The spark to make the grade: By Charis Ding – Ex Zubedyan now Teaching for Malaysia
What low-achieving students need is guidance and motivation to address their weaknesses and tap their strengths.
TEACHER, I want to go to USA but my parents don’t have the money,” said my student Amir*.
“That’s okay,” I said. “In four years, you will sit for your SPM. You will get excellent results, and then you can apply for a scholarship to study in the United States (US) for free. You can go to Harvard or Yale, if you work hard.”
His eyes shone at the mention of Harvard. “Yes, teacher, I want to go there. Isn’t that where Helen Keller (deaf and blind author, political activist and lecturer) received an honorary degree?”
Then he said, “I want to be like Thomas Edison. I want to go around and write my lee-gan-cy.”
“Lee-gan-cy?” I asked. “Can you write it down for me?” I handed him a pencil. He wrote — ‘legancy’. I smiled.
“Yes, you will leave your legacy. You said you want to be a professor? You can do your PhD, then you will be known as Dr Amir*,” I said.
“But – I don’t want to be a doctor. I don’t want to stay in the US. I want to come back and write my legacy, like Thomas Edison. I want to give (back) to the country.”
“Which country?” I asked, just to confirm.
“My country – Malaysia!” he proudly said.
His sincerity and the “pureness” of his words warmed my heart. I realised that I could learn a thing or two from him.
However, I must say that he is not the only one who speaks with such frankness and honesty. All my students are full of hope.Nesh*, for example, is artistic. He’s a burst of energy who doesn’t sit still during most lessons, but give him an art paper and some paint and he’s a different person — he can sit quiety engrossed in a corner creating “visual wonders” on the paper.
Dan* shows the ability to pick up concepts and make connections quickly.
Ray* is particularly helpful to those around him — he’s not sure yet what he wants to be when he grows up, but he is certain that he wants to be “a helping guy”.
It is the same with the rest of my students. They have hearts of gold — many have ambitions of wanting to become policemen, soldiers, teachers … it just shows how much they want to give to society and the sacrifices they are willing to make. Yet it is ironic that before they are even given a chance to contribute, society might be failing them first. Sadly, they are the same students who are in my lowest-achieving classes.
We were shocked to find that some of them did not know the English word for biru, and how to spell “blue”.
Among them are students who have trouble reading basic English or Malay words and subtracting double-digit numbers. Their education is grossly misaligned with their vast potential.
The reading standard of about half my Form One students is of kindergarten level. A quarter of them are of about Year Three level, placing them some four years behind.
Everyday, they come to school wanting to learn, but they struggle to follow materials which are increasingly indecipherable for them. They get frustrated and don’t fully understand why it’s so hard for them. But it is really not their fault.
The majority of these students come from low-income homes and get little or no help and guidance in their studies from their families. They are lost and fall through the cracks, mostly forgotten.
This is the achievement gap. It is not an isolated problem. The 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment results show that almost 60% of our students fail to meet minimum benchmarks in Mathematics. About 43% do not demonstrate minimum proficiency in Science, and 44% do not show minimum proficiency in reading — the baseline required to participate in life.
These are our children, in and around Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Kedah and Perak, across the nation, across races, genders and ages.
These are our children whose lives are marred by education inequity. These are our children — we need to recognise them. We can no longer turn a blind eye to them. We cannot allow them to be forgotten.
They desire to play a part in society, but being part of their community, we must first do what it takes to remove the restrictions in the system that hold them back from opportunities.
We need to go all out to rectify this situation and allow these children to be part of the mainstream for otherwise their future will remain bleak. Education is one of the first things we need to get right. And if change is needed, we are the ones who have the capacity to make these changes happen.
So please do come by and say hello to these children and listen to their stories; volunteer to teach those who cannot read; sponsor materials or scholarships for these children, help them see the possibilities they can achieve. After all, this is just the spark they need to change their lives.
*Names of students have been changed.
n The writer is a Teach For Malaysia fellow. The final deadline for the Teach For Malaysia Fellowship is July 29. For more information, visit www.teachformalaysia.org.