Put hands in air!
Give money me!
If no, maybe I kill you!

I stood in front of the class for the first time and felt nothing but doom. The twenty or so teens were staring at me hatefully, determined not to like me. At least that is what it felt like. These students, aged 14-19 had had the same teacher for almost two years and were very attached to him. And loyal. Two teachers before me had tried to pick up where he had left off, but had been voted out by the students who had threatened to change schools if they didn’t have another teacher. Private English school students in Cambodia always got their way and I was given the class with a warning: you might not last more than a day.

I knew I had to perform a miracle to win them over. I had to make them love me without losing my authority. I had to gain their respect, their trust and admiration. The most difficult part was that I had to do it in a fun and entertaining way. Teachers in Cambodia are not allowed to be boring or too serious. But, at the same time, parents expect to see the results of an expensive private education, so there is a limit to playing around. Finding a balance is as challenging as teaching itself.

I was in a bind. The first half of the class went miserably. Apparently, paying attention to me was optional. I couldn't get any responses to my questions, some of the students refused to open their books and others did homework for their Chinese class, ignoring me completely. I knew within the first 45 minutes that I needed to do something big. Something unforgettable.

Class, I want you in three groups.
Each group is to plan and commit the perfect crime.
The group that brings back the most money is the winner.

Teacher? What is mean, winner?

I don’t know where exactly the idea came from to turn my students into criminals and set them loose upon the school, but it couldn't have come at better time. That morning, we had been reading about burglaries and learned a mixed bag of crime words like blackmail, robber and kidnapping. The second half of the class was reserved for independent project work, games and activities that encouraged speaking and group work and creative development. Plotting criminal activities utilized these skills perfectly. Not only did it involve students working together using written and spoken English, but also created an atmosphere of cooperation and striving towards a mutual goal.

At last night we see you and Mr. Cheam together eat food.
Give us money or we tell to your husband.

I asked each group to write out a plan of action as well as a list of weapons or tools they might need to successfully complete their assigned crime. One group was sent to rob the front desk, another group was to blackmail the librarian and the third group was responsible for kidnapping the school secretary. When I first announced my plans, the class stared at me bemused, confused and hesitantly excited. I was winning them over by my audacity of action.

We take your secretary.
He is hostage with us.
We want 500 dollars.
Thank you.

All of our missions were successful. The receptionist quickly handed over the stack of photocopied 20's I had given her before the beginning of our crime spree and my little robbers brought back $ 180. My blackmailers were not as successful since the librarian was coy in her negotiations and only relented to paying a fraction of the original $ 250 demanded. The kidnappers played their part superbly, but were tricked by the school director when he jilted them $ 100, cleverly giving them the money in a sealed envelope.

My mission, likewise, was a success. By the end of that day, not only were my students using vocabulary they had learned that morning, writing independently of their workbooks and having a bit of fun, but they were also starting to like me. I didn't get voted out and a few weeks later, they threw me a surprise birthday party. By the end of the year I was in regular attendance at weddings and family functions. It took some craziness to win them over, but in the end it was worth it and some of my proudest moments and most touching memories from Cambodia come from the time I spent in the classroom.

To end any ideas that I might have been condoning or encouraging criminal behaviour, these activities were undertaken with the complete understanding from all parties that they were nothing more than a game and exercise. I had the full support of the school director, fellow staff and parents. To further discourage my students from developing any wrong ideas, I had them all arrested the following week.

Part 2 on its way.