Lily Stewart, 25 years old, from Colorado, USA!
What is your education level and background?
I have a bachelor's degree from Cornell College (the one in Iowa, not Ithaca!). I majored in psychology and minored in art history. *Shameless plug for Cornell incoming* I chose Cornell College because they use something called the block plan/OCAAT (one course at a time). This means you take 8 classes/year, but each class lasts for 3.5 weeks and is the only thing that you take. Since you’re only taking one course, you wont miss anything if your class goes off campus. My third year at Cornell I took an education class in Belize! We spent a few weeks teaching on Ambergris Caye - I fell in love with education on that trip! Unfortunately, it was too late in my academic career to switch majors. Luckily I discovered TEFL Heaven and the journey didn’t end there!
Have you travelled abroad previously, and if so where?
I’ve done a lot of international travel! My mom has the travel bug. So much so that I took my first steps in Brazil (she was in a course related to her career). I spent my 10th birthday with her in Berlin, and spring break of my 7th grade year in Italy and Austria.
Since then, I have returned to those countries and I have traveled to 39 total countries. My first solo expedition was a language immersion camp in Germany. Then an exchange year in Brazil. When I graduated high school I did my first backpacking trip to Europe and managed to find a way back the following summer.
With my time at Cornell I did some serious travel (international and domestic) Psychology and Sociology in Japan, Education in Belize (as mentioned previously), Psychology of the Holocaust in Austria, Czechia, Hungary, and Poland; Field biology (studying bats!) in Mauritius, and medical anthropology in Nepal. Once I graduated I hopped on a one way ticket and traveled for 2.5 months in Asia (Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan) before settling in Cambodia.
What motivated you to teach abroad?
I’ve always loved to travel, and I find that I am happier living abroad. Something about the novel experiences and different perspectives than the ones I was brought up with makes my heart race in the best possible way. After my education class, all I could think about was how much fun I had and how cool it would be to continue doing that. Once I started doing my research and found that it was a viable option there was no stopping me!
What did you want to personally achieve through this experience, and have you succeeded?
I wanted to gain a skill, improve my confidence, immerse myself in a culture, and make a broad group of friends. I think I succeeded in everything. I have significantly improved my knowledge in many areas (students will ask me so many things - I know I could tell them to google it, but I would much rather get back to them after doing some googling of my own! I’ve learned a lot). My confidence has SOARED. My only hesitation for taking the TEFL course was that I’m a bit shy - I would be so nervous any time I had to speak in class or do a presentation. Now, you would never know! I love to be the star of the show - my students say my classes are really fun (and I think a big part of that is because I am SHAMELESS! Who cares if I look silly or make a mistake - we all make mistakes. No shame!) I’ve grown to love Cambodian culture, and my friend group in Cambodia was like the United Nations - From Indians and Sri Lankans to Brits and South Africans to Koreans and everything in between. I have gotten to celebrate their culture, share perspectives, and learn so much about the world
Did you apply for the program with a friend or on your own?
I applied on my own. Until coming to Cambodia I did most things solo. I’m an only child and my friends had no interest in travel, so I traveled alone and came to the program alone. Once here I found my people. Some from my tefl and some from the expat community, and many from work!
Did you know anyone who had taught abroad before you?
What were some of your concerns before you began teaching abroad?
I was concerned about being too shy/anxious to be a good teacher. I was also worried that I wouldn’t make friends in the country. Another, smaller, worry was that I wouldn’t be able to find food that fit my vegetarian diet.
Before the end of the first week of my tefl course I had a huge increase in my confidence. My instructor Johnno did a fantastic job of making me feel comfortable and confident and I realized I had what it takes. I clicked with the people in my tefl quickly, our first weekend we took a trip to Kampot (which is now my favorite place in Cambodia) and left with a solid bond. Despite Covid ending their time in Cambodia we stay in touch. My best friend from the course visited me at my parents house in Colorado when I was home last summer after 1.5 years apart! And for the vegetarian issue - it wasn’t always easy & there were times when I ate a lot of veggie fried rice/noodles, but it was absolutely manageable
TEFL PROGRAM INFORMATION
What made you decide to do a TEFL course and choose TEFL Heaven?
