Friday, October 28, 2016

Invigilating Preschool Teachers

So for the better part of this week, I was involved in invigilating an English language proficiency test meant for public preschool teachers. This involved being in a big hall to stand around and make sure nobody cheats on the reading, writing and listening papers as well as conducting a speaking test.

The reading, writing and listening papers were pretty straight forward. All I had to do was hand out some papers, wait until the allotted time was up, then collect them for marking. Waiting for people to finish answering written tests may not require a lot of skill, but it sure as heaven requires a lot of patience. I don't think that I would have minded it as much if I was allowed to listen to podcasts or even read a book while waiting. But, no. What was expected of us was to hand the papers out, wait while doing nothing, and collect the papers at the end. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more. Even having conversations with the other invigilators would be problematic because that would mean being a distraction to the people who were sitting for the papers. So I paced back and forth, sat down, stood back up, drank lots of water, went to the restroom, came back, paced back and forth again. Not the funnest thing in the world, I assure you.

The speaking test was a lot more engaging, since I had to speak to the teachers, or to put it more accurately, get them to speak and listen. I got to talk to eight preschool teachers, four at a time, about their families, travel dreams and their thoughts on the teaching profession. Some of the teachers' expressions sounded rehearsed, but I guess that is to be expected in a test setting. English certainly wasn't the first language of any of these teachers, so of course they would want to go into the test with some lines nailed down before doing it.

I felt that they were somewhat more candid in their thoughts about being a teacher though. Several seemed to go off script and started just telling the group their grievances about their profession and some shared stories about their kids and their real life classroom experiences. That was more engaging to me as the person on the other side of the marking sheet. Because they were more engaged in the conversation, I inadvertently became more invested in them. I was glad that they allowed themselves to open up and explore their thoughts more plainly because it felt more sincere and hit closer to home. And although the marking rubric is still the marking rubric and I had to give them points based off of their language proficiency, they definitely brightened up my day with their willingness to share. By the end of the sessions, I wished it didn't have to end so quickly, since I was absolutely invested in their thoughts and stories. But of course, a test was a test, and the preschool teachers wanted nothing more than to have the session over and done with so that they can go back home to their families and not have to face the stress of taking the test anymore. I would feel the same way if I were in their shoes.

The whole experience allowed me to interact with adults in a weird way. Like, what I had to do was encourage the teachers to speak so that I would be able to better assess their ability to speak in English, so when they got to a dead end in their monologue, I'd chip in with a question to get the thoughts flowing again so that they may talk again. A lot like an interview, and I liked it. Like, I was facilitating their thought process and reminding them of things they already know, just needing the slight nudge in the form of the right question to get the thought out there. And I like being able to do that.

At the end of the session, one preschool teacher asked me if I was from the JPN (Jabatan Pendidikan Negeri), and was surprised to know that I was a primary school English teacher. It was fair of them to think that, I think, because if I were in their position, I wouldn't expect the person assessing me to be a peer of mine either. The teacher who asked me that said that I seemed more like a counsellor, and I found that amusing. I asked her why she felt that way, but she couldn't find the words to explain why she said that, but I thanked her anyway.

I'd like to comfort myself with the thought that she said that because I was able to make her and and the other teachers feel comfortable expressing themselves in a test setting. That I was able to ask the right questions to get them to continue speaking and sharing. But of course, it could also mean that I didn't seem like I had any competence to handle a class of school children. It could also mean that I lacked the gravitas to be able to control 30 screaming kids at any given time. I guess I'll never know what she meant by that, but I guess that's okay.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


So the other day I was thinking about what to talk about with my students and my brain suggested "why it's important to be polite". After that popped up, I immediately interrogated the thought with another question, which was "is it important to be polite?" followed by "what is politeness? How is it different from respect? Why does society value politeness?" I explored it within my own brain and below are some of the thoughts that I was able to scrape up. Mind you, I am no authority in this matter. I didn't even bother googling it, showing you how much of a pemalas I am. So take and leave from it what you will.

I think that at the core of my understanding of politeness is respect, and because I already talked to my students about respect, I didn't want to be redundant. If we already have respect as a concept, why was politeness a necessary concept to introduce into our language and our understanding of the world?

