Lessons from my two years with Teach For Malaysia

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Three Decembers ago, I wrote in my Teach For Malaysia application that I hoped to ‘make a difference, even if just a small difference to just a few students’, because ‘even a “just” can be invaluable’.

This was just half true. I believed — and still do — that every person has incalculable worth. But an egotistical corner of my head secretly hoped that I would be one of those extraordinary teachers in movies and books who revolutionize their students’ worldviews and self-images and work ethics. I wasn’t aspiring to transform the local community into a haven of harmonious bookworms — I had only two years, after all. But I was expecting to be modestly magical.

And I was certainly not expecting that, in my second year, I would be thinking about what would happen if I quit. Not that I ever seriously considered leaving my school and TFM. But there were days during the first half of 2015 when I toyed with scenarios: where I would live and what I would do; who would take over my classes; how I would explain it to prospective employers and surprised friends.

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I remember googling the symptoms of depression a few times last year, and deciding I probably wasn’t depressed because I was functioning normally. I was preparing and delivering English lessons for all five of my classes; fulfilling all the administrative and extracurricular duties lobbed my way; waking up on time and squeezing in a bit of exercise every morning; and cooking all my weekday dinners.

But I was also crying nearly every day (usually when my housemate was at her afternoon session classes so she wouldn’t worry). I never got around to starting a project that I’d planned months earlier; a project that would have suited my abilities and helped my kids both linguistically and socially. When I was in KL on weekends, I didn’t initiate meetups with friends, even though I missed them. For the first time in years, I stopped reading the news on my RSS feed. Also for the first time in years, I barely blogged. The only things I wrote regularly were lesson plans, basic comprehension passages for my 16- and 17-year-olds (‘Rrrring! A bell rings in the Paya Lebar fire station in Singapore.’ ‘Martin Luther King was very clever and he worked very hard, so he skipped two years in secondary school.’), and pathetically rambly text messages to my fiancé.

There were two main reasons for my funk. First, I was desperately lonely. I’d spent nearly all of my adult life on university campuses, where it was easy to find companions for long conversations about personal experiences and abstract ideas, even if it was after midnight and you had an essay due in several hours. Now, I had a lovely TFM colleague-housemate, students who constantly asked if I had Facebook, and a kindly neighbourhood. But I was emotionally exhausted from my classrooms; immobile without a driver’s license in a semi-rural area; and concerned that my predispositions to discussing faith and politics would clash with strictures against teachers expressing political views as well as national laws against proselytizing to Muslims.

Besides the loneliness, I found myself painfully working through childhood hurts and insecurities that had hitherto been camouflaged. I don’t know why they finally surfaced. Despite the many intervening years, they felt raw.

Hence the crying. Decidedly unmagical crying.

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When I started teaching, I’d had lots of experience in failing to meet my own expectations about niceness, discipline, and faith (and also, at some phases of life, dumber but no less stressful standards about poise, physique, and complexion).

But I’d never felt like a failure in my primary occupation. Beginning in my mid-teens, I had spent a decade being a paid student, with bits of writing and research in between; and I had done well. And then I became a teacher, supposedly working to improve the English fluency and life chances of a couple hundred kids who had been thus far been failed by the education system. And I was failing them in turn.

I knew that I was a good teacher in some ways — I tried to tailor my lessons to each class rather than applying things across the board. I knew my subject (i.e. my mother tongue) well, and attempted to make it understandable for the kids. I made it a point to learn students’ names.

Which wasn’t enough. It was simply too hard to bridge all the gaps that confronted me: between where my students were and where the national syllabus assumed they would be; between the Malay-speaking students who barely knew English and the Chinese-speaking students who barely knew either Malay or English; between the urgency of getting a good education and their teenaged priorities.

But very good things can come out of very bad ones. Through the sense of failure, of being trapped, I came to identify more deeply with my students, most of whom didn’t expect to have many options in life. In the weariness, I learned empathy for the veteran teachers who shield themselves with cynical inertia for survival’s sake.

And in all of that darkness, loneliness, and hurt, I learned to pray as I had always wanted to pray; but had never really needed to when I was supported by committed prayer groups and comfortable nerdiness. I read books by Richard Foster and Martin Laird about meditative prayer, and learned to sit still (for brief periods) and to listen to God, however I was feeling. One afternoon, I was handwashing the week’s laundry and sobbing — but then, as Henri Nouwen put it, ‘happily I saw myself tumbling’ [1], and instead of spiraling into despair I started singing a Taizé song (possibly this one). While still sobbing, and scrubbing clothes in a tub, and laughing at my silliness and God’s patience.

I was learning.

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I was also learning about my relationship with God through my relationships with my students. First, as mentioned, in many ways I was failing to be a good teacher, while in some ways I was succeeding. But I was failing to reach the kids through the main thing I put effort into — planning and delivering lessons — but succeeding unequivocally at something I wasn’t thinking much about, i.e. smiling at the kids and otherwise showing them that an authority figure genuinely liked them and cared about them. And I was receiving so much love in return, whether from kids in my classes or kids whom I didn’t teach but who would crow, ‘Miss Hwa!’ as I walked along the corridors.