I remember sitting at the salon the summer before my senior year of college, waiting for my hair to process. I was looking at ways to live abroad that were not grad school. I had a few ideas, but once I saw teaching abroad I knew it was what I needed. I looked at a handful of courses, made a bunch of spreadsheets, and TEFL Heaven was the program that had, in my opinion, the best value for money, the nicest platform, the most genuine testimonials, and the time/date range I was looking for
What made you choose a face-to-face TEFL course over other options?
I took an online course when I studied in Brazil to meet my American high school’s math requirement for graduation and I hated it! I vowed that I would never do an online course again (that was pre covid. My sentiments towards online learning have changed, but only slightly). I wanted to build a bond, experience time in the country with the support of others who were experiencing it for the first time, and most importantly - I wanted immediate feedback and guidance from my instructor to make sure I was developing my skills to the highest degree
Which location did you go to?
I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia! I’d planned to do one of the Thailand courses originally, but there were some issues and I ended up switching countries with the idea of going to Thailand after the course. Fate had different plans, and I fell in love with the rugged hecticity of Cambodia and stuck around for much longer than planned
What did you enjoy about your TEFL course?
I loved my instructor, he was knowledgeable, funny, and really supportive. He helped make sure I felt prepared before my first lesson and for everything following. I adored my TEFL coordinator (we are still close friends!) She made the adjustment to Cambodia smooth. I still asked her for guidance until my last days in the country and she happily gave it to me
How prepared did you feel for your teaching position?
I felt very prepared. My first job was teaching pre-nursery, which was below my skill set that I had learned. It was a great time, but I didn’t really use the skills I had learned in class, as the kids were too little and the school was similar to a montessori school (no set lessons, no worksheets, it was student/play based).
Shortly before covid hit I applied and was hired for a secondary IGCSE English teaching position to start in the fall. Right after Covid hit Cambodia I got a call from the school that they needed a long term sub (3.5 months) as a teacher urgently had to leave the country. I taught grade 3 online. I was able to pull out my coursebook and finally get to put the skills I’d learned to use!
When I started teaching secondary (Grades 8&9) in the fall, I was using a lot of the skills I had learned in my course. From classroom management to games and everything in between. One activity that we did in my TEFL that I did often was a music worksheet - I would play a song and students would have a worksheet to fill out with missing words/circling the correct word. I liked to do this with a variety of accents to improve students listening skills (also the last 10 minutes of class are more fun if you play music!)
How long have you been teaching in Cambodia and how long do you plan to stay?
My time in Cambodia came to an end shortly before my 3 year anniversary. I left because I am ready to get my masters degree, and it was the hardest goodbye I have experienced.
How did you secure your English teaching job?
For my first job, I went into a restaurant and was talking to the owner about why I came to Cambodia and what I was planning to do. He said he had a friend looking for teachers - I met with her and was hired on!
For my second job, a friend from the course saw a facebook post searching for teachers and he tagged me in it. I sent in my CV, had a few interviews, and was hired on for the next academic year!
What school or organisation do you work for?
I worked at Footprints International School (FIS)
What does a typical working week look like for you?
Our school has the international program (IP) and the national program (NP). As an IP teacher my scheduled hours were 7:30-3:30. Class time was 8-2:20. From 2:20-3:30 I had prep time or staff meetings.
Each class lasts 50 minutes, with a 5 minute break in between. We have 6 classes a day. Lunch is 11:35-12:30.
My schedule this last year was great! I was teaching grades 9 and 10 (the same students I taught in my first year at FIS). We have two campuses. One campus is k-12, the other is expanding each year, and was k-9 (next year it will be k-10). Grade 9 and 10 take IGCSE curriculum, and because there is only one grade 9 class at our second campus, the IGCSE teachers needed to go to both campuses to teach. This was awesome, because I had two light days of teaching and was able to get a lot of work done and spend time with my teacher friends!
