When Impact Hub Fellow Monirath Siv left Cambodia at the age of 16 for the US, he never imagined he would move back to Cambodia to try to impact Cambodia’s education system. We caught up with him to find out the defining moments that inspired him to return to his home and start Teach For Cambodia as part of a global network to ensure that all children have access to quality education.
When did you realize that education was something that you were passionate about?
I grew up here in Cambodia and at the time was raised by a single mother who never completed primary school. She always prioritized my education making sure that I went to school. When I was 16, I moved to the US to live with my father for the first time. My dad wanted me to be a doctor, however I didn’t feel that it was a career that was necessarily best for me. Luckily I was contacted by a program called Teach For America, a nonprofit organization that recruits, trains, and develops recent college graduates to teach and effect change in historically underserved public schools. As much as I learned about the program, it wasn’t the teaching aspect that I was drawn to, since being a teacher was not something that I saw myself doing. I was more drawn to the fact that it is a leadership development program full of extremely talented people. I really wanted to be part of something larger than myself and I was also a strong believer in social equality.
So for the first time, I rebelled against my parents and became a teacher! I spent 2 years in New Jersey teaching in one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the US. There was a lot of violence outside of school and other social issues being brought to my classroom. So this was the period where my passion really developed and I learned that every child has the potential to be successful and that every child can learn. When I was in my classroom, I felt it was my job to make sure that that happened, so my understanding of the power of education really manifested in me at a grassroot level.
What inspired you to start Teach For Cambodia?
One of the defining moments was when I was with one of my coaches at Teach For America. Instead of thinking about questions like “What will you do?” our coaches asked us “What are the problems that you want to solve?” I didn’t have the answers right away, but I believe I told my coach that I want to solve the problems back home. And she asked me “Where is home?” and I responded “Cambodia.” Even though it should have been obvious, I still wasn’t sure of what problem I wanted to solve. So one day I was cooking with one of our corps members and I asked for her advice and she said “Why don’t you do Teach for Cambodia?”
Just talking about starting Teach For Cambodia was scary for me because I was worried that it was beyond what I could handle. But when I returned to my coach with this idea, she responded with another life changing question which was “What is the cost of silence?” I then decided that I wasn’t going to be silent anymore and that I was going to speak up. So I ended up sharing on Facebook that I wanted to start Teach For Cambodia that same day and it caught a lot of attention from my friends.
Courtesy of Teach For Cambodia
So when you came back to Cambodia, did you know how the Teach For Cambodia program was going to work here?
Nope! I was the most naïve person in the world! If I had known at that time the actual scale of what the program was going to be, I would have never come back home! I really did not know what I had signed up for but it was a meaningful risk and I had so many people supporting my idea.
My first step was to develop some strategic clarity. The first call I made was to an organization called “Teach For All” which is a global network of independent social enterprises working to expand educational opportunity in their countries. I had weekly calls with them and they gave me a lot of advice. My next big contact was with the Minister of Education who said that my idea was in line with their own vision! I then needed to understand the state of Cambodia’s education so I discussed with school principals, visited classrooms and spoke with teachers. I also spoke with international organizations such as UNDP, World Bank, EU and local NGOs to get as much information and advice as possible.
So what did you find out?
According to a World Bank study, 33% of primary school children can’t read, and if they say they can read, almost half of them cannot understand what they are reading. Between 7-9th grade, 1 in 5 drop out. Last year the ministry of education cracked down on 12th graders cheating on their final exams and 3 out of 4 students failed in their first try. So for those that are lucky and stay until 12th grade, there is a large chance that they will fail. But these statistics don’t tell us that our kids can learn and they don’t show their true potential.
So what is the cause of these issues? Imagine a child born in a low-income family in Cambodia. That child probably needs to travel 10 to 12 kilometers to school. That family probably is facing financial difficulties forcing the father to work outside of the country. In turn, that child might have to work as well. So once that child gets to school, what does school look like? At the same time, we are facing a shortage of teachers and strong leadership skills. Add to that the poor expectations set for this child by their community and society at large. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there is not one magic solution that will solve all these. Many things have to be done at the same time. But who will solve these issues is the question I am most obsessed about.
Courtesy of Teach For Cambodia
What impact can Teach For Cambodia have on the country’s education sector?
The problem that we are trying to solve is educational inequity- the idea that where you are born determines your educational outcomes and life trajectories. We want to ensure that all children, no matter their socio-economic background, have access to quality education.
Our Fellowship will become a key source of highly effective teachers. We select, train and support outstanding graduates and young professionals who commit to 2 years to teaching. So when they are there, they will have an understanding of quality education while being exposed to all the challenges that are brought to the classroom. We envision our alumni working in and outside of the education system to address the root causes. My vision is that most of our alumni will still work in education in the classroom, school or in the ministry of education to help shift our system forward by achieving our government’s reform priorities while the rest might exert their positive influences working in the private sector, civil society, or the government.
What challenges have you faced as a social entrepreneur and what has inspired you to keep going?
As a social entrepreneur, it’s not easy, you feel constant stress, family pressure and doubts about whether you can do this or not. So what keeps me going is focusing on what I need to let go of. In order to move forward I need to let go of fear, anxiety, doubt and pessimism so that I can let in courage, possibilities and especially open my heart to let in the challenges that Cambodian students are facing, their aspiration in life and what is possible for them. And when I let in all of this, it helps to keep me going.
How has joining Impact Hub helped you?
I’m an Impact Hub fellow and just knowing that someone supports you is a big confirmation that what you are doing matters. That continuous support from your community really is key. On a smaller scale, if you are stressed one day you can always talk to someone here and having access to that community network is so helpful. Not only has Impact Hub provided space for our team to work and run our events, it also got me connected with a mentor who helped me develop our strategy and learn about Cambodia’s government structure.
What’s next for Teach For Cambodia?
We want to be the first people in our generation to step up for public education. What we imagine ourselves doing next year is reaching critical mass of our Fellows in certain provinces and explore the possibility of partnering with provincial departments of education. We hope to impact communities and schools as much as we can and scale up our success to a provincial level so that we can accelerate our collective impact together.