EDUCATION inequality is a nationwide problem in both rural and urban areas alike.
The desire to do something about it had motivated communication studies and anthropology graduate Deborah Dris to commit to a two-year fellowship programme with non-profit organisation Teach For Malaysia (TFM) to help give children in high-need communities the same education opportunities she had when she was growing up.
Initially, after graduating from the University of Western Australia, the former St Teresa’s School student had intended to stay on and work there but a series of fateful events led her back to her hometown and then to TFM.
Transitioning from the training institute where Fellows undergo intensive training to teaching in an actual classroom was, for her, a nerve-wracking but ultimately rewarding learning experience.
“I would be lying if I said I have never thought of giving up. Some days can be really rough and there are days where I feel like packing my bags and leaving.
“But then there are also days when you see the results of what you’ve done – this keeps me going because I know there will be more days like that to come,” said Deborah, who now teaches History and English at SMK Permatang Tok Labu in Seberang Perai Utara.
TFM Fellows now teach in 43 high-need schools throughout Perak, Penang, Kedah, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Kuala Lumpur.
TFM’s first ever recruitment drive in Sarawak next week will serve a two-fold purpose of recruiting Sarawakian talents to strengthen the programme and also create an alumni network to support future Fellows for when TFM expands to East Malaysia in 2015 or 2016.
The non-profit organisation is supported by the Education Ministry and prominent public and private sector organisations, including Boston Consulting Group, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Google, Harvard Club of Malaysia, Khazanah Nasional Berhad, and Price Waterhouse Coopers.
TFM Fellows can make a meaningful impact on high-need schools by helping the students to discover their passion for learning and excellence as well as get the leadership training and experience necessary to succeed in the classroom and beyond.
TFM welcomes Malaysian citizens of all majors and backgrounds to apply for the full-time and fully-paid positions as Fellows or as support staff.
Young professionals and students in their final year of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree are strongly encouraged to apply.
Text of Deborah Dris’ interview with thesundaypost.
Q: Could you share your experience growing up (eg family, hometown or school) and what influence it had in shaping your opinions on education in Malaysia?
A: I grew up in Kuching and have three siblings. We all went to mission schools. I studied in St Teresa’s Primary and Secondary Schools in Kuching. To this very day, I would say I’m very proud to be a Teresian. Living in an urban area and coming from a rather privileged life, I’ve always thought most Malaysians have equal opportunities to obtain a quality education.
Q: What were you doing before joining TFM? What led to your joining this organsation?
A: Two years before I graduated, my sister saw a TFM advertisement in the newspapers and pointed it out to me. She said I should sign up but I brushed it off because I hadn’t graduated then. Two years later, I finally graduated. So, before joining TFM, I took up communication studies and anthropology at the University of Western Australia. I also did a brief internship at Angkatan Zaman Mansang (AZAM) Sarawak where I got to learn a lot more about my own state and its diverse population.
I actually wanted to stay on to work in Australia but never got around to seriously applying for a working visa. So I moved back to my hometown and looked for work – and I most definitely didn’t want a 9-to-5 job. I knew I would eventually work in Malaysia but never expected it to be so soon. Stumbling upon Teach For Malaysia online (and in my Facebook news feeds as well), I decided to sign up.
One of the main reasons for joining TFM was to give back to the country that has given me so much. I feel I was lucky enough to have a good education and I should do my part to help others obtain a good education too.
“I believe education is the root to development and if we want to move forward as a high-income nation, we need to make sure everyone gets access to education. I now know I’m making a difference in shaping the nation — even if it’s a small difference, it’s a step forward.
Q: How did it feel making the transition from training to teaching in a real classroom?
A: All TFM Fellows had to do eight weeks of institute training. Last year, our institute was held at Bukit Tinggi, Pahang. The first four weeks were essentially preparing ourselves for Kem SKORlah, a programme where the Fellows were sent to two schools (SMK Karak and SMK Ketari) to teach English and Maths during the school holidays as part of our training.
Initially, everything we learned seemed quite straightforward and simple. But on the first day when my students walked into the classroom, I felt so nervous and was telling myself oh my God, is this really happening? This is it!
In a real classroom, most of the time, you have to ad lib from your original plan. The thing about learning to be a teacher is you can never train to be a teacher without stepping into the classroom because the classroom is where I have learnt the most.
Q: What are some of the challenges and positives you have encountered as a teacher?
A: I teach at SMK Permatang Tok Labu in Seberang Perai Utara. My school is on the mainland of Penang and very close to the border of Kedah. Surrounded by paddy fields and many Malay kampungs, my school is also very new (built in 2006). I teach History and English. My day in school starts at 7.30am — usually with assembly in the morning followed by classes until 2.40pm except for Fridays when school ends at 12.14pm.