This was my schedule
Monday - Campus 1:
P1 - 9BP2 - 10A
P3 - prep time
P4 - 9A
P5 - 10B
P6 - prep time
P1 - 10B
P2 - 10B
P3 - 9B
P4 - 9A
P5 - 10A
P6 - 10A
Campus 2 (TK):
P1 - prep time
P2 - prep time
P3 - prep time
P4 - prep time
P5 - 9TK
P6 - 9TK
P1 - 9A
P2 - 9A
P3 - 9B
P4 - 9B
P5 - 10A
P6 - 10B
Campus 2 (TK):
P1 - prep time
P2 - prep time
P3 - 9TK
P4 - 9TK
P5 - prep time
P6 - prep time
What age range do you teach?
Most recently, I was teaching grades 9 and 10, students ranged from 13-17.
What do you most enjoy about teaching your students?
Definitely watching their skills and confidence build, as well as building a relationship with them. One of my favorite students was so shy when I met her in grade 8. I remember needing to grab a paper from the office and I said “Ok class, [student] is in charge while I’m gone” As soon as I said that she had the most scared, deer in the headlights look on her face. Fast forward to the end of this year, she has come out of her shell, built up her confidence, and while she is still shy (nothing wrong with that!), she has overcome a lot and it makes me so happy to see!
^She made me this after I told the class I was not returning - it still makes me tear up!
How did you get your work visa?
My school arranged it all
How did you find somewhere to live and what is it like?
Most apartments are listed on facebook, and that is how I found my first two! I’ve never had an apartment before, but it was very simple to find and move into (no credit or background checks required, just meeting the owner and signing the lease + a deposit). My final apartment I found through a friend of a friend, who is a local real estate agent. I’ve lived in three places in Cambodia, two of which were renovated khmer style apartments. They were lovely, spacious, and affordable ($250/300 a month + utilities). My second apartment was western style, it had a gym, pool, sauna, steam room, security, and an elevator! It was beautiful, but teeny tiny and expensive ($400 a month + utilities). I adopted a cat, and felt that he needed more space, so I didn’t renew my lease when it ended
Please provide insights into aspects such as cultural features and characteristics, food, transportation, places of interest, social and nightlife, etc
Cambodia is a fairly conservative country, but in my time there it has definitely changed. You’ll see locals and expats/tourists wearing a range of clothes (from modest garb to crop tops and short shorts). They are a predominantly Buddhist society, but all religions are welcome.
It is a beautiful country, but it is still developing and poverty stricken. Because of this, there is a risk of petty crime (bag snatching, phone snatching, motorcycle theft, etc). Everyone I know has had some type of theft, including myself. I don’t say this to discourage, but to prepare you. It is important to keep your belongings in a bag (cross body if possible!) or a pocket, and to not be waving them around carelessly. Most people who have had something snatched (myself included!) could have avoided it by keeping their belongings put away. It is a crime of opportunity. That being said - the locals are incredibly friendly, and I can't tell you how many times a street vendor or tuktuk driver has stopped me for overpaying (even only 2000 riel, or 50 cents). They’re good, honest people. A few bad eggs shouldn’t ruin the whole picnic, if you know what I mean!
