IN early 2012, a teacher and spoken-word artist friend of mine, Elaine, approached me to be part of a drama and poetry teaching project. I felt anxious, having zero experience in teaching. However, I had good working experiences with kids before, and I am a dramatic person by nature, and these instilled Elaine with enough good faith to have me on board.
Holding my breath, I turned in a resignation letter to the company that I had been employed with for the past nine years, and jumped headfirst into the nationwide school tour of a popular educational language TV show called Oh My English.
I was made part of a small facilitating team that visited 50 local public schools over the course of three months (I joined the project for the latter two months). We travelled extensively from state to state, visiting one different school almost every weekday. Each facilitator was assigned to hold a day-long workshop with around 20 selected schoolchildren, encouraging them to use better English though drama and poetry.
The project was a steep learning curve for me. Most of the schools were relatively rural, filled with uproarious kids with near-negligible attention spans. There were children who hid under desks to avoid participation, children who spoke back… there was even one girl who gave me “The Hand”. By the end of some days, I would return to the hotel with a burning throat and feeling like I had run a marathon. But those were not the worst days.
Quite often, I would walk into a classroom of pin-drop silence. I would ask the students if they understood my instructions, and they would not even be able to muster the courage to say “Yes” or “No”. When I walked up to any one person, he or she would literally cower behind their friends.
When I asked such students to use their imagination to write things, they would copy the same idea from each other's books, or just sit there quietly, hopelessly, until the time I gave ran out. They were terrified of being singled out, of saying or doing anything different from each other. It seemed embarrassing to have an opinion.
The fortune of my international school background made it all the more of a culture shock when I discovered that many of my students had no outlet for creative expression – no school time dedicated to drama, music or art. I had always been aware of the importance of the nurturing of creativity without actually knowing why. I found the answer in these young people: intelligent, yet lacking in confidence and - to be frank - incredibly boring.
I realised that public schools put more emphasis on the ability to regurgitate facts than establishing identities. It dawned on me what a unique responsibility I had been given.
At the beginning of every workshop, I would tell my students that this was probably the only day in their school life that they could turn their classroom into a playground, a place where they could do and be anything they wanted without any judgment, and that the only expectation I had from them was to have fun.
Thankfully, some of the kids took this to heart. The biggest surprises came from students who were either the most unruly or the most uninvolved, and ended up putting the most effort into the activities.
In one session at an all-girls school, one student started crying silently during a movement game. She was much smaller in size than her classmates, and found it hard to keep up with the pace of the others.
Growing up as a timid, overly sensitive child myself, I lacked empowerment, and now had the opportunity to provide it to someone else who needed it. I whispered something in her ear, turning the situation around so that she had an upper hand in the game. Her face lit up, and she carried on playing as if she had the world in her hands. It was one of my most memorable moments of the tour.
Being a part of this project made me realise how difficult it is to be a teacher. It made me think of the teachers who left an impression on me, and the ones I might have taken for granted. I now understand how the fulfillment of the job outweighs the frustrations. It made me realise how much more work could be done to enrich the Malaysian public education system, for our country to be represented by a colourful and assertive young generation that takes pride in thinking out of the box.
It was magical to see some kids proving, in a mere five-hour workshop, how much real potential they had in becoming such Malaysians. I can only hope they'll see that too.