Huda Nejim will never forget the two years she spent teaching in Miri, Sarawak.
It was her first teaching stint, and also her maiden trip to East Malaysia.
The experience of teaching and living in Sarawak left an indelible mark on Huda.
“I was the teacher but it was a big learning experience for me as well,” shares the 26-year-old architecture graduate who taught at SMK Luar Bandar Miri from 2015 to 2017.
Her two-year teaching tenure may have been brief but it was enough to convince Huda that she wanted to explore a career in education.
“I really enjoyed my time teaching. It was easy walking into the classroom on the first day for me but it got increasingly harder to walk out. I think I found my purpose in that school community,” shares the Universiti Malaya graduate who fell in love with Sarawak.
Huda learnt Bahasa Iban and spent her holidays in her students’ longhouses.
The experience made her appreciate the rich cultural diversity in Malaysia.
“I can’t believe that I’d never been to Sarawak before that ... it’s just a short flight away from Kuala Lumpur and yet I hadn’t set foot in East Malaysia,” says Huda, a Teach For Malaysia (TFM) fellow.
TFM is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that recruits young graduates to serve as full time teachers in high-need schools across the country on a two-year tenure.
Though they aren’t fully trained teachers, the programme hopes that these young leaders can support teachers to inspire and empower children to learn and chart a better future for themselves and their communities.
“I was drawn towards TFM’s mission to end education inequity by serving national schools throughout Malaysia. I felt strongly about their purpose and I wanted to do my part,” shares Huda.
Although her TFM stint ended in 2017, Huda takes advantage of the frequent and affordable flights to Sarawak to keep in touch with her students.
She has flown back to Sarawak three times to visit them, and has even brought a friend along to teach her pupils about light with his old woodbox camera.
One of the aims of TFM is for their fellows to remain connected to teaching and continue to help young people learn long after their fellowship ends.
Huda is currently with Arus Academy, a social enterprise that provides after-school classes to teach students problem solving skills by building and creating their own digital solutions.
It was an initiative started by TFM fellows, Alina Amir, David Chak, Daniel Russel and Felicia Yoon.
Alina, 30, loved teaching so much she continued for four years.
But she also recognised that her students at a secondary school in Alma, Bukit Mertajam, Penang, was not as enthusiastic about school.
“I fell in love with the job and the kids and just everything about teaching. It was so much more fulfilling than anything I’d done before. I didn’t feel that way about my corporate job or about travelling ... teaching filled me up,” she says, the passion in her eyes still very much alive.
The idea for Arus came about while she was finding ways to engage her students, some of whom didn’t “see the point of school”.
“Many of us assume teaching isn’t too hard. If you know Maths and teach Maths ... that doesn’t sound too difficult, right? But when you go into a class with 30 or 35 students who all learn differently, you have to cater for all 30 or risk losing one, if not all of them.
“My challenge was to find a way to inspire them to love learning for the sake of learning,” she shares.
Realising that she couldn’t accomplish her challenge in the classroom – there was a syllabus to finish and examinations to prepare for – Alina started her Block A project, giving free after-school English and Maths classes.
“I tried to change the way I teach when I noticed my kids were uninterested. I opened up my home to them so they could learn in a different environment.
“I lived in a low cost flat, where many of them lived too. So, I started classes in my home in the evenings. Soon, we had more students than I could fit in my home. So, I got permission to use the community hall in the flat,” she recounts.
Block A was a roaring success. On the first day, 20 students showed up, on the second night, 35 students, and after the third day, Block A had over 100 students.
“I knew then that they were looking to learn. It became a peer-to-peer session because I couldn’t handle 100 students on my own,” says Alina.
The response to Block A was the inspiration behind Arus Academy and naturally, they opened their first centre in Bukit Mertajam.
Alina is now based in Shah Alam but she is able to keep track of Arus’ students in Alma because it’s easy and convenient to fly frequently to Penang.
“I feel the void when I’m not with the kids. Every time I fly back to Penang, I feel revived. This is my calling and I would not have found it had I not stepped into a classroom.
“Teaching allowed me to understand how things were like on the ground. We have a lot of assumptions about our schools, our teachers and the education system but to be in a classroom gave me insight into the challenges that exist and led us to come up with a solution, through Arus,” says Alina.
Although still a young enterprise, Arus has achieved significant success.
“In 2016, two of our students were among the top 10 young innovators in Malaysia and they went to Sillicon Valley (in the United States) to finish their project. It is inspiring not just for me and them, but also the people of Alma. They’d never gone beyond KL to begin with and they went all the way to the US,” she says, her eyes lit as she talks about her “kids”.
Alina has big plans. She wants to build on the country’s strong education system and teaching force to continue inspiring children not just to dream big but to achieve their dreams.
“How do we make learning meaningful? We have to make education relevant. We want to make sure our kids are learning Science and become scientists so they can solve the world’s problems,” she says.