Steve Schertzer

Unfinished business

Musings from the tortured mind of a damaged teacher

The head teacher made my day

I walk into my early morning level four class. The same class where many 10 an 11 year olds like to treat as a hotel: The same class where many of them - especially the boys - like to play soccer with their flip-flops, drag the desks and chairs around the room, and generally cause a ruckus. I walk in with the textbook, a few board markers, a CD player, and the class CD to find the head teacher, a Cambodian man of 65, standing in front of the class.

"Oh hello" I said. I was surprised to find him there. I was still relatively new to the school; still a bit shy and reticent when speaking with him. I like the head teacher. He is a treasure trove of Khmer culture and history. I have shown him the books I'm reading about Cambodia, especially the personal memoirs of surviving the Khmer Rouge, and he laments the fact that the whole Pol Pot era is still shrouded in mystery and silence. He fears that the genocide which saw about a quarter of Cambodia's population wiped out through torture, execution, and starvation will soon be forgotten.

"Many of the students were making a lot of noise", he said in almost perfect English. "So I came here and told them to behave themselves."

"Thank you" was all I could say.

"Also, could you give me a list of those students who disturb the class and have failed their mid-term speaking and listening tests?"

"I have it right here." I was way ahead of him. The day before I had made a list of those students and was prepared to call their parents with the bad news.

I handed the list to the head teacher who looked at it, and then proceeded one by one to call each of the seven names on it. The seven boys stood up. Then the head teacher began to scold them in Khmer, pacing back and forth and waving his finger. The boys stood, heads bowed, listening. I almost felt sorry for the little buggers. When the head teacher was finished, the boys sat down. He handed the list back to me. "After this class you can go down to the receptionist and tell her to call their parents.

If these students don't behave themselves, then we'll ask the parents to take them back." I nodded my approval. "And I asked the students about your teaching. They said that you are very strict and that you always demand that they do their work."

"Yes, that's right. I want them to do well. I want them to succeed."

"That's good. I told them to do their work and listen to the teacher."

"Thank you for straightening this out." And with that, the head teacher, whom I have come to admire, smiled and left, leaving me with the most wonderful and cooperative group of students that I have had in years. My day was made and it was only 8:00 a.m. There is something to be said about a teacher receiving the support that he or she needs.

I take a licking but keep on ticking

I spend 12 hours a day at the school in which I teach. I don't have to, but I do. There is a two hour and forty-five minute break between the morning classes and the afternoon classes. That's common in Cambodia, I hear. The International schools and the language schools follow this pattern. I guess the Cambodians like to take long lunches. I don't. I usually just grab a sandwich or a couple of muffins from the bakery across the street and eat it at my desk. Sometimes I go to the KFC around the corner, but I try not to do that anymore.

I guess I can go back to my room and rest like the other teachers, but I know myself: Once back in the safe confines of my air-conditioned room with cable TV and I don't move for a long while. So I stay put reading at my desk and preparing the week's lessons. I started out teaching only four hours a day, and then graduated to six. There were times when I taught eight hours a day because there were not enough teachers to cover the classes. That was grueling but I enjoyed it.

Am I noticed for all this dedication? Am I appreciated? I doubt it. I am well into my second decade of teaching English in Asia where any appreciation for dedicated foreign teachers is practically non-existent. Besides, this kind of dedication to the craft is looked upon as suspect and is usually reserved for the paranoid, the insane, and the mentally disturbed. I don't consider myself paranoid, so I must be insane and probably a bit mentally disturbed.

There are times when I limp back to my room at the end of the day. Everything hurts; my hair, my bum, my toenails. But that's fine. If we can run back to our rooms full of energy and ready to party all night, then I guess we didn't really do a good enough job during the day.

Tiffany and Paul Pot

So I step out of my room temporarily; after all, I do have to eat. Not much was open during Khmer New Year: A burger joint, a pizza place, a KFC, and a Korean restaurant. I choose the Korean restaurant because it's the one closest to me. And, truth be told, I love Korean food. I miss it, especially the kimchi.

So I step out into the lobby of the hotel on my way to eat when I see a group of Western teenagers and their leader standing in a circle discussing the day's events. It turns out that they're from a non-profit organization that offers American students cultural and educational exchange opportunities.

