"Good morning, teacher!"
I realized as of late, that I’ve been pretty generically referring to my students as simply “my kids” in most of my blog posts. However, that seemed to completely short change the 900+ amazing students at SMK Mengkarak who never fail to make my day, fill my time with laughter, tolerate my attempts at trying to teaching them, and have made me a master at charades. So this blog is an introduction to each of my classes and the unique personalities they have. It’s also likely to be incredibly long, but since I’ve got a number of hours to kill in the KLIA2 airport waiting for my flight to Tokyo (so pumped!) I figured I should take advantage of it (along with the WiFi access #itsthelittlethinngs).
Before I begin, let me give some quick background on how Malaysian secondary school is structured and how classes are broken up. Unlike the US, who breaks up middle school and high school, they’re all in the same school in Malaysia. Secondary schools in Malaysia consist of Forms 1-5. Forms 1 and 2 are the equivalent of our seventh and eighth grade. Forms 3, 4, and 5 are their equivalents of what we think of as high school. Schooling ends with Form 5 when students are 17 years old (so basically they just don’t have senior year like we do in the States).
Another difference is the streaming of classes. Unlike US high school classes where students take classes with different students in each subject, in Malaysia the students are with the same group all day everyday (anywhere from 15-45, depending on the class and level). Instead of students moving classrooms throughout the day, teachers move for each class. The way it is determined which students are in each class is through a streaming process. Based on each year’s test results all the best students are put in one class, then the second best students, third, etc.
This form of streaming creates all kind of issues that I don’t think I’m quite ready to get into in a post (one will no doubt come at a later date). But the long story short is that students know who the good students are and who the bad ones are (the name of their class reinforces this as well). It’s also abundantly apparent which classes teachers care about educating and which ones they are more than willing to just let fall through the cracks.
But enough background, meet my classes:
2A: The wonderful gems I get to start my Mondays with every week. This class is pretty much amazing. They take anything and everything I throw at them and run with it. They also give me a lot of my ideas for what to try for classes. They’re basically like my guinea pig class, which they seem to be completely okay with. Together we’ve come up with some pretty bomb ideas for what to do throughout the year. This class in particular really loves music so we’re going to begin work on writing a song about their school (probably just parodying off of something already in existence) and recording it. It was their idea and I think it’s super ambitious, but if they’re willing to give it a shot, I’m totally in. They’re a pretty awesome class and I feel lucky to start every week with them.
4E: Malo malo kuching is a Malaysian idiom that translates directly to shy shy cat. It was one of the first phrases my students taught me and it applies to 4E perfectly. 4E stands for 4 Effective or the second best class of their year. In addition to the normal classes they take additional courses in finance, business, and accounting. Most of them are hoping to pursue futures in some kind of business ventures. However, they are also extremely shy. They’re not quite as confident in their language skills and are terrified of making mistakes so it creates the perfect combination for absolute silence from them. Seriously, the first class was beyond painful. However, we’re getting better. I’ve spent a lot of time intentionally being goofy, making a fool of myself and butchering my attempts at speaking BM (those ones were less intentional) as a way to show the students that it’s okay to loosen up and make mistakes. It seems to be working. They’re opening up a lot more and classes are going much better. During our latest class they were even willing to perform a song and let me record it. Small steps in the right direction.
3B: Precious. This class is full of some of the cutest children ever. My first day in the class, at least three different girls drew me pictures, two wrote me poems, and still others sent me notes about how excited they are for the year. It was too great. These students are also great. Their main teacher is Fira (my mentor) and we can co-teach together really well so I always look forward to classes with them. One of the reasons that this class is one that always makes me smile is because Azmadi is in it. Azmadi was the very first student at the school who was brave enough to strike up a conversation with me and we became fast friends. He is seriously the absolute best (Erin adores him too). He really wants to learn English and as a result is always up to talk with me. He also knows how much I want to learn BM so he is super patient with me and teaches me new words and phrases whenever we’re together (he was the one who taught me malo malo kuching). He is adorable and I love getting to spend time with him and his class.
2B: A really solid class. The girls are great and are sassy which always makes the class fun. The boys however, started out super shy, likely painfully so. Lately, it’s been getting better. I haven’t gotten to teach this class too many times. Their main teacher has a ton of things she wants to cover with them and always says that we’ll get to my activities at the end, we never really do so it’s mainly just a lot of time with me observing them. However, I have gotten to help them with their activities and I guess just experience teaching in a different way. As a result though, I haven’t formed a great bond with them yet. Fingers crossed that we’ll get to actually do some activities soon and get to know each other better.
