Teaching assistants under the Fulbright programme arrive in Malaysia to help teach English at schools but leave with an unsurpassed and unforgettable cultural experience.
IN January this year, 100 young Americans arrived in Kuala Lumpur. For many, it was the first time they had set foot in Asia.
As the ninth batch of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETA) in Malaysia, they had but one mission: to help teach English at primary and secondary schools.
Since the inception of the ETA programme in 2006 in Terengganu, it has spread its wings to Perak, Pahang, Johor, Sabah and Sarawak and has seen an increase in the number of ETAs from 75 to 100 this year.
The volunteers are on a 10-month assignment that will see them not only build English proficiency in Malaysian students but build lifelong memories as they immerse themselves in the day-to-day life of a typical Malaysian teacher.
Now halfway through their stay, the ETAs are conquering the initial shyness of their students.
“The biggest change I have noticed is that a great number of students are now more willing to try speaking English not just inside but also outside the classroom,” says Joel Ledezma.
More than that, they are forming meaningful connections and relationships with their students.
“Even though I have been here a few months now, they are still excited to see me. Some of them even run up to my car every morning to greet me and help me carry my bags!” says Christine Movius.
So much so that saying goodbye will not be easy.
“One of the hardest parts is knowing that my physical presence is very transient with a looming departure date. I can imagine that leaving in just a few months after so deliberately trying to integrate myself into the school will be very difficult,” says Poonam Daryani.
A peek into their
The ETAs have been carrying out their tasks in fun and imaginative ways.
Daryani has literally been cooking up a storm at SMK Lahat, Ipoh with her after school cooking club where students discuss and prepare a dish from a different country every month.
It’s an effort to expand her students’ global horizons, she says.
“Food really does transcend linguistic barriers and brings people together. So far we’ve made bean and cheese burritos from Mexico, pizza from Italy and next we’re travelling to India for some delicious chocolate barfi.”
Five of her students are also involved in a social enterprise project Turn Trash into Cash, where money generated from recycling will be used to improve the school library.
“The project is teaching students transferable leadership and creative problem-solving skills that will be of huge value to them even outside of a classroom.”
In the classroom, she centres lessons around teamwork and discussion to encourage her students to think independently and originally.
“I think they feel less pressure when collaborating with their peers on a task and keeping topics open-ended means that there really is never a ‘wrong’ answer for them to fear.”
Andrew Greaves from Massachusetts has taken to blurring the line between casual conversation and the lesson with his students at SMK Purun, Triang.
“By broaching the lesson topic informally with conversational questions, the students feel more comfortable brainstorming and giving creative responses.”
“Most of my students speak English freely, but only using a narrow set of textbook phrases. They often avoid creating new sentences and taking risks with their language.”
So the 23-year old incorporated improvisational theatre into his after school English proficiency classes, which he says creates a lighthearted and safe environment for students to be silly and spontaneous.
Greaves, who wants to work in corporate social responsibility, has also been having a bit of fun at the school koperasi selling drinks and snacks.
“I do not serve students their food until they ask for it in a full sentence. In a few months, students who previously lacked confidence thought they could only say ‘Epal satu’ but are now asking ‘Could I please have one apple juice?’”
Returning ETA Andrew Taylor is truly getting the holistic Malaysian experience, first teaching in Perak last year and now in Sarawak.
His school, SMK Siburan, Kuching is the largest secondary school in the state with close to 3,000 students.
Despite this, Taylor makes an effort to connect with each and every student, whether it be through daily corridor wishes or spontaneous bench conversations.
“It’s great when I see a student or two just sitting on a bench and I can sit down across from them, peel my orange and talk to them like we’re pals. They are not shying away or giggling that I’m next to them. It’s just me, them and conversation. In my opinion, that’s where the real exchange of language, ideas and culture comes from.”
Taylor has also doubled up as a sports coach for the school, on the athletics track and on the basketball court.
“After my boys won their tournament, I was then asked to coach the Kuching division boys and girls basketball teams. That was really great because I got to not only form stronger connections with some of my own students but also meet and interact with students from other schools in Kuching for a whole week.”
Over in Sabah, Ledezma is leveraging on his own personal experience learning English as a second language to inspire his students at SMK Usukan, Kota Belud.
“Many students feel that they will never master the English language so they decide to give up and others are afraid to speak English because they feel like they will make mistakes. So I told them that as a Mexican-American, English is not my mother tongue either. I had to learn it at school too and to this day I’m still learning new things by making mistakes along the way. I tell them that learning English is a hard and long process but it can be achieved with time and practice.”
He created the English Cash Programme, where teachers are awarded ‘English dollars’ every time a student speaks English with them.
“The programme is an incentive to not only reduce students’ shyness but also motivate them to speak outside of English class with their non-English Language teachers.”
The 23-year old aims to be an organisational psychologist before becoming a psychiatrist working in the low-income Latino communities of Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Movius’ first taste of a cross-cultural educational exchange has increased her appetite for it; after the programme, she wants to pursue postgraduate studies in higher education administration and work thereafter as an exchange student advisor.
The 22-year old from Washington D.C. has started a puppetry club for students at SK Sri Labis, Labis.
“Puppetry is a great way for shyer students to feel more comfortable speaking in front of a group, as the focus is on the puppet rather than on the person operating the puppet.”
She adds that her most successful lessons with her primary school students have involved the use of songs or games.
“When students can associate English with positive and fun experiences, they are more likely to remember what they have learned and use it in the future.”
On the east coast, Julia Holup launched the SMK Seri Dungun Speaker’s Corner as a weekly forum for students to practise their public speaking skills.
Every week, with coaching from Holup, a different student delivers a small speech during Sunday morning assembly on a topic of their choice.
“The most important part of the project has not been what the students say in their speech, but the simple act of having said it. It’s the experience that matters. The power stems from what students stand to gain in terms of their confidence - both in speaking and in life.”
Fifteen of her students are also involved in the exciting Virtual Postcard Project, where they have recorded a video in English for their American counterparts in Easton Area High School, Pennsylvania and are eagerly awaiting a video response.
As well as being an activity that incorporates technology into the classroom, Holup says the project is built upon the idea of cultural exchange that is so central to the programme.
“Cross-cultural exchange happens every time I walk into a classroom. My students love to ask me questions about my life back home. These moments are what this programme is all about for me: teaching English, but also an opportunity to learn and share with one another about our unique cultures and ideas.”
What do you want your students to go away with from their time with you?
- Andrew Greaves - “I want my students to recognise that they are capable English speakers who hold all of the essential tools already.”
- Christine Movius - “With my younger students, I want to prove that English isn’t so scary and that we can have a lot of fun while learning new vocabulary. With the older students, I try to emphasise that being able to speak English is their gateway to the world.”
- Julia Holup - “Ultimately, I want them to improve their speaking skills. But more than that, I want them to be lifetime learners of the language who are not afraid of making mistakes.”
- Poonam Daryani - “My main goal has been to inspire confidence and curiosity, in English and far beyond. I try to use the English language as a tool to build my students’ critical thinking skills and ability to express themselves creatively.”
- Andrew Taylor - “I want my students to go away with the genuine belief that they can be whoever or do whatever they want in this world. I want them to try new and different things along the path to their goals.”
- Joel Ledezma - “I want my students to understand that learning a new language is a long process and we need to make mistakes in order to learn from them.”