O’Thmar is a remote ‘annex-village’ in Battambang Province, located about 20 kilometres from the official village it is affiliated with. Annex-villages in Cambodia are informal settlements, often remote or geographically isolated, established mainly because of population movement and growth. Their unofficial status usually means that they are cut off from services, including education.
Like in other annex villages, in O’Thmar there are few services available. The 160 families still rely on collecting rainwater for household use. Only two families have toilets in their houses.
But they do have a school, thanks to one man’s determination to bring education to children in his community.
His name is Sok Chan, who returned to his home country in 1993 after living in a refugee camp in Thailand since the 1980s. He chose O’Thmar as his new home, hoping to earn an income by cutting trees in the forest.
“Only a few families were living in this area when I first came. There were about ten children in total, but no school. So I decided to teach those children. I had the experience because I had taught children while living at the refugee camp”.
Mr. Sok started giving lessons in a neighbour’s house in 1996. Some families who were able to pay gave him nominal fees, but many poor children attended for free. He split his time between teaching during the day and working at night. The size of his class grew steadily, eventually reaching over one hundred children. With the support of the village chief, a small classroom was built about 10 years ago.
Mr. Sok had to split the day into short sessions to be able to teach grades one to five. He didn’t follow the official school year calendar. Instead he worked all year around, six days a week. He had to buy the textbooks and other learning and teaching materials himself.
In 2014, UNICEF officers went to visit the community as part of their ongoing work to assess the situation of children living in remote annex villages and came across Mr. Sok’s incredible initiative. They shared the information with key local authority members including the Provincial Governor, the Provincial Office of Education, as well the District Governor.
As a result, the officials organized to visit the classroom to see it for themselves.
“When I saw the children, about one hundred of them crammed in one small classroom, I almost burst into tears”, said District Governor, Mr. Chea Sambath, who has since become a strong advocate for the school.
Senior officials at the Provincial Office of Education (POE) looked into the matter, and decided that Mr. Sok’s school should be considered a formal primary school, meaning that it is entitled to receiving financial support, teaching and learning materials, and official teachers from the Government.
Thanks to support from the Governor, who helped mobilize resources, additional classrooms have been built. The school is now part of the formal education system, following the public curriculum. While new teachers have joined the school, Mr. Sok, now a teacher on contract with the POE, continues to teach his students.
“I am happy to be officially recognized as a teacher. Now that I am on contract with the Provincial Office of Education, I don’t have to doubt my pedagogical skills. I meet with other teachers every Thursday to exchange information and learn from each other.”
When asked what motivates him to continue his job as a teacher, Mr. Sok says how proud he is to see the success of his students. “I feel happy when other teachers tell me that my former students are doing very well in high school. I want them to go on to receive higher education, to become teachers, to contribute to developing the country”.
Governor Chea is also a witness to the success of Mr. Sok’s students. “The other day, I attended a ceremony to honour outstanding students in the district. I was very happy to learn that the girl who became number one at District level was Mr. Sok’s former student.”
Iman Morooka is currently serving as Chief of Communication a.i. at UNICEF Cambodia.