Before I begin, I want to clarify one essential detail: The following observations are my own. My comments should not, under any circumstances, be interpreted as anybody else’s. These observations are based on my personal experiences and informal conversations with my Malaysian colleagues. Additionally, the situation as I describe it below may not be the reality in every school in Bachok, Kelantan, or Malaysia for that matter.
Teaching English is difficult. Humanity’s “global language” is one of the hardest to master, even for those of us who consider ourselves native speakers. English grammar is difficult both in terms of its breadth and depth. There just as many exceptions to the rule as there are rules themselves.
Teaching English is hard. But it is even harder in Kelantan.
Admittedly, my experience teaching English in Malaysia is limited. I have taught one English camp at a school in KL, participated in another in a flood-damaged school in Kelantan, and have spent the past month and a half at one school in Bachok. But when I speak to the teachers of SMK Badak, their views are similar to the observations I have made. I trust their opinions more than my own. And I think their voices speak louder than mine in this situation. As an outsider to my community, even the slightest of differences tend to be magnified. Often times this is the direct result of cultural differences. I notice things that my colleagues do not solely because they are Kelantanese and new to me.
So it is alarming to me when, time and time again, my colleagues speak to me of the difficulties of teaching English in Malaysia. But more specifically in Kelantan.
In order to better comprehend these conversations, observations, and collective viewpoints, I think it appropriate to provide a brief background on the teaching of English in Malaysia and how these policies relate to the state of Kelantan. When Malaysia gained their independence from Great Britain in 1956, they continued using a British-style education system. All public schools followed what people refer to today as the English-medium: All subjects were taught in English. Students spoke English the majority of the time they were in school. Naturally, this style of education led to increased proficiency with the English language.
However, it also led to the abandonment of the native Malay tongue. This drew criticism from members of the Malay political community. In response to these outcries, the Malaysian government abandoned the English-medium in the early 1970s, gradually replacing it with a new Malay-medium. Under the Malay-medium school policy, all classes would be taught in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. This move was meant to further bolster the native Malay population’s place in society as well as establish a strong national identity. It is only recently that the Malaysian government has begun to shift their thinking when it comes to teaching the English language.
Starting in 2012, the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MOE) introduced the Malaysia Education Blueprint, a 13-year educational plan that is meant to reinvigorate the practice of teaching English in Malaysian public schools. In the same way the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are meant to catapult American schools into the 21st century by introducing new, researched-backed educational policies, so too is the MOE’s Malaysia Education Blueprint. When it comes to English language instruction, the Blueprint promises to that every student will have “bilingual proficiency.” This is the reality of the education system in Malaysia today.
Refocusing the conversation with this historical perspective allows us to more accurately analyze the current situation. Let us delve into this reality now.
As I previously mentioned, my colleagues speak to me all the time about how difficult it is to teach English in Kelantan. But why is this the case? I believe that there are three main reasons why English instruction in Kelantan is extremely difficult:
- The Kelantanese dialect.
- English language instruction inside the classroom.
- Family background and the use of the English language outside of school.
First, the dialect. The people of Kelantan speak with a very distinctive accent. The Kelantanese dialect is one of, if not the hardest for most Malays to speak and understand. My teaching colleagues have told me that they are hesitant to speak Bahasa Malaysia in large cities like Kuala Lumpur because they fear they will be ridiculed or ignored due to their Kelantanese accent. This hesitancy to speak any to anybody other than fellow Kelantanese is true for both teachers and students and undoubtedly rubs off inside the classroom.
If my students feel uncomfortable speaking traditional Bahasa Malaysia to other Malays, they probably aren’t going to be overly enthused to speak English some random Orang Puteh (Literally, “White Person” in Bahasa Malaysia). Measurable evidence of the weight this hesitancy carries can be seen in the students’ exam scores. Kelantanese students score very low on their English portions of their exams, both written and spoken. However, they also score lower than most other Malaysian students when it comes to their Bahasa Malaysia portions of the exams. in other words, proficiency levels in both English and Bahasa Malaysia are low in Kelantan.
Secondly, English language instruction in Kelantan is conducted mostly in Kelantanese. The teachers are unwilling or unprepared to force students to practice their English. They then become frustrated when students refuse to participate and so, as a result, they begin teaching in Kelantanese. The students, who are much more intelligent than they are given credit for, recognize this pattern and take advantage of the situation. And they should not be faulted for this by any means. Why would you practice speaking or writing in English, an extremely difficult and frustrating language, when they can always fall back on their BM?
