Puthearorth Rodwell Kov, also known as Rodwell, is a Cambodian-American mathematics educator based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I had the opportunity to speak with him about his journey from Seattle, Washington to his homeland, and how he encourages Cambodian students to develop a love for mathematics and problem solving.
He shared his experiences living in the heart of Phnom Penh and his perspectives on the current state of education in Cambodia, as well as his own school, the Rodwell Learning Center.
Tharum: Please tell me about yourself (where were you born). Your living in the US (how did you get there?)
Rodwell: My name is Puthearorth Rodwell Kov, and I go by Rodwell. I am currently a mathematics teacher and a Managing Director of Rodwell Learning Center based here in Phnom Penh.
I was born in Phnom Penh right after the war and attended elementary and up to middle school here.
I migrated to the U.S. in 1996 with sponsorship from my family. I continued my education in high school there starting in grade 9 in Seattle, Washington State. I went on to obtain my Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences. Right after attaining my bachelor’s degree, I made a journey back home for the first time since I had left.
I believe the trip made me realize just how much I wanted to give back. I think you can take me away from Cambodia, but you can’t take Cambodia away from me.
There was always something about returning to Cambodia and become apart of the development that has happened. So, I decided to return to the U.S. and continued my education in Masters in Teaching Mathematics, in Curriculum and Instruction Development, to be exact.
Tharum: After living in Cambodia for some years, what’s your perspective of the people and the country?
Rodwell: I think Cambodia has a lot of room to grow if its people are more cohesive in terms of working together and wanting more for the whole country rather than just too focused on their personal growth. I think we need to reteach about community value and how others can help us grow together in ways we can imagine.
I have met and worked with many great people who are positive, determined, and selfless. We have many catalyzes for change in various fields including technology, entertainment, education, social business, and more and I believe the change is coming.
We just have to be ready for it.
Tharum: What do you like most about living in Phnom Penh? And don’t like most?
Rodwell: Living in Phnom Penh gives me easy access to everything especially the diversity of food, entertainment, and travel. I think we are so close to being a huge travel hub in Asia and with easy access to other countries via air travel, now it’s amazing how fast I can get on a plane and be in the next country.
I think I have traveled so much more living in Cambodian than I did so when I was in the States.
What I don’t like the most? The traffic. And I know it’s the same in major cities, but I am not frustrated by being stuck in one place. It’s the inconsiderate drivers or street parkers. They really drive me insane.
Tharum: When in the US, what’s your thought about Cambodia?
Rodwell: When I was growing up in Cambodia in the 80’s and the early 90’s, I didn’t know any better to be honest. I saw everything as was, meaning I thought that was just it. I never knew how things could get better or improved because possibly I was still young at the time. However, after growing up in the States for over a decade, I began to realize how things can change to be better for the people. More importantly, I see how I can become a part of the solution that Cambodia needs especially in the field of education.
I truly believe, then and now, that education is the key to changes that this country needs to continue to move forward.
Tharum: Why did you decide to move back to Cambodia?
Rodwell: I think as a Cambodian I almost felt like I have a duty and obligation to give back, to be a part of the change that is happening right now. After teaching in the U.S. for over 5 years, I realize that I am needed most here in Cambodia, not in the U.S.
My work here with the students is rewarding and uplifting. I get to work with an amazing group of students every day. It gives me so much hope to see how they grow and how I can help to mold their mindset.
People often ask me, “aren’t you tired of all the problems Cambodia faces every day?” My answer is, “No! Isn’t that true with everywhere you live? Plus, I don’t work with problems. I work with students every day teaching them to become part of the solution. So no, I don’t work with problems. I work with solutions.”
Tharum: Why did you open a mathematics school in Phnom Penh?
Rodwell: First, I love mathematics since I was young and it teaches more than just numbers. It’s about problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking, communications, and more importantly, logic and reasoning. So I figure that’s where I would start, the core of all matters.
Our school has a Latin motto that says “Vivire Est Cogitare” which means, “To live is to think.” The phrase is to encourage people to live with a mindset of always looking for problems to solve rather than to simply worry about how to survive each day. So that’s why I chose mathematics.
However now, our school has evolved into more than just a mathematics school. We offer all subjects to students with a science background as well as social sciences.
We do so many more activities with our students to get them thinking outside of the box.
We have an outdoor program including camping and hiking. We have Ultimate Frisbee and sports program every week for our students to be active to stay healthy.
We have a community service program where our students are washing motorbikes raising money for Kuntha Bopha Hospital.
We have a TedEdxTalk club for students to participate in public speaking. On the weekends, we have just recently started to introduce our students to computer classes including photoshop, graphic design, and computer coding.
Tharum: What are the 3 most important things you learned from your teaching and running the school here?
It takes a lot of patience to work in education. This isn’t a new thing that I’ve learned per se, but it’s definitely a good reminder of how much patience I need to engage with students, teachers, and especially parents. I always have to remind myself of how good things come from small changes. So, it takes time.
Be Different. We have a saying at Rodwell Learning Center that, Different Doesn’t Mean Wrong. I think it’s important to walk the walk and talk the talk. From running the school to how I wear my appearance, I often try to show my students that it is okay to be different, to think differently. This is how we can get the students to start looking at things outside the box to find solutions that our country needs. We don’t need conformity but a different angle of how to approach a specific set of problems. And that starts with being different.
Students are kind, thoughtful, and eager. Before I arrived or even right after I opened the school, some people especially Cambodian teachers often told me how impossible the students here are. They are thought to be rowdy, uninterested and extremely unmotivated, but more importantly, students here are weak and low skills. I did find some of that true, but what I also have learned is that they can be changed. I have met so many students who started out low-skilled but ended up with amazing achievements. They are not helpless and hopeless. Our students are motivated and wanting to change. They just need to be shown out. To say the least, they are the exact reason why I chose to become a teacher.
Tharum: Would you tell your friends and a new generation of Cambodian Americans like you to come back to Cambodia and contribute something meaningful? And why?
Rodwell: I would and I have. I have seen and met many Cambodian Americans like myself returned to Cambodia to do some seriously meaningful work. Not just Cambodian Americans for that matter. I have met Cambodian French, Cambodian Australians, Cambodian Canadian, and more.
I think we are returning home to be a part of the change. However, with that being said, I think we also need a platform and access to information on how some of those young Cambodian Americans can return home.
There is no easy way except to just plunge in. And that can be scary sometimes considering some of them have never been here or don’t know the language.
I think it’s important to give them all the support they need before asking them to make the leap.
Tharum: What things are on your wish list for a better Cambodian education?
Rodwell: Oh, there are a few but these are definitely on my wish list:
- We need a new curriculum and books. It’s so outdated by decades.
- Curriculum needs to focus on holistic education. Exam-focused education cannot survive in the 21st century.
- We need access to technology in teaching. PowerPoint is no longer considered technology. We need laptops and calculators to assist our thinking and calculation.
- We definitely need to restructure teacher’s salary, working hours, and rigorous requirements and evaluation
- Parents’ involvement is so important in a child’s life. I think our education system needs to find ways to involve parents.