New Zealand Law Society - Heartbreaking tales led to lawyer’s longstanding involvement in Cambodia

Heartbreaking tales led to lawyer’s longstanding involvement in Cambodia

This article is over 3 years old. More recent information on this subject may exist.

Denise Arnold
Denise Arnold

A “test bed” trust formed 10 years ago by Tauranga lawyer Denise Arnold to improve education in Cambodia is about to launch a national teacher training programme throughout the south-east Asian country.

The Cambodia Charitable Trust has taken on a national programme at the request of the Cambodia Ministry of Education to improve the training of teachers at the country’s 17 primary teachers training colleges.

Until now the Trust’s work has focused on getting children to school, keeping them safe, getting them uniforms and stationery, and working to upskill teachers in a number of schools.

Denise Joy (Denise) Arnold
Entry to law
Graduated LLB from Auckland University in 1989, Diploma of Business Studies from Massey University in 1992 and more recently Masters in International Development from Massey University. Admitted in 1989.
Partner at Lyon O’Neale Arnold, Tauranga.
Specialist area
Conveyancing and commercial law.

Denise says Cambodia’s new national programme produces 1600 new trained teachers a year. “We are working alongside the training colleges and now the trainee teachers are coming out better able.”

“Our programme is pulling together all the different stakeholders involved in producing those new graduate teachers. Creating that new platform bringing all the stakeholders together has been one of our most significant achievements in Cambodia.

“Teacher trainees go into schools which have no resources and the teachers themselves have very little capacity. So their teaching practicum – supervised classroom teaching time – is of very little value, but when they graduate and go and work in that environment most of what they learned erodes.

“They have had no support for their new techniques, no encouragement or professional development. Our programme trains the teacher trainers but brings in what we call associate teachers - the teachers who are responsible for those students when they are in practicum - into the training programme. It is upskilling pre-service and in-service teachers at the same time.

“It means those 1600 teachers, if they only teach 40 children a year - which is a low number because some are teaching 70 plus children - that’s 64,000 children a year getting better education. And if repeated every year it accumulates. That to me is a ground shift in the quality of education in Cambodia.

“I have realised that our particular strength is identifying problems and then designing programmes that solve those problems. Testing them, implementing them, testing them again, monitoring them and evaluating the success of them in short, quick feedback.

“We get enormous return on our small dollars. I think that’s the space we occupy in the education sector in Cambodia. We have become the test bed. We can come up with solutions, make them work and they are then ready to be scaled up.”

Denise says the latest development with the Cambodia Ministry of Education is fulfilling one of her goals of scaling up to a national programme. “That will have an enormous impact and is at the other end of what we have been doing.”

Sad stories that led to action plan

She first went to Cambodia as the country was rebuilding in the years following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime, after reading about children being rented out from a brothel.

During that initial visit it was clear to her there was a desire and a need for education, particularly for girls.

The Trust, which started with two schools, is funded by donations and its current income is about $600,000 a year. It fully supports 16 schools, with a cluster programme for a further seven schools, and 442 sponsored children.

“We have got about 10,000 children on our school roles and we are now supporting this national teacher training programme which has 1600 people involved. I’m about $200,000 short to be able to keep this national programme going and that’s my problem.

Denise Arnold in Cambodia
Denise Arnold in Cambodia

“I have managed to fill the $200,000 gap this year. The next school year starts in November so the pressure is really on right now.”

The Trust, which employs 10 staff in Cambodia, gets some support from UNICEF, but not so much from the Cambodian government. “We have very loyal donors and many have been with us from when we started 10 years ago.”

Denise’s Dad Brian (82), a former teacher, and Mum Fiona (77) Tait, a nurse, are actively involved in helping the work in Cambodia.

“Their experience has been invaluable, particularly my Mum with her public health nursing experience. She has been training the health team on how to assess children and their needs. But Dad struggles a bit with the heat.”

Denise was recently awarded the annual Robert Anderson Memorial Award. The award, commemorating Tauranga social justice worker Dr Robert Anderson, is presented by Amnesty International Tauranga Moana to recognise outstanding contributions to human rights, peace and social justice.

Daughters making their own mark on the world

Denise joined what is now Lyon O’Neale Arnold in 1989, was made associate in 1992 and partner in 1996. She married Doug Lyon, a partner in the firm, 12 years ago.

