“We believe that excellent education is beyond academic achievement and it’s about transforming mindsets and exposing students, about creating opportunities for them to succeed.”
Soonufat Supramaniam, better known as Soon, is a 2015 Alumnus currently teaching English at a high-need school in Lubok Buntar, Kedah. As a graduate from The Australian National University with a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting and Business Information Systems, Soon definitely chose to go “off the beaten track”, so to speak, with his qualifications.. But what inspired him to choose that journey?
“I am passionate about merging arts and education in my own homeland. I believe it has the potential to drive change and empower our students to discover more truthfully about their personal stories,” Soon shared. “The decision of coming back to Malaysia was heavily guided by my reasoning that Malaysia has no fixed agenda in the arts sector within the existing education curriculum. To be able to have the opportunity to explore this sector further with students from high-need schools really resonated with me.”
Before applying for the Fellowship, Soon was a teaching artist and producer with a theatre company in Brisbane. “While I was teaching in Australia, I realised that it is Malaysian stories and raw potential that I want to unearth. My heart and mind was very much connected to my Malaysian identity and I knew I wanted to come back to contribute to the betterment of Malaysia,” said Soon. He felt the best way to realise his ambition was through Teach For Malaysia.
Having completed the 2 year Fellowship Programme, Soon decided to stay on as a teacher. “I know that there is so much more that I can contribute through the relationships that I have fostered over the past two years,” shared Soon. He hopes to create longer lasting impacts within the community, amongst his students and his program on arts in education, which has proven to be successful.
Empowering students through arts
A teacher with a heart for the arts, Soon produced a play on bullying – written, devised and performed by 45 students from five secondary schools in rural Kedah. “We feel that bullying has increased in Malaysia over the past five years and the education system doesn’t pay much attention to this issue in an open way,” Soon said. Singing To The Lions was staged at George Town Festival in August this year.
The play was both a platform to empower and educate secondary students on the use of English as well as to raise awareness on bullying. “I am an advocate for education beyond the four walls of a classroom. Students must break through the cold walls of school buildings to learn how to interact and communicate in order to make creative things happen,” shared Soon.
Through “Singing To The Lions”, students discussed bully cases in Malaysia for the past 5 years to come up with this mysterious, adventurous and dark theatrical piece on bullying. It is a story of a girl (who is killed by the bully) coming back to life trying to figure out what happened to her. Through her journey, she discovered many other bullies in her life (representing the lions) who also bullied her friends and family members. At the end, she has a choice, either to choose forgiveness or to choose revenge.
Learning from each other
There is no denying that this whole theatrical performance is student driven. And those who seemed to have benefitted the most throughout the journey from the beginning of constructing the play all the way to executing it are the students. Students that participated in this play come from really challenging background. They require a lot of emotional, physical and financial support. Some students didn’t think they were capable enough to be part of this play. They have this self inferiority complex where they think that they will never be good enough. Many of the students were unable to converse properly in English. Throughout the six months leading to the play, they attended leadership training. The students were required to pitch projects which addressed social issues, manage camps on increasing the awareness on bullying and receive training in creative writing as well as performance. Their growth in confidence and creativity was evident when the play took stage.
“My most memorable experience”
When the students were asked about their most memorable experience of this journey, 13 year old Muhammad Harith Dzul-Ahda said “the most memorable part for me is how I struggled to speak English. But everyday, I tried and practised my best. With each passing day, my confidence level grew higher and higher. Because of this play, I can now speak and write well in English.” After the play, Muhammad Harith’s marks have improved as well as his confidence in presenting himself to the public.
Another student who was keen to share her experience was Nur Aisyah binti Abdullah. “My most memorable experience from this play is seeing my friends confidence growing. They have all improved from shy personalities into students who are brave and positive,” shared Nur Aisyah. She hopes that this personal growth which she gained through this play will inspire other students. Nur Aisyah hopes to be a good role model for other students from rural areas. She wants to show them that even students from high-need schools have the opportunity to achieve a good education.
Not only were the students involved who had inspiring stories to share, even the Teaching Artist, Nurul Imam Nadhirah was taken aback by the value this play added to the students. “When I joined this project, I got to see my students flourish right before my eyes. For me, that is THE magical moment every teacher would want to experience.” Nurul Imam, as a teacher, saw her students improve from being their reserved and quiet selves into confident and brave human beings. She personally believes that when it comes to education, teachers cannot change students into their versions of “excellent students”. Instead, teachers should embrace them for who they are and nurture them to be the best version of themselves.
For Soon, his biggest highlight was seeing his students grow from shy individuals to confident, caring and resilient individuals. To see your everyday ordinary school-going students and teachers coming together to create something extraordinary was the most memorable part of this “Singing To The Lions” journey.
Arts and Education
Performing arts as part of the syllabus should be a force and education model to be reckoned with. Soon’s work for the past three years have been focused mostly in this niche area. Hopefully this paves the way to reshape and help rethink what excellent education really means.
Soonufat Supramaniam is a 2015 Alumnus who had taught at a high-need school in Kulim. He graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting and Business Information Systems from The Australian National University. Soon is currently teaching English at a high-need school in Lubok Buntar, Kedah.