When I think about respect and politeness, I think they're similar but not the same. Respect comes with it a certain gravitas that I can't quite put my finger on. It's about recognising other people as equal human beings and treating them the same way one would want to be treated. When I think about politeness, I think about people being submissive, silent in the background, and about conforming to other people's expectations of you, like the respect you have for the other party exceeds the amount of respect you have for yourself. This may be a flawed interpretation, but it's the way I understand it, so I'll run with it for this piece.

To address the next question of why society places a high value on politeness, I could only think that over the years, the concept of politeness has become a socially constructed tool used to maintain the status quo. It is desirable for a parent to maintain the position of power they have over their child, so the child has to be polite towards the parent, and if they're polite, they're good, because then the status quo is maintained and parenting becomes a less difficult task. Teachers desire a certain amount of control over their students, so a polite student is desirable because it makes the teacher's job easier, and the status quo is maintained.

So people in positions of power expect people in positions of less power to be polite to them, and people in positions of less power expect their peers to be polite to their "superiors". That's the way it's supposed to be, and the way it should always be. It's interesting to me that the concept of politeness is used commonly as a tool to help in power relations.

It is rarely expected of people in positions of power in the relationship to be polite. The person who is supposed to be  polite is always the child, the employee, the student, the person in the less powerful position. If a boss is polite to an employee, the boss is hailed as a humble person of the people. If they're impolite, then they're just being a boss. Being polite is, however, is expected of the employee. If they don't abide to the socially accepted rules of politeness, then they're considered as being rude and vulgar.

After typing it out, I hope you understand why I was reluctant to talk to my students about politeness. I ended up talking to them about honesty instead, a much easier value to get behind, in my opinion.

I hope I don't come off as condemning people who value politeness. I try to be polite whenever I can. I was raised to be a polite person, and given the chance, I try to make the people around me feel as comfortable as they can. I'm always on the lookout for social cues as to what peoples' expectations of me might be, and even though I'm really bad at doing that, I do at most if not all times try to come off as a respectful and polite person. It's become a habit of my being, I guess. But intellectually, those are my thoughts on the concept of politeness.

I may be completely wrong about the subject, but at the moment, this is what I think of it. If you feel differently about it, please drop a comment telling me off.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Sijils And Skills

So the other day I was marking a thing called the Borang Rumusan Aktiviti Kelab for some of the students in my school (I am one of the guru penasihats for the school's Music and Culture Club). It's basically a form that teachers use to evaluate students' involvement and competence in any given club. One can get points for their position in the club (whether you were a pengerusi, setiausaha, etc), achievements (whether you entered competitions and won or not) and leadership qualities (whether or not you were punctual, helpful, etc) among other things.

It made me think back to my sekolah menengah days when we had to fill in those forms for ourselves. I got so much of an ego boost from filling in those forms, because in terms of participation and positions, I fared pretty well. Because of my privileged position (I was an anak cikgu, after all), I found myself in a lot of top positions that in hindsight, I don't think I deserved all that much. But at the time, I was an egocentric adolescent (one could argue I remain one) so I felt good riding my privilege-wave and racking up all those points so that I was better positioned on paper to get into good universities.

When I finally got into teacher training (thanks in part to all those points I garnered in the Borang Rumusan Aktiviti Kelab), I was all big in the head because I felt that I was so great because I had all these sijils and pengerusi/naib-pengerusi positions in my certificate-folder.

I was quickly struck back to the ground during the start of the second week of teacher training. This was the first time we met our tutor, Miss Letch. In our first or second meeting, she questioned our credentials and asked what all our certificates were good for, because we had no skills to back it up. We didn't know how to write a paper, we didn't know how to organise people and activities, we were terrible at problem-solving, we didn't know how to speak up for ourselves and for others, we were incompetent, and she showed that to us so that we would wake up from our sweet slumber and understand that all those sijils are supposed to mean more than points.

They're supposed to mean skill-sets. Being a secretary was supposed to mean that one should know how to write letters, meeting minutes and basic documentation. Being a chairperson was supposed to mean that you knew how to conduct meetings, communicate effectively and organise people and acitivities well. Being a treasurer was supposed to mean you knew how to organise money and keep track of expenses well.

