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Teach for Malaysia Confession: A Vocation Like No Other

R. Nadeswaran wrote on the Sun Daily:
Without the hard work and toil by teachers, we would have had a soulless society. They are the backbone of a nation – responsible for moulding the minds of students and shaping their future. If there were no teachers, our society wouldn't have progressed. They are the ones who educate the society and make us all better human beings.

Knowledge, patience and courage are some of the more required qualities of teachers. When teachers take on children of different backgrounds and teach them the basics of life and make them better human beings, they play several other roles.

Ever since receiving the email which was forwarded over the weekend, I have been wondering if it ought to be replied and what kind of advice ought to be offered to the writer. I have personal attachments and sentiments for the Teach for Malaysia (TFM) programme which was launched by a small group of young graduates three years ago.

Alina Amir, a TFM teacher poured her heart out in a Facebook posting which has now gone viral. I have no details about her but judging by the criteria set by TFM, she must be a twenty-something graduate, teaching in a rural secondary school.

She details her trials and tribulations in her dealings with young people; their attitude towards learning; their outlook on wanting to gain knowledge; and above all, their interest in wanting some form of education before stepping out into a whole new world.

Reading the first few paragraphs, one cannot help but wonder why a young graduate, who could have been employed by any multi-national, would opt for teaching in an ulu school to a group which has no interest in learning.

As you read on, the burning desire and passion to teach oozes out of her conscience and conviction. Any young woman who is called names and wolf-whistled at by her charges who at the most would be 16, would have thrown in the towel and said "Goodbye".

But the enthusiasm, zeal, fervour and determination to contribute to society and try to change the outlook of her pupils is obvious.

Dear reader, pardon me for reproducing chunks of Alina's posting (Editor's Note: please refer bottom of this post for Alina's full posting), but every word has been written with sincerity and honesty. They reflect not only the system of education but the society it has produced. Some poignant points will bring tears to the eyes of many but one thing is for sure – Alina's tenacity is a virtue all of us should have.

After going through her harrowing encounters and bizarre moments in the class and before an "open book" examination, she still finds words to prick your mind and conscience.

Alina's unfinished journey is paved with uncertainty, insecurity and diffidence. It is arduous, laborious and demanding. Obstacles and obstructions, many man-made by bureaucrats and others by young people will have to crossed. Like running in a steeplechase race, there will be barriers and water ponds, but it does not matter who crosses the tape first. Besides the speed and stamina, one has to have the will, determination, persistence and insistence to stay in the race to the very end.

To Alina and hundreds of teachers under the Teach for Malaysia programme, society salutes your contribution and commitment to take on the challenges in our education system.
R. Nadeswaran was a "guest" teacher with TFM two years ago, but his brutally frank comments on the state of education did not merit another invitation. Comments: [email protected]

Confession of a Teach for Malaysia Teacher, by Alina Amir:
So here’s a public confession: After 4 months into teaching, I came back from a class this morning, put my books on my desk, coolly walked to the ladies, and broke down; with tears, sobs, frantically fanned myself with my hands thinking that could help calm me down, the whole enchilada. Something I have not done for a very long time.

In the last four months, I could have cried when I had kids calling me a prostitute in mandarin, or that time when a kid told me I should not mess with him because his dad is part of the notorious along gangster crew (which I have never heard of and the phrase “ignorance is bliss” could not have rung truer), or that time when I was wolf whistled at for weeks wherever I went, or when a disruptive boy decided get up in the middle of my lesson, ran around the room and banged every table before he ran out of the class despite me calling after him and then having him come back and literally went on the floor, hugging my feet and begged for my forgiveness the same day, or when I was locked in the school building and then had to come out through the roof (long story) or when a big fat rat, literally, decided to chill right in front of my front door. Those were legit reasons to cry if I wanted to cry. But I didn’t. Not a single tear rolled down my cheeks. I stood up to my boys, I had sleepless nights thinking of strategies to get my kids to just sit down for a single lesson, told every kid who threatened me to bring it on, went to every boy who wolf whistled and threw inappropriate remarks at me, looked them straight in the eyes and said, “how dare you”. I have got nothing to lose and I am sure, as hell is not scared of anybody, no matter who your daddy is.

