“Your background should not define your success in life.”
Lim Yen Teng (2017 Fellow) has first-hand experience in the hardship of coming from a challenging background. Despite the barriers he faced, his life was transformed by the influence of a cikgu. Being one himself now, he strives to empower others that face the same challenges he did.
Growing up, Yen Teng didn’t really understand the point of school.
I come from a difficult background. I grew up a family of six: four siblings including myself, plus my parents. My father was a tractor driver and my mother was a kindergarten teacher. Our family income was around RM2000/month, and that’s before my mother passed away during Form 2. Growing up, I had a front seat to what education inequity is like.
In truth, the gap was overwhelming. While others could afford to go to tuition, to participate in competitions, or to go on educational school trips, my peers and I would leave early to help our parents with work, find a job ourselves, or worst of all – just lepak. Some of us don’t even know what to do with our free time or how to move forward, we were stagnant. Some of my peers didn’t know how to spend their free time, so they’d just waste it doing nothing. In life, they were essentially wandering aimlessly.
I observed that people like us, who come from a poorer background faced another challenge in growing up – poverty of hope.
We grew up watching others do extracurricular activities like Scouts and St. John Ambulance and wondered: “What’s the point? Such a waste of time!”
What we didn’t realise was that these activities that seemed useless actually nurtured qualities that are important in life – learning teamwork, communication skills and how to lead a team.
However, one teacher believed in Yen Teng and that made all the difference.
During Form 4, I was lucky enough to have been taught by Cikgu Tay. To say that she changed my life trajectory would be an understatement. Knowing my family was struggling, she helped me a great deal by applying for school allowances from the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), an opportunity I never even realised existed.
But her biggest impact on me was her persistence and patience. Even with the stubborn Yen Teng back then that didn’t understand the importance of education, she kept pushing me and motivating me patiently. I will always remember what she told me: “Your background should not define your success in life.” She was the first person in my life that truly believed that education would be the key to help me break out of my circumstances.
Thanks to her belief in me, I decided to continue with Form 6. And applying the same persistence and patience that she showed me, I managed to get accepted to University Malaysia Perlis to study International Business!
Yet despite securing a well-paying job, Yen Teng didn’t feel fulfilled.
With my degree, I worked at Bursa Malaysia for 2 years. But despite things going relatively well, I felt strangely empty. In retrospect, it was the same feeling I had before I met Cikgu Tay – lost. Though I had a successful career I realised that I had found no meaning in what I did every day: I couldn’t see any impact from my life.
Feeling lost, I looked around in ways to give myself purpose such as volunteering and community service. Some time later, when reading Cikgu Hailmi’s blog, I came across Teach For Malaysia. What I read interested me, and I looked them up and read about their mission to level the education playing field for all students no matter their background. This statement instantly hooked me as it reminded me of Cikgu Tay and what she did for me. I decided to apply for Teach For Malaysia.
In hindsight, it was the best decision of my life! Joining the Fellowship isn’t just about becoming a teacher, it’s a journey. For me, it gave me the chance to give back to those who are in the same boat as I was growing up, while developing myself at the same time.
As a 2nd year Fellow, I can confidently say working with fellow teachers and managing challenging kids in high-need schools have developed my communication skills tremendously.
More than that, I found myself becoming something I never thought I was – a leader. In my 2nd year my peers and seniors pushed me to join the Fellowship Advisory Board (FAB), a panel of Fellows that’s tasked to be the voice of our cohort, the bridge between Fellows and Teach For Malaysia as an organisation. As a FAB member, I was pushed to be more analytical and vocal of the problems we face in and outside the classroom.
Now I’m 6 months away from finishing my two-year Fellowship journey. Though the Fellowship is coming to an end, I know that I will be a teacher for life. This will be my #StoryWorthTelling.
Lim Yen Teng is a 2017 Fellow currently teaching at a high-need school in Pasir Gudang, Johor. He graduated with a Bachelors degree in International Business from Universiti Malaysia Perlis and worked for two years at Bursa Malaysia prior to joining the Fellowship. Currently, Yen Teng is running BLISS, an initiative to grow soft skills and leadership qualities among students. Read more about how BLISS was founded here.