Monday, November 18, 2013

TFM Alumni Induction Speech

Yang Amat Mulia Tengku Ali, Yang Berbahagia Tan Sri Dr Jemilah, Yang Berbahagia Dato’ Noor Rezan, Yang Berusaha Encik Chen Li Kai, Board of Trustees, guests of honour, Teach For Malaysia staff, 2013 Fellows, 2014 Fellows and my brothers and sisters from the 1st cohort of Teach For Malaysia Alumni.

A very good afternoon to all of you. My name is Abel Cheah, and I stand here on this day of Induction and celebration, on behalf of the 2012 Fellows, to speak about the Fellowship journey as it draws to a close, and the Alumni movement as it begins here today.  

2 years ago, on this very day, the 2012 Fellows, sat together in room L415 in Institute Aminuddin Baki for a lesson on Checks for Understanding with Reid Hickman, after a morning in Kem SKORlah, where we met our very first students. So much has happened since then. In the last 2 years, each of us has spent over 75,000 minutes teaching over 250 young lives. Some of these moments were shared with you, our corporate partners, government officials, TFM staff and Board of Trustees. Together, the Teach For Malaysia community has touched over 11,500 lives.

This week, as the school bell rang in the corridors and classrooms for the last time this year, an incredible chapter of our lives closed; an amazing journey drew to an end. And we are here today to thank you, the people who walked with us, spurred us on, even carried us up at times, along the way.  

How does one move on, at the end of a journey both so heart-breaking and inspiring?

Today, I find solace in the words of Mr. Frodo Baggins from the Lord of the Rings, who at the end of his own Fellowship (no pun intended!) said: "And the Fellowship of the Ring though eternally bound by friendship and love was ended... We were home... How do you go on when in your heart, you begin to understand there is no going back?"

Today, I recognise that, at the end of a great journey, one may be too easily tempted to do one of two things: to either spend the rest of his days living in the shadows of his travels; or to be overly contented with his current conquest, declaring that he has ‘arrived’, that there are no more journeys left.

All of us in this place can too easily fall into either of these categories.

We, the fellows, can choose to revel in the accomplishments of our two years and remain nostalgic, in the fact that under our care, students have improved academically (some, by 2 or 3 grades), or that our students have become confident young men and women, who can now stand before crowds to present ideas, perform choral speeches, tell stories, act, or solve an Algebraic equation.

These are indeed achievements worth rejoicing over but we do a disservice to ourselves, our students and the Teach For Malaysia community if we bask in them for too long. The truth is none of what we did was by our strength alone, or even by TFM’s strength. We have, in the words of Isaac Newton, “stood on the shoulders of giants” – giants who are present with us here today, in our schools and communities, who often take less credit than is due.  The truth is there is more to be done.

Perhaps, we could be overly contented with what we have done, deciding that as our two-year commitment to educate and inspire the youth of our country has ended, so is our obligation as citizens of Malaysia. We could choose to pat ourselves on the back today, and set camp right here, at the end of this journey, declaring that we have ‘arrived’.

But that would betray one of the most valuable lessons we have learnt from our Fellowship: that ending education inequity will take more than just a humble teacher, much like us fellows who spent the last 2 years teaching in the obscure villages of Simpang Durian, Juasseh and Kampung Sungai Manggis. It will take extending the boundaries of our villages to Putrajaya, Jalan Travers and Jalan Sultan Ismail where an entire community of leaders, from all walks of life in a diversity of fields, come together and collaborate for this cause, over the long-haul.

The mission to end education inequity would need more than just good lesson delivery; it would need a corporate CEO who will inspire our students with stories of success and hard work, or a policy-maker who will craft useful and teacher-friendly policies, or a government official who will champion the cause of making quality education available to all children in Malaysia; all of these working together.  

We will not declare that ‘our job here is done’-- not when every day, thousands of students walk to school with empty stomachs, and return home with emptier dreams. We cannot afford to stop fighting -- not when thousands of other passionate Malaysian teachers continue to educate the next generation, or when that Teach For Malaysia staff stays back in the office to organize that school trip, or when that Dato’ squeezes in his time to make that meeting to discuss how he can further contribute to the organization.

