What I Learned in Cambodia

Fintan McCutcheon and Siobhán O’Brien recently spent time in Cambodia learning about the education system and volunteering with SeeBeyondBorders. Read about their experience in this blog written by Fintan below.

We will readily admit that we were apprehensive ahead of our planned visit to SeeBeyondBorders in Cambodia. Would we be getting in the way, taking up people’s valuable time, goodwill and energy? Our liaison to date directly with Cambodia was limited. Through my work as Principal in Balbriggan Educate Together NS, I had some interaction over the period of ten-years with PEPY Empowering Youth, Siem Reap as a spin-off from their long-standing relationship with Donabate ETNS. In more recent years, through Maeve Corish’s ever-increasing engagement with the Cambodian NGO, SeeBeyondBorders (SBB), I became very interested in their work in improving learning and facilitating Cambodian teachers’ pedagogic skills and enhancing their teacher self-identities. In 2018 our daughter, Daire, facilitated a secretarial-internship by Colm Byrne in SBB’s Siem Reap office. That year, too, we had the good fortune to meet with Edward and Kate Shuttleworth, SBB’s UK Australian founders, over dinner on their visit to Ireland.
Following these piecemeal introductions, I had numerous conversations with Maeve Corish, who by this stage was a regular visitor to SBB in Siem Reap and Battambang Provinces and playing a leadership role in establishing and developing SBB on the island of Ireland. These conversations, and further conversations with Marie Moreau and Gerard Kelly, also Educate Together principal colleagues, informed me of their experiences with SBB whetted my appetite for greater involvement.
But the question remained in my own head as to what, if anything, could Siobhán (my wife and a retired primary school teacher) and I bring to SBB’s endeavour, either in Ireland or in Cambodia, and especially over this planned three-week visit. From all of these conversations I formed a picture of a Cambodian primary education system with deep structural flaws and an embedded pessimism. Among many issues negatively affecting children’s learning attainment, poor teacher-pay (requiring teachers to double job) and a prevalence of non-trained teachers within the system particularly stood out for me as insurmountable obstacles to the noble aspirations of SBB to improve teacher-practice.

However, in May 2023, some months prior to our proposed visit I had the pleasure of meeting with a visiting team to Ireland of SBB Cambodian staff and to learn from them about the context and detail of their work. One particular meeting , hosted in Balbriggan ETNS, concentrated on the issue of the funding imperative of SBB in Cambodia to develop some design-model for a peripatetic ‘education-centre’ facility as was a scripted component of aid-sanctioned grants to SBB from a range of aid and philanthropic sources. Immediately, I was impressed with Pov, Phath and SreyPhet’s discussion of how this might best be contextually achieved in Cambodia drawing on some examples they had experienced on this Irish visit. At the same time, Maeve Corish and Maire Ni Bhroithe also suggested that I might be able to contribute to a second-initiative, that of collaborating with the SBB Cambodian staff on a School Leadership programme for current and future Cambodian school-principals; with the important caveat, gently hinted, of ‘were I to have some more on-the-ground familiarity with SBB’s daily work in Cambodia and with the context of Cambodian schools’.

So over the period of three weeks, in SBB’s Siem Reap and Battambang offices, through a whirlwind of school-visits, group meetings, one-to-one interviews, sharing-sessions (yes, we had to share our life-histories too), document-reading (yes, Colm gave us homework!) and social-events , coordinated for us by Colm Byrne (CEO), Pov (Managing Director) and Kim Ann (in Siem Reap) and Taing Im (in Battambang), Siobhan and I got to learn about SBB and their day-to-day work, individually and collectively, and their work in provincial primary schools with teachers and school-principals.
The single most significant thing we learned is that any impression of the futility of trying to improve teacher-pedagogy and teacher self-identity that face structural obstacles, as I previously implied, is not shared by the SBB organisation. We observed that the SBB impact on the clusters of schools, with which they are currently engaged, is positively impacting the pedagogic practice of teachers and enhancing their teacher self-esteem and sense of professionalism. Furthermore, the SBB staff in their commitment and their professionalism exude an optimism, sure-footedness and confidence that is resulting in swift and evidence-based progress in all of their school-support projects; literacy-pedagogy, Changemaker, EdTech-classroom-support, teacher-awards and, most recently, ‘teacher-centres’ for teacher and school-leader CPD. Indeed, it is the rapid progress of this ‘teacher-centre community of practice’ initiative that most impressed me, given that it was only five months previously when I observed its gestation in discussion in Balbriggan.
So, following our visit myself and Siobhan are left with an impression and evidence of SeeBeyondBorders as a Cambodian-lead and internationally-informed organisation with a clear-map (in their Strategic Plan) and the institutional capacity to deliver their aims and values.
Following our visit, Siobhan and I can both, now, locate ourselves within the SBB Ireland organisation, and the wider Cambodia Ireland Changemaker Network (CICN) and work out how we can contribute to its future work.
SeeBeyondBorders Ireland aims to build an Irish footprint in support of Cambodian education. You can contact them at info@seebeyondborders.org to learn more.

Yours Sincerely

Fintan McCutcheon

Siobhán O’Brien

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