Where Students Return to be Teachers


Balik Pulau’s SMJK Sacred Heart has high ambitions and a strong track record to match.

Established in 1955 as a Chinese independent mission school, SMJK Sacred Heart in Balik Pulau lies ensconced on church grounds, in a rural setting where time seems suspended.
In 1961 the school board decided to accept the Ministry of Education’s offer of financial aid. It became a national-type school, but acquired permission to maintain the teaching of the Chinese language as one of its core subjects. Today, Chinese is taught for six 40-minute periods a week. All students in the school have to sit for the Chinese Language paper in public examinations, such as PT3 for Form 3 students and SPM for Form 5 students.
SMJK Sacred Heart shares the premises with its primary school and is a feeder school for SJK (C) Sacred Heart Balik Pulau. The school’s student enrolment peaked at around 1,300 in 2007-2008. In 2009, its enrolment started dropping. This decline coincided with the relocation of SMJK Phor Tay from Tanjung Tokong to Sungai Dua. Many SMJK Sacred Heart students, particularly those from Sungai Ara and Bayan Lepas, decided to shift to SMJK Phor Tay for logistical reasons.
Today, SMJK Sacred Heart has 803 students: 90% Chinese, eight per cent Malay and two per cent Indian and other races. It has 63 teachers, of which 60% have stayed for a decade. Its longest-serving teacher is Lo Chih Ming, the Science Head. He was transferred from his school in Tanjung Bungah in 1983 and talks, with fond affection, of students who have left and who still remember teachers like him.
“Our students are a little shy but always respectful. Sometimes, they call out greetings when we pass their place of work,” says Lo. “Last year, a former student, now an oncologist in the US, came to visit.”

Geraldine Chin and Lo Chih Ming.

Classes were bigger in the 1980s, with around 40-odd students per class. Today, each comprises 33 students. Lo thinks this is better because “smaller classes are easier to manage” and there is better student-teacher interaction.
Despite its relatively small headcount, SMJK Sacred Heart has produced many students who have excelled and moved on to top colleges and universities in Penang and overseas. Recently, it produced a Bank Negara scholar, Tan Ying Xin, who scored 10 A+s; she was also a King Scout. (Bank Negara scholarships are awarded annually to the nation’s topmost students to pursue their education overseas.) SMJK Sacred Heart’s list of academic glory also includes Soh Wei Qi and Soh Wei Yan who both scored straight A+s (11A+s) and were awarded Public Service Department ( JPA) Scholarships.
The top students at SMJK Sacred Heart tend to take pure science. Two out of six upper form classes consist of pure science students studying biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Lo’s most memorable student was “not my best student” but someone who studied till Form 4 and then took a break from school for family reasons. When she took her Form 5 examinations, “she scored in science, without studying for one year.” Her sister is now studying at SMJK Sacred Heart.
A Life-Long Connection
It is not unusual to find teachers there who were former students at the school. One of them, Lim Swee Eng, whose hometown is Balik Pulau, was a student from 1972 to 1977. He returned to teach Mathematics in 2008.

Class in session.

School compound.

“During my time,” he recalls, “there were only 20 students in my class. There were no hand phones, and students were obedient and well behaved. We had fewer activities then: Scouts, Girl Guides, Red Crescent, basketball and volleyball.”
Geraldine Chin was Lo’s Form 2 student in 1994. In 2008 she returned to the school to teach English and History. “Mr Lo is the most patient teacher and never gets angry,” she says.
Just like Lo who says he likes teaching at SMJK Sacred Heart because “the parents and children are good,” Chin says “my colleagues are very nice” and she had “great teachers like Mr Lo.” She identifies her English teacher, Puan Rajis, as her mentor and says that “by the time I went to Form 4, I was very sure I wanted to be a teacher.”
An Active School
Extra-curricular activities at the school include participation in Penang’s Young Enterprise (YE) Program. According to Lim Gin Wah, the teacher in charge of the YE Club, the YE Program “trains students to start up a company and manage the life cycle of the business, planning prototypes and creating workable products.” Motorola has been the mentor to the school’s YE Club for over 10 years. Last year, the fourmember school team was awarded first place and selected to represent Malaysia in the international competition in Seoul.
On top of that, as a conforming school, SMJK Sacred Heart tries to preserve its Chinese culture: this is reflected in extracurricular activities such as the Chinese Orchestra Club, Lion Dance Club and Chinese Painting Club. The school has also produced students who have excelled in sports. Today, it can boast of significant achievements in table tennis and athletics, primarily attributable to the sports coach, Loh Hui Lih, who joined the school in 2010.

Ong Bun Kian.

The school has seen its share of principals. Lo recalls that during his time, five or six principals came and went. As a mission school, priests used to be principals as well. The last missionary principal, says Lo, was Father Chu. “He was strict but the students respected him. When he was ill with cancer, students went to visit him.”
According to Ong Bun Kian, the current principal, distance and location are an important consideration for students, and even teachers. “Every year, five or six teachers ask for a transfer because of the commute,” she says. The school is located on church grounds and as its name suggests, SMJK Sacred Heart is very much a missionary school whereby the appointment of the Chairperson of the Board of Governors is done by the Bishop of Penang.
Ong is a practical person, but that does not stop her from dreaming and hoping. “We hope that in 10 years, our enrolment will increase to 1,200. We’ll have to wait 10 years because it takes that time for the students to go through the cycle of primary school education.” She thinks that new housing developments in the vicinity will attract young families with children who can potentially be future students at SMJK Sacred Heart.
One of Lo’s students from the 1980s, a former school volleyball player, recently met him for coffee and made this comment: “Do you know that the time we went to compete in town was the first time we went out of Balik Pulau?”
Perhaps, just like a basketball or volleyball player, SMJK Sacred Heart is now better prepared to “go to town” and get those goals in terms of student numbers. With its dedicated teachers, excelling students and a surrounding ambience of peaceful simplicity, it might have a good enough reach for scoring more goals.

Elizabeth Su is a Mason Fellow from Harvard. She believes that one of the best ways to learn is to ask the right questions.

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