Today, I will speak about a fellowship that never actually ended, and a journey that never truly stopped. There is more to be done!

For us, the fellows, these last 2 years were far from just a mere stint of charity, or an exercise at feeling good about ourselves (in fact, I’d argue that we barely felt good at times), but an initiation into something bigger: to lose ourselves “in the service of others”, as Gandhi said. 

That is how we’re moving on, at the end of a journey both so heart-breaking and inspiring.

“There is no going back”, as Frodo said.

For no longer can our eyes – eyes that have seen what a student can achieve with a little bit of hope and patience -- now look upon the children of Malaysia with apathy and ignorance.

No longer can our ears – ears that have heard heart-wrenching stories of our students’ childhood and the sound of over 250 students shouting at the top of their lungs every day for 2 years – now ignore the unheard voices of the next generation. 

No longer can our hands – hands that have carried one too many teaching aids, or that squeezed the shoulder of a discouraged child, or that marked a thousand essays – now fold themselves in the face of great need.

No, we will do more than revel in an incredible experience. We will do more than remain satisfied in the little we have achieved. We will do more for the kids, all of us, from the high-powered boardroom seats in Putrajaya, to the chalk dust-filled classrooms; from the oil rigs in Miri, to the recruitment talks in a university; from the corporate cubicles, to the teachers’ tables.

We will do more, because the Zuls, Kai Longs, Roganis and Melvins of our Fellowship have taught us the joys of giving and in doing so, growing as individuals and leaders.

We will do more, because another journey awaits us.

Happy Induction Day; and to the Teach For Malaysia community, thank you once again.

Monday, January 28, 2013

When the last bell rings

On the 9th of November last year, the bell rang for the last time in the busy corridors and stairways of the school, as 900 overjoyed students began their stampede to the gate.

That significant moment marked the end of a full year of teaching for me, and as I packed my things for the last time, I pondered upon the year and where I stood in terms of my goals.

2012 had been a particularly challenging year. It was a year of many firsts: first time living in a rural area, first time having to be responsible for more than 160 students every day, first time facing the challenge of educating students 8 academic years behind where they should be, first time consoling a student who sobbed over her poor marks, first time fighting to replace my students’ smoking-time with English-time and literally dragging them out of the toilets to learn, first time being cursed at for refusing to have a sleeping student in my class (this is why teaching a foreign language is both important but difficult).

They say that the greatest opportunities arise from the greatest struggles, and no big victory is won with small losses. 2012 was also the year I learnt to live simply: to replace the air-conditioners and ceiling fans for a rotating fan, the shower heater in the cold mornings for a bucket, fancy restaurants for pots of boiled-through-the-night potato soup (I’m pretty good at this by now), sophisticated conversations with the educated for basic exchanges in broken English (or Malay, on my part). This was both humbling and liberating.

In 2012 I saw students achieve grades they never imagined they could, listened to students as they read their English books with a new found confidence, was inspired by the many outstanding peers I have in the TFM Fellowship and decided that ultimately, even if I do not continue teaching in schools after this, I will aspire to live the life of a teacher.

The year has only begun and it is one of great hope and potential. So many possibilities lie in the dark, undiscovered road ahead, waiting to be lit up by courage. In a sense, life is like a big examination paper that we prepare for, not knowing fully what the questions will be until they finally arrive. The exam comes according to its own schedule, waiting not for us to be prepared, and we often only see the fruits of our labour when the results are released -- when we can’t do anything about it anymore. It is then that we either rejoice for our perseverance, hardwork and determination, or regret at what could have been.

Here’s hoping that it will be the former --  when the last bell rings this year. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Speech at Opening Dinner for 2013 TFM Fellows

The year is almost over, and what an eventful one it has been! Last night marked a new chapter for Teach For Malaysia as the new cohort of fellows (batch of 2013) began their training. This was the 'induction speech' I shared at the dinner. 
Yang Amat Mulia Tengku Ali, Yang Berbahagia Tan Sri Abd. Ghafar, Tan Sri Dr Jemilah, Board of Trustees, guests of honour and the entire TFM Family. Good evening to all of you. 

My name is Abel Cheah and I’m a 2012 fellow. On behalf of all of us here, we congratulate you, the 2013 fellows, and warmly welcome you as the second Teach For Malaysia cohort.