I didn’t experience many traditional foods (I’m a vegetarian!) but I would have a cheeky bite of local dishes if it was a cultural experience with my local friends or when a local would invite me to join them. In Phnom Penh, Kampot, and Siem Reap (as well as most larger cities) there are plenty of vegetarian friendly options and many types of restaurants. If anyone is in Phnom Penh and craving a burger (vegetarian or normal) check out The Vine! Best burgers in the country!! Local food is cheap - you can get a meal for $2.5+
The safest means of transportation would be Grab/Passapp, both are apps on your phone that you can use to book tuktuks or cars. It is cheap and easy! You can also hire tuktuks off the street, but that takes some haggling ability. If you’re like me, and don’t have that skill - stick with the apps! You can also buy/rent a moto, but the traffic is intense and I wouldn’t recommend learning how to drive in Phnom Penh. If you know how to drive but don’t want to commit to owning a moto, there is another app called Go2, where you can book and rent a moto by the minute and drop it off at your final destination. These are typically found at Circle K, or wherever someone left them. They’re great for a day of errands when you don’t want to be paying for a bunch of tuktuks! Transport is relatively cheap, short rides are between 75 cents and $1, longer rides (30-45 minutes) are closer to $4/5
There are many places of interest in Phnom Penh, from the genocide museum and killing fields (to learn about the recent genocide), to the riverside area for a nice stroll. However, my favorite places are outside of the city. Kampot is a 3 hour drive, and is a green river paradise! I go there whenever I need a city break. It is a great place to unwind and refresh when the city becomes too much.
The expat circle is pretty tight, many circles overlap, or will have mutual friends. It is awesome! It really feels like a community. The nightlife is there for those that want it. Bassac lane is a hit with the expats and locals, and there are so many skybars throughout the city! Check out Celeste for a ROTATING SKY BAR with phenomenal views of the city! Since it’s Cambodia, drinks are relatively cheap as well - depending on where you go a beer is $1-$5, cocktails are $2.5 upwards, and soda for the non-drinkers is usually under $1.75
What are your monthly expenses?
I’ll do this for my last apartment only
Rent: $250 + utilities = $330 usually
Food: $300 - it could easily be cheaper (especially if you eat meat and like street food), I made it a habit to go to some pricier restaurants that I loved since I was leaving cambodia (by pricy, I mean $7-9 for a meal and drink)
Other bills: $300-350 - this included a gym membership and personal trainer, and things related to my cat
Social life: $50-150 depending on what we did, and how many times we went to Kampot!
Phone: $5-8 - I paid for the $5/month package, sometimes I would run out of data and have to top up, especially during work from home/self isolation times if my internet wasn’t working well and I would need to hotspot my laptop
Other costs: $50-200 - depending on the month, if there was a holiday (Cambodia has tons of public holidays!!), if I have to go to the vet, if I want to do beauty treatments, or go shopping.
How well can you live on your monthly salary?
I had an incredible quality of life! Towards the end I was not saving as much as I would have liked, but if I had made other choices (cheaper restaurants, no mani/pedi’s, no shopping) I would have easily had a bigger amount of savings. I did make a good salary, but even with a lower salary the standard of life is great
ADVICE FOR PROSPECTIVE ENGLISH TEACHERS
What advice would you give someone thinking about teaching abroad, and would you recommend teaching English in Cambodia?
I would suggest that you go for it! You’ll learn the skills in your TEFL course, and whatever you don’t learn, you will pick up as you go. It is an absolutely life changing experience.
Go in with an open mind and few expectations and you will be blown away! If you go to Cambodia, be ready to live in a developing country. Things aren’t always easy, but that is a part of the beauty.
Pay attention in your TEFL and always try your best - whether you are doing this for a year between high school and college, or college and grad school/career or if this is your dream path - you are directly impacting the life and education of several young people. It may be tempting to party every night, come to class hungover, and put on a movie. Please don’t make a joke of it - they are directly impacted by this. Take the time to plan engaging lessons, and be in your best state for your lessons. The kids will recognize and appreciate your efforts.
I would 10000000% recommend teaching English in Cambodia! It is a great place to go if you do not have a bachelor's degree, as many schools only ask for a tefl. If you do have a bachelors you can earn more and apply to the more established schools. The students here are lovely, and so value their education. They might be rowdy, but they know that it is a privilege to be educated and because of this, they do try their hardest. While it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, I would not change my time in Cambodia. If you’re thinking about it - I say GO!
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