It wasn’t easy making the switch from being trained academically in banking and finance, to teaching full time in a high-need school on the island of Borneo. But I couldn’t let the opportunity to be a Teach For Malaysia Fellow slip by: this was my chance to be more than just another keyboard warrior lamenting the current state of our education system.
I teach science to 13- and 14-year-olds in a high school in Miri, Sarawak. It is dubbed The Oil City due to its rich source of petroleum along the division’s coastline. The lifestyle here is surprisingly slow-paced – a stark difference from Kuala Lumpur, where I was born and bred, and where it’s about keeping up with the Joneses and 24-hour eateries to cater to workers slogging through their jobs at ungodly hours.
Despite being rich in natural resources, there is a long road ahead to fully develop and modernise Sarawak, due to existing challenges – and this includes the education sector. There’s still much more to be done to increase access for east Malaysians, compared to the multitude of opportunities that most of their western counterparts get.
As a science teacher, I try to play my part to bridge the exposure gap by teaching current issues and development in science, technology, and even world news in my lessons. Some of my students were completely unaware of plans to build a mega-hydroelectric dam just 250km from Miri.
But there are merits to living in a city that is not rapidly urbanising. In my year-and-a-half teaching here, I’ve come to understand and empathise with my students’ perspective on life. It’s about making just enough to get by, with a little extra for savings and personal entertainment. Most don’t dream of migrating elsewhere, because it’s simply not them.
Education remains one of the most challenging sectors to address in Sarawak, where we are confronted with budget cuts, limited facilities and internet access – the list goes on. Sometimes the reality of education rears its ugly head for us teachers, but students don’t deserve to see that from us.
Teachers have to become great actors in the classroom – we try to take on the brunt and bruises, and convert them into energy to show our kids that we still mean business in the classroom. After all, it’s all for the kids.
I teach in the afternoon, so my classroom hours are typically 12pm to 6.15pm. Meetings or co-curricular activities, if any, are held in the morning before school begins, so I can usually arrive in school by 11.30 am. One feature that I really appreciate in Miri is the non-existence of long traffic jams, which means I reach my workplace in 15 minutes by car.
The sweltering heat in Miri is no-nonsense at times. I am often drenched after my first class of the day. This is why practically every teacher in my school has a USB-powered mini fan and a hand towel as part of their survival kit. Oh, and loads of instant coffee.
We have a culture of escorting students to the exit at the end of day and waving them off. Most students will bid farewell to teachers with bright, smiling faces even though you may not be their subject teacher; a great mood-lifter on a bad day.
I squeeze in gym sessions at a nearby 24-hour gym whenever I can – part of my efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which can be quite challenging for a teacher.
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