest of the school as well, heard Dainara loudly scream my name ''CHARLY!’' I stormed into her classroom, which was adjacent to mine, and asked her what happened. She said that as soon as she had opened the drawer of her desk a giant rat came running out.

Despite these horrendous conditions, we have had the time of our lives, and that was all due to the kids of the Happy School. Those students, despite it all, had a strong desire to learn.

It was mesmerizing to see how these kids were enjoying themselves even when they had so little. It was evident that they were from very poor families; a lot of them only had one set of clothing for the entire week, some didn’t even have shoes, and the clothes they had were usually stained and torn. They, as with so many of the poorer children in Cambodia, couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. We could see firsthand the tooth decay of some of our kids. Many of them didn’t even have lunch, and it was so beautiful to see that the students who did have lunch share their food with the ones who had nothing. We taught them English, but they taught us life lessons.

After We Left ...
When we asked the students about their families, they often told us that they were being raised by a single parent because the other parent had passed away or was not in the picture anymore. Some of the kids even told us that they were being raised by their grandparents due to the fact that both of their parents weren’t around anymore.

Ever since Dainara and I finished our volunteering period at the Happy School, we have never stopped thinking about those youngsters and what we could do for them. So, after we got back from our world trip, I contacted the principal and told him that I wanted to continue to help. This was when he told me the devastating news that the school had closed down a couple of weeks after we had left. Due to insufficient funding and the deteriorating state of the school, this was their only option. They had to reassess their options and made the decision to use their budget for the students who needed it the most and send them to State School. This has meant that more than half of our 144 students do not have the opportunity to go to school anymore.

Fortunately, he also told me that I could help by becoming a board member of the organisation behind ‘the Happy School’ called ‘Children for a Better Future’ (CBF). CBF consists of eight members from various nationalities (Australia, Germany, England, Netherlands, and Cambodia). Most of the members had either volunteered at Happy School or were founding members. CBF is supported by an Australian NGO called ‘ACE’ with whom they work closely together.

It was a difficult but the right decision to temporarily close the physical Happy School in 2018. Although it was bringing much needed educational value to kids, the state of the school needed attention. The underlying principle of Happy School still exists, and it is to provide quality education to some of the poorest kids of Phnom Penh.

The model continues to evolve, and the foreseeable aim is to sponsor as many kids through State School as we can, along with providing supplementary educational classes. The eventual aim is to most likely to reopen the school with better conditions and to build a sustainable model serving the communitie’s educational needs.

What We Learned
Our next goal now is to set up a summer school program to be run during the summer break from the beginning of September until the end of October. We will be teaching English, maths, Khmer (official Cambodian language), and IT for six days a week for six weeks.

Although we had saved our money for many years to go on a dream trip around the world, the biggest impact from the trip was from a part of it that we had never planned on going on. Dianara and I thought we knew what poverty looked like, but we realized that poverty can be far greater than we ever expected. And yet, those children who live in it deserve a quality education. How else will they ever get out of it?

Below is a short video of the Happy School. To connect with Charly, click here.

Photo courtesy of Charly Boerboom.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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