1B: So much energy, such short attention spans. This class at least 75% boys and they constantly keep me on my toes. Two of them are also quite good at English which is wonderful, but at times frustrates me when they complete an activity in about 2 minutes while the rest of the class takes 20 to catch up. However, the last few weeks I’ve been getting a better handle on them. They love anything competitive and they also are far more likely to pay attention for longer, so this class is all about the learning games. We do so many word chains, sentence races, spelling bees and vocab challenges. Which seems to work relatively well and they’ve retained the information quite well. It’s also been fun to try more ambitious projects with them. For instance, we did a super hero lesson where the students had to create their own superheroes (no copying those that already existed), design a costume, discuss the problem that the super hero was needed to solve, assign powers, create a motto, and come up with weaknesses. It went remarkably well and the boys loved it (the girls were good sports about it as well).
1A: These kids are freaking brilliant. As 1A they are the top class in Form 1 and it is well deserved. About a third of the class is Tamil students and their English is amazing. This seems to be the norm with Tamil students at my school as well as Erin’s. The Malay and Orang Asli students also seem to be leaps and bounds beyond their fellow form mates in their understanding. In addition to a good English understanding, they also have an unwavering level of enthusiasm to do anything and everything I ask of them during classes. As a result, we’re able to make activities really fun. For instance, when we were reviewing types of poetry and rhyme schemes rather than just going through the basics, my kids had enough understanding of the language and concept that we were actually able to have a mini rap battle between each side of the classroom. It was AWESOME and one of the many little moments that continually astound me about this class’ ability.
1C: Probably my toughest class and the one that I feel like I accomplish the least in. 1C is the third class in Form 1 (think seventh grade) and their English level is pretty much abysmal. This isn’t something that I hold against the students, I can only imagine how awful I would be if I was trying to take a class in Bahasa Maleyu from someone who spoke no English. However, it is a major barrier to have a good or effective class. Lessons that go really well with 1A or 1B are often times epic fails with 1C. Another major frustration I have is that the main teacher for the class is basically useless to me. He doesn’t offer any guidance in what types of things the students should be learning, what activities they have done previously, or ideas of what his goals for the year with them are. As a result, most weeks with them feel like I’m grasping at straws in the dark. However, they are still really wonderful kids. They try super hard to understand me, carry out activities the best they can, and once they grasp concepts do a great job of applying them. Two of my favorite boys are also in the class. They are super sweet, always look for me during recess and are constantly following me around the school. Sometimes it can be a bit much, but most of the time it’s adorable and they’re a huge help when I get lost trying to find the right classroom.
2C: The class I spend the most classroom time with each week. They’ve got some pretty great characters and are all together a very solid class. Like 1C they’re pretty much the average kids in their year. However, for most of them their English comprehension and understanding is quite high. One of them, Frankie, is a real character. His family just recently moved to Bera from Sarawak (Borneo part of Malaysia) and his English is phenomenal. It helps having him in the class because he serves as my translator to the other students if they’re really just not understanding my instructions. Thankfully, we don’t reach that point too often though. On the whole the class is good, but they’re not quite as noteworthy as the others. They’re all well behaved, do what I ask, and are mostly willing to try new things. Basically a teacher’s dream. I’m excited to see what we can accomplish as a class this year since I have double the time with them then all the rest. Fingers crossed for some pretty bomb SPM results by the end.
2C class picture
4INO: The class that has my heart and completely knows it. 4INO was actually the very first class I got to teach when I arrived and thus far the only class that I’ve successfully mastered the names of students. INO stands for Innovative and they are the third class for their year (there are two classes above them and two below them). Each class in Forms 4 & 5 have a different focus and theirs is sports science. Basically, they’re the jocks of the school. They’re the kids on every sports team, they’re the captains of everything, and they’re the ones that I hang with the most at the hostel (almost all of them are hostel kids so that gives you a little insight into the backgrounds they are coming from) and play sports with. They are also major goofballs, hellions, and troublemakers. I don’t know if we’ve made it through a class yet without one of them getting pulled out to go see the disciplinary teachers for some reason or another. Despite their reputation as troublemakers, I think they’re all pretty fantastic kids. The English level of a lot of them is pretty low (others are quite good, but as they tell me “I’m lazy and don’t want to teachers to know that I know English as well as I do”). Nevertheless, they work really hard on any activity I assign them and up for pretty much any challenge. It might take them a bit longer than my other classes to understand, but they always get their eventually. They also just make classes fun (although they also require more energy than any of my other classes to keep on topic). We’re able to joke around, they tease me and I tease them, they help me with my Bahasa Maleyu (BM), and all around they’re the class that I’ve become the closest to.
