Not all teachers have a vision for the future. In the rural provinces of Cambodia, many see their roles as straightforward: show up at school, teach the curriculum and then go home.

Not so for Sothira Ouk. Since she stepped in front of a class of students in 1991, she’s been trying to show the next generation of Cambodians—particularly girls—that they can be good citizens and productive members of society.

“We need our country [to] have good resources for the future,” she says.

And Sothira continues to do her part to make that a reality. In her most recent role as an education specialist with USAID’s School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program—which was implemented by Kampuchean Action for Primary Education in Cambodia—she contributed to giving more than 1,000 homeroom teachers in Cambodian middle schools the awareness and tools to keep students from dropping out. The program succeeded in lowering the dropout rate among at-risk students by 11.3 percent.

Growing up in the countryside of Svay Riem, the southeastern province that noses into Vietnam, Sothira was encouraged by her parents to study hard in order to achieve her dream of becoming an English teacher.

“If you want to educate people, you have to educate yourself first,” her father told her. Sothira also found support in a cousin who tutored her: checking exercises, correcting English pronunciation, demanding to see grades and overseeing homework. She always told Sothira she could succeed.

Sothira was selected to attend Cambodia’s National Institute of Education for teacher training and began teaching 10th and 11th grade English in Svay Riem. After two years, she received refresher training in 1993 and then a call from the Ministry of Education. She’d been chosen as a researcher to partner with CARE International on a Cambodian girls’ education project.

The project turned into a 10-year career with CARE that gave Sothira an opportunity to work at the national level with staff from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport as she conducted training for all school directors to promote girls’ education. Her goal was to help girls and boys finish basic education, allowing Cambodia to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of Education for All by 2015.

Photo by Nick Axelrod
Photo by Nicolas Axelrod

Addressing the gender gap

The girls’ education work she did with CARE made an impact on Sothira.

“I learned a lot about the connection of people, about the society, about how to develop myself and my country,” she says.

She also started thinking a lot more about the gender gap in Cambodia. Girls in her home country attend fewer days of primary school, lag behind in literacy and are less likely to enroll in secondary school than boys. She felt called to ensure that these girls get equal access to education and the support to attend school for as long as their male counterparts do.

Sothira got to work on the issue for five years as part of the School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program, a four-country applied research study that used a randomized control trial design to assess promising interventions to keep students in grades seven, eight and nine from bowing to the combined academic, economic and cultural pressures to leave school.

In Cambodia, the project was implemented in 215 lower secondary schools beginning in 2012 and taught middle school teachers how to better identify and support students at risk of dropping out. Sothira found herself in national-level meetings with the Royal Government of Cambodia, working out how to help students stay in school with support from their teachers, parents and community members, as well as with motivation provided by  computer labs to impart highly valued computer literacy skills. As the project comes to a close, Sothira is making sure her government colleagues can carry on the work and continue to make gains in keeping girls and boys in school.

Sothira continues to serve as an education specialist with Kampuchean Action for Primary Education, a well-established nongovernmental organization that focuses on improving the access and quality of education for poor and vulnerable children in Cambodia.

She also continues to work with girls to address the gender gap in education. As part of a pilot project involving 125 high school students, she teaches English, computer literacy and income-generating skills such as embroidery.

“Through this the girls start to become aware of their power,” Sothira says. “I’m empowering them [by saying] that only you, only we can build up society.”

Sothira takes more pride in the young people she helps than she seems to take in herself. She’s proud, for example, when she recalls the success stories of a group of university graduates who could not find good jobs. She served as a resource person for them, providing support, training and mentorship.

Today, 20 of those 28 group members have become leaders in their industries as program managers or executive directors.

Sothira says she cries with happiness when she sees her students get jobs and find ways to work in society to change things.

Committed to ensuring that Cambodia’s girls and boys finish school, Sothira Ouk trained middle school teachers at more than 200 schools on how to recognize students at the highest risk of dropping out. She also coached educators on ways to partner with families to improve support for vulnerable students. Photo by Nicolas Axelrod.

Always learning

And she never stops her own learning. Sothira says she constantly reads, watches and learns from others.

She learned what not to do in the classroom from an “auntie,” a teacher Sothira says is so strict that her students are frightened of her. From this older woman, Sothira has observed that students who are scared don’t want to share and learn, which may push them to leave school.

And she has learned from her own experience that being a woman in the field of education sometimes requires a bit more hard work. Sothira says she sometimes works all night to get everything done and prove she’s up to the task in a way that will inspire other women and girls to have the confidence that they, too, can achieve success.

And although Sothira says she tries to inspire girls to follow in her footsteps, she also learns from them, too.

“Sometimes I learn from the young(er) generation,” she says. “I am still learning.”

By Jennifer Brookland