"So", their leader says, "we are going to discuss what we all learned on our first trip to Cambodia. I have three pieces of paper, each with something written on it. I'm going to place one piece of paper on the floor in the center." The leader placed the paper on the floor. In black ink it read "Khmer Rouge." The teenagers in the group, about 10 of them, swiveled on the heels of their feet, looking hot, tired, and bored. It was the middle of April, the hottest time of the year for Southeast Asia. "Okay, Tiffany, (not her real name), you start."

Tiffany shuffled to the center of the group. She had short hair, a thin gaunt face, and looked like she hadn't eaten for a week. "Well, like I learned a lot of things you know. Like I learned that a long time ago there was a man who ruled Cambodia--- Paul Pot or something. And like, you know, he was a very bad man who like killed a lot of people and stuff. But at the beginning it wasn't so bad you know, because Paul Pot was a Communist and like he wanted everyone to be equal, and like no one should like have more money than anyone else you know. But after a while I guess he got like paranoid and stuff so he just started killing people and sending them to the countryside..."

It was at that moment, or somewhere there about, that a Korean seafood pancake and a bowl of kimchi sounded fantastic.

Dark City and those damn tuk-tuk drivers

My room and the school in which I presently teach are a 20 minute walk each way. I enjoy the walk. I walk from my room to school at 7:00 a.m. each morning and from school to my room at 7:30 p.m. each night Monday to Friday. I currently have a Saturday evening class from 5:30 to 7:30. I enjoy the morning walk better. The air is fresh and it's not as hot then. I don't particularly enjoy the walk back to my room. I'm happy once I get back, but getting back to my room is a 20 minute nightmare.

Phnom Penh is a dark city, one of the darkest I have ever been to. The infrastructure is not very good: Cracked and uneven pavement; even many of the potholes have potholes. And the weirdoes come out at night; especially the motto and tuk-tuk drivers. I hate the tuk-tuk drivers with everything in me. Many of them are drunks who cheat on their wives with teenage girls. They are illiterate peasants from the countryside who can't read maps. Many times they get lost on purpose so that they can extort more money from you. I would cross the street to avoid them, but they are on both sides so there's no getting away from them. Many times whenever I pass one, a typical conversation goes something like this:

TUK-TUK DRIVER: Tuk-tuk, sir?
ME: No thank you.
TUK-TUK DRIVER: Massage, sir?
ME: No thanks.
TUK-TUK DRIVER: Vietnam girl?
ME: No.
TUK-TUK DRIVER: A little boy, sir?
ME: No!
TUK-TUK DRIVER: A lady boy?
ME: No!

I am so happy that my room and the school in which I presently teach are within walking distance: A ride in a tuk-tuk? I'd rather stick needles in my eyes.

Don't look at me, I'm not the father!

I'm sitting in an outdoor mom and pop restaurant/laundry place/travel agency and probably massage parlor, (Cambodians are into a little bit of everything), eating a plate of fried noodles, pork, and vegetables after a hard day's work, when a middle-aged woman wearing a lovely sarong saunters right beside me. She is holding a baby in one arm while holding out her hand as if asking for money. She points to the baby, and then to her mouth simulating eating motions.

Yes, I get it: The baby needs to eat. But I have been in Southeast Asia long enough to know that the baby she was holding was not hers. I have no idea whose baby it is. I have no idea if the baby was stolen, lost, or kidnapped. (That happens a lot in Southeast Asia.) And in my ignorance and stupidity had I decided to give her money, I really didn't know where the money would go: Perhaps to a pimp, or to some drunk to buy more whiskey, who knows, but certainly not to the beggar in the nice sarong holding a baby.

So I continued eating and thought, hey don't look at me; I'm not the father. I didn't make that baby.

Denial; it's not just a river in Egypt

I came to Cambodia from Thailand for several reasons. Two of which are to teach and to learn: To learn about Cambodian history, specifically the horrific Pol Pot era. I am currently reading books about it with the goal of gaining a greater understanding of what compels man to kill millions of his own people. As a Jew, the whole aspect and reality of genocide fascinates me. In childhood the holocaust was explained to me as "man's inhumanity to man", as if those four words were somehow sufficient enough to explain the torture and extermination of six million Jews.

But there are stark differences between the holocaust and the Cambodian genocide. Since the end of World War Two, the Jews and the State of Israel have made it their raison d'etre that this horrific part of history never be forgotten or erased. "Never again" has been our motto when referring to the holocaust, and we have held fast to that.