An added bonus of having them on my side has also been that they have a lot of sway with the other students since they are captains of all the sports teams and they’ve also become quite protective of me. Whenever I have to lead large group activities or need help, they’ve taken it upon themselves to be my helpers and behavior monitors. For instance, if some Form 1 or 2 boys are goofing off and not paying attention, the 4INO boys will quickly put them in their place. Or if we’re at events like the district track meet and students from other schools make comments in about me in BM that are inappropriate, they have no qualms about coming to my rescue and instantly calling out the other student and telling them that they will not let their cikgu be talked about like that. They’re wonderful and I love them. I can’t imagine my days at school without hanging out with them at recess or them filling me in on the latest gossip of who is dating who (some things are universal to 16 year olds everywhere). They are truly the reason that I look forward to coming to school every day and one of the things that make this the best job in the world.
5SC: A close second for my favorite class. SC stands for science and this is the top class in the school. They’re stream is focused on added science and math classes (hence the name) in addition to all the mandatory subjects. Basically, they’re the brains/nerdy kids of the school and in some ways they remind me a lot of my friends and me during high school. They’re also a bit shy and my attempts to bond with them by talking about sports (which had worked so well for other classes, failed epically with them). Their English levels are some of the highest in the school (although that’s not saying a whole lot, based on past 5SC classes, many of them will still be kept out of universities because they won’t achieve the English scores necessary for admittance – fingers crossed that changes for this year’s class). The higher level of English understanding allows for more creative lessons and also allows them to make things their own. One of my favorite classes with them, we worked on listening skills by listening to songs and writing the lyrics (it was intended to serve as practice for their national exam which includes numerous listening components but also to show them that listening activities can be fun). One of the songs was Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are”. After class, the students asked if I would stay a few minutes late and the boys proceeded to perform the song for me, even complete with flowers. It was precious and pretty much exemplifies their class. They work hard and when given the chance want to have fun with activities, it just takes them awhile to realize that not everything is about a test grade and that learning can be fun.
3A: The class I never see. Literally, I’ve been teaching for 8 weeks and only been with this class twice. The reason I almost never see them is that I only have them for a single period (unlike double periods with all the rest) and the period I have them for is 7:55 to 8:35 every Friday morning. However, Friday mornings are also when there is a schoolwide prayer service for all of the Muslim students and it never ever finishes by 7:55 like it’s supposed to. Usually it’s done around 8:20 to 8:30ish, hence me never actually seeing the kids.
From my limited interaction with them though, I’ve been pretty impressed. They’re clearly very intelligent and their English is quite good. For example, last Friday I finally got to see them. However, we only had 9 minutes until the next period. I gave them a handful of options for activities and they surprised me by asking instead if they could do the listening activity I had done with other classes. I said sure, but didn’t think they would have time (it had taken other classes anywhere from 30-80 minutes each). Instead, they were able to fill in almost all of the lyrics after only two playings of the song. A pretty impressive feat for any class.
4SC: We’ve got a nice love-hate relationship going, most of the time love but there’s those occasional moments where it veers towards hate or probably more so annoyance. Like 5SC, 4SC stands for 4 Science and they are the top class of their year, as a result, they’ve also got a bit of an ego. At times I can use the ego to my advantage and challenge them to prove how good they are by beating what other classes have been able to do. Other times, their ego drives me insane because they feel like activities are below them and that if they cannot concretely see a way the activity will help them pass their SPM exams, they don’t get why they should do it. That’s when we sway to our hate part of the relationship. They can also be real sassy, particularly when they don’t want to do something, well really just one of them, Niam. The past few weeks though, we’ve been doing much better. It’s good that they challenge me to demonstrate how each activity can actively prepare them for exams because it forces me to do my best as an educator. I’m also making strides in getting them to loosen up and not take themselves so ridiculously seriously and they’re beginning to laugh and have fun during classes. I think a major help in forming my relationship with them has been bad mitten. Most of them are on the team and I’ve begun to attend practices, despite the fact that I epically struggle at the sport (hand eye coordination, not my thing). It’s allowed us to form bonds outside of the classroom and as a result have a better relationship is the classroom as well. Overall, I’m really beginning to like them (and vice versa as well) and I think it’ll be a good year