THE Teach For Malaysia alumni are certainly a dynamic group of people.
We have David Chak and Alina Amir teaching underprivileged students coding and inventing through their Arus Academy and Cheryl Fernando reaching out to help give free tuition to under-served students with the EduNation team.
And we also have Melissa Tanya Gomes working to improve the classroom through Project Ground Up School Transformation, also known as Project Gusto.
I met up with Gomes not too long ago and the former management consultant explained why she started Project Gusto in her second year of teaching.
"Project Gusto is a school transformation initiative that is done by teachers, led by teachers.
“It was founded by a group of eight Teach for Malaysia fellows, we saw a Felda school in Johor being transformed by Khazanah's Amanah initative and we were very drawn to this because we saw that the students and teachers were very engaged in their lessons and were very positive," said Gomes, who teaches at SMK Jelutong in Penang.
SMK Jelutong is one of five schools - three in Penang and two in Perak - participating in the three-year Project Gusto.
Gomes said that Project Gusto aims to train teachers in 21st Century learning.
"We aim to produce students who are not only academically excellent but ultimately have the skills to handle our 21st century world," she added, saying that the project is a collaboration between Yayasan Amir and the state education departments of Penang and Perak.
Gomes told me that Project Gusto focuses on under-performing schools where the majority of the students are from poor families and communities from poor social demographics and students who do not have the opportunity to access or engage with the outside world.
"Gusto means teacher-led transformation. We have selected teachers who play the role of change agents to lead the transformation process in the school.
“Unlike many governmental programs where instructions are usually from top- down, this project is unique as teachers play a pivotal role as change agents in transforming their schools," said Gomes.
Gomes told me that when Project Gusto enters a school, they work with the headmaster to identify five "change teachers" to catalyze change in the school.
"These teachers will be trained in conducting 21st Century learning for the students and at the same time implement the transformative work in the administration and lessons for the students.”
She said that these teachers would set the strategic direction of their schools, train and coach teachers in 21st Century learning modules and conduct and lead workshops for other teachers.
"It does not take a top-down approach and empowers teachers to change their own school.
“The main focus of Project Gusto is to improve the outcome of learning for students, and we do that through teachers because they are the heartbeat of the school. So we empower teachers to change the school," added Gomes who also said that Project Gusto focuses on transforming learning for Form 1, 2 and 3 students.
At this point I asked her to explain what she meant by "21st Century learning."
Gomes said it began by getting students to sit together in groups and work as teams.
"One of the ways we changed the classroom is by getting students to sit together and collaborate as a group.
“People might think that there would be discipline issues or different learning abilities, but students still come together and learn in the Project Gusto classroom.
“We also create a classroom where students feel safe to express their views without being told to keep quiet. We try to encourage students to speak up and contribute to the class," she said.
Another key element of the Project Gusto classroom is the "parking lot."
"This is where students can 'park' their questions and comments. We do not restrict them because we want to inculcate a culture of speaking up. Every classroom will have that.
“And outside the classroom we have the Student Voice Group for students to speak up and recommend changes to the class. We want student-centred learning, and that takes a lot of teacher training. It is a lot of work," said Gomes.
She added that in one of the schools, teachers proposed subject-based classrooms where the students moved from classroom to classroom for different subjects instead of sitting in one classroom.
Gomes said that this motivated students as they don't feel lethargic from sitting down through the various classes.
I couldn't help but be impressed at learning this, because I personally believe students will learn more if they are given a chance to be heard and the opportunity to participate in educated discussions in the classroom.
As a student, I endured a lot of sit down and shut up from many teachers through my eleven years in Malaysian schools and I personally feel this made the learning process dull and dreary.
Indeed, Gomes shared some proof with me that Gusto can produce results.
"There was a significant increase in class attendance at SMK Jelutong. It has gone up from an average of 85% to 93% as of May. Besides that, a Form 2 student was selected by the director of Penang's state education department to deliver a speech during the state's 2016 Teachers' Day celebration," said Gomes.
At this point I asked Gomes about the future of Project Gusto.
"We want to make Project Gusto sustainable, and to do that we can't rely on foreign talent. What we plan is for these trained change teachers to be promoted and given special allowances or other incentives to train teachers from other schools in the Gusto way. Teachers training teachers," she said.
And with that, there you have it. Teachers helping each other transform their schools for the better.