But to stick to our motto of "Never Again", we must remember; we must choose to remember the horrific time of the holocaust. To remember is what we Jews do best; well, remembering and eating cheesecake. Remembering is in our DNA. Remembering fulfills one of the 613 mitzvots in the Torah. The Khmers on the other hand are choosing not to remember. The Khmer attitude to the Killing Fields is to bury the past with a shovel and then bury the shovel.

I have had this conversation with the head teacher; the same head teacher who was taken from his wife by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and forced to work in the fields. This head teacher will gladly sit down with me and discuss anything and everything about the Khmer Rouge era. That is very rare and I am grateful for this opportunity to learn about such an important part of Southeast Asian history. Man's propensity to kill each other is eclipsed only by his willingness to forget the killings and deny this propensity. Denial; it's not just a river in Egypt.

(The most important word in the English language)


(The two most important words in the English language)

I remember.

I should have been a dentist

I should have been a dentist because I love drilling. I like the students but their pronunciation sucks. And so does their stress and intonation. I don't blame them. I blame their teachers; especially their past native English teachers who have probably never spent more than 10 minutes a week on pronunciation and intonation. Why spend any more time on these boring elements of the English language when you could play hangman?

So I drill baby drill. I drill the students until I see blood shooting out of their eyes. Over and over again I have them repeat words and phrases they're having problems with. I feel like Professor Henry Higgins with a whole class of Eliza Doolittle's. Okay class repeat after me: "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." And repeat they do. Do they like it? Hell no! Is their pronunciation intonation improving? Yes it is. And that's good enough for me. That's why I'm being paid the big American bucks.

The secret of my success

Okay, here it is: The secret of my success as an English teacher in Asia. I listen; I genuinely listen, to all the educational pundits and pedagogical experts in the field. I ponder, cogitate, and ruminate deeply on every word they say as if it is Gospel. I roll their precious words and sagacious advice over and over again in my mind. Sometimes, I will sleep on it. And when I'm finished pondering and cogitating and ruminating, I go ahead and do the opposite.

If one of these "experts" says to slow down my rate of speech, I talk a mile a minute; if they say to pick up the pace, I slow my lesson down to a trickle; if they say not to focus too much on grammar, I blind the students with the present continuous and past participles; if they tell me not to do too much reading in class, I hand out copies of ‘War and Peace'; if they say not so much writing in class, I pass out hundreds of sheets of paper and explain how to write an autobiography; if they say not so much repetition, I drill baby drill. Because, as we English teachers all know, these "experts" at the TESOL conferences know everything. Just like those nutritionists who one day say to stay away from bacon, then the very next day tell people to eat 10 kilograms of bacon a day because pig fat really is good for you.

Yes these educational "experts" at the TESOL conferences really do know what they're talking about. They take what didn't work for them in the west and export it to Asian schools so that they can look like geniuses in Korea, China, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and so many other places. But I know better. And I'm onto you.

Full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes!

I understand why many teachers do this. I used to do this too way back when. And many a teachers have complained about this. I have 20 classes, they say, and there are 24 units in the book. How am I going to finish all that?

Well, you don't. Instead of teaching two or three pages a day at breakneck speed, you take what you consider to be the most important one-third of the book and spend the whole term on that. Do one-third of the book three times. The students will learn more and retain more. I know; I've done it and I'm still doing it. School directors and administrators: You have to marvel at their intelligence.

Look at me!!! I'm like so pretty

So, four college girls walk into my two hour evening class 45 minutes late. I call them girls because that's how they behave. I ask them to follow me out into the hall. "Why are you late?" I ask them.

"I was hungry" one of them said. "We go downstairs and eat noodles."

I look at one of them, the same one I saw several minutes before class started. They are the same four girls that love to make a dramatic entrance holding their oversized handbags and expensive cell phones with Internet access that daddy bought for them. All that's missing is a Chihuahua named ‘Tequila' wearing a sequined body suit and tucked safely under their each of their arms.

I look at them with barely veiled contempt in my eyes. There are children all over Cambodia living on a bowl of rice a day while their parents struggle to make two dollars. These children don't have shoes and they certainly don't go to school.

"I will not have you come to my class 45 minutes late. And I will not allow you to take part in my class tonight. You must come here on time like everyone else. I will not allow you to set a bad example for all the other students. So go away. Go home, go shopping, do whatever you want; but do not make a mockery of me or this class."

And with that, I bade them adieu and watched as they went wherever, and I imagined four Chihuahuas growling and baring their teeth at me.

My solution to student truancy in Cambodia

Take them to the Killing Fields!