It was frustrating. It was absurdly gratifying.

It was grace.

During my sophomore year of college, I spoke at the campus Good Friday service about how Christ’s last words on the cross — “It is finished.”  — could be exasperating for compulsive control freaks who are used to earning their achievements. Because here was God incarnate, declaring that He had done everything to legitimise our bad credit, and that there was nothing we could do about it. Similarly, I felt like I had done nothing to earn my students’ love. But I was trying to do everything — many things, at least — to earn improvements in their academic competencies and English proficiency, but no dice (except those I’d threatened to confiscate from kids playing board games during class). Clearly, I wasn’t superwoman. But equally clearly, there was a Superpower helping me to bring a little bit of good into these lives.

I also re-learned something from watching the ‘Miss Hwa! Miss Hwa!’ chorus. Because they liked me, kids would do the silliest things just to make me smile. Some would leave little notes in their exercise books, next to their incomplete homework. Some would tell me lame jokes. Some would energetically get my attention, then when I asked them what was up, they’d say, ‘Takde apa! [Nothing!]’, and just grin until I grinned back. Throughout my first semester, one student, who slept through most lessons, would sing (i.e. bellow) ‘I will follow you’ every time he saw me outside of class.

All of which made me realise that I hardly ever took the time to be sweetly silly in prayer, just for the sake of making God happy. Church and personal Bible-reading and difficult decisions led to prayer; and, recently, tumbling emotions and desperation sometimes led to prayer; but bubbling joy led to texting friends to witter on about the source of said joy. I would do well to remember the Sunday School truth that I always, always had a Friend with me. Besides, out-of-town mobile phone reception could be lousy.

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By the second semester of 2015 [2], I’d finally developed decent instincts for, very slowly, bridging the gap between where my students were and I wanted them to be. For some classes, this meant writing simple stories which provided fodder for comprehension questions and and models for essay exercises. For one class, it meant exercises like this:

Ten years from now, I will be _____ years old. I will be a _____. I will be happy at this job because _____. I will live in _____ with _____. My house will be _____. During my free time, I will _____. To achieve (mencapai, 实现) this future, I must _____. I know I can do it! 🙂

I also started writing again, though I was focussed on graduate school thesis proposals rather than blogging. I got in touch with with farflung friends again, and invited some of the dearest ones to my upcoming wedding. Most of the time, I felt normal, and rejoiced.

————

Last Thursday, I trekked back to my former school because the results of the SPM, the terminal secondary school exam, were being released. Most of the 42 kids from my form class did much better than they ever had over the two years that I’d taught them — though that says as much about their last-minute absorption of study habits and textbook chapters as it does about the lax (and federally classified) grading curve for national exams.

Since then, one of my students has been texting me about her post-secondary plans. One year ago, she was arguing with her mother because she was too depressed to put on her uniform and go to school. In the first seven months of 2015, she missed 77 days of school. And then something changed. This week, she and her mother are discussing pathways for further studies.

But then there’s the kid who far outperformed anyone in his form class but isn’t allowing himself to hope for tertiary education, partly because no one in his family has been to university. And the one who is very good at making things with his hands, but is planning to settle into a routine farming job because the boss likes him and he’s scared that he isn’t good enough for creative work. And the many others who, for various reasons, think they’re done with education. And my other classes — including the vocational class of thirty boys, who loved chatting with me outside of scheduled lessons, but slept or clowned their way through class, or sneaked their way out of it. At age 16, two were functionally illiterate. By the end of the year, half had been expelled. I have done so little.

When one of his disciples affected self-righteous indignation about a woman who had extravagantly honored Jesus with perfume rather than having the ‘perfume sold and the money given to the poor’, Jesus’ reply was: ‘You will always have the poor among you’ — or, in another account of the story, ‘The poor you will always have with you.’ I very badly need to learn this double lesson. First, it isn’t my task to belabor the ‘what if’s, whether in sincerity or pretense; but rather to work at whatever God is placing in front of me at that particular time. Second, I should always have the poor with me — and, as I research education policy in a comfortable office far from my former school, I hope to always have my kids and the millions like them in my mind and in my heart.

 

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Genesee diary: Report from a Trappist monastery, New York: Doubleday, 1989, p.74.

[2] Primary and secondary schools in Malaysia follow a January to November calendar.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for your service to the children of Malaysia. It’s sad to see you go but I believe that you’ll contribute to the development of our once great nation in a different way. 😊

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    1. Thank YOU for your fantastic work in Sarawak, Jarod! 🙂

      Like

  2. […] I’m sort of s/tumbling along, s/tumbling my prayers (see the tumbling reference here), holding peace and stress in tandem and not trying too hard to wish either away. It is enough (at […]

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