Volunteering: Teaching English in Siem Reap

School kids shoes Angkor Tree School

Three times a day I find myself standing next to Eric, barefoot, at the head of the 20×30’ wooden classroom, looking out at a sea of 30+ smiling faces. Ages 3-12, they stand, hands in prayer position, poised to let loose the goodbye chant that signals the end of class. Two hard working ceiling fans spin their hearts out, but my tank top is soaked through and the steady drop of sweat down my dusty face is starting to feel normal.

“Thaaaank you tea-CHA!

Seeeee yooooou to-mor-ROW!

Gooooood night for YOU!

Goooood dream to-NIGHT!

Goooood life my LOVE!”

At least that’s what I think they’re saying.

And then comes the best part. All at once, in a tidal wave of affection, they bum rush us. The boys hit Eric first, he struggles to keep his balance as the littlest kids hog tie his ankles with their arms. High fives, tight hugs, kisses, there’s a kid on my back. One little knee-high girl looks like she may get trampled, as she muscles her way to the next teacher. They hit each teacher before leaving. That’s 30+ expressions of love per teacher. This is seriously one of the best jobs in the world.

Hugs at Angkor Tree School

The boys of Angkor Tree School

A Joyous Post War Culture

These are children raised by Khmer Rouge survivors. Grandparents substitute parents for many of them. In this post-war culture, they have been raised by survivors of mass genocide , not to hoard and fear, but to trust, embrace, love, laugh and share. Is it the deep sense of gratitude and their Buddhist beliefs that makes this possible? It is difficult to fathom, but these kids are a reflection of the Siem Reap community as a whole –they are the happiest, most joyful people I have ever encountered and it feels wonderful to live among them.

Party Day at Angkor Tree School

Massage TrainTeacher Eric

Finding Angkor Tree School

We’d never taught in a classroom, we are tech people. But we’ve always wanted to volunteer and kept our eyes open for an opportunity along our travels. We discovered Sokhom Khit and Angkor Tree School through Workaway.info, a social network pairing volunteers with projects. Sokhom, who lost aunts, uncles and a younger brother in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, was given the gift of language when friends and tourists taught him English and Japanese. This enabled him to become a teacher and make a living for himself and his family. He founded Angkors Tree School in 2011, a free English and Japanese school to kids in his village, fueled by volunteers like us, as a way to pay it forward. Read more about Sokhom’s story and the history of the school on the school’s blog and Facebook page.

Volunteers at Angkor Tree School, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our first week when we had 6+ volunteers from Austria, Germany, US, Denmark and France.

Angkor Tree School founder Sokhom Khit and his darling son.

Angkor Tree School founder Sokhom Khit and his darling son.

Unexpected Rewards

Everyone should volunteer teaching English at one point in their lives. There are few experiences that can immerse you in a community, forge relationships and teach you as much about yourself in a week. We loved it so much, we stayed for three.

Forget that management-training seminar, or personal development retreat, GO TEACH. You quickly learn your strengths and shortcomings when you have to think on your feet, keep the attention of a squirmy class of 8 yr olds, make it fun, make it challenging, make it sticky, break down lessons into bite sized pieces, all when the common language is the one you’re teaching. And then one day they mix the kids up on you because the Government school changed their schedule, just to keep you on your toes. And don’t forget your co-teacher, because the feedback is even quicker when you show signs of snarkiness or micromanaging your teaching-partner-hubby. BOOM. One giant mirror, held up for your reflection, enveloped in the rewarding glow that you are making a positive impact on dozens of lives and you are a better human for it.

“Some days I sit and wish I was a kid again…”

And then there’s break time. Within seconds a kid grabs your hand and claims you for an activity. Eric is always first picked, whisked away to play soccer on the dirt road outside the wooden school gate, careful to avoid water buffalo that graze nearby. This is how he ensures maximum saturation of t-shirt and shorts and perfects his ‘dust boots’ look. I give in to the insistent tug on my arm by the crazy-eyed jump rope junkie and follow her outside to count out her new record of jumps. Then I give a few piggy back rides, set a new personal best at BOOM SNAP CLAP, and duck under the fan in the classroom to be swarmed by 3 young beauticians ready to braid my hair. One little girl took pity on me and dabbed the sweat off my face “Oh, teacher, you SO HOT”. Yes, yes I am.


Front gate, Angkor Tree School Siem Reap, Cambodia

Front gate of school

Getting my school yard jump on.


On our last day of class we threw a party, of course we did. Our splurge was to have 150 popsicles brought in and other volunteers funded candy and “cake” which was really bags of chips. Despite the balloons, the kids dutifully sat at their desks ready for the lesson to begin. “No studying today” we announced, “Today we play all day”. Let the mayhem ensue. One of our favorite kiddos out sick that week so like the Pied Piper of Cambodia I led a flock of her besties through the village to her house and we delivered her balloons and said goodbye.


Party Day Angkor Tree School

A rare sighting of an elusive dancing Westberg in the wild

And then there’s the dancing. They’re crazy for it. Dance parties usually consist of a chair in the middle of the room that everyone dances around, girls teaching me the traditional hand movements, index finger to thumb, fingers extended reaching back for forearms in a twisting motions. Like the Thais do it. One little boy, a diva in the making, had memorized every dance move to a popular girl band’s video routine, complete with hair flip and booty shake. Priceless.

I laughed more in those three weeks than I have in months and I’m having a pretty great year. Added bonus was the awesome group of international volunteers we befriended and have kept in touch with. Teaching kids is food for the soul. Go get some.

How to volunteer:


Volunteering Siem Reap Cambodia

Eric helping to finish the school to ensure the kids don’t get soaked during monsoon season next month


Our English class - Volunteering in Cambodia


Like looking in a mirror :)

Like looking in a mirror 🙂


Tip for first time English teachers:

  • Play with them first. You’ll quickly get to know the kids, learn their skill level, find out the games they love and think of ways to turn it into a lesson. For example, we played “Spelling Basketball” where you pass the ball for each letter to a team mate to spell, and then the last letter gets to shoot for the basket. Or just blow up a bunch of balloons and call out colors and numbers as you hit them back and forth.

If you’ve ever wanted to volunteer, consider teaching English during your travels. Our experience teaching at Angkor Tree School in Siem Reap was the highlight of our Cambodia trip!

8 responses to “Volunteering: Teaching English in Siem Reap

  1. Oh,Lisa, how I love your blogs. They make me laugh as well as cry.
    And those photos! And PROOF that dancing Westbergs in the wild DO exist!!
    Love you guys! You are an inspiration!

  2. you’re doing such amazing things!!!! lara and the kids just arrived – i think.

    keep having fun and being amazing role models. love, pattie

  3. This is lovely. My youngest daughter is currently working with an NGO in Thailand working with Burmese refugees. Kids deserve more people like you! :
    Take care

  4. This really is beautiful. most youthful child happens to be dealing with a good NGO within Thailand dealing with Burmese aisle. Children are worthy of much more individuals just like you!:

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