“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” – Rosa Luxemburg
When I was studying Sociology, people were defined by all these statistics and numbers, these one-liners. X% of students face Y challenge because of Z factor.
After teaching for two years at a high-need school, I feel like education inequity is not that simple. It’s a very big bucket of everything. Statistics don’t tell us the whole story.
In real life, it involves a lot of things affecting other things, vicious cycles affecting how students learn. If I have an abusive mother, chances are I’d have psychological issues and maybe other issues as well.
One student could fit into so many different statistics.
Defined by narratives
Last year, I taught this student who was in one of the weaker Form 1 classes. Though she struggled academically, she was eager to prove herself. “Miss Candee, next year I want to be in the best class. I will do this, this, this. I will use this much time at night to study this subject. And I will use this much time to work on this.”
She had tenacity. She would do all her work, she was very disciplined. But beneath all that, she was very insecure, and needed a lot of attention and reassurance. She wasn’t very well liked amongst her peers because she was labeled a teacher’s pet.
This year, I noticed a 180-degree change. Now she’s in the weakest class, the ‘last’ class. She’s talking back to teachers. She’s skipping class. She’s doing a lot of things she wouldn’t have done last year.
She told me, “Teacher, I’m not childish anymore. I don’t think being good will make me successful. Last year I was so good, but nothing happened. So I’m not going to be childish and waste my time on dreams. I’m going to just be myself. See, now I have a lot of friends. I have friends to skip class with, friends to eat with. It’s so nice.”
I was shocked when I saw the drastic change. I later found out that she has a very complicated family background. Her parents are separated, and she doesn’t know where her dad is. At home, her mum was doing whatever it took to make ends meet.
I felt guilty and sad because I taught her last year. If I had paid her more attention, if teachers had more time and space to learn about the social or emotional challenges their students are facing – would this still have happened?
I’ve witnessed a lot of issues surrounding the breakdown of family units in the community where I teach in Pasir Gudang, Johor – single parents, domestic abuse, children being sent to live with relatives or in orphanages because their parents have to work somewhere else, like Singapore. Whatever pressures their parents face affects them.
The students in Pasir Gudang are not as unexposed as we think. They know what’s out there. They know you need English. They see how advanced Singapore is. They just don’t think it’s for them. They don’t aspire for more in their lives. They’ve already put themselves in a box. They’re set in their narratives.
Questioning the way things are
My students may be from a high-need community, but they’ve never been forced out of their comfort zones. They don’t realise that they’re chained by so many things. My students have to grow up a lot faster than I did when I was 14 years old. They have a lot of things to worry about – family issues, not having enough money, not knowing when their next meal is. They focus on survival.
I incorporate journaling and reflection in my lessons to help students focus on self-awareness. It’s so important to be able to be really honest with yourself. How am I doing? What am I feeling? Why am I feeling like this?
In my English classes, I incorporate aspects of social consciousness, like a lesson I designed on gender roles. I got the class to brainstorm – what did they think were suitable careers for women and men? They wrote down their ideas on Post-its and I switched them around. I asked them if it were possible for a woman to be an engineer, or for a man to be a nurse. I then got them to write stories about it, which was very thought-provoking.
A change of scene and identity
Last year, I was the President of Project Kickstart – a 4-day leadership camp that empowers students to be agents of change – by pitching their solutions for challenges in their schools, society and our nation. Of course, I got my students to participate. These students are from the ‘remove class’ or kelas peralihan (they are one academic year behind their peers). I wanted them to believe that even if you’re 13 or 14, you can still create change, and that little bit of change can bring hope to others.
They didn’t win, but they were shaken. “If other students our age are doing these kinds of things, why can’t we?”
Normally, these students rarely speak English. I force them to, but it’s usually “good morning”, or “please may I go to the toilet” – very simple stuff. At Kickstart, they successfully pitched their idea in ENGLISH to a panel of judges.
I’m so proud of them.
In class, no matter how much you push them, the narrative is always, “No one else will speak English anyway, it’s stupid, don’t listen.” But once they are put in a different environment with a different culture, they are amazed by what they can do. They suddenly realise they have the freedom to reshape or redefine their identities.
One of them used to be very quiet and shy. This year, I see him trying. When his friends say, “I don’t understand, I can’t do this”, he says, “You should just try. Write something. Don’t give up so easily.”
This sort of impact is not something you can measure, like grades. This change, this grit, is something that is going to help him throughout his life. Just because he was brave enough to be vulnerable, to change.
Teenagers have “identities” or labels that they feel they must stick to, and that can actually be a very big barrier.
For example – I’m the “bad boy” in school, and I get respect from that. If I try to learn, other people will see me trying, being vulnerable, and people will not respect me anymore, or laugh at me for trying.
Or maybe I’m the “pretty girl”, so I need to look good all the time. Or I’m the “athlete”, so I always need to win.
In Sociology, I learned that we give ourselves roles so we’re more comfortable in social settings. But we’re not stereotypes. We can have multiple layers. We often see people change after leaving secondary school. That’s because it’s a chance to recreate ourselves as we move on to a different level of our lives.
I want my students to know that every day is a new day. You can recreate yourself anytime you want. Just be brave enough to be vulnerable, and you can break out of that box you’ve put yourself into.
I came back to Malaysia to join the Fellowship because I really, really love Malaysia. There’s just this feeling that I have to come back, I have to do something, I want to see Malaysia be the Malaysia I know we can be. Working alongside other Fellows and teachers with the same mindset is very inspiring. You feel like you’re really part of something bigger, something that’s helping other people break free from their chains.
I’ve almost done with my two years in the Fellowship, but my work is not done with Malaysia. In fact, I have not felt this challenged in my entire life.
Candee Chee is a 2016 Teach For Malaysia Fellow, who teaches English and Art at a high-need school in Pasir Gudang, Johor. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology from the University of Portsmouth. She co-founded Project Kickstart and is currently involved in other initiatives like ARTspire.
Everyone deserves a #fightingchance. Get in the front line in the fight against education inequity. Apply for the Fellowship today or donate RM50 monthly to help empower one Fellow to impact two students.
Teach For Malaysia recruits, trains and supports Fellows to teach in high-need schools across the nation. Beyond the Fellowship, our Alumni continue to champion education in different ways. To date, we’ve impacted over 73,000 students, working with the Ministry of Education and other partners.