I usually stay on until the evening either for co-curricular activities, to mark my student’s work or just talk to the students.
I really love the fact that students come back to school in the afternoons because this not only gives me the chance to talk to and get to know them but also provides a safe place for them to meet up with friends and be involved in healthy activities.
Among the many challenges I face daily is the language barrier. I must admit my command of the Malay language is not as fluent as I thought because sometimes, my students wouldn’t understand what I’m trying to tell them. The fact that most of them don’t understand English is also something I have taken for granted.
Some positives are when I see my students repeating what I’ve taught them or even things I have said to their friends. For instance, I usually say that’s not funny — if I’m not laughing means it’s not funny — when my students disrupt my class or when they laugh at something that’s not funny. I would say it in English even though I know most of them speak Malay.
Once, as I was walking to my car, I heard one of my students say that’s not funny, I’m not laughing to her friend in perfect English and when I looked at her, she giggled sheepishly and ran off. That was the moment I realised your students will eventually take after you — so you have to be careful with everything you say or do in front of them.
Q: Being a teacher and a leader/role model for impressionable minds in a classroom environment is a unique experience and responsibility. Based on your experiences, please elaborate on the following sentences:
(1) As a teacher, what breaks my heart the most is ….. (answer) when my students say they are stupid or useless because they are in the last class. I was recently given the last Form 4 class to teach English in. When I told them by the end of the year, we will all pass the English exam, almost everyone was saying things like tak boleh lah, cikgu. Kita tak pandai.
But I know they have potential because after teaching them for only a month, everyone now asks me in perfect English when they need to borrow something, when they don’t understand or when they want to go to the toilet.
(2) As a teacher, what inspires me the most is ….. (answer) when a student asks me a question not found in the textbook or a question I cannot answer. I have had students in my history classes asking me questions where the answers cannot be found in the text book.
For instance, they asked me if paleolithic men made tools out of rocks, how did they shape the tools? And did they hunt in groups or individually. This shows they are thinkers and not just memorising facts to pass exams. I always feel happy when they excitedly ask me outside the classroom what chapter will I be teaching them for that week. It lets me know they are eager to learn.
Q: How has the response been from non-TFM teachers, staff and students in your present school?
A: The teachers have been really supportive and helpful. My principal, especially, has been extremely supportive of all our initiatives. Since I teach in a relatively rural area, most of the people here are nice — even the warung pak ciks and the mak cik kuih outside my school. Most of my students do not know I am from TFM, so they do treat me like any other teacher.
Many of them are also very intrigued with where I come
from — Sarawak. They would ask me to teach them Bahasa
Sarawak while they would teach me the Northern Malay slang and laugh while I try to pronounce them. Knowing I’m not from around the area, they would
show me around after school
like where to get good kampung kuih if you’ve missed lunch and where the pasar malam is on Fridays.
Q: What are your plans after TFM?
A: I actually haven’t really thought about it. I might continue to teach or perhaps, help TFM with their expansion to Sabah and Sarawak. I would definitely be involved in education though — directly or indirectly.
Q: What was your best/worst subject as a student?
A: My worst subject was additional mathematics but my best subjects were English and History. Maybe that’s why I ended up teaching English and History.
Q: Any additional thoughts?
A: Joining TFM has definitely been one of the best decisions of my life. I would be lying if I said I’ve never thought of giving up. Some days can be really rough and there are days where I feel like just packing my bags and leaving.
But then, there are days when you see results of what you’ve done — simple things like when your students ask you for extra classes, when they try to speak to you in English, when they repeat the pre-historic ages to you outside the classroom and when they salam you at the end of a long chaotic day. Things like these keep me going because I know there will be more days like that to come in the next two years.
I’d also like to point out that I know most people think the schools that need the most help are in the rural areas of Sabah and Sarawak but even urban schools in the heart of Penang and Kuala Lumpur are filled with students who are illiterate or left behind. Education inequity is a nationwide problem.
However, do know TFM plans to expand to Sabah and Sarawak soon — once it has enough support to open an office in East Malaysia. That’s why TFM needs more support, especially from East Malaysians.
TFM’s recruitment team will be at Curtin University, Miri on March 25 from 10.30am to 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 3pm at Borneo Pavillion; Swinburne University of Technology, Kuching on March 27 from 2.30 to 4.30pm at Lecture Room B005 and University Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), Kota Samarahan, on March 28 from 2pm to 5 pm at Dewan Delima. Dates and times are confirmed although rooms are subject to change.
For more information, visit TFM’s website (www.teachformalaysia.org), Facebook page (www.facebook.com/TeachForMalaysia) or Twitter (@TeachForMsia).