Each of us have a role to play in solving the country’s education problems, says Teach For Malaysia’s Abel Cheah.
TEACH For Malaysia’s Abel Cheah draws parallels between the battles in the country’s march for independence with the problems faced in education today.
“When I think about the Spirit of 57, I think about the fighting spirit that our forefathers had. Sure, we no longer have the same enemies that we had 57 years ago, but we’re still fighting for freedom,” he said.
“We need to recognise that our enemies today look very different: education inequity, racism and prejudice. If we don’t deal with them and overcome them now, they will rob us of our country’s freedom, so to speak.”
Cheah believes that TFM, an education outreach initiative to address the problem of education inequity in Malaysia, embodies the Merdeka spirit in its own way.
“TFM’s philosophy is really simple – it seeks to address education inequity in the belief that your education determines your outcome, which in turn, determines your life quality.
“In the schools that our fellows are sent to, the students come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Studies have shown that these students are more prone to be stuck in a cycle of poverty and education inequity as they’re less likely to receive a high quality education,” he shared.
“TFM’s vision is to see all children obtain the opportunity to a quality education by creating equal opportunities for every student, in spite of their background.”
Cheah completed his two-year fellowship under TFM, teaching at a high-needs school in a rural, secondary school in Gemas, Negri Sembilan. He subsequently joined TFM as their talent acquisition assistant manager.
The 26-year-old believes that anyone can contribute to ending education inequity in our country.
“It’s really not just a teacher’s job! It has been left too long to the teachers alone to solve our country’s education problems. It takes a community to do it, on top of a change in mindset.
“All of us have a role to play in education: we can all start with just talking to the next guy at the bus stop. Likewise, the best way to combat racism is by opposing it and TFM fellows are really fortunate to have the opportunity to do that everyday in the classroom.
“My classes had a good representation of students from many races, which allowed me the opportunity to go beyond the moral textbooks to inculcate this unity that we often talk about,” said Cheah.
While he also taught English, one of his most memorable lessons was a Civics and Citizenship Education lesson.
“This subject was totally new and alien to me, and I had to grapple with teaching a subject I had no prior exposure to. Instead of depending on the textbook alone, I structured that particular lesson around a ‘Cross The Line’ activity, inspired by the movie Freedom Writers.”
Cheah explained to his students that if the read out statement (from “I hate going to school” to “I have been bullied before”) applied to them, they would have to cross the line drawn in the middle of the classroom.
“I set some ground rules before we started: basically, I told the students not to laugh and to respect each others’ choices in crossing the line. As the statements got deeper, it was very sad for me to see the pain on my own students faces as they crossed the line.
“Some of them fell really quiet throughout the day as they reflected on the activity.”
In a reflection of that lesson, Cheah felt like his students had learnt something really important that day, even though he didn’t actually ‘teach’.
“I realised that I was able to teach them a lesson without preaching it. Unity needs to be discovered, not taught from the textbooks. The best way to ‘teach’ unity is to make them realise that pain happens to everyone. We all struggle similarly, and we’re not that different after all.”
Being a teacher, even for two years, has been very rewarding for Cheah, who believes that students can achieve so much if given the belief and support.
“The school was going to select five Form Four students to pitch an idea for a student-led project to some Teach For Malaysia partners. The best idea would win RM1,500 in funding, so it was a pretty big deal for the school,” he said.
“There was this particular student who was abused by her father and became disinterested in school. To me, she was just a victim of poor circumstances, as she was quite talented,” added Cheah.
He said that this same girl went through presentation skills training and was then selected as the group leader.
“Personally, it was such a proud moment for me when they won the first prize. Even the school was very happy and proud of these five students!”
Cheah co-founded Afterschool with TFM alumni Jacintha Tagal and Liew Suet Li. It is like a motivational camp where students “have fun and learn to grow” which incidentally is the organisation’s motto.
He said his biggest aspiration for Malaysian students is to reduce their reliance on the teachers standing in front of them.
“If I can teach and equip my students to a point where they take learning into their own hands and stop relying on me, then I know that I’ve done my job. I aspire for every student, irrespective of where they come from, to grow to be independent learners.”