By Liew Suet Li
It was in my Developmental Economics class a year ago that I made up my mind about going home after spending four years in a top-notch women’s liberal arts college in the States. The topic of the day was education and my professor was talking about its importance as a tool in ensuring a country’s continuous and permanent growth. He then spent the next ten minutes encouraging us to not be suckered into the rat race of the materialistic world, but to really think about what we could achieve with the education we had received.
It was like a scene out of the movie “Dead Poets Society” and I suddenly felt the immense weight of his words in my head. Memories of the summers I’d spent back home, mamak-hopping with friends and discussing the current state of affairs while sipping on our delicious teh tariks came flooding in. Many a time, the late night conversations usually ended with a frustrated sigh as we discussed topics like the education system and the injustice we saw around us. I couldn’t remember a single time that any of us suggested that we did something about it instead of just sitting and sighing.
So while my professor proceeded to draw graphs of complex economic models, I spent the rest of the class trying to make sense of this sudden burst of inspiration in me. I was one of the lucky few who’d managed to obtain an excellent education abroad, so I decided then that it was time to stop sighing and to actually do something about my frustrations.
News of Teach for Malaysia came at an opportune time for me because it was when I’d just made up my mind to return home after graduation. I was already very familiar with Teach for America, its global partner, and was pleasantly surprised that someone had taken that extra step to start the program in Malaysia. Teach for America is an extremely prestigious program in the States and is highly regarded by people from every sector.
Deciding to apply for Teach for Malaysia was easy, actually applying was another matter altogether. The application process was laborious and challenging – it serves as a good method to filter out halfhearted applicants. There were four stages of the application in total, and even the first stage itself had already taken up a considerable amount of time and dedication.
Even after years of churning out pages of papers, I still found it hard to really articulate why I wanted to join the Fellowship. I spent many days mulling over my application essays, reading up everything I could about their objectives and mission to end education inequity, pretending to solicit advice from well-meaning friends just so that I could get an idea on what to write about and going to bed with TEACHFORMALAYSIATEACHFORMALAYSIA on my mind that I actually dreamt about being a teacher in an underserved school.
Needless to say, it was a very introspective journey for me. Because I had to really take time to think about it, I learned a great deal about my own aspirations and what it meant to me to want to take up this challenge. The entire application process also instilled and strengthened my passion for education and my devotion to the movement.
Finally, two months after my initial decision to apply, I was offered the position to be one of the 50 fellows in the first cohort. That was when I got some cold feet. Teaching was already an uncharted territory for me; imagine teaching in a high-need, challenging school for two whole years! Would this really be effective? Would I really make a difference? Would this be beneficial for me and would it help with my career progression? There were so many stakeholders involved and so much expectation to excel, what if it was too hard for me? Would I be left alone to die a horrible death?? Trust me, I really thought this through.
A big applause to the amazing team behind Teach for Malaysia for they actually managed to not only answer all my inane questions, they also shared many inspiring stories with me. Dzameer, one of the cofounders, told me that if this wasn’t challenging, he wouldn’t have given up so much to be part of the mission too. There’s this sense of urgency that is propelling him further; this is a tough mission but it HAS to be done.
He then got me in touch with Chaitra, a fellow from Teach for India, who then shared her real-life classroom experiences with me. Her voice broke when she talked about the children in her classroom who came mostly from the slums of India. She spoke of how most people had given up hope on these children and that all they really needed was that one inspiring individual to tell them that they could succeed despite their origins.
Talking to the both of them made me realise how foolish I’d been to want to give up even before I’d started just because it might be too challenging. I had often been sheltered from the fact that this education inequity existed even in our beloved tanah air, even in the heart of our bustling city center, but it was high time that I acknowledged and recognised it. More importantly, it was time to take action and be that one inspiring individual, one Fellow in Teach for Malaysia’s first cohort of 50. After all, what was two years of my life compared to the changes I might be able to make on so many other lives?
After signing my offer letter, I then decided that it would probably be a good time to tell my parents. As expected, they were completely not sold on the idea of their daughter not only not staying on in the States to look for a high-paying job, but signing up to be a teacher on top of it…and in a government school too! Horror of all horrors! “But someone’s gotta do it!” I had argued. “Well that someone doesn’t have to be you!” they retorted.
Convincing them that this was not merely a teaching program but also a leadership development program and telling them how important this mission was and how much I would personally benefit from it as well make up, perhaps, the biggest challenges I have faced in my Teach for Malaysia journey so far. They must have seen that glimmer of passion in my eyes for they (unwillingly) said “haiya, just do whatever you want as long as you won’t starve to death”. Deal!
My parents may not have appeared supportive at first but I know it was only because this was a road less travelled and not because they didn’t agree with it. Just a few days ago, my mother told me excitedly that she had asked her friends about Teach for Malaysia and they told her that it was an amazing cause and that she should be proud. When I was interviewed by BFM radio station last week, she gathered all her friends around a radio so they could hear about the program too. Now, I’m the one who’s proud of her!
As for me, I am beyond excited (and very nervous) for my next two years. I’m certain it will be a very rough but also an extremely fulfilling journey ahead for all of us!
A video update on Suet Li’s experience teaching for Malaysia:
Suet Li is a Psychology and Economics graduate from Mount Holyoke College, a women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, USA.
The photograph for this article was taken by Suet Li.
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