This morning however, was different. In fact, I wasn’t teaching at all this morning. I was in a form 4 class, of which I only teach PJK to the six of the girls every week. So what was I doing with the entire class? I was invigilating their mid year exam, Sejarah Kertas 3 to be exact; An open book test where students are required to write an essay on a topic given. Just as I finished handing out the exam papers to all 35 students, one boy put his hand up and asked, “ujian apa hari ni, cikgu?” and I went, “HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW WHAT PAPER YOU ARE SITTING FOR ON THE DAY OF THE EXAM AND EVEN AFTER I HAVE HANDED OUT THE EXAM PAPER” silently in my head. Out loud, I said, “ujian Sejarah, kertas 3. Ujian ni boleh tengok buku, so keluarkan lah buku”. Half of the classroom started to rummage through their bags and looked under their tables for books while the other half put their heads down and went to sleep. Ten minutes into the exam, they were all just staring at their books, opened to the first page. I went to a boy and asked if he knew what he was supposed to do. He shook his head and continued staring at his book. Another boy looked at me pleadingly, and asked, “cikgu, macam mana nak buat ni?” No one was writing anything. No one.

I went to one of the girls and asked her to read the question and then looked for the answer in the book. The first question she asked after I told her that was, “bab berapa tu?” and I could sense the whole class was waiting for me to tell her which chapter to open to. I knew then, that they have never read a single thing from their textbook nor have they learned anything in the past four months of school. Heck, I wouldn’t be going too far if I said they barely learned anything in the last 10 years of school. At that moment, I saw their future flashed through my eyes and I wanted to cry.

I wanted to cry because it was unfair for them to be sitting for an exam that they are clearly not ready for. I wanted to cry because someone allowed this to happen. I wanted to cry because as I was explaining to some of the students on how to do the exam and they were eagerly listening, while I was quietly panicking because I am no way near being a Sejarah Form 4 teacher. I wanted to cry because I felt incompetent, wishing I remembered what I learned back in From 4 so that I can teach them something at that moment. I wanted to cry because it is not their fault. But most of all, I wanted to cry because I have 200 students and I have classes back to back from 7.30 AM up to 10.00PM every day that it would be completely impossible to take on new students. All I could think of was how if only all the educated people in the country would spend their time teaching these kids, then maybe, maybe I’d be writing a different story.

I have never actually done this before; asking people to consider teaching. I believe that entering into the profession should come out of your own will. I have never recommended Teach for Malaysia to anyone. In fact, I’d be all-skeptical to anyone who are actually considering to join TFM. What are you in for? To have connections with top corporate partners? To meet CEOs of this and that? To be featured in newspapers, radio, magazines, online blogs? What are you in for? Is it the tagline? Is it really for the kids? I’ve been asked these questions before and I personally used to think that it was a fair concern. It needs to be out there that being a teacher, through TFM or not, is not even a tad bit glamorous. You don’t get paid on time, you’d be missing best friends’ weddings, family gatherings, birthdays etc., you have crazy deadlines and you’ll feel like crap because you don’t know how you’re doing. Nobody sends you a “good job” email on that awesome class you just had, or though you had. Are you sure you want to be a teacher? If you think it is a walk in the park, be rest assured that it’ll be the ghettoest, most messed up park you have ever walked in. I used to think that only the strong should be a teacher. Only those who know that they won’t quit should be a teacher. Today, I don’t care anymore. Today, I realized how desperate the country is and beggars, can’t be choosers. If you have gone through the education system and came out alive, teach. If you have no idea what to teach, trust me you’ll learn. You’d be surprised to meet kids who have never been told that cleanliness is a virtue, that rempit is not a legit career path, that you don’t have to give up at 16.

Listen to me, drop everything you’re doing and come back to school. Teach them to be human beings because they need to know that screaming at a lady is not the way to speak, that not knowing how to read at 13 is not cool, that cursing at your teachers is rude and to talk back to your mother in front of everybody at school would get you to every hell of every single religion in the world. Teach. If you think it’s too hard and teaching isn’t your thing, then quit. But you can’t quit teaching if you have not actually tried teaching. My point is, every one should teach. Decide later if it is something you want to do in the long run. Just teach. Join TFM, do it the normal route, stop a kid in the middle of the road and ask him/her to tell you the multiplication table, tell him/her a random fact about Egypt or aeroplanes, teach them the right intonation after seeing a question mark, teach.

If you think, all this doesn’t make sense and it’s just some really long facebook status/note by a crazy lady who just cried in a high school toilet, then darling, my dear, you have not taught in a classroom where half of them can barely read and write and the other half is just lost by this immense language barrier that no logical inspiring words can get through them. So teach. I am on my facebook knees.