She has daughters Emily (25), a videographer and photographer with her own small business who has been involved in working in Cambodia, and Tegan (23), who worked for the Ministry of Primary Industries before heading to Canada to follow her passion for environmental science and clean waterways.

There are no other lawyers in her family and neither daughters were interested in following in her footsteps. “Both are very keen on leaving their mark on the world in other ways, but not in law.”

“I’m a bit lacking in hobbies but I love reading and used to make patchwork quilts and sewing but I haven’t for about 10 years since Cambodia started.

“I like reading how to improve the quality of education and how to eradicate poverty, which is fairly hard stuff. When I read fiction I read light, such as English romance writer JoJo Moyes.”

A keen road cyclist – “Cycling is a clean form of exercise” - Denise rode in the World Masters Games in Auckland in 2017. “I got nagged and nagged to do it - 60 or 70km over a mean, hilly course.

“I like cycling and mountain biking but prefer not to be in a pressured road racing situation. I also love being at the beach – it’s a place where my mind has a wee rest. Whangamata is our favourite holiday spot in New Zealand.”

Husband Doug is also a keen cyclist and the couple also enjoy sailing their yacht – a 43 ft Beneteau Cyclades. “That is the boat that will see us out. It’s a big boat and sometimes hard for the two of us to manage on a windy day.”

“We haven’t done any extensive voyages, I sail café to café. But we do the Auckland to Tauranga race occasionally and we are going up to Bay of Islands next February for Waitangi Day.”

Denise and Doug have recently come back from a four-week overseas holiday, including two weeks sailing in Greece on their first international sailing on a charter boat. “We enjoyed that, and it is a whole different world, even how they berth their boats.”

“I didn’t travel until I was in my 30s. But through Doug’s sons, we have family in China - two little grandchildren – and we go there a bit to see them.”

Playing the right type of Cohen music

“I’m a consumer of music but don’t play anything and don’t ask me to sing. I like the blues – Nina Simone, Roy Hawkins, BB King and Leonard Cohen. I like the modern Cohen, not the depressive slow Cohen which I always thought I was playing at the wrong speed, and I regret not going to his last New Zealand concert. The kids have got me into indie-country stuff.

“I like Rialto films and will watch a series on Netflix but can’t cope with bang bang killing people or psychological thrillers. I hate that stuff and mystery murders. I like stories about real people and watching movies about normal people.”

Denise and Doug have no pets of their own but have a “grand puppy”.

“Daughter Emily has an Australian kelpie called Olive and she is the most beautiful dog in the world. I have not been a dog person but now I am a total Olive person.

“I was the first one to let her on my bed. I have been told off and have had to be controlled about it. I was pathetic. We all scramble to babysit her.

“Our Toyota Prado is a real workhorse and handy for loading stuff in and skiing, which I do every now and then. We also have a 2012 convertible Mini, which I don’t like because the visibility for backing is terrible.

“So I am complaining and our next car will be a hybrid. We have a lot of greenie influence coming from the kids. Daughter Tegan was involved in the United Nations Oceans conference in 2017. Both daughters are passionate about cleaning up the ocean, so we are having to go hybrid.

“I love cooking and used to be a very good cook, but now I tend to rush things. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would be on my dinner guest list, with US economist and academic Jeffrey Sachs, and Bill Gates - because I want his money for Cambodia. I would cook something safe, like a casserole, and soups in winter, with a Central Otago pinot noir. Or maybe a Cambodian dish like Khymer curry and fish amok (steamed fish curry).”

Denise was initially interested in being a doctor – “but don’t go there”.

“But I was in the school debating team and always wanted to help the underdog, although I don’t think that translates to commercial and conveyancing law and I’m not a litigator. I love the strategic thinking and the planning and putting together the right solution for the client. I’m not so good at the ticky box and whole form-filling thing that my job has become more of.”

“My memorable moment was when we managed to get LAWASIA invited to the Bar Association of Cambodia to talk to the lawyers there about seven years ago. That was a first. LAWASIA had long been trying to get in to Cambodia for a variety of reasons.”

LAWASIA’s 2018 annual conference is in Siem Reap in November.

“My passion is for developments in Cambodia, no longer in the law.

“I have a very strong sense of doing the right thing and personal integrity and I never want to be in a position where I am in a conflict or I have inadvertently got myself into a situation where I’m doing the wrong thing. I really just want to keep doing my job and keep myself safe.

“I am not working in a very high risk area but I have got to the point where I no longer want the challenges of the really hard stuff.”

Lawyer Listing for Bots