How not to run a workshop on social issues for teenage boys…

How not to run a workshop on social issues for teenage boys…

…There are the obvious things like don’t turn up naked, don’t bring a crate of beer, don’t encourage fighting, don’t start a brawl. And some of these things we managed. We’d both just done some laundry so clothes weren’t a problem and we were saving the crate for the weekend. The other things were a little trickier. You see we were there to save these boys from a life of gangs, drugs and unemployment. We were there to do some drama.

Me and Tim both studied Theatre at university and we were part of a professional theatre company once upon a time – we were even interviewed by the big BBC (Leicester). So when we were asked to do a workshop on social issues for the Get Ready Boys, we jumped at the chance to split them in groups and get them to act out some dramatic scenes from their lives.

For the most part this went as smooth as you can imagine a workshop with Cambodian teenagers going when you only speak English and a few words in Khmer… So as you can imagine a few mistakes were made.

Mistake number one:

We began the lesson by asking ‘what are the main social issues in Phnom Penh?’

A harmless and self explanatory question you might think. At least that’s what we thought until one of the boys slowly raised his hand. ‘Yes?’ Tim asked. ‘Hmm’ came a meek voice, ‘traffic jams.’

Now you can’t deny the boy was right. Traffic is insane in Phnom Penh. And it can be especially bad in the slum areas as the roads are much much smaller. One delivery truck shuts an entire community down for an hour. But it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. Still I smiled and nodded and wrote it down on the board as part of our spider web.

The ones that followed were more up our street – drugs, robbery, gangs. This led to our next mistake.

Mistake number two:

Tim: ‘So who do you think is likely to be in a gang.’

Earnest boy: ‘me.’

Whilst we admired his honesty, we really did, we weren’t really looking for a confession.

We decided to move on.

‘So class, how do we help him not become a gang member? What should we do to stop him?’

I thought this was an ingenious question. Here I have turned a potentially difficult situation around. I’ve taken what could have become a gang support group and turned it around into a lets help one another avoid a life of misery group. This is going well, I thought.

That was until I got the answer.

‘Lock him in a room.’

This was going to be a long lesson. Best get them doing some practical exercises.

Mistake number three:

Asking a group of teenage boys to act out some of the situations we’ve discussed. The first scene involved a boy driving his invisible motorbike into a wall… and almost concussing himself. The second involved a group of boys brawling in the street because a homeless alcoholic tried to steal their things and the third involved shooting up some heroin.

Still they were engaged, they were thinking and when we discussed how we could handle the situation better at the end of each scene they had ideas. More than just lock him in a room.

We were making progress. Half the battle is encouraging these boys to think, to hope and to want a better future. Once they’ve learnt the basics, they can go on to vocational training. Our boys were almost at the end of their Life Skills course and almost ready for the big world of training and job hunting. They were almost at the end of our workshop too.

To finish we asked them to draw an educational poster aimed at younger children to help them avoid one of the issues we’d discussed. Our final mistake.

Mistake number four:

Perhaps it was a mistranslation, perhaps it symbolised something tremendous. But one boy decided that the best way to save the next generation was to draw a chicken’s heart, an amputated hand and a hammer.

Still, most of them were brilliant. They created some incredibly inspiring and uplifting posters.

For anyone planning a workshop for teenage boys, beware. Nothing will run according to plan. Nothing will be as straight forward as you imagine. But it will be 100% more entertaining.

We were laughing from beginning to end. Even during the serious bits, the boys still found time to make some jokes. Throughout the course of the workshop I was surprised once more by the Cambodian people’s outlook on life – their positivity in the face of all adversity, their community spirit and their desire to rebuild Cambodia.

Despite our mistakes and despite our inability to communicate in Khmer, I felt like the workshop was a success. We might not have got them through the next few years of vocational training, but we engaged them and we got them thinking. Still, I’m left wondering who learnt more? Me or the boys? I definitely have a few more dos and don’ts when working with teenage boys now.


Since writing this blog the boys have completed the Get Ready Boys programme. Two of them are returning to school, one has started work as a tuk-tuk driver and eleven are starting vocational training to become electricians and cooks among other things. We wish them all the luck in the world.

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