Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thoughts about teachers

Yesterday, I read this article (please read it if you haven't, for a better background to my thoughts here) written by a young lady who decided to join the Teach For Malaysia programme.  There were comments by other readers who complimented her effort, saying there should be more teachers like her. She took the initiative and trouble. She did not just teach, she educated the children.

The first thought that came to my mind was "it should have been the parents, they should have taught their children, they should have educated them that there are people of other races besides their own, of different faiths, and race is not tied to religion". But I told myself that not all parents know or are aware of this need, not all parents can be there for their children, some parents don't know it themselves as they too grew up that way, not all children have parents. Not all children are so blessed like C to have me sacrifice my progressing career to have a stay-home mother who tries her best to educate her child, not only in academic stuff but in being a well-rounded, upright human being (ah yes, I am still dealing with this sacrifice issue after more than eight years. Maybe I need therapy for this, among other issues, but that's a story for another day).

And therefore, it is good that we have teachers like Cheryl Ann Fernando. Teachers have a great impact on their students. Children who go to regular school (who has heard of homeschooling? ;-) ) spend five to six hours a day with their teachers. Children whose parents work spend maybe an hour or two with their parents. Some get to only say 'good morning' and 'good night' to their parents. Yes, teachers can help, but it is up to them whether they choose to stick to teaching English, Math or whatever they teach, or to go the extra mile to educate them about things and people and values and share some of life's nuggets with them. Teachers can build, or break. Children look up to their teachers who impact their lives positively. There are stories of people attributing their success in life to a particular teacher.They also could go down a wrong path if a teacher, unfortunately, impacted them negatively.

I say this based on the examples drawn from my own life as a child during my schooldays, and as a mother sharing her daughter's life as a student now. When I was in school, I had good, and not-so-good teachers. What some of my teachers did and said back then, 30-40 years ago, still remain in my memory. That's how strongly teachers can touch a child's life in one way or another.

I had a good class teacher in Standard 5, Puan Zainun. She took note of her students' nature and character. She taught us Sejarah (History) in a way that made me listen in class despite hating to remember the dates and facts. When my mother and I went to school to collect the Standard 5 Assessment Exam results (yes, it was that long ago, way before UPSR came into the picture), she said to my mum "Anna is very timid, I shall make her a prefect next year" (to get me out of my shell). Those who know me now may not be able to imagine me back then. I was quiet, shy, timid. Put me on stage and I clam up. I was what C calls, which she has, Miss Goody Two Shoes. I studied hard, I did my homework the minute I got home from school, I even studied the forthcoming chapters without being told to, I revised what I had learnt that day after finishing my homework without being told to as well, I went to bed on time every night, nobody had to nag at me to do what was needed, I never got punished at school, primary school, that is (I had emerged out of my shell by secondary school, thanks to Standard 5 teacher's 'push', haha). Enough about me, back to good and not-so-good teachers. Puan Zainun was nice and good.

Standard 6 English teachers (or were they in Standard 5?). I had two of them. The first one, Mrs Ong, was one of those who trained overseas back then with the British teachers' training colleges (Kirkby/Brinsford in UK). She brought English to life in the classroom. It was my first time hearing terms like homonyms, learning to come up with a list of them. It was my first time learning phonetics, which was like magic and a new 'language'. She taught us songs, poetry and silly rhymes, she told us stories that expanded my mind's horizon, she made us act out silly skits. Then, she had to leave us for a new posting as headmistress of our sister school which we referred to as School 2 (we were in School 1). We got another English teacher, Mrs Chandy, who was no less wonderful, but a little firmer. She made English fun too. I was encouraged to write compositions that were interesting. She got us working in groups to put up musicals, dramas and dances for the school concert. To this day, I still remember the lyrics of 'The World is a Circle', a song from, I found out later as an adult, the movie Lost Horizon. Four of us also recited the lyrics of that song in a state-level choral recitation competition which we won. A few of my classmates are now journalists and I believe it was those seeds planted then that germinated. I was 12 years old then. I am 45 now. I'm sure if my memory does not fail me, I will remember these teachers and experiences at my deathbed.

For C, she had an English teacher this year whom she liked, Madam Sarah, until the teacher was transferred to another class. I would say C's command of English is relatively good, but she was encouraged to push her boundaries with this teacher because lessons in class were fun and interesting. It is when lessons are interesting and the teacher 'connects' with the kids, that kids will ask 'how high' when told to jump. It is when teachers go beyond merely teaching that kids will listen and accept when taught that Indians may not necessarily be Hindus.

Back then, my school had a well-balanced mix of students of different races. We didn't differentiate ourselves as Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Chinese, Malay or Indian. We spoke to each other in Malay and English with no difficulty. We played together during recess time, after school and even outside of school in the evenings, we visited one another's homes during Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Hari Raya. We didn't know any better or worse, we just 'were', if you know what I mean. So unlike Cheryl Ann, our teachers didn't have to teach us that, neither did my parents, but like the abovementioned teachers, they taught us other things besides History and English. They taught me to be less timid and shy, to speak up, to acquire leadership skills and to practise teamwork, among others.