When we, the 2012 cohort, sat in your seats this time last year, we had the same emotions as what you are probably feeling now. All of us knew why we signed up for this mission, but none us were fully prepared for everything we would soon face – and are still facing today.

Like you, we were apprehensive, anxious, excited, ecstatic -- and we had a very vague idea of what to expect, except that the journey would be long and hard, but immensely rewarding and inspiring.

Like you, we began our journey as strangers from a diversity of backgrounds who were united by a common cause -- but have today, the bond of a family (some of us will actually be real’ family’ after the Fellowship…)

Like you, we gave up something to commit to this mission -- including the comfort of our homes, the luxury of our jobs and the solace of being close to our families.

A year has now passed since we embarked on the journey you are starting today. And the question that is being asked is: how has it been for us? What have we experienced and done in the past year – that you will?

As an English teacher, I wrote down some verbs to answer this question. And because we’re still only a year into the fellowship, these action words are written in the present tense:

Learn at the Institute. Practice at Kem SKORlah. Sleep little. Prepare. Laugh heartily. Weep for our country. Step into school. Crawl back home. Squat with the students to learn about plants. Look into their faces as they tell their stories. Read about their broken homes and lofty dreams. Brace for 200 more days of school. Celebrate the small successes. Recover from the daily disappointments. Stay up working on the Kertas Kerja, Buku Kehadiran, Buku Program, PBS filling, exam paper setting and essay marking, etc. Stay back to teach in extra classes. Converse with the teachers in the staffroom about the latest kuih muih to order in town. Connect with business leaders and future partners.

Rest and reflect. Start over again, but this time, better.

Teach for the kid who works in the workshop every day after school. Teach for those boys who walk to your house every week to learn the difference between ‘is’ and ‘are’. Teach for that girl who is abused by her father, but who wants to be a teacher herself, someday.  Teach for your country. Teach for Malaysia.

2013 Fellows, once again we congratulate you and we know you’ll do a great job! All the best.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Liquid Paper

Pacing around the classroom to check on my students' guided essays, my eyes caught J staring into space, with his pen placed on his opened book.

"Have you finished, J? That's really fast!"

He smiled nervously as I inspected his work, immediately finding scores of mistakes in his 2 paragraphs. "If you're talking about one  building, it's 'a building', not 'a buildings'. Take out the 's' here, because we only use 's' for plural nouns, remember?"

After correcting a few other similar mistakes, I left him to change his errors, moving on to other students who were raising their hands for my attention. When I made a full round and came back to him, I saw him as I had left him before: staring into space, with his pen left on his opened book.

Disappointed, I asked him why he hadn't changed his mistakes, making it clear that I noticed his lack of effort. He stammered through his excuse, "Sir, I'm waiting to borrow M's liquid paper".

"Okay, borrow it quickly. I'll be back to check on you again in 2 minutes", I said, unconvinced.


I didn't think much about this exchange of words until two days ago, when J walked up to me after class, with his journal in his hand. "Sir, can I give you my journal this week?", he said, barely audibly.

This was what it said:
Teachers hold so much influence, and this power could either be immeasurably destructive or immensely constructive. I can only pray that God breaks my heart for what breaks His.

*he has since been given a correction tape and told not to feel guilty for not having enough money

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"I want, I can, I will"

1. A kid walks over from her home to attend my extra class and competes enthusiastically to answer questions, despite being sick.
2. Three new students hear about the same extra class, but wait at the wrong place. They then walk over to my house to ask why it was cancelled, and ask for another class to be scheduled.
3. A dude who thinks he's a taiko and curses at me because I won't let him sleep brings a new exercise book to school to get back on track and participates in the questions and answers in class for the first time.

I'm inspired by underprivileged kids who want to learn!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Chef Jon

This is "Chef Jon" (pic by Sawittri), demonstrating to my students how to make an egg sandwich. For over a week, I had built up some anticipation in this classroom by telling them that I'd be bringing in a guest to meet them someday, and on this day, I walked out of the classroom to call the 'guest' in -- and in came Chef Jon. His job: to teach my students how to write (cooking) instructions. Weeks before, "Rapper Jon" (he also looks uncannily like me) did a grammar rap for them, but the whole act failed when one student pointed out that he stole "Abel Cheah's" nametag. This time, the apron from the Mak Cik Kantin took care of that! 