Furthermore, the Malaysian teaching style does not encourage critical or free thinking. The curriculum is heavily exam oriented. This is reflected in the day-to-day lessons. Teachers, who are frustrated with their students hesitancy or unwillingness to use English, simply present the mandated information and ask that the students copy it all down onto their paper. Everything is copy and paste; preprogrammed teaching and learning. Asking for students to generate their own thoughts is extremely difficult and the instruction often ends where it began: with dead silence.
This is where the conflict occurs. Theory vs practice. In theory, English is a national priority. In practice, it is not that simple. In theory, all teachers who teach English have an English background. In reality, many of the teachers I know and have met do not. Even those teachers who have studied Teaching English as a Second Language, TESOL, find it difficult to teach and motivate their students. TESOL certified teachers are in high demand. This is especially true in Kelantan. However, their unique skill set is not being used as positively as it could. The idea of TESOL certified teachers is welcomed, but they are not given the freedom to implement their ideas or lessons with their students.
Finally, the importance of a strong family background cannot be ignored. This is especially true when it comes to attitudes towards and usage of the English language outside of the classroom. In most cases, English is not spoken in Kelantanese households. Many families feel that there is no need to. Many of my students parents also attended SMK Badak or another school in Bachok. People spend their entire lives in the same city. Born and raised in Bachok. This lifestyle choice rubs off on the younger generations. My students enter school knowing that they will, in all likelihood, become fishermen or farmers like their fathers. So they ask themselves a simple question: “why?” Why study? Why take the all-important risk? In their minds, there is no need to.
As I stated earlier, it should go without saying that these are my own observations. Obviously, there are students who do not fit these molds. There are students from Kelantan who attend very prestigious universities in Kuala Lumpur, the UK, Australia, and the United States. But for the majority of Kelantanese students, the wall blocking their proficiency in English seems insurmountable at times.
But the question now becomes: What can be done?
How can these circumstances be improved?
How can I, as a single person, attempt to put a dent into all of the negativity listed above? There is no point in sugar-coating it, there is not much I can do on a large-scale level. Systemic problems are systemic because they have built up so much momentum that derailing their progress requires an army of dedicated individuals. No one can singlehandedly transform the cultural norms of a state, city, or even a single school.
However, small progress can be made. And this is the progress I will fight for. Regardless of the circumstances that my students may face, I’m going to give everything I have and hope for the best. Maybe my message and attitude about language learning will successfully resonate with a single class. Or a small group or students I work with during our after school programming. Or maybe just a single student who feels moved enough to take advantage of their opportunities.
This is what I want.
My role as an ETA is a unique one. I have been afforded the opportunity to work in a public Malaysian school without the requirements that all other Malaysian teachers encounter. If given the teaching freedoms to do so, I can pretty much do whatever in my classes and co-curricular clubs as long as my instruction bolsters my students’ English proficiency and confidence levels.
However, even though my outlook is optimistic, I also acknowledge that this is not the solution my teaching colleagues are hoping for. Whether it is fair or not, I have been labeled as the crusading knight, arriving to increase the language proficiency levels of my students simply with my presence and possible teaching background. Everybody is looking to me for all of the answers.
And as we all know, I cannot simply provide the fabled answer key.
So I return to my previous statement: all I can do is fight for small victories. Instilling an excitement towards English language instruction. Establishing a classroom culture of risk taking and celebrated miscues. Modeling an engaging teaching style that centers on student discussion, critical thinking, and intrinsic motivation. This is what I can do. Everyday. This is what I will do.
I do not know if I will be successful, but regardless of the outcome, it will not be for lack of effort on my part.
Don’t you hate it when you walk up to a group of people you think are your friends only to realize that they are, in fact, some random Australians? On more than one occasion this past week I almost unintentionally spent the day with some Aussies, possibly snacking on vegemite sandwiches, instead of enjoying Chinese New Year with my Fulbright family.
Clearly, I’ve forgotten what it is like to be a tourist.
After spending a few nights in Malaysia’s second largest city, Georgetown, I was more than ready to head back to the quiet comfort of my kampung home. I was slightly overwhelmed by the bright lights of the big city. I missed the dark and unlit streets of Kelantan. I missed the tranquil sounds of Mother Nature: the breeze slowly rustling the tops of the palm trees, the occasional songbird making his or her presence known. I missed parts of my life Bachok.
