Teaching to the Heart

“I’m a firm believer in relationship-building. The closer you are to them, the more they listen to what you have to say.”

Warda's Story

Thumbs twirl pens.  Hands send notes. Shoulders sag. Eyes drift. Inevitably, a mouth passes a comment. “Alamak, English pula, tidur lah.”

Apathy towards English is not uncommon in Malaysian schools, especially those located in high-need communities. It matters little if they are in the heart of Kuala Lumpur or on the outskirts of Kulim. Regardless of location, teachers will still encounter students who converse solely in their own mother tongue, who ridicule peers who say “Good morning, Sir” outside the classroom, who leave chunks of English test papers unanswered.

Teach For Malaysia’s Fellows are all too familiar with the root causes of students’ indifference. There is the girl with generations of family members who have gotten by without knowing any English. The boy whose friends shun him whenever he gets too poyo. The twins whose heads fall in unison as they realise that they still haven’t quite mastered the conjugation of the verb “be”. 

In January 2016, Wardatulnadhirah binti Zainal Abidin began teaching 25 of these students in a school half an hour from Johor Bahru. It didn’t take very long for Warda to recognise their emotional detachment from the subject. Within days, she saw their minds shut off whenever she uttered an English word. Panic gripped her.

“This is bad. This is really bad.”

She needed to identify a solution quickly. Looking systematically at test results, she discovered that only 2 students had passed their English examination two and a half months prior. 10 had marks in single digits. Convention would have compelled her to double down on grammar drills and reading comprehension exercises. But Warda thought differently.

“I’m a firm believer in relationship-building. The closer you are to them, the more they listen to what you have to say.”

All through that first month, Warda invested more time in opening up to her students and teaching to their hearts, than she did in opening up textbooks and teaching to the test. Outside class, she ate with them during recess and lent an ear to their personal problems. In class, she showed them that English could be fun by playing Hangman and Pictionary.

They thought of her as a sister.

Soon, they began to voice a desire for a wider range of English-related activities. That provided an opportunity for Warda to pivot towards lessons of a more formal nature while retaining elements they had come to enjoy. Whenever they struggled, she fortified her growing bond with them with gentle reminders.

“Try. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. I like it when you make mistakes. It shows that you are learning.”

It was clear that they were indeed learning. If not substantive content, they were certainly learning to love English and to take pride in their work. Just in January, she had to battle their indifference to poor performance. Fast forward to June, and Warda was fending off daily text messages requesting her to disclose their mid-year exam results!

Five months of building rapport yielded progress, on paper and, more importantly, in the students’ hearts. 7 had passed. 21 had demonstrably improved. One of them, a girl who turned an F into a C and who hopes to make her mother proud by one day attending UKM, attributes her achievement to her relationship with Warda.

“Saya sangat bersyukur kerana saya tidak sangka markah periksa saya akan setinggi itu. Padahal markah peperiksaan akhir tahun saya pada tahun lepas sangat teruk, tapi saya sangat gembira kerana hadirnya seorang guru yang mampu membimbing saya dan kawan-kawan saya sampai kami boleh faham apa yang teacher ajar di hadapan.”

Warda acknowledges that her role as a guide requires her to direct her students towards taking greater responsibility for their own learning. 3 formal contact hours every week do not lend themselves to large immediate and uniform gains. It’s a good thing, then, that her connection to them has not only increased engagement in the classroom, but has also decreased their apathy towards English and potentially helped remove a roadblock to independent learning.

Even as they edge closer towards independence, Warda will remain a sisterly companion on their journey.  

“We still have a long way to go, but we’ll reach there if we keep trying.”

Should they keep trying, pens will stop twirling. Eyes will stop drifting. Ridicule will be brushed off. Test papers will be fully answered. And kids will wonder why they ever thought it was impossible to conjugate “be”.

Wardatulnadhirah binti Zainal Abidin is a 2016 Fellow teaching in a school in Johor. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Management from the University of Exeter.

Written by Ujval Singh Sidhu-Brar.

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