No easy task to educate


A teacher’s contribution to nation-building, especially in high-need schools, is more important than we think. And it’s no walk in the park either, as Teach for Malaysia fellow Alina Amir discovers.

Nothing could have prepared me for school. If I thought having a degree from a US college and a job at a big consulting firm in the city were enough, I was wrong – none of those did anything for my self- confidence when faced with rowdy kids in a classroom where anarchy reigned. Down I fell from my high horse within the first few days of becoming a fellow with Teach for Malaysia (TFM).

TFM is a challenging leadership development programme that places young professionals in high-need schools in the country to serve as teachers for two years. Fellows are expected to leave an impact in the classroom and raise academic achievement and aspirations in the attempt to fight educational inequality. It was one of the toughest, but most fulfilling things I have ever done in my life.

During my first year, I was assigned to teach English to a classroom filled with angry 13-year-olds who teased and taunted each other and saw no reason to listen to teachers or do anything asked by them. Fights regularly broke out almost every time lessons were on. On my very first day, two groups got into a brawl behind the classroom, leading to one student throwing a table across the room.

Among these students, one boy stood out. He was the naughtiest of them, the kindler of all fights, and he hated my guts for making him practice his reading. Yet he had never missed school and I was torn between getting him to sit down and learn, and concentrating on the rest of the class. On one particularly tense day, the boy kept taunting a friend even after I asked both of them to stop. Instead of stopping, he got up and challenged his friend to a fist fight.

If I thought having a degree from a US college and a job at a big consulting firm in the city were enough, I was wrong – none of those did anything for my self-confidence when faced with rowdy kids in a classroom where anarchy reigned.

I walked up to him and screamed, “Get out of my class, now! Take your bag and get out!” I threw his schoolbag out the door, harder than I intended to, and pushed him all the way out of the classroom, closing the doors behind him. The class, for the first time, got eerily quiet and I went back to my lesson as if nothing happened.

An ongoing collaboration with fellow TFM teacher David Chak, Project ACE (Afterschool Coding Enterprise) aims to equip students with basic programming skills as part of their efforts to integrate 21st century skills into the national syllabus.

People don’t seem to realise that improving education is actually maddeningly slow work, bitterly contentious and very expensive.

Once the last bell rang, I got into my car and drove straight to the boy’s house. It was my first home visit, and I felt bad – I was supposed to help my students get better, not throw them out of my class. I knocked on the door and a tired looking lady carrying a baby opened it. Inside the house, I saw two more toddlers in diapers. When I introduced myself as her son’s teacher, she seemed apprehensive. I told her how her son was behaving in school and what happened that day, and I apologised for what I had done. She merely looked at me and said, “Do whatever you have to do.”

I don’t think the boy expected me to actually show up at his house. He never became a model student, but he behaved better after that day. In fact, everyone else got better, including me. The same group of boys who once refused to listen to me looked for me in the staffroom to make sure I remembered to enter their class. One of the naughty ones would have his book ready on the table for my lesson. I started to work harder at understanding why my kids behaved the way they did. I became braver in disciplining my kids, though I no longer chased any of them out of the class. I opened up and decided to truly embrace living within the community my kids grew up in.

I had thought that I could walk away and go back to the city whenever I wanted to, but I finally realised that I would actually be losing out if I quit. I told sceptical parents that their kids were the reason why I enjoyed coming to work so much. I grasped how crucial a teacher’s role in school is, and how effective instruction is all it takes to turn things around. I could contribute much more by working with the kids who one day will be the future of Malaysia. I’ve only got four more months to go before my two years are up, and I have no plans of leaving school or the education field anytime soon.

People don’t seem to realise that improving education is actually maddeningly slow work, bitterly contentious and very expensive. But there are opportunities. I may only have been there for a year and a half, but I could already see how my kids’ environment is slowly changing as more development takes place. Malls are being built, train tracks are being placed, and new infrastructure and career opportunities are being created. My school, located right in the middle of all this, is getting worse as the year goes by – out of 2,375 secondary schools in the entire nation, it currently ranks at the bottom 50.

At the start of my second year, we turned the community hall into a learning centre to provide after-school support to enhance numeracy and literacy skills for kids living in Flat Taman Sri Janggus, Alma. These sessions, named “Blok A” after the block where the hall is located in the low cost flat, focus on training students to tutor their peers. Allowing them to contribute would help them develop a sense of ownership in their own education. By the third day, 120 kids from the community had signed up and within six months, we managed to reach 200 students ranging from ages seven to 17.

Scenes from "Blok A", an afterschool learning centre where the community gets together to tutor students.

“Blok A” kids were showing significant improvement in Mathematics scores, scoring 23% higher than the average student in school. Furthermore, by engaging with the community, I was able to meet more parents, rope in more volunteers to help out and get more stakeholders involved in the quality of our kids’ education. We even had a booth at the Connect_Ed 2014 education conference in KL where the kids spoke in front of a crowd to explain what “Blok A” is all about.

Today, with a few other TFM fellows, we are planning how to empower our underprivileged kids to become independent learners. We’re trying to take the national syllabus one step higher by making it relevant and applicable for the kids to give them a sense of purpose. We want to make sure they get a 21st century education so that they don’t lag behind when it comes to understanding programming languages and answering higher order thinking questions.

We’re not just teaching academic skills; we’re preparing them for complex future industries that are rapidly changing or might not yet even exist as you read this. Ultimately, the most important lesson is to teach them to work harder for whatever lies in store. So if you are passionate about making change and solving problems and are concerned about what will become of our beloved country, TEACH! Schools are where so many improvements can be made to turn lives around. It is the one place where you can finally figure out what went wrong – and then do something about it.

Alina Amir is a second-year fellow with TFM. She has a degree in Actuarial Science with a minor in Business Administration from University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. Prior to joining the fellowship, she was an analyst with Accenture Consulting. She is very passionate about education and transforming the system for the better.

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