It is truly amazing how quickly one’s body can acclimate to a new living environment, even if it is drastically different than anything you may have experienced before. Prior to my Fulbright grant, I had only lived in urban environments. I went to school in a city, I student taught in a city, I visited friends and family in cities across the United States. And then I came to Bachok and suddenly everything changed. I live 5 minutes off the main road, surrounded by coconut trees, grazing pastures, and small rice paddy fields.
As I rolled my suitcase into my home for the first time I struggled to believe that this could feel like home anytime soon. To my surprise, it has. My mind successfully flipped the switch from Colorado, Cedar Rapids, or Chicago living to Kampung Dusun Itik living. I had not noticed this change until I arrived in Georgetown for our Chinese New Year holiday. Then everything came rushing back.
I had forgotten how being a tourist can a wonderful thing. You are free to move as you please; unassociated with any community that may urge you to be stationary. You are also afforded the opportunity to stick to an intensive itinerary or to let the time come to you. On holiday, time is whatever you want to make it.
I loved being able to roam around Georgetown in search of new street art or a bustling Indian vegetarian restaurant. Walking through hoards of people and dodging lion dancers during Chinese New Year celebrations was exhilarating. My adrenaline levels skyrocketed! But I also appreciated being able to spend a few hours aimlessly wandering through Malaysia’s largest Buddhist place of worship, the Kek Lok Si Temple. That was an experience I won’t soon forget.
One of the best parts of the Fulbright program in Malaysia is the encouragement we receive to travel throughout Malaysia and Southeast Asia. This stance towards cultural exchange via travel is unique amongst countries offering Fulbright grants. I am fortunate to have this opportunity to experience these distinctly diverse cultures in a beautiful part of the world.
However, I am also blessed to live in Bachok. Even though I will spend a lot of time over my grant period traveling, I will spend even more time within this small fishing community. While traveling fulfills and recharges me, it also reminds me of how little I contribute to the communities I am passing through. Granted I may be supporting them through small financial investments. But that is pretty much where my contributions end. I struggle to process this thought whenever I travel.
Maybe this is the result of my teaching background: as an educator I am constantly seeking to establish and maintain strong communal relationships. Or maybe I’m simply overanalyzing these situations. But nothing makes feel more at home than when I am in my classroom community. Although my holiday in Georgetown was exactly what I needed, I am eager to return to my day-to-day life in Bachok. I’m ready to return to my classrooms and hang out with my students.
Hey, I had one of these this morning!
Via My Modern Met
“Artist-architect ‘Red’ Hong Yi creates stunning works of art without the help of a pencil or paintbrush. Instead, she uses unconventional materials to form larger-than-life portraits that are impressive in both their technique and scale. 20,000 stained tea bags make up her most recent composition featuring a “teh tarik man,” which is a common scene in her native Malaysia. “Teh tarik” means “pulled-tea” in Malay, and it’s a sweet and milky drink served in local cafes that becomes frothy when poured between two containers. The piece depicts a man performing this routine as well as cans and a shaved ice machine that are usually found in these places, too.
As you might imagine, creating this scene was no small feat. Red individually stained the teabags in 10 different shades by steeping them in hot water. Their color varies by the temperature and amount of water used, while the darker tones were made with food dye. The tea bags were then stapled and attached to wiremesh and hung from a wooden frame.
Red’s artwork is enjoyable to view from both near and far. Up close, you can marvel at all of the individual pieces while the entire scene is revealed with some distance. She spent two months creating this portrait, and it was on display at the World Economic Forum this past January.”
Via My Modern Met
I haven’t paid for a meal once in the three weeks that I’ve been at SMK Badak. I don’t even get the opportunity to pull out my wallet. Nor am I given the chance to even offer to pay my own fare. It just doesn’t happen.
In Malaysia, the people take pride in taking care of others. As one of my favorite teacher companions put it, “As humans we are so busy. We do not have time to invite our friends to our home for a meal. We do not get to spend as much time with their family as we want to. So we take small step. We buy them breakfast, or bring them snack. ” Take a moment and let that comment soak into your soul.
The longer I’ve been here in Bachok, the more I’ve realized how different Malay culture is from my American culture. In Malaysian culture, people spend money on things that bring people together. There is no better example of this than Malaysian obsession with food. Good food brings good people. And good people bring good conversation. In my American culture, people spend money on the things that will bring them temporary personal happiness. We buy the latest and greatest gadget only to replace it the next year with the new model.