I was forced to take a good hard look at myself and admit to myself that I wasn't all that my certificates was cracked up to be. I didn't have any of those skills. I could barely talk to people (girls especially, because I came from an all-boys school). All I did in school was do as I was told and follow orders. I didn't know how to lead (at least not off a rugby field). I had to start from scratch.

She encouraged us to be ambitious. She set goals for us to achieve, goals that - at the time - felt unreachable because we were so unfamiliar with doing more than the minimum requirement. We did a semester-long fund-raising campaign to go to visit aboriginal villages to do English workshops over there. Those were tough times for us, because for almost the whole time, we felt like the thing was unnecessary and unachievable. There was this one time when I was tasked to make bookmarks to sell to people in commemoration of a unique date (I think it was 12:34:56pm on 7/8/09 because 123456789) and it had totally slipped my mind until like the night before the date, so I went to Ms Letch to tell her I forgot and that I didn't think the bookmarks were going to happen. She gave me a talking to, and I was so inspired I got to work, pulled my resources and some friends together and had a batch of bookmarks by the morning time and was able to sell it to people in time. We made a hundred bookmarks and we sold a hundred bookmarks. By the end of the day, Ms Letch was all "See? I knew you could do it!" and I appreciated her so much for that.

Not only did she believe in me, she made me believe in myself, and I am forever grateful to Miss Letch for doing that for me, and doing that for us. We really didn't like it at the beginning. It took us a few semesters to understand what she was trying to do. We were too young and pampered to understand why she did what she did. She didn't seem to really care too much about being the most liked lecturer. What she cared about was that after this set of students graduate, they have the skills and the worldview they need to be more competent workers, leaders and problem solvers. And for that she became into one of my favourite lecturers in the institute. Thank you Miss Letch.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Dignity In Discourse

So a couple of days ago, I thought about a possible incident that might happen in a school that made me think about how teachers affect the worldviews of students, but before I talk about that, I want to tell you that story I thought up.

So some kids were sitting for a test, and during the test, the teachers thought it would be a great idea to run a spot-check on the students to see if any of them had brought phones (the students were not allowed to bring phones to school). The teachers got tipped off by somebody that some students had brought phones to school and felt the need to clamp down on it immediately, while they were answering the test.

At the end of the spot-check session, they didn't find any phones, so they decided that they could rampas other "forbidden" items such as bracelets and hair wax (yeah, I was like "why on earth would you want to bring hair wax to school?" too, but I guess at twelve I didn't really think things through either). That made the teachers feel like the spot-check was somewhat justified, because they reaped a couple of trinkets here and there.

Then one particular teacher started an issue with a student, by accusing that student of bringing a forbidden thing to school. The student of course denied it (because, in all honesty, she didn't bring anything she wasn't supposed to that day). The teacher took offence to this rebuttal, so the teacher called up the PK HEM of the school so that the kid was really helpless (as if she wasn't feeling helpless already).

The first teacher then decided that it would be a good idea to bring up that the student had indeed brought a phone to school, earlier in the year, so she wasn't exactly the emblem of innocence. To that, she had no reply, but still pleaded her innocence at the current moment. The teacher took offence to that expression of innocence as well, taking it as her being "kurang ajar" towards to teacher. The student was bombarded with a lecture, all of the words going into one ear and out the other, but the feeling of loathing and humiliation (because this was done in the presence of all her classmates during a test, mind you) would go on to stay with her for the foreseeable future.

So that's the story. And it made me think about how we teachers need to remember to treat our students with dignity. Because I can admit that it's sometimes easy to get into this thinking and feeling that we are superior to them and because we are tasked with teaching them certain things, we fell like we are the bigger, wiser and better human being, and they are less than us.

I think the language in which we use to refer to the students is super important. We have to try not to talk down to them, as if they were stupid. Sure, finding words to explain a novel concept to students is challenging, and finding a way to explain without the condescension is yet another thing on the list of things we have to think about, but I think it's worth it.

Because the way in which we communicate with the students is part of a chain, or rather, a cycle. The way we talk to children will inform the way the children see fit to treat other human beings, and when they grow up, they think back to when adults spoke to them, and would most probably use that example in speaking to the people that are even younger than them. And the cycle might not have been started by us. Our elders might have spoken to us in a certain way or a certain tone, and we are just carrying that torch forward and are naturally continuing the cycle, but as teachers I think we should take it upon ourselves to be extra-conscious about that cycle and if the cycle is worth continuing or reforming.

