Finally Getting to Know My Students. Thanks, WhatsApp.

Teaching takes patience.

Being patient takes a lot of practice.

When I was in University, my professor told me that, “It takes a special kind of person to teach.” I think she could have easily also said, “It takes a special kind of person to be willing to be so patient all the time.” To become a teacher, I had to practice being patient. 

It is often reported that new teachers stumble through the first three to five years of their careers as they hone their craft. They struggle to juggle national standards, school expectations, student learning profiles, and standardized assessments. Juggling requires practice. Watching the clumsily thrown balls crash to the floor without becoming enraged required patience. A good, student-centered pedagogical technique is to infuse considerable “wait time” into your teaching practice. This wait time allows students to process information conveyed to them and to craft appropriate responses. There is nothing more agonizing that watching your students wrestle with questions you could easily articulate to them and move on. However, this wait time is an essential component that helps to implant new knowledge. A lack of patience would compromise the authenticity of the content. The teaching profession is filled with scenarios like these, scenarios that all require patience.

However, there is usually one thing I can count on attaining fairly quickly within any given school year: my students’ trust. Naturally, the first few weeks of school are saturated with anxious students, parents, and teachers. (Sometimes, I cannot help but laugh out loud when, after telling my students that I am just as nervous as they are, they respond with furrowed brows and frustrated head shakes. I laugh because when I imagine their conversations, I envision themselves really laboring to accept this idea, “No, no, no! There is no way that Mr. Max is as nervous as I am! Teachers are never nervous!“) Yes, even teachers are nervous.

But after the first month has come and gone, and the students have engaged with me enough, those nerves tend to subside and students begin to situate themselves to take academic risks. And after a few weeks of hesitant risk taking, students realize that my entire purpose in their class is to make them feel welcome and to allow them to grow as an individual and a learner. Once they come to this realization, they dive headfirst into the rest of the year. This deliberate restraint on my part is well worth the wait. 

This is how things usually work themselves out.

Usually.

But as I have been learning firsthand this year, things are different in Malaysia. And developing trust is not exception. In fact, Malaysian student shyness levels are on an entirely never level when compared to my previous experiences. I’ve come to find that Malaysian students, particularly secondary students, can be categorized into three general groups: extremely hesitant, immensely shy, or paralyzed by fear.

I would venture to guess that 95% of my student at SMK Badak fell under the latter option when I first arrived in January. 3% could have been categorized as ‘immensely shy.’ And the remaining 2% could not be accounted for as they never could find it within themselves to even look in my direction for more than a second or two. It was like my student put up an impenetrable barrier and left me to solve the greatest riddle of them all: how do I get these kids to tear down their walls?

I tried everything. I sang, I danced, I delivered impassioned speeches, I wandered the school grounds, I participated in extracurricular activities and I made sure to smile. I always smile. In order to provide a academic platform for my Form 4 students to communicate with me, I developed weekly writing prompts for them to process and reflect on. I made it clear that the journals were not for marks, they were a way for me to get to know them as writers and learners. While a few of the initial journal entries were very well written, a handful of students simply copied one student’s essay and turned it in as their own. They were still not ready to take risks, even in their writing. 

It seemed like nothing was happening. I was making little to no progress. I recall one moment of reflection where I convinced myself that, by singing the same song over and over again with the hopes of giving students an entertaining avenue to engage with me, I had actually terrified them even more than before. My months at SMK Badak were a living reminder of just how hard it can be to master one of life’s greatest gifts: patience.

I was patient. I did not falter. I smiled. And I waited patiently.

After months and months of smiling, my student finally began removing their walls. They began consistently engaging in academic conversations with me in class. They would ask clarification questions and for me to repeat myself if my instructions were unclear. One Form 4 student even told me a hard truth about my teaching, “Sir, sometimes you too excited and we cannot understand what you say. You talk too fast.” That is a life skill right there: to let me down easy like that while maintaining a professional tone? Bravo! (And duly noted!)

Despite the fact that all of this was monumental progress, I still wanted my students to open up and reveal themselves to me. I wanted them to ask me about life. I wanted them to share with me their honest ambitions in life. I wanted them to ask me questions about how to improve their English. And while some students did, the majority of students still we not ready to expose themselves.