In Malaysian culture, people believe that their health and wealth are a blessing from a higher power. It is their divine responsibility to repay those blessings with small acts of kindness whenever possible. This is why it is not uncommon to hear teachers arguing over who will pay for everybody’s breakfast every morning in the canteen. They are not arguing over how to split the bill. And they’re not arguing over who owes what. They are attempting to out insist all the others at the table and have the honor of picking up the tab. In my America, we believe that our well being and wealth are the direct result of our personal dedication and hard work. When people go out to eat in the States, they pay their own way. Or one individual pays for all those at the table and then files the charge as a business expense.
In my American culture, you are only as powerful as you are private. We, as Americans, guard our personal lives with the innate fury of a wild animal thrown into a cage. You guard your secrets and only reveal them to your closest friends. Social media privacy settings are often turned all the way up to eleven. In Malaysia, you read like an open book. Nothing is off limits and people often openly discuss somewhat private issues. Sometimes I wonder if there is such thing as a private Malaysian social media account? I doubt it.
However, my most important observations have come from my time at school. In the Malaysian education system, teaching is a well respected profession. Teachers are greeted and the beginning of every period and thanked before they leave. As I make my way towards the door after class, all of the male students will approach me to either shake my hand or salaam, bowing their bodies low enough that they can touch their forehead to my hand. Al of my Malaysian teacher friends are proud to be a teacher. They share stories from their younger years and encourage me to stay in the profession as long as possible. In the American school system, teachers are not as often the recipients of respect. They are often the ones receiving the blame for the failure of the nation’s children.
Admittedly, these are all generalizations. Obviously, there are exceptions to these rules in both cultures. It is important to note that I am not ranking one culture over the other. I am simply sharing my observations. But I think there is something to be learned from these experiences. Too often we, as Americans get caught up in our own daily lives. We focus on ourselves over everybody else. When I lived in Chicago I witnessed this firsthand on a massive scale: thousands of people passed each other on the streets with blank stares. Emotionless figures mindlessly moving through their concrete jungle. They would not speak with those around them. They powered off their voice boxes to conserve energy for their daily grind. I even found myself at time falling into this trap at times. I would hop on the L on my way to and from school, throw in my headphones, and watch the stations roll by.
Living in Bachok has not only reaffirmed the importance of life’s meaningful relationships, but it has also reminded me that these relationships must be cared for. Building a lasting relationship is like planting a fruit tree: the more you care for it the more fruit will fill your basket. But who has time to care for a fruit tree, let alone other people? Sometimes I need to remember what my teacher friend told me, “We do not have time to invite our friends to our home for a meal…so we take small step.” We’re all busy. Life is very busy. But we can all take small steps.
I speak from personal experience when I say, the size of the gesture does not matter as much as the thought itself. My teacher friends from SMK Badak haven’t brought me fancy or expensive gifts. They haven’t handed me a Bachok coffee mug and continued on with their day. They invite me to sit and eat with them at the canteen. They want me to feel welcomed into their school community.
These small gestures add up over time.
The level of hospitality I’ve received over these past four weeks has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. People who I have never met before will stop me on my beach run and ask, “Sir, why you come to Kelantan?” or, “Sir, why you come to Bachok?” When I tell them I’m a teacher at one of the local secondary schools their faces beam. “How you enjoy Bachok so far?” they ask, their anticipation nearly causing them to fall off their motorbikes onto the sand.
I answer their question honestly.
I tell them that I love living in Bachok. I love the people and I love the food. I love the pace of life, I love the relationships people have with one another, and I love the sea. But more than anything else, I love the way we have been welcomed. I love the small steps that people are willing to take to ensure that I see the real Bachok. The real Kelantan. The real Malay culture.
It would take a Tesco-sized bag of paper towels to wipe the smiles off of their faces. Their grins stretch from cheek-to-cheek. “Thank you,” they say before we part ways. “Thank you for coming to Kelantan.”
If only they knew the true weight of my words when I answer, “No, thank you.“
It has been two weeks since I first arrived in Bachok, a small fishing village on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. My time here has been anything but routine or ordinary. In the past week I have…
- Moved out of one house and into another only to move back into first just two days later,
- Removed scorpions from my housemate’s bathroom,
- Become aware of the refreshing taste of hot water in a tropical climate,
- Learned to drive on the right hand side of the car but the left hand side of the road,
- Further developed my night vision in order to spot Malaysians driving motorbikes on the wrong side of the road, without functional headlights,
- Experienced firsthand the treachery that is the Malaysian highway system: one moment you’re flying down a perfectly paved two-lane road, the next you’re slamming into an unpaved dirt path,
- And confirmed that the sun is quite intense close to the equator. My current sunburn serves as a lasting reminder of that fact.