We were among the early batches who learned everything (except English) in Bahasa Malaysia when the government changed the syllabus to be taught in the national language. Back then, Mathematics was known as Ilmu Hisab, Geography was Ilmu Alam. It was only in secondary school that Mathematics became Matematik and Geography became Geografi. But I had no issues with switching between both languages. We referred to 'Additional Maths' as it is when we spoke in English, and as Matematik Tambahan when we spoke and learned it in BM. I continued switching between English and Malay terms with no difficulty in a local public university. I'm not sure now (and I don't really care to be honest), but back then, local public universities were to teach in BM despite 99 per cent of tertiary books being in English. My lecturers peppered their lectures in BM with English. We referred to the tripod as 'tungku kaki tiga'. I spelled 'bacteria' as 'bakteria', 'genes' as 'gen-gen' , answered all exam papers and wrote my thesis in BM, using reference books in English.

Today, C hates BM. She hardly mixes with people who speak that language. When asked to provide an adjective for a thin/skinny person, she says 'nipis' instead of 'kurus'. At Year 5, her BM is probably at Year 1 level. Majority of kids at private schools speak English, majority of kids at Chinese schools speak Mandarin, majority of kids from public schools speak Malay. What has happened in the span of one generation? I acknowledge that as parents, we could have done more but we are not entirely at fault here, whether you agree or not. However, that's another discussion.

As for not-so-good teachers, or rather, to be fair, not-so-good experiences with teachers, we do have a few, between C and I. In Standard 3, I had a not-so-good class teacher and I won't mention names for not-so-good teachers. She was strict, fierce and abusive verbally and physically. She would walk around the class wielding a the huge wooden ruler (the big type for drawing lines on the blackboard) calling out names one by one to answer questions. We had to stand up from our seats to answer and if the answer was wrong, we got whacked on the back with the ruler. We were nine years old in Standard 3. We were terrified of her. A classmate had the runs one day and was too afraid to ask for permission to go to the toilet. She sat through class all day drenched from waist down in greenish excrement. The teacher knew but didn't bother. Miss Goody Two Shoes here completed her Math work ahead of the bell, walked up to the teacher at her desk to hand it up to be marked. A swift palm landed on her cheek that left some scars in an otherwise blissful memory of her schooldays. The class was noisy and was grounded in class the entire recess time. Some kids suffered gastritis the next day. There are other horrific things the teacher did but I shall not mention it here.

Thankfully C has not encountered such a tyrant, but earlier this year, her spirit was dented when one teacher said to the entire class "In my 40 years of teaching, your class is the worst".  I had verified with another parent if this did happen. While I understand the teacher could have been stressed out teaching a class with diverse levels of aptitude for that particular subject, with one or two truly mischievous, disruptive boys, I wish she didn't utter those words in haste. I know she is in fact a good teacher. I shouldn't categorise her as a not-so-good teacher but this particular incident is just my way to illustrate how a small thing could be a big thing when it boils down to how a child views a respectable teacher.

Recently, C was called up by another teacher to be reprimanded for talking back to a prefect. C is not Miss Goody Two Shoes like me, she holds her own when it comes to teasing, bullying, and defending herself even when she is the one who did wrong. She felt a little down telling me about it. She said the teacher explained to her that the prefect was chosen because he is 'good and smart'. To give the benefit of doubt, I commend the teacher who must have also explained further in detail why she shouldn't have behaved rudely to the prefect. Maybe I'm over protective or biased but maybe, just maybe, C would have felt differently if she wasn't told that the prefect is 'good and smart'. I told C she is also good and smart. All children are good and smart, in their own unique way. So do you think you can be chosen as a prefect? I asked. Immediately she chimed with a knowing smile, "Noooo waaay!" She said even if she was chosen, she'd decline because she didn't want to wake up extra eraly to get to school for prefect duties, she wanted to enjoy her free time at recess and not do prefect duties. Is that 'good and smart'? Again, I should not categorise this teacher as 'not-so-good', certainly C's teachers mentioned here are far from my Standard 3 tyrant. it's is more like the situation or incident was not so good. But the point I want to make again with these illustrations is that teachers can build or break, because apart from parents, they spend a considerable amount of time with the children.

This may not be related but I want to share it anyway. I had shared some third party information about an educational workshop in an online group comprising teachers, parents and students. I got chided for 'spamming' with the rationale that the teachers would be insulted because it implies that they are not good enough and they and parents need to spend money to get outside help. It was just one post with innocent, good intentions, and not a flood of many 'advertisements' over a period of time. I had even the sensitivity and consideration, albeit after posting, to ask if it was permissible, and I was ungraciously chided, even more so after I replied with an explanation and suggestions on how other people like me could be prevented from doing such things, innocently or otherwise. I'd like to look at it positively that the person in charge cares enough to protect the interest of that online group, especially the teachers, although I felt it was over-reacted upon. I would have accepted it better if I was spoken to more graciously since I had apologised. However, I also wonder if the teachers really felt insulted by that one deed of mine. I would like to think that any qualified, experienced, self-confident teacher worth his or her own salt (not sure if I'm using this idiom correctly) would not have. They would have been open-minded and magnanimous enough to view it as mere information at the very least. Oh well, there's always two sides to a coin and I don't want to determine who's right or wrong.

Dear teachers, I take my hat off to you for what you are doing. I am not worthy to join your circle because I am not qualified as one, I don't have the care, patience and dedication to deal with even one not-so-goody-two-shoes at home, let alone a whole classroom full of boisterous, but precious, kids. I pray that you will impact each child you meet along your journey as teachers in mostly positive ways. I understand that there could be negative moments because that's just the way life is. We're all not perfect. We just need to remember to strive towards it.

Thank you for bearing with me in this very, very long post. I've not written such a long one in a very, very long time. I felt I needed to.

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