WhatsApp and Selfies. Two essential technological components of daily life in Malaysia.
WhatsApp and Selfies. Two essential technological components of daily life in Malaysia.

It was only after weeks of hovering in this state of limbo that I realized I needed to take a risk if I was going to expect my students to do the same.

As a professional rule of thumb, I do not believe in distributing my handphone number to anyone save for my colleagues, friends, and family members. However, I noticed that my students were constantly on their handphones outside of school. If I was eating at a food stall and I saw a secondary student, regardless of if they were from SMK Badak or not, they were on their phone. In Malaysia, WhatsApp is the main form of communication. Corporate companies and schools have their own private groups where they can efficiently communicate with their employees. The same was true for my students. They were always communicating with one another via WhatsApp.

This was the avenue I needed. The chance to forge relationships with students that would benefit them as individuals and learners. WhatsApp.

The results were not what I was initially expecting. I braced myself for hundreds of messages from students every day but they never came. I receive maybe five to ten messages per day from students asking about assignments, extracurricular activities, or just to say “Good evening Mr. Max. What you doing?”  

 However, I cannot overstate how much of a positive impact my handphone number has had on my students. It was as if I had finally given my students permission to be themselves around me. It was my stamp of approval. And once they had that stamp, they were ready to make up for months of lost time.

My days at SMK Badak are now filled with genuine conversation. Those students who used to shout, “MR. MAX!” from across the yard only to duck behind the cement wall once I turned to address them, still do the same thing with one critical new detail: instead of throwing themselves behind a literal and figurative wall, they stand tall and throw their hand in the air. They shout and wave. And so I finally get to wave back.

My classes are filled with English conversations with a little Malay sprinkled on top for good measure, not the other way around as was the case for the longest time. The room is often filled laughter. But, the laughter is the result of a joke or accidental mix up, not as a result of an awkward silence or a student’s shyness to speak to me. My students actively seek me out during morning assembly just to say “Good morning, Sir.” or “Sir, how are you this morning?” Sometimes they will even stick around for a full-blown conversation. In English.

To the surprise of all the staff members at SMK Badak, my Form 4 class purchased a cake and a ceremonial plaque to celebrate Teacher's Day. Although Teacher's Day is a national holiday in Malaysia, my school chose not to celebrate until after their exam period was completed. Tell that to these students.
To the surprise of all the staff members at SMK Badak, my Form 4 class purchased a cake and a ceremonial plaque to celebrate Teacher’s Day. Although Teacher’s Day is a national holiday in Malaysia, my school chose not to celebrate until after their exam period was completed. Tell that to these students.

My students’ journal entries are now filled with thought-provoking entires. Some of my students have revealed their personal secrets, their ambitions and their dream jobs. There is plenty of research that has been published on English language learners and their hesitancies to write in English. Written errors are not as easily concealed as oral miscues. They are glaring. They jump off the page. And so the fact that my students were willing to produce personalized writing samples without fear of judgement shows just how much progress we had made. My students are comfortable.

It is hard for me to believe that my life at SMK Badak could be so different as the result of something as simple as a handphone number. And yet, I do understand why those digits carry such weight. As I have stated before in previous posts, I am the first American my students have ever met. They have never seen someone who looks like me or speaks English the way I do unless it was on the television. I don’t think any of them could have imagined a scenario where their school, pushed up against the coast in a forgotten corner of Malaysia, would ever have an American teacher. In their minds, there is just no feasible situation where I end up at their school. 

But there I was. 

The shock waves that ran through their bodies must have been like nothing they had experienced before. An American? In our school? Wanting to speak with me? Never! I completely understand their reasons for being nervous. However, it was only after I gave them access to my handphone number, their preferred method of communication, that my presence was real to them. Now, they could communicate with me in a safer space. A digital space. With autocorrect and Emojis. Again, I believe that my handphone number was the validation they needed. To them, it was my way of saying, “I really do want to get to know you.

Five months from now, when I am sitting back in the United States preparing for the Christmas season, I will have a lot on my mind both personally and professionally. Hopefully, when I am feeling down or cold (for once), my pocket will vibrate and I’ll look down at my pocket and smile. I’ll silently sit for a moment of reflection before unlocking my phone, opening up my WhatsApp messenger application, and responding to a simple yet heart warming note: “Good evening, Mr. Max. How are you?

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