Ms. Laiki smiles at us when we met her in the narrow library of Kompong Khneas Primary School, a floating school on the vast, freshwater Tonle Sap Lake, located around 45 kilometers from the provincial capital of Pursat town. She playfully tells us this is the first time she has smiled since becoming a preschool teacher six months ago.
“I am happy that the parents in my community pay attention to their small children’s education” said Ms. Laiki. “I can smile at you now.”
Ms. Laiki recalled that before, parents in her community did not care about their small children’s education, as it is commonly assumed that children do not start learning until they enter first grade. “Here [we have] no preschool, and children have not studied before they enroll in first grade, so they will [learn] slowly compared with other children who have attended preschool. Most of the caregivers in this community have [limited] knowledge and they do not understand about early education. They are especially busy earning money to support [their] families so they forget to educate their children at home,” explained Ms. Laiki. Because of these factors and others, the repetition and drop-out rates are high at the primary school.
Ms. Laiki really wanted the school children to receive a quality education that could help them get a good job in the future; however, she felt powerless to do anything with no means to make a difference in the community.
In 2017, with support from the Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF) through the World Bank, Save the Children started implementing the Early Childhood Care and Development for Floating Villages project in Ms. Laiki’s commune. One of the key activities of the project is to recruit and train preschool teachers to teach children aged 3-5 year olds. At the time, Ms. Laiki was happy to hear about the opportunity to learn more regarding early childhood education, because she already felt it was something she cared deeply about. “The Save the Children project collaborated with commune councils to invest in a community preschool, and they announced they would be recruiting preschool teachers” she recalled. “I was so happy with this announcement because I wanted to be a teacher when I was a child, and I like to be with children.” She applied and passed the recruitment.
“I cried with joy at that time because I achieved one step towards my dream” she explained. “My husband and relatives encouraged and supported me to get the job as well because they [also] wanted my dream to come true.”
Her initial joy soon faded into disillusionment. One of the most frustrating challenges was that parents in the community did not bring their young children to preschool. She felt upset because she knew that the young children were at home, missing the opportunity to learn. In addition, although she was receiving training from Save the Children, she still felt uncertain about all the new information she was learning, like preparing lesson plans, and producing learning and teaching materials. Because Ms. Laiki was committed to the role and wanted the children to receive a quality education, she attempted to find a solution to the challenge of children’s attendance and enrolment. Her solution proved temporary, as she could not afford to sustain the efforts for very long.
“I [started] to collect all the children in a boat from their floating homes [and take them] to preschool class and back to their homes [after class]… No caregivers took their children to school... I felt it was difficult and I was losing time… I needed time to prepare breakfast and lunch for my children before school and for my husband before he goes to fish far away from home, and I do the house work as well.”
Ms. Laiki was disappointed for not being able to help the children attend preschool. So she tried to think of another solution to the problem.
“More [than a] month later, I thought if these things still happen, I [will] still [face] difficulties and the children would drop out of school one day. I discussed with Commune Councils and DOE [District Office of Education] to take 20 to 30 minutes at the end of [the monthly] parenting meeting that is supported by the project, to talk with caregivers about the importance of preschool, my difficulty in taking their children to school and back home, assisting their children’s learning at home, and [being] involved in preschool activities. Some of them showed that they are satisfied [with me] and they promise to commit to take their children go school and back. They will [be more] involved in school activities.”
“I tried to raise the real cases to show them the problem during meetings and asked them to reflect” she explained. “Later, they understand and cooperate with school. I am so happy.”
The villagers drop their children at school before going fishing and take their children back home after they finish working. They have become involved in all school activities such as, supporting preschool classroom maintenance, and teaching their children at home after school. “Day by day, month by month, my community is changing through my efforts and the assistance from the commune councils, village chief, school director and DOE,” she continued. “Nowadays caregivers take their children to school and back home by themselves. When the new school year starts, they take their children to enroll in preschool. … Most caregivers engage the community preschool activities … teach their children at home, and assist in the preschool classroom maintenance”.
“Now, I am happy as a preschool teacher who can contribute to the children’s education. I hope they will [find] success in the future” said Ms. Laiki with a smile. “I expect that my community [will] change their behavior day by day, and every child in my village will get more education and attention from their caregiver and no child will drop out or [not attend] school.”