For example, if (and I do mean if) our elders talked to us in a certain way that made us feel humiliated and was stripped of dignity, then it would be natural for us to assume (at the time) that that's just the way old people talk to young people, and that's how it's always been and that's how it's always going to be. But I think teachers are uniquely positioned in society to have an extra effect on our students because (if you have a schedule like mine), you see certain kids almost every day, and you have a say in what the students think about how old people talk to young people.

I believe that if teachers start talking to students with dignity and respect, they might get into their heads that "hey, old people talk like this to younger people," and they might carry that forward in their lives and are better able to do that to their kids. At least they have been exposed to a certain type of communication, from which they can pull and model they way they want to communicate with their peers as well as kids.

To do this, we have to sit down and really think about what speaking to someone with dignity and respect would look and sound like. And translate that to speaking to someone who is decades younger than you. The words might differ, but the essence of dignity and respect has to still be there.

And I think a big step that someone like that teacher in the earlier story could take is to always have an objective to any discourse that they engage in. We need to know what we want to get out of the interaction before we start the interaction, and even remind ourselves of that objective throughout the interaction so that we don't stray away from our original niat. We need to be clear that "hey, I'm talking to you right now so that you're clear about this thing and this other thing," and also be clear that we don't come off as "hey, you're a stupid human being and these are the ways in which you are stupid."

I don't think these are easy steps to take, because there's a lot of thinking involved and trying to be honest with ourselves. I'm still struggling with it to this day. But of course being a teacher was never meant to be easy. Let's all strive to reform that cycle and turn it into a more positive, dignified one, maybe?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

National Sports Day 2016

So today was the National Sports Day, and like a good public body, we had a programme in conjunction with that at the school. It was nothing too flashy, just a morning of some exercise and sukaneka. It was alright.

I was in the AJK Gimik Perasmian alongside my friend, and what that meant was that we had to come up with a bit of a show and some aerobics exercises. My friend was better versed at aerobics than I was, so she took on the role of choreographing tens minutes of that (and to her credit, she did a great job) while I took on the role of training three kids for a 90-second pre-exercise sketch. Only while typing this out am I reminded of how the format is not too dissimilar from the format of a boria, where there is a short sketch before they start the singing and dancing. And being in a school in Pulau Pinang, I think that's interesting.

I made the script and selected some Year Three kids whom I was confident would do an okay job, since I've seen them act before in their classes with me. To their credit, they delivered too. It is within my hopes that they continue pursuing acting in the future, because they certainly look like they enjoy it a lot right now.

We spent about a week getting ready for the day, and if I were to judge the final outcome of our work, I must say that we didn't do too bad a job. People seemed to enjoy both the sketch and the aerobics workout (more so the aerobics workout than the sketch, but then again I suppose they weren't expecting the sketch at all). 

After the day was over and done with, my friends (including the aerobics choreographer) and I had a bit of a chat and a quote came up in the conversation. The quote went "Work for a cause, not for applause. Live life to express, not to impress. Don't strive to make your presence noticed, just make your absence felt," and even though that might sound cliché to some, it is rather sound advice that I've been trying to follow for quite a while now.

I think I first heard (or more probably read) that quote several years ago, while I was fresh out of school, so it's been within my consciousness for a while now, and it resonates so much with me that I find it difficult to understand it when people act in a way that contradicts the quote.

I see (and hear of) some people who are really trying to find any avenue they can to gain attention while doing as little substantial/significant work as possible. I see (and hear of) people not doing a beneficial thing just because nobody would be around to applaud them for doing it, or no sijil would be given to them by doing the thing, or they won't get a tangible form of reward for their troubles. I see (and hear of) people taking credit for things they had no meaningful contributions in.

I can accept that not everyone will share the same values I do. I can accept that for some people, other things are held in higher regard than the things that I hold in high regard. I can accept that maybe, to some people, the quote I mentioned earlier doesn't mean anything. And maybe that quote isn't as common a saying as I thought it was, and I am part of a minority that holds on to it.

Even so, I am glad that I have found some people that share my values, at least in this regard. I am glad that we can work together on a regular basis. I am glad that I can call them my friends.