Overall, I’ve begun to better understand that life in Malaysia can be a challenge.
As someone famous once said: “You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
However, this is not to say that the past two weeks have not be fulfilling. This would be a complete lie. My time in Bachok, albeit unusual at times, has been the highlight of my time in Malaysia thus far. As you know from my previous post, the state of Kelantan is recovering from the worst flood in close to sixty years. The state is, understandably, still shaken from the event. It is a very interesting time to be trying to integrate yourself into a local community.
The people here are extremely proud to be Kelantanese and it shows. The red and white state flag adorns nearly every home and storefront and the local professional football club’s logo is splattered onto every blank wall surface: “Gomo Kelate Gomo!” My housemate and I have taken every opportunity to stretch ourselves outside of our comfort zones. It takes a special type person to do this time and time again in an unfamiliar environment so I am thankful that Matt, my housemate, relishes these opportunities. But if there is one thing that brings Malaysians together more than anything else, it is food. This is especially true in Kelantan.
Members of my school community eagerly point out the distinct traditional regional foods in the canteen. Their faces beam with pride when I finish my plate of nasi berkauk (traditional Kelantanese-style breakfast) and budu (a fermented anchovy sauce). “How did you like it, Mr. Max?” they will ask me. “Oh it was so sedap!” (Malay for delicious or yummy) I will respond.
As someone famous once said: “Nothing brings people together like food.”
If there is one thing I have learned from my short time in Bachok it is this: flexibility is essential to your happiness. This has been true with my housing situation, my acclimation to the tropical climate, my tastebud normalizing to the spicy food, and my time at SMK Badak. Flexibility is essential to your happiness. These are the words I will live by for the next nine months.
“Mr. Max, did you take your breakfast this morning?”
“Mr. Max, do you like rice?”
“How do you like our food in Kelantan, Mr. Max?”
“Your breakfast I will pay for.”
“Good morning, Mr. Max, I invite you to join me for our breakfast.”
“Please accompany me this afternoon to a free meal this afternoon.”
I think I’m still digesting.
In Malaysia as a whole but especially in small towns in Kelantan, food brings people together. It is not uncommon for Malaysians to eat six to seven times a day. Contrast this with the “standard American” trend of breakfast, lunch, dinner, (and maybe a snack thrown in there somewhere), and you can only imagine how my stomach felt the first week.
Even though my stomach may have despised me, my head and my heart did not. My time spent in the canteen or in the teacher’s room snacking was well worth it.
While I would love to spend every second of that time in the classroom, I also had to be sensitive to Malaysian cultural norms. The teaching profession in Malaysia is different than the system I was used to in America. For example, in Malaysian schools, teachers will only teach a handful of classes per day but are responsible for keeping extremely accurate records of their every pedagogical move within those classes. In other words, teachers spend less time in the classroom on a daily basis and more time keeping their records up to date.
Some Malaysian teachers also have shorter class periods to work with. At my school, SMK Badak, classes are only forty minutes long. My secondary classes were anywhere from sixty to ninety minutes long. This difference cuts out a lot of teaching time. This, in turn, requires teachers to create lessons that are much more direct and to the point.
However, there are obviously similarities between the Malaysian and American teaching profession. There is no better example of this than our shared feelings towards unannounced visitors in the classroom. Teachers as a whole, regardless of where we teach, are very proud of our work. But we can also be very self-conscious. When society places the responsibility educating its youth squarely on the shoulders of educators, the weight can become intense. I could not simply walk up to a teacher and ask them to observe their class for a period or two. Although the teacher may have hesitantly said yes, I would have done serious damage to our relationship. Integrating oneself into a school community takes time. This is especially true as an outsider let alone an American outsider.
So I spent my days in the canteen, “breaking bread” with my colleagues.
I spent my time gladly shoveling rice, fish, curry, and veggies into my stomach. I would only visit classrooms when I was explicitly invited. Those were the moments I cherished the most as an educator, albeit they were few and far between. I could elaborate on these few hours for paragraphs, but I will save those reflections for a later date. My progress last week was not made with the students of SMK Badak so much as it was with the teachers. But as the saying goes, all good things come with time.
Only time will tell if upsetting my stomach was a worthwhile investment. I have a feeling it was.