Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Tale of Two Classrooms: Bawah Kolong and Construction Container

I was awakened at around 2 a.m. and as usual couldn't go back to sleep. First thing I did was to look at my phone. Saw this Tweet from the Minister.

Now, I very seldom respond to or interact with politicians' social media posts - but I can't resist this one. This Tweet stirred something deep within. My first reaction was: what took people so long to realise that this should be the utmost priority from Day 1?

First Thing First

I acknowledge that the ministry has a lot of things on its plate, but I believe taking care of basic necessities should be instinctive. We have been spending too much time arguing about other things which - important as they are - can actually wait. 

I don't mean to direct this at the current ministry. Problems with dilapidated schools have been going on for years - for as long as I can remember, for much longer than I have existed. Believe me, I know. 

I'm a Sabahan. I don't just teach in Sabah - I was born in Sabah. I grew up in Sabah. I received my primary and secondary education in government schools in Sabah. I know what dilapidated schools mean. I don't just know what it means - I know how it feels like to be in one. I've been a student in dilapidated schools. I've been a teacher in dilapidated schools!

I'm actually quite amused that issues with dilapidated schools don't seem to get as much buzz as, say, issues with ESL teachers' language proficiency or streaming or assessments or whether or not Science and Mathematics should be taught in English. I acknowledge that these are important issues, but so are issues with dilapidated schools. 

Human Instinct

I'm not going to quote any research - no amount of so-called 'research findings' can replace real human experience. These are pictures of me with my Year 5 in one of our out-of-class lessons.

I posted these on Facebook and I got comments like:

"Wow, Cynthia. You're such an inspiring teacher!"
"This is 21st century education."
"You should be an adiwira."

I was like - whaat??? You know, I didn't bring my students outside because I thought it was cool and trendy. Being a great-teacher-who-inspires was the last thing on my mind at that time. 21st century education??? Adiwira??? Hahahahahahahahahaha! 

Please. I appreciate the compliments, but actually I was just trying my very best not to pass out.

It was after recess - I had 56 kids in my class. The classroom was a container. You know, the kind of container used as temporary makeshift offices in construction sites. The kids just came back from playing outside - they were bouncy and sweaty and smelly. The classroom (container) was hot and stuffy and unventilated. I was dizzy and suffocating and oxygen-deprived. 

Okay, kids! Let's do something different today. Let's have our lesson outside!
Yay!!! I love you teacher!!! You're the best teacher everrrr!!!

I was just trying my very best not to pass out. It wasn't greatness. It wasn't inspiring. It was basic human instinct. It was me at my weakest. It was my biological mechanism's natural reaction. It was survival.

I'm highly confident in my ability to teach, but...

I served the education office in KK for three years before leaving for my study. During those years I had this great opportunity to work with an NGO on an outreach project aimed at eradicating illiteracy and improving English language proficiency among primary school children in Sabah rural schools. The NGO had solid funding - money wasn't a problem. I worked very closely with the NGO rep - we had lots of discussions and conversations on the best strategies, the best approaches. 

We wanted to stock up the school libraries with good quality storybooks. We decided on workshops for teachers. We worked on modules for teachers and students. We planned school-based English language projects. We thought about English language carnivals to motivate students and to make them fall in love with learning. The rep said we could do anything. Money wasn't a problem. We had solid financial backup. 

All seemed good on paper. And then, it was time to conduct site visits. 

We visited schools in flood-prone areas. Furniture and books and supplies were short-lived because classrooms were flooded all the time. Local politicians dropped by but left as soon as they had taken Insta-perfect pictures of themselves holding brooms, pretending to help teachers clean up the mess of the flood's aftermath. 

The rep shared with me pictures of her visits to schools in the interior. Some schools can only be accessed with a four-wheel drive. To get to some schools, walking through the jungle is the only option. Some schools have no electricity and running water. (in the 21st century)

In KK itself (which is supposed to be the capital city of Sabah), we have a lot of schools with classrooms filled to the brim with 50 to 60 students - very little spaces to walk around. There were not enough furniture - children had to share desks and chairs. During a visit to one such school, the teacher was enthusiastically showing us around and we were enthusiastically talking about our workshops and our modules and our carnivals when I suddenly felt light-headed and dizzy. It was around 2 p.m., it was 35 degree Celsius, I was wrapped in my teacher's official attire - the baju kurung. I held on to the wall to stop myself from collapsing. I looked at the stuffy classrooms filled to the brim with bouncy, sweaty children and memories of my smelly, unventilated container-classroom came to mind. 