Friday, August 3, 2012

National Unity with 3B

In the dark, dank classroom of 3B, I stood in the middle of two lines of students whose shadows had blocked out the rays of the morning sun. We were doing an activity called "Cross the Line", and it was my third Civics lesson with them. It was only 2 weeks ago when the school timetable changed again; I walked into the class for the first time this year and introduced myself to them as the brother of a girl who shares the same age as them. I wondered, then, if that fact intrigued them as much as it caught me. During that first class, they requested that I teach them English instead of 'boring Civics'. Encouraged by their love for the language, I told them I'd try to do both as their new teacher.

I understood their dislike for Civics – it’s not a ‘main subject’ -- and in the bigger scheme of things, not as important as English. Still, I relished the change of teaching something different, something less ‘academic’. Today’s lesson on national unity was going to involve an activity inspired by the movie “Freedom Writers”, and I wondered how everything would pan out eventually, as I stood in the centre of the classroom, under the gaze of 35 pairs of young eyes.

"For today's Civics lesson, we will play a simple activity called ‘Cross the Line’. There are only two rules to this activity: firstly, that you must be honest to yourself, and secondly, that you must remain absolutely silent and respectful towards the others who are obeying the first rule."

I warned them that the activity would get increasingly challenging as it went on, but assured them that nothing was going to compel them into responding to the statements except for their own honesty. I told them that this activity had a purpose, and that we would talk about the lesson of the day at the end of it.

And so, we began.

As I read the statements, pockets of students made their exodus from one end of the classroom to the other, crossing an imaginary line at the centre. There were beaming faces, cheeky smiles and muffled whispers. The statements were neutral at first, and my students had no problems owning up to them by ‘crossing over’.

 "I have two parents"
Everyone rushed through the rows of tables and chairs to reach the other end.

"Sometimes, I hate coming to school"
A few boys gleefully ran across the classroom.

But soon, the statements became a little more difficult.

"I've seen fights that happened before my eyes"
"I've witnessed a friend being bullied terribly"

And they became more personal.

"I’ve been bullied”
"I've been betrayed by someone I trusted"
"I've seen my mother cry"

There were less people crossing the imaginary line now, as were the smiles.  I felt a lump in my throat as I braced myself for the next few statements: 

"It's difficult at home, because we don't have enough money"
A pause – and then about 20 students moved.

"I've watched a loved one die"
5 shocking students paced across the room, as their classmates looked on.

Suddenly, I realized that no one was smiling anymore. An unusual hush had fallen upon the same classroom that been so accustomed to being the place of teenage jests and loud chattering.

I cleared my throat and told the students that the next statement would be difficult to say and even more difficult to admit to, but there was no compulsion to cross the line if they felt uncomfortable to do so. And then, I read it:

"I've been abused"

A moment of hesitation elapsed. Then a girl, with pain all over her face, took a small step towards the other end of the room. A handful of other students followed her and broke away from their lines, walking silently. Never had I fully realized how far away my home was from this place, till then.

I instructed them to return to their seats, and as the students moved away from the windows, the classroom seemed brighter than before. How did a topic like national unity relate to what we had just done? How could one of the vaguest, most politically-contested terms in our national discourse possibly be taught to a group of 15 year-old students, whose solemn faces betrayed their own individual stories of pain and loss?

How could I prove to them that despite what our parents, teachers and media have been showing to us, we are truly the same: a people? That beyond the politics of race and colour, the different cultural norms we were born into and the diverse mind-sets we were raised to hold, we are simply and merely humans in need of each other and a Creator, and nothing much more? And that because we are inherently the same – broken – we should be a little more humble about who we are and what we deserve?

I couldn’t. And so, Pain became the teacher for the day, reminding us that we aren’t so different after all, that despite the innumerable variations between us, we have more to gain by being united and empathetic -- than being comfortable in our own isolated shells of familiarity and apathy. That’s where national unity starts: looking beyond our own walls of differences and serving others.

Maybe Civics isn’t going to be so ‘boring’ after all.