By Chow Geh Tsung, 2014 Alumnus
I used to work as an Environmental Consultant for almost 4 years. When I left my job to join the Teach For Malaysia Fellowship, I was the head of the Sustainability and Climate Change department in a multinational consulting firm.
Today, I teach Science and English to 13 and 14-year-olds. This post is about why I’ve decided to continue teaching after the Fellowship.
1. Teaching is an art – it takes more than two years to master it
A lesson on world cultures.
I’ve learned a lot more in my short time as a teacher than in my four years as a consultant. Every day poses a different challenge, every class poses a different challenge, every student poses a different challenge. It keeps me on my toes in every passing moment.
I have held many leadership positions throughout my life and attended as many leadership courses as yo mama’s collection of empty containers, but absolutely nothing has developed my leadership skills more than being a teacher. None of my previous leadership experiences come even close.
A teacher is the leader in classrooms, in societies, clubs and sports teams. How do you manage a group of rebellious kids and get them to strive together with you and move towards a common goal? That is much much harder than leading a team of high-flying consultants any day. I have never felt like a true leader until I became a teacher. In the office, an employee performs because his performance determines his pay. In the classroom, the kids don’t get paid, their motivation hinges entirely on your ability to lead and empower them.
When people walk into a classroom and see that the kids are on-task and learning, they might not think that there is anything special, but what they don’t see are the million things that the teacher has done in the background to make this happen. Teaching is an art; there are many subtle details that are invisible to the untrained eye.
Teaching developed my character.
A person will never learn true, legit, orthodox patience until he/she becomes a teacher. I used to think that I was patient. People thought I was a Zen Master. Within the first month of teaching I already exploded so angrily, no one, not even my own family members have seen me so angry. In my first year itself, I banged the table and scolded kids full-on. I shouted so hard it felt like I could shoot my Adam’s apple into the student’s eye socket. It is what I can describe as maximum anger. I have never gotten this angry in my entire life, until I became a teacher. I was inexperienced and naïve about the teaching profession. People tend to think that teaching is easy because, “Hey, you’re just dealing with kids, right?” No, man.
A person who has mastered the art of teaching does not need to raise his voice, threaten, hit, nor entice students with rewards to awaken their true potential. He understands the subtleties of the human mind, of different personalities and of different circumstances to bring about enlightenment within individuals. True teachers are respected even when they aren’t around, spoken about with admiration behind their backs and remembered for life.
I am only beginning to explore the depths of this great art, and this is one of the main reasons I have decided to continue teaching after the two-year Fellowship. I like how insanely challenging it is, I like how difficult it is, I like how it is still beyond my reach. I want to master the art of teaching.
2. Unfinished business
Happy faces after the successful completion of a recent international jamboree.
I don’t think the journey of a teacher is ever finished.
There are many things close to my heart that I want to continue developing in my school, such as scouts and badminton. These are two things I know I could personally make a difference in this community.
When I came in and took charge of the scouts troop three years ago, no one knew a single knot. Everything had to be developed from scratch. We had nothing in the beginning, and today, we have scouts capable of fundraising and organising projects that offer service to the community. Although we have made some progress, we are far from being sustainable. I aspire to develop our very own King Scouts, and to develop a system that could continue to run even without my presence.
Badminton. The school had never organised a legit badminton tournament in the history of its establishment, as far as I know. We (i.e. me and my trusty scouts) recently organised the school’s first ever badminton tournament. Some of the students had never played in a real badminton hall before. It was a really fun day. One of the teachers described it as being like a carnival; we even set up a stall to sell food and drinks!
Aside from scouts and badminton, there are many school improvement opportunities that I want to work on but have not had the time. If I left the school after the Fellowship, it would have felt incomplete. I felt like I had not done enough in two years.
3. Freedom to design
A lesson on air pressure. I got students to make their own cars powered by balloons. They made the cars using waste materials. Here, they are competing to see which car can travel faster and farther.
One thing I really like about being a teacher is the flexibility that comes with it. While there is a syllabus to follow, the teacher has the freedom to design his lessons whichever way he sees fit, however he wants. The sky is the limit. I have never felt so much room for creativity. When I was a consultant, presentations were strictly professional. We even had corporate templates with fixed font types and sizes, logos must be at a certain corner, lines at a certain angle, it was all sterile as anything. Delivery of the presentations, needless to say, was dull and dry. Very often I was presenting to old uncles who couldn’t appreciate the humour, if any, that I injected into my technical presentations.
Designing classroom lessons is one thing, designing projects for scouts or other extracurricular unit is a whole different dimension. I could pretty much do anything as a teacher (as long as my students come back alive).
4. Satisfaction Level: Teacher
Me and my students winning some cold hard cash at a nuclear science camp as underdogs. When we first arrived, they were intimidated by the other seemingly brighter participants. As teachers, we give students, among other things, the gift of fearlessness.
When I was a consultant, there were times when I got an increment, but I never felt nearly as happy as when I see a student improve. It is a different level of happiness, a kind of satisfaction I never felt with any other work.
Every teacher has a group of really supportive and good students who really look up to her/him as their role model, and such students take your words really seriously. You have a certain influence on the people they will become and the choices they will make in the future. For example,
On another occasion, I showed some students a simple back-flip trick on a horizontal bar, and after that it became a craze among students in that class. They learned how to do it and recorded videos of themselves doing the back-flip; one of them proudly sent his video clip to me! I introduced pull-ups to this particular student who sent me his back-flip video and told him how effective it is as an exercise to develop muscles. That was 3 years ago… Today, he can do many more pull-ups than me and is so buff I look like chopsticks beside him. Really proud of him, man.
We’ve only been talking about the satisfaction from seeing improvement in the good kids so far, believe me when I say that it feels even better when you turn a really ‘bad’ student around. The most recent example is-
This year I have a Form 2 ‘gangsta’ student who has a lot of disciplinary problems. I engaged him through sports. He is a good runner and happened to be in my sports house. I acknowledged him and treated him with respect. During house practice, I gave him the responsibility to lead the juniors during practice. He took pride in his work and did his job dutifully. I trusted him with the work and he did not take advantage even when I wasn’t monitoring him. No signs of misbehavior whatsoever. He then went on to win the Best Athlete Award during the School’s Sports Day. He was suspended from school during the Prize Giving Ceremony, but he came to school anyway with a neat long-sleeved uniform. He really wanted to be acknowledged. When he went on the stage, I was really proud of him. I later sent him a photo of him holding the trophy and congratulated him, he then responded with this:
“Thank you teacher… without you, I may not have won the events that I participated in.”
That sentence made me feel very warm inside. It motivates me to work harder and to reach out to more lives as a teacher.
I will stay until I master the art of teaching, but I know I will never master it because there will always be room for improvement. The moment I stop reaching for greater heights is the moment I stop improving. I will continue to strive.
I am deciding to teach indefinitely. At this point I’m not setting a time limit.
I will continue getting better every day and become the best teacher I can possibly be. Whenever the opportunity arises, and where conditions are ripe, I might move on to another environment, but I will certainly continue to teach. This is my path.
(To all you Fellows out there, all the best with your Fellowship and the decisions you make after!)
Chow begins his fourth year of teaching this year, at a high-need school in Kajang, Selangor. Chow graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science from Universiti Malaysia Sabah.