Yes, that's right. Regardless of age, take them on a field trip to see the thousands of cased skulls and bones of their fellow countrymen and women. Put the fear of God into them; or the fear of the Khmer Rouge. Take them to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and have them look at the blood-stained floors and the endless display of photographs of the 14,000 prisoners who were tortured and summarily executed. But first, you'll have to take their cell phones and game boys away from them.

Cambodians forgetting the genocide: Some don't even know it happened, and others don't care.

Memories of grandparents that some never had

Some of the most memorable moments in my life were with my grandparents. Both my grandmothers passed away when I was a child, but I can still vividly recall my paternal "Bubby" holding me as a child and my maternal "Bubby" backing poppy-seed cookies in our kitchen when I was seven and eight years old.

Why do I bring this up? A little while back I had two adorable girls in my level one class; they were sisters and we were doing a lesson on family. We were discussing family members when I asked these two sisters to tell me about their grandparents. "We don't have grandparents", one of them said. "They died." My face must have registered shock because one of them continued. "Khmer Rouge soldiers come and kill them." I felt so sorry for them.

EFL teachers in Korea complain that many Korean students have been robbed of a childhood because they are "forced" to study and go to school for 12 hours a day. At least they go to school. At least they have grandparents.

Tiffany revisited

I have been thinking about Tiffany lately, and the other young people I saw in my hotel lobby that Sunday afternoon. They obviously didn't want to be here. I'm sure that Tiffany and Amber and Zackary and Timothy and all of the other 15 and 16 year olds would rather have been at home in Beverley Hills or on the beaches of Florida secretly drinking margaritas and "losing their religion." They would rather have been in the Mall of America eating their low-fat chocolate sundaes and playing click-click with Daddy's MasterCard.

But they were here, in Phnom Penh Cambodia in 2011; population, 1,700,000 or thereabouts. These teenagers had a great opportunity to learn so much about how "the other half" lives. But clearly they were not ready. They were just teenagers after all. Hell, I'm almost 52 and I still have so much to learn.

As teachers know, learning is a two-way street. Little Tiffany with her "Like you know Paul Pot was like a really bad man who like killed a lot of people and stuff"' may have learned a lot more if Cambodia had been a better teacher. Little Tiffany and so many others may have understood more if Cambodia was more willing to open up and break the silence surrounding its recent past. It seems easier to look at and talk about 800 year old temples that have rotted and decayed in the sun than it is to discuss those who have perished 30 years ago.

What got my people, the Jews, to open up and share their experiences about Hitler and the Holocaust was the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. It took 16 years, but survivors began to educate their children, grandchildren, and the next generation about the horrors of that time. It will also take the trial of at least one senior Khmer Rouge official before Cambodians have the courage to shatter the silence that have kept them in psychological bondage for so long.

(The three most important words in the English language)

I will remember.

(There is no point explaining)

It's not just Little Tiffany who knows nothing of Cambodia or the outside world. It will take at least another 20 years and a few heartbreaks for anything remotely profound to come out of Tiffany's mouth. There are countless adults in the west with little or no knowledge of Asian societies. Countless adults in Canada and the United States who think Cambodia is a chocolate bar and Pol Pot is a substance to get stoned on.

"Have you heard of Pol Pot?"

"Sorry man, I'm not into that anymore."

This is understandable but not easily forgivable. After all, we in the affluent west have been spoiled by high paying jobs and social safety nets. We have no idea what's it's like to exist on two dollars a day. The biggest tragedy that many North Americans seem to suffer is the discovery that the supermarket has run out of their favorite shampoo and conditioner. "What!! No more honeysuckle shampoo and conditioner!! My whole world has come to an end. What am I going to do now?"

There's no point in trying to explain to comfortable North Americans who are busy with their Blackberries and who spend much of their free time changing their Facebook profile picture what it's really like to live and work in Thailand and Cambodia. They don't want to know. They would rather stay home with their laptops and microwavable popcorn and watch it on their big flat screen televisions with surround sound.

God bless globalization!

Unfinished business

So what is this unfinished business that is the title of this blog?

I've been thinking lately about what drives me. Why do I want to succeed so badly in an industry that has little constructive use for middle-class men and women from rich western countries?

I could say that it has something to do with the fact that I like children and want them to have a better future. That's a part of it. I could also say that it has something to do with the fact that I have seen far too many child beggars and prostitutes and people who throw their life away and so much wasted human potential. That's a part of it too. I could also say that I feared ending up like everyone else, so I packed up and went to Asia only to realize a decade later that, lo and behold, I ended up just like everyone else!