"You know what?" I told my company. "Forget about the modules and the workshops and the carnivals. If we have so much money, why don't we use it to upgrade and repair classrooms and schools?"

The teacher and the rep stopped walking. They stopped talking. The teacher held my hand. They both looked at me. 

"I don't think the teachers and the students are the problems here. I mean, there's nothing wrong with the children...and I'm highly confident in my ability to teach, but...but look at this..."

Both my friends nodded. They both looked straight at me, knowing look in their eyes.

"I know, Cynthia," the rep responded gently. "I know."

Thank you for your prayers...

I'm a firm believer in the positive impacts of conducive environments on students' learning and achievement. No need to quote any research here. If you're a homo sapien, you should know. Period. One of the first projects I did as a young newly-minted teacher in my first school in the rural area about 12 years ago was to do a total classroom make-over. I was the Head of the English Panel (actually there were just two of us in the panel, haha!), and during our panel meeting we decided to 'adopt' one of the classrooms. We gave our adopted classroom a total make-over - we painted the walls, we put up wallpapers and notice boards, we laid carpets and rubber mats. We repaired the furnitures. We put up nice curtains. We spent days and nights on the classroom. We worked hard, but we had fun, too! Too bad it all happened during the pre-smartphones, pre-Facebook and pre-Instagram era, or we would have had a comprehensive before-and-after photos of the whole process to brag with and boast about. The new classroom looked stunning. It was lovely. It was an exciting time for us and our students and the whole school.

Everyone complimented us on our efforts, but no one asked how we managed to get the money to do all those things. Well, it wasn't because they didn't care - it was because they already knew the answer. We spent our own money. The school admins knew the money was from our own pockets - but all they could say was: may God bless the two of you. And all we could say was: Thank you for the prayers. 

Both of us were new teachers, so we didn't yet earn much at that time. That was why we only managed to do one classroom. As we earn more, we tend to spend more. Our spending on our classrooms increased proportionately haha. I also know many teachers all over Malaysia (and all over the world) who spend a large chunk of their teachers' pay-checks on classroom decorations and other stuffs - just so they can provide conducive spaces for the students to learn in. 

Many teachers are altruistic, they love doing what they're doing and are happy when the best people can do to help is to pray that the Lord will bless them. But there's a limit to what you can do with severely dilapidated classrooms. I had a colleague whose leg went through the classroom floor once - the injury was serious enough that she had to be hospitalised. What kind of 'make-over' can you give to a classroom like that? And how long will it last? Patching holes, making small repairs and touch-ups using money from teachers' puny pay-checks - is it a sustainable solution? 

There's a limit to what teachers can do with severely dilapidated classrooms, and also classrooms that can't pass as classrooms. There was one time when my school experienced a serious classroom shortage. Students in my class had to move  to a space under one of the stilted buildings (in Malay this is called bawah kolong). It was dark, dusty and musty. I had quite a hard time keeping track of some of the naughtier ones who loved to play hide-and-seek behind the fat stilts. Occasionally, random scorpions and snakes  and other reptiles and crustaceans would drop by to pay us a visit. No amount of make-over can improve the conduciveness of the space. The only way we could make learning fun was if I pretended to be an inspiring adiwira teacher conducting '21st century lessons ' - we just had to do silly things to prevent ourselves from getting sick and passing out. We tried our best to be happy with whatever we had. 

Looking back, in all fairness I can say that it was experiences like these that had helped me become who I am today as a teacher. They taught me a lot.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Oh well. 

But whatever it is...

But whatever it is, I still have to say this: Bawah kolong is NOT a classroom. A construction container is NOT a classroom. So I passed MUET and IELTS with flying colours. So what? Who cares? 

Okay I have been up since 2 a.m., I'm going to pass out now.

May God bless all of us. 

Till the next. -ccj, 5.55 a.m., Cambridge

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