For Underpaid Teachers, a Desire for Dignity

Hang Mao was among more than 11,000 Phnom Penh public school teachers who were told two weeks ago that corruption in the classroom would no longer be tolerated.

The message came from senior city officials, including Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong and municipal education director Chea Cheat, speaking at the city’s annual education conference.

Mr. Mao, 41, a primary school teacher in Chamkar Mon district, said that lip service alone would not be enough to banish corruption from the city’s schools, where teachers are paid salaries of about $100 a month.

“The salary is quite small. We cannot buy food to eat,” Mr. Mao said. “So I must take money from students to support my income.”

“Even Buddhist monks would not be able to meditate without food,” he added. “The [government] leaders in education know this very well.”

“They cannot press teachers harder or else there will be no more teachers in the classroom. They will be out on the street driving motorbike-taxis,” he said.

The low pay given to teachers, whose base salary is about equal to that of garment factory workers, was most recently highlighted by a teachers’ strike in January organized by the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA).

Authorities threatened to take away CITA’s license if the strike went ahead, but the government has since raised teacher’s wages by up to $20 a month.

Chan Sothy, 57, director of Noreak Primary School in Koh Dach commune of Russei Keo district, said that teachers are unfairly criticized for demanding informal payments from students to support their monthly salary.

“If there were a proper salary, we would work with dignity and honor,” Mr. Sothy said. “The government has been thinking about this and has provided us a raise; however, it is still not enough.”

Ros Tith Malay, 57, began teaching at Boeng Trabek Khang Tbong primary school in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, in 1981. She said that her salary at the time—85 riel per month—was enough to support her family of five.

Now she collects between 500 and 1,000 riel, or between $0.13 and $0.25, per day from each of her students to supplement a monthly income of 320,000 riel, or $80.

Ms. Tith Malay said that a colleague of hers left the school recently to become a tuk-tuk driver to make more money after his family was able to save up the money for a new carriage to attach to his motorcycle.

As inflation has continued to cut away at the actual value of teacher’s salaries, the government has made a number of failed attempts in recent years to curb extortion in the classrooms.

Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree in 2008 to encourage the enforcement of Article 31 of the Law on Education, passed by the National Assembly in 2007, which states that “every citizen has the right to access a quality education for free at least nine years in public schools.”

In December 2009, four teachers at Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh were temporarily suspended for allegedly extorting more money from their students than school rules allowed. The school director accused the teachers of taking 1,000 riel per student per day, after he repeatedly told teachers not to take more than 500 riel per student.

And despite the latest effort by municipal authorities to expel extortion from schools, there was no indication last week that practices were changing.

Waiting to pick up his 13-year-old son from Chaktomuk secondary school, Meang Tong, 51, an officer at the National Police Commissariat, said that his family continues to pay about $20 a month to teachers for an extra hour of classes, a common practice by teachers to make extra income.

“I am tired of making this payment,” Mr. Tong said.

“But we feel pity on teachers because their salary is quite small. We cannot blame them.”

Rong Chhun, president of CITA, said that if the government is truly committed to changing the culture of corruption in classrooms, teachers need to be paid at least 1 million riel, or about $250, a month, a wage raise that could be paid for through better natural resource management.

“The revenues from the natural resources are not collected and used to pay salaries for teachers and small officials,” Mr. Chhun said.

“Instead, [natural resources] have been monopolized and distributed to a handful of elite, powerful people.”

“The economy is developing onward but we are stuck in the same place,” Ms. Tith Malay said about the government’s failure to pass on economic growth to the country’s educators.

Near Sophan, director of the Ministry of Education’s personnel department, said that during the last calendar year, salaries for the country’s 112,704 public schoolteachers accounted for 70 percent of the country’s public schools budget.

Beginning this month, most of those teachers will receive a monthly salary of at least 480,000 riel, or about $120, following the government’s decision last month to raise wages across the board, Mr. Sophan said. The 2014 annual budget also allocated 20 percent more funding to the Education Ministry than in 2013.

“I hope that from year to year, and based on the real situation, the government will increase their salary to encourage their teaching,” Mr. Sophan said, admitting that low teachers’ salaries made it difficult to eliminate extortion from classrooms.

“Everything is based on their commitment,” he said. “Most of the teachers still fulfill their duty very well while a small number continue [asking for money from students].”

However, Mr. Mao, the teacher in Phnom Penh, said that teachers did not take money from students because of a lack of commitment, but simply to be able to feed their families.

If the government cracks down on bribe-taking in the classroom, he asked, “Who would be left to teach the children? The school principal? No. There would be no one.”

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