Halfway through my second year of working in the management consulting line—my first job after graduation—I decided to quit and join Teach for Malaysia (TFM). TFM is an organisation that recruits young professionals to teach in high-need schools in Malaysia for two years to help end education inequity. I wanted to join the movement partly because I was questioning my purpose in life and partly due to my frustration with the state of the country—particularly with the continuous criticism of our education system.
I was sent to a secondary school four hours away from home and was asked to teach history. When the school’s English department found out that I could also speak English, I was also made the English teacher. I was later made the PE teacher as well after the school learned that I played netball for my state back in my high school days. As a new teacher, I found this fascinating and exhilarating at the same time.
My first day of school started off well. I had a plan — to go in stern but kind, strict but loving. My first day of school ended with me breaking up a fight over a pen right in the middle of my introductory lesson. One of the boys involved got so angry that he lifted his desk to throw it across the room at his friend-now-enemy. Thirteen year-old boys who barely stood up to my waist were already getting themselves into trouble on their first day of secondary school.
If teaching had taught me anything valuable, it has taught me the true meaning of humility. I walked into the school thinking I was overqualified for the job with the kind of experience I already had. Little did I know that none of my achievements meant anything to these kids, a majority of whom came from broken homes and families making less than RM1,500 a month. Education was not a top priority and school was a place where they would kill time during the day. At the time I started teaching, the school was ranked among the bottom 50 schools out of 2,300 schools in Malaysia. The number-one disciplinary offense was classroom truancy. The school seemed to be in a constant state of recess in which students were seen loitering everywhere except in the classrooms. A teacher even dubbed the phenomenon the “shopping mall school” where students roamed around like they would in a shopping centre.
I had a student who got me very confused with the way he wrote his name. All the letters were upside down. I later found out that he could not spell his own name and was looking down at his nametag to copy the letters on it. I also had students who would struggle with a Peter and Jane book. Thirteen year-olds who could barely read or write were promoted to the next academic year every 12 months even though they were nowhere near achieving the learning objectives expected of their age. I had students who could not speak or understand the national language, the medium of instruction. Imagine trying to explain the words “civilisation” and “colonialist” in my history class using a language so foreign to these kids. There were students who, during exams, would only write their names on the paper and then put their heads down to sleep until time was up. Vandalism was rampant. We didn’t have enough tables and chairs because they were mostly broken. Students had to “steal” tables and chairs from neighbouring classrooms while other students were away in the lab or the workshop. No decoration lasted longer than two days on the classroom wall. Everything got torn down and shredded to pieces. That was simply the culture.
I was facing students who were completely uninterested in doing well in school, and had no qualms about being behind in their academics. Learning, to them, was irrelevant. They had been failing their whole life in school but were still offered jobs at night stalls and at the car wash, which paid them and filled their hungry bellies. What did education ever give them? The drive for academic achievements was simply lost on them. They had no one to speak English with at home and no reason to learn history, and they had been surviving without having to pass Math. To these kids, nothing they learned in school was applicable in the real life.
Teachers were exhausted and over-burdened. The better you were at the job, the more responsibility you were asked to carry on your shoulders. I refuse to think that bad teachers started off bad. Some- where along the way of their teaching career, the exhaustion got so all-consuming that not caring made the most sense to the preservation of one’s sanity. Jaded was the way to be. There were only so many kids you could help at one time.
Despite the challenges, my experience with my students has been my biggest source of motivation and inspiration. The more I worked with them, the more I realised that, despite their circumstances and the kind of environment they grew up in, they were capable of creativity and expression. They had potential that I could not have seen if I had not been given that many contact hours for all the subjects I was asked to teach. I ended up teaching for four years in the school and co-founded an education social enterprise at the end of my second year with three other fellow teachers. We wanted to create a conducive learning environment in which the students took ownership of the classroom and found a way to apply the knowledge they learnt. Every piece of the furniture at our centre was made by our students. It taught them the value of things and we haven’t seen a single vandalism case in our centre. Everything that is taught in our centre comes with a real-life, project-based challenge which students are required to apply their knowledge to tackle. We try to bring relevance back into learning to show that it is better to be in the know than to be ignorant—simply because knowledge can enrich one’s life. Drive comes from interest rather than the chase for academic achievements. We still struggle from time to time trying to convince other teachers and parents that even though we don’t teach from the textbook, the goal is to push kids not to regurgitate facts but to apply what they know to make the world a better place. In short, we want to create sustainability in the act of learning.
In our centre, we teach kids how to code and programme so that we can close the opportunity and achievement gap between their school and the better schools around them. We teach them not to be afraid to make mistakes because that is the only way humans can innovate and create. These kids have slowly changed the way they view education. There is now a larger purpose. It is more than just homework and exam grades. It changed their behaviour and in turn affected the way they behave in school. It affected the teachers who taught them in school and inspired a new culture. Last year, two of our students were among the top-10 young innovators in Malaysia and won a free trip to Silicon Valley to pitch their idea. No one in their community has gone that far before at such a young age.
In retrospect, the challenges I faced in the classroom in the four years I was teaching were the reasons why I did not go back to the corporate world after my two-year fellowship with TFM. It was the wake-up call that reminded me I could do more, that my privilege was also a responsibility to not walk away. The challenges in the classroom became valuable lessons my colleagues and I learned from to start a sustainable initiative that could change the community for the better, to influence the way kids are taught and to push for a systemic change within the education sphere. Challenges are indeed inherent opportunities.
Alina Amir is one of the four co-founders at Arus Academy, an after-school programme that promotes interdisciplinary learning. Before Arus, Alina graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was an analyst at Accenture before teaching History as a Teach For Malaysia fellow for four years in a public school. Alina loves hiking and wishes she had the time for it.