Stories from the front line: Chiew Teng

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When my parents divorced, it took me a while before I could talk about it as a child. The first time I told my best friend, she listened as I cried. I found that talking helps—that’s why it’s an important part of my teaching method.

Coming from a poor family, I was the first to graduate with a professional qualification. Despite our financial situation, my dad worked very hard and always strove to help others to the best of his ability. But when I decided to join the Fellowship, he was skeptical. “Teacher?” he questioned, “Everybody can be a teacher. Why did you study so hard?”

Finding Fulfilment

In his eyes, I had finally completed my degree in biomedical science and entered the noble world of cancer research. I had been the top student in my school, scoring 13 A’s at SPM. I had managed to secure private sponsorship and proven myself within the ivory tower.

Why would I want to forego all of that effort for something like teaching?

Yet, five months into being a researcher, I knew that cancer research wasn’t for me. I spoke to doctors and mentors, asking them about their achievements and what made them feel fulfilled. Their answers weren’t what I wanted for myself.

I thought back to 2015, when a Teach For Malaysia campus leader urged me to attend a fundraising event at Merdekarya. Listening to the TFM Fellows, I realised that my personal values and beliefs were in line with their mission. Education changed my life, so I decided to join the fightand teach.

My dad said I was naïve for choosing the hard life of a teacher, yet I was reminded of his advice to me during my university days:

“Now that you have people sponsoring you, you must be aware that they are not obliged to do so. If you get the chance, I hope that you will pay it forward. Help somebody else—someone like you, who cannot afford to study—to further their studies.”

Talking helps

My father only began to warm to my new profession when I started telling him about my students.

In my classroom, I’m the “nice teacher”. Rather than scolding my students, I ask them to see me after class. This gives me the chance to talk to them, understand their lives, share my own personal stories, and develop a connection to them.

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Amir* is one of my students who faced academic challenges. As a talented hockey player, he was often absent from classes; once, he missed school for two consecutive months while representing Malacca at the National Hockey Competition.

When Amir returned to school during the mid-term examinations, he refused to sit for his English paper. “Teacher, kalau duduk pun dah tau akan gagal, then kenapa bazir masa? (Teacher, I know I’ll fail even if I sit for the English exam—so why bother?),” he said.

Amir’s pessimistic mindset took me initially by surprise, until I got to know him better. Coming from a family of high achievers, he often felt like the odd one out. He told me that, unlike his siblings, he was better suited for sports; he didn’t think he had much academic potential. I spent a lot of time talking to him, especially about that last point.

Once Amir opened up to me, I noticed he began to show more interest in my English classes. He volunteered to be my crowd control assistant, using the influence he had on his peers to help me manage the class.

And when I asked him, “Why the change in attitude?”, he told me that he noticed I really cared for my students, which made him want to try harder.

The change felt magical. Amir became more attentive in class, he finished his homework, and he stopped leaving blanks in his English paper. In fact, he requested extra help before his final exam—and improved from 10% to 40% in his English papers! This marked a huge improvement for Amir, for he’d previously never scored higher than 11%!

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Teaching, my way

Once, after hearing stories like these, my dad proudly said, “You see? Where got teachers like you?

I’m still figuring out what kind of teacher I will eventually become. Many friends have asked me how I sustain my teaching; I tell them that I feed off the kids’ excitement and energy. When I’m planning a lesson, I imagine myself in their shoes—what would I want to learn today? How would I want to learn this? It can be very tiring on my end, but it’s slowly getting easier with practice.

Now, my father follows me on Instagram and Facebook, where I share stories from school. He regularly likes my pictures, posts and status updates. I’m just glad that he’s not so against the idea of me being a teacher anymore!

Chiew Teng is a 2017 Teach For Malaysia Fellow, who currently teaches English at a high-need school in Pasir Gudang. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Sciences from Taylor’s University. She is passionate about STEM education and has empowered 100 of her students through the GE “Girls Who Code” Programme. Last weekend, Amir’s hockey team emerged as champions of their local tournament.

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.

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