But in the last two years I have come to realize that this unfinished business has become personal; very personal. Between two and three years ago I was an emotional basket case. (Many people think I still am.) Three years ago I was teaching at a public school in Busan, South Korea and doing quite well. I was living in a modern two room apartment with a great view overlooking the East Sea; I was making and saving a lot of money; I was eating good food and enjoying the occasional night out with a couple of good friends: All in all, a very good life.

Then I made a mistake. I went to the Philippines on a holiday and got involved with someone who was totally wrong for me. In fact, she was totally wrong for any human being. I won't get into the fact that she lied to me about everything--- about having children, about what she was really doing behind my back--- many of them do that; what made me an emotional basket case for the better part of a year was finding out some time later that she cheated on me while I was at home in July of 2008 watching my mother die. That turned my world upside-down, and I have yet to fully recover.

I am certainly not the basket case I was two years ago. Unlike two years ago, I can now function in and out of the classroom. I have stopped talking to the photograph of my late mother and I'm sleeping much better. While at home for six months in 2009 and 2010 I spent a fair amount of time at my late mother's grave apologizing to her for my lack of sound judgment. But many third-world Southeast Asian women still turn my stomach and the thought of them running after older first-world western men for money fills me with anger and hatred that is impossible to conceal.

So what is this unfinished business? Why am I here? While in Korea, my mother used to tell just about everyone within earshot how proud she was of me that I am a teacher in Asia. I can still see her in her wheelchair rolling down the halls of her nursing home saying to no one in particular, "Did you know that my son is an English teacher in Korea?" I'm glad I made her proud.

As I finish this blog, it is May 8th, Mother's Day in many countries. My mother taught me many things: To try and see the good through all the bad; to trust, but not blindly; to expect others to do for you what you are willing to do for them; to teach people passionately and with your heart; to be responsible and to take responsibility for your actions; to learn from those who have a lot to teach; to not waste time doing something that others don't appreciate; to say please and thank you; to respect your elders; to slowly enjoy a good cup of coffee; to look at a problem as an opportunity; and to see each and every day as a God given moment to improve on oneself. That's a very tall order, but it came from someone who gave me life and was so willing to forgive me through all of my mistakes and poor judgment. I would like to think that I have learned a lot in these last three years.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some unfinished business to attend to.

(The most important four words in the English language)

I will always remember.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I will always remember those lessons.


Steve, That's the most moving article I've read here for a long time. You are certainly making a difference to those children's lives. I love your writing style too!

By GJ, Bangkok (24th May 2011)

That was a superb read. Really honest and personal. Judging by the comments of your articles you obviously have real talent as a writer. You envoke many feelings in your readers that force them to give you some feedback. You should consider writing a book. Keep it up steve!

By MC, BKK (20th May 2011)

Wow, could you be any more bitter at life. It's not Cambodia's fault you seem to be a failure. Slamming a whole country because you're unhappy and a whole country you actually seem to know little about. Maybe you should leave your 12-hour school room now and again?

By Rachel, BKK, Thailand (18th May 2011)

Does Steve’s apparent popularity amongst the comment writers more accurately reflect Steve’s writing abilities or the confrontational mentality of many English teachers in Thailand?

By A Fan, SEA (10th May 2011)

"Okay, here it is: The secret of my success as an English teacher in Asia."

Successful...? You could have fooled me...

I can already the next articles: Steve as the Saviour of Cambodian and Vietnamese prostitutes; Foreign Villains and the Sex Trade and so on.

However, after reading this:
"I will not have you come to my class 45 minutes late. And I will not allow you to take part in my class tonight."

The beginning of the end has already begun...

By Hippolyte, Bangkok (8th May 2011)

Good read. I spent six months teaching English in Phnom Penh back in 2007, and can relate to many of the points you made. Just a word of advice. If seeing young, impoverished girls with middle-aged Western men disturbs you, I'd suggest leaving Cambodia before you go completely bonkers. In my opinion, the sex trade is far rougher, rawer, and more disturbing than in Thailand.

By Danny Nomad, Planet Earth (8th May 2011)

Steve, you act as if you're the first person who ever heard of the KR in Cambodia, and now you're the Great White Hunter coming to save them.

By The Saint, Thailand (8th May 2011)

Great. Another country for Schertzer to piss and moan about.......

By Charles, Buckingham Palace (8th May 2011)

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