Engaging in unique lessons

Teaching assistants under the Fulbright programme return home after helping students in rural schools with their English proficiency.

THE 2017 Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) programme came to a close recently, with participants saying goodbye to Malaysia. From January next year until 2020, 300 more will come to help students in rural schools improve their English proficiency.

Before the ETAs came, we were not brave enough to speak English, shares SMK Ibrahim Fikri’s Nielya Natasya Nadhirah Nizam.

Students in the Terengganu school, she explains, didn’t speak English in class or at home, and so, were not confident in using the language.

“In class, when we don’t understand an English word, the teacher just translates it to Bahasa Malaysia. “But the ETAs will explain it in simple English. They are kind and dedicated in giving us confidence.

“We want to keep improving. Even though we still use broken English, at least we have the courage to speak it now.”

On Oct 30, the ETAs and their students performed, and set up booths to showcase their experiences, in Putrajaya. During the three-hour event, 98 ETAs who participated in the programme this year, received their certificates.

The ETAs are fresh graduates from American universities who have gone through a rigorous selection process to serve in secondary schools in Terengganu, Pahang, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Perak, Sabah and Sarawak, for 10 months.

The global programme conducted in 67 countries, is managed by the Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange (Macee) here. Malaysia runs the third largest Fulbright ETA Programme, behind Germany and South Korea.

ETA Nancy Mangels, who was posted to SMK Orang Kaya Haji, Pahang, thanked the students and schools for supporting them.

Delivering her speech in Bahasa Malaysia, Mangels shares how the experience has changed the ETAs’ lives forever.

“We learnt to survive the heat, and to tell you about our culture. Hopefully you’ve learnt something from us, because we’ve definitely learnt from you. Even though we are leaving, this relationship will continue from afar.”

Fellow ETA, Sophia Ng who went to SMK Idris Shah, Perak, says as a person of colour living in New York City, she relates to Malaysians.

“I learnt to eat with my hands, wear a tudung (headscarf), and play traditional games. You let me be part of your Mid-Autumn Festival and Deepavali celebrations. We sang old One Direction songs, laughed and ate. It’s the simple, unanticipated moments that are the most special. We are as diverse there as you are here.”

Macee executive director Dr James Coffman said all ETAs are vetted at university, and national levels. They are also screened by the relevant authorities here.

“We don’t just look at their experiences but we speak to them and get to know them. We do the best we can to make sure that they will do a good job here.”

While most ETAs are without prior teaching experience, they are enthusiastic, innovative, and confident, young people who can motivate local students to improve their use and command of the language.

Dr Coffman believes the programme will get better.

“We get feedback and improve our ETA training. We want to make sure that the schools they are sent to, know what they’re capable of. We’ve now got a strong orientation programme for the local mentor teachers and ETAs which will ensure that the programme really benefits the students.”

In Malaysia, the programme began in 2006. It took off at the federal level in 2012, following a meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

“The ETAs in Malaysia have organised many activities including scuba diving and poetry camps,” he adds. Fun activities are key to getting students to speak English, he feels. Curiosity must be triggered if you are looking at life-long learning. Get them out of classrooms and give them confidence to speak, he suggests.

“This year, we published close to 30 books which the students worked on with the ETAs,” he says, adding that the goal is to get Malaysians to understand the Americans better, and vice-versa.

Crediting the participants for their passion, US Embassy public affairs officer Bradley Hurst believes it’s the people who make the programme a success.

“This programme lets students in rural areas learn about real American culture. These are kids who might otherwise only know about us from what they see on TV. So, this programme signifies everything we want to do - which is to promote ties with other peoples.”

Dr Coffman agrees. The alumni ETAs go home and it doesn’t end there, he stresses. They will share their experiences with friends and family back home. Some, he says, even come back to visit Malaysia because of the connections they’ve made.

Education deputy director-general (education operations sector) Aminudin Adam says: “English is taught as a second language here but we want students proficient in more than one language because it’s important to ensure employability in the world market.

“Increasing exposure time is one way to make English meaningful and purposeful for students. We’ve seen how confident they’ve become after being part of the programme.”

During the farewell dinner, US ambassador to Malaysia Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir says the ETAs are a “symbol of something important” between two nations.

She paid tribute to the local principals and teachers who have supported, and helped hone the ETAs’ talents, saying that the “people-to-people” project has had an impact on thousands of Malaysian students.