Taking up the challenge

BY MALLIKA VASUGI malivasu@yahoo.com

I STILL remember the outcries and roars of protest when the Government first announced its intention to change the medium of instruction for teaching Math and Science subjects from Bahasa Malaysia to English.  

While some parties heaved sighs of relief and viewed the move as timely and much-needed, others were not so optimistic.  

“It will fail. Our children’s education will go down the drain,” muttered the prophets of doom.  

“How can teachers teach Math and Science in English when they themselves are not proficient in the language? What about books and reference materials? It’s a mistake. Wait and see. After a few years, the policy will be reverted.” 

Rather ironically, some of the comments came from the teachers themselves. A few found the prospect of teaching in English so daunting they actually considered resigning or changing their subject options.  

However, the introduction of the BISP (incentive payment for teachers who teach Math and Science in English) did cause a dramatic paradigm shift in the teachers’ mindsets, I must say.  

Tremendous efforts have been made by the Government towards the realisation of the new policy. This includes supplying courseware and laptops to teachers and the introduction of EteMS (English for the Teaching of Math and Science), a programme to train teachers to teach the two subjects in English.  

After many reviews and modifications, the EteMs programme is currently in its fourth year of implementation. It has been received with mixed feelings by course participants, teacher-trainers and school administrators.  

For one thing, teachers and master trainers (jurulatih utama or JU) who attend the 15-day programme are required to be away for the duration of the training and this means unwelcome relief periods for the other teachers.  

“They call us master trainers,” said Jill. ”Reminds me of those lion trainers in circuses with long whips and moustaches. I can’t say I feel very masterful though.”  

“Don’t be modest,” I said.  

“After all, the teachers who train us JU’s are known as executive trainers and they have no qualms about being called that. A rose by any other name?.” 

This is my third season as a JU and the material perks have been few, if any. After the course ends, it is back to school to deal with the backlog of work. We have to catch up with the syllabus, mark mountains of exercise books and do other duties besides deal with the sullen resentment of teachers who did relief periods while we were away having, in their opinion, “a whale of a time”.  

Did we have a whale of a time?  

Yes, in between the monotony of work, we sometimes did.  

I remember the concerts and karaoke competitions in Johor where there was only one rule – every presentation had to be in English. Apart from the occasional fun outings, working as trainers also gave us some grounding in facilitation skills as well.  

Addressing adult teachers who were sometimes more senior than us is different from classroom teaching. We get to listen to their grievances, insecurities and problems.  

I think one of the first things the teachers realised when they got together for the course was that there was no one, JU’s included, who was perfect. Everyone had much to learn.  

Then, there were the ETeMS gaffes which lit up our days. Some were almost classic. Take, for instance, the very nervous and visibly-shaking course participant who informed the audience that “she was vibrating in front of all of them”. Needless to say, the loudest guffaws were from the men-teachers seated at the back.  

Some phrases we picked up along the way included “You don’t small liver kat I. I din min it.” (“Don’t be upset with me. I didn’t mean it.”) 

Or this gem, “Yes, no, yes, also” or “Ya, tak, ya, juga.” The nearest translation I can think of would be “Come to think of it, it’s true.” 

Every year, I pick up something new.  

Only last week, during the oral presentation, one course participant had to teach part of a lesson on indices. After much heckling and questioning by the other teachers, she finally managed to persuade us that any number to the power of zero equals one.  

The irrepressible Diana Fatima, my JU partner, raised her hand and sweetly asked the harassed teacher, “Does that mean if I go to the market, I could ask for ninety to the power of zero fish and I would be right?” 

The exasperated teacher spluttered in reply, “Only nobody people will buy fish like that!” 

So, for the moment, our noble Lady Di (as she was formerly known) is now “nobody-people” – a drastic descent from royalty to commoner status. 

Is the ETeMS training programme effective or is it just a tool to get the 5% or 10% incentive payment?  

Frankly, I would say that depends on the attitude of the course participant.  

I hear stories that some teachers, after attending the ETeMS course and receiving their monetary incentives, still refuse to teach Math and Science in English.  

Personally, I think the EteMs training programme has been effective.  

I have seen teachers who doubted if they could last beyond the first day – some were scared to even open their mouths lest they say something wrong in English.  

These same teachers were seen conversing in English by the end of the course. Some even delivered impromptu speeches in English.  

No, a 15-day course cannot transform someone into an eloquent speaker but it can and has done other things.  

For a start, it has helped to remove the mental block some teachers have towards the English language.  

It also helped to dispel the negativity surrounding the language.  

And it did help to boost the confidence of certain teachers.  

On the last day, when teachers were invited to share their feelings about the programme, many who came up were those who had shied away from speaking at first. 

Zuziani was one of these teachers. In a halting manner, she recounted her struggle with the English language. 

“I was a student in the first class,” she said.  

“I was a good student, good in every subject except English. I dreaded English lessons. My English teacher would read my essays aloud, in front of the whole class, and everyone would laugh. I used to feel so ashamed. When I heard that I had to teach Math in English, I wanted to ask for permission to teach another subject. I thought I would never make it.  

But now, after attending this ETeMS course, I think maybe I can do it. I will keep on trying and one day, perhaps I will be able to teach Math in English as well as I can in Bahasa Malaysia.”  

Maybe I’m a sucker for sentiment but Zuziani’s words touched me deeply.  

After all, what she said fulfils the underlying objectives of the ETeMS programme.  

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