With a nervous student waiting for her turn to speak, the camera briefly surveyed the immediate environment leading to the front gates of a local NGO headquarters which offered free English classes. Motorcycles whizzed past, raising dust and gravel. Farmers tended to their weary cattle, tired after a long day of rice planting and earth ploughing. Occasionally they whipped a cow’s legs with a bamboo cane to prevent them from straying near neighbours’ huts. Local school children did everything possible to steal the spotlight, yelling out “Helloooooooooooooo!” as if a well-known pop singer or actor was dropping in.

David Calleja with students in Tropang Sdok village, Cambodia.

Clutching my camcorder, I turned my attention to the young woman about to be placed under the spotlight and asked what she thought would be her dream job in life.

A few seconds passed before Sae Khana’s eyes rolled around. Directing a hopeful glance towards her friends through the corner of her eye, she giggled before comprehending the question I had just asked.

“I want to be (an) English teacher.”

To her, all that mattered was giving an answer. Whether it turned out to be correct or not was irrelevant.

Answering personal questions in a foreign language in front of an audience is daunting enough, but for the first time, these students were taking part in a video biography, a last-minute plan that I had conceived the previous week out of sheer frustration.

So how did an interesting concept come to fruition?

Like all great achievements and classic dinner tales, the answer was simple: a teacher walkout borne out of sheer frustration. The thin line between being ostracised and performing an inglorious exit was crossed.

A simple rule in Cambodia is that if lessons are not fun, students will get bored and engage in private conversations in Khmer because they do not understand the lesson’s concepts. The theme was ordering food in a restaurant. With the commotion I had managed to put together in my classroom, the experience could have been lifted straight from John Cleese’s antics as the mad Basil Fawlty in the 1970s British sitcom Fawlty Towers. Perhaps I would have made for a good stunt double of Cleese’s character or his poor sidekick Manuel the waiter from Barcelona who bears the brunt of Cleese’s tantrums.

Unfortunately, I never got to use the DVD due to power restrictions. Recreating a fun-filled setting at 5pm on a humid and wet day was a subject I did not take at university all those years ago.

Throughout the classroom, spot-fire conversations broke out, people entered and left as they pleased, interrupting the flow. I actually went to the point of asking one drop-in if he wanted a coffee, a book and the chance to put his feet up on the table. Naturally, the sarcasm was not comprehended.

With the class in disarray, my recourse was to simply stand silently in the front, with my arms folded, waiting for everybody to notice me. But this did not happen.

I uncrossed my arms, gazed ahead with the students in my sights, said “Excuse me”, and headed for the exit, fleeing upstairs to my room.

The entire class was stunned.

In selecting what I saw as the right way to compose myself and step outside, I thought this would result in minimal disruption. What I did not factor in was the effects of a sudden departure to the door. To the students, this was out of character for me, and they were right.

Stomping up the stairs and marching into my bedroom, I searching everywhere for an idea, and then out of the corner of my eye, I spotted what seemed like a gleaming silver object inside my open backpack. My camcorder!

This would be potentially a lifesaver; all I had to do was figure out how to use it to the benefit of the class…in 30 seconds or less. I kept thinking about whether anybody was interested in participating in any project, considering I had left the class in such a way.

Placing the camcorder into a plastic bag, I rushed out of my room, ran down the stairs, and collected my thoughts with a big breath before re-entering the classroom. I convinced myself that I had struck gold.

Use this to understand your students and improve yourself, my conscience said. That’s when it hit me; make a video biography. Students love to talk in English, and I had the perfect tool to assist them. Heck, I told myself, they may even have fun.

The students had elevated me to a higher status for being a teacher, one I felt was undeserved. How could I explain my walkout? Things seemed awkward for the initial 30 seconds and lightening the mood would not be an easy job. Eventually, a student rose from her seat, cleared her throat and said, “Teacher David, we are sorry for being a bad class and making you angry.”

At the end of her sentence, she bowed her head and sat down.

I could feel my heart shredding, blood squelching everywhere, unable to stop the haemorrhaging.

So this is what I have reduced them to, said my conscience in a mocking tone. Well done, I hope you’re happy, big guy and with that came the sound of clap, clap, clap, in my head.

At this time, the emergency plan was unveiled. I removed the camcorder from the bag, held it in the air like it was a star that I had pulled out of the night sky and declared, “We are going to make a film.”

A chorus of excited ooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhsss and ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhs then echoed throughout the room. Girls giggled, and a couple of boys cheered and shouted, “Me movie star, teacher!”

This project, based on the reaction alone, was worth its weight in gold. I may as well have discovered electricity or the internet.

Moving to the whiteboard, I wrote the words biography and interview, coupled with a dodgy drawing of a person holding a video while asking questions to a second person. I told the class everybody would have the chance to talk about themselves, and that the planning would commence on Monday. From that moment on, a fusion of uneasiness and excitement seemed to be present in the air.