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Mentors beyond chalk and talk

Even with the increasing workload and the many hats they wear, teachers are more than happy to guide and nurture their charges.

EVEN after almost six decades of teaching 76-year-old Vijaya Samarawickrama has no intention of stopping what he loves to do best – teaching.

He started out in the noble profession in the second week of January 1957,when he was just 18.

“Too many people today use teaching as a profession. I’m lucky because teaching to me is a vocation. I found teaching and teaching found me,” he shares.

Teacher and facilitator: Sahadeva interacts with his attentive students during a Physics lesson.
Teacher and facilitator: Sahadeva interacts with his attentive students during a Physics lesson.

“Never in my 59 years of teaching did I ever feel the job is not for me ... it is about ‘human touch’,” says the Taylors University senior lecturer.

We may be in the “tech age” but teaching from human-to-human is the most important aspect of this wonderful job, says Vijaya who teaches Drama and Theatre and World Religion.

“The most meaningful thing is when you are able to make students love a subject they dislike.”

Game changer: Abel’s ideas and teaching techniques have brought about some positive outcomes for students and the school.
Game changer: Abel’s ideas and teaching techniques have brought about some positive outcomes for students and the school.

“Information is available online all the time, but it is the teacher who translates that into something relevant to a person.”

He shares that one of the best comments he received from a student evaluation was: “I walked into Mr Vijay’s class as an atheist, I walked out of it as an agnostic.”

He has a spontaneous way of teaching that adds spark and fun in his lessons.

Even with so many years of teaching, Vijaya still plans his lessons ahead of time.

“My focus is on how students can benefit from the lesson ... and how best I can transfer my passion for the subject to my students.

Vijaya also shares his philosophy in teaching, saying that it gives him the ability to change people for the better.

“When I leave this world, I must leave this world a little bit better than when I came into it.

Say cheese: Rahmah (centre) with her Form Five students.
Say cheese: Rahmah (centre) with her Form Five students.

“I must be a contributing factor, no matter how small that contribution is.

“You don’t quantify it, you just know it in your heart,” he says.

To Vijaya, teaching is what he has been born for.

“The great thing about teaching is that you never grow old ... it is only my passion that has grown.”

With a double degree in Economics and Communications, Abel Cheah Sze Wei could have easily carved a successful career in the corporate world, instead he chose a different path.

“I had a burning desire to teach. I must attribute this urge to nurture and impart knowledge to my mother for she had a profound influence on me. But I also had other role models who have embodied a life of service,” says the Teach For Malaysia (TFM) head of regions.

Participating in church and youth programmes during his college years had also rubbed off on him.

Interview with Taylors University senior lecturer Vijaya Samarawickrama, who had been teaching for the past 59 years.
The most meaningful thing is when you are able to make students love a subject they dislike. - Vijaya Samarawickrama

“I was the chairman of my church youth group and it was then that I wanted to go deeper into the idea of nation building and doing something meaningful with my abilities,” he shares.

Abel applied to join as a fellow with TFM in his final year of university and was subsequently posted to a secondary school in Gemas, Negri Sembilan for two years as an English teacher.

Being posted to the small, semi-rural town hit the city boy with waves of culture shock.

Often witnessing gang fights, Abel shared an instance when a student was hit on his head with a motorcycle helmet and subsequently slipped into a coma for months.

“Many of my students were also very weak in their studies.

“A regular student would be eight years behind where they should be academically,” he adds.

While all that he witnessed was eye-opening, it allowed him to understand the country’s education system.

Perseverance pays: Ruth wants her students to work hard and succeed as she believes that education can change a person’s destiny.
Perseverance pays: Ruth wants her students to work hard and succeed as she believes that education can change a person’s destiny.

“Being an educator had given me the opportunity to intervene, and that was the best part of my two years with TFM.”

As TFM head of regions, his role in the organisation is now “more administrative” but the energetic 28-year-old takes it in his stride.

He still gets to travel to many rural towns, all for the sake of changing lives through education.

For the enthusiastic millennial, it is more than just earning a living.

“At the end of the day, it’s about leaving a legacy of making a difference in people’s lives and simply leaving behind something good when your chapter closes,” he adds.

As a teacher, it was no easy task to captivate the hearts and minds of young students but Abel realised that with the right influence and responsibility, he could make a difference.

“I used interesting classroom techniques such as introducing the “How cool are you” board.

“The technique required students to complete their homework or participate in classroom activity. By doing so, they would see their names ‘rise’ on the board,” he says.

Abel doesn’t believe in meting out corporal punishment for that leaves an indelible scar in a child.

During his teaching stint, his students were introduced with a simple and fun technique that would help them discover the sense of pride and achievement.

“I saw how that simple idea worked for the students because from then on, there was healthy competition among them,” he adds.

Converting a vacant classroom into a homework room for students, was one of the changes he brought to the school.

“The room had water dispensers, light snacks and books for students to read.

“Our students didn’t come from spacious, conducive home environments that allowed them to do their homework.

“So, two of my colleagues and I would stay back to coach the students. Besides, they did not come from families that could afford tuition,” he adds.

He went the extra mile by conducting additional classes for his students twice a week for at least two hours.

Considering himself privileged for having an education, Abel adds that it is now time for him to do his part for society.

“There’s no greater responsibility than those who don’t have the same opportunities that I’ve had,” he adds.

Citing his mum, Ruth Cheah Kah Yok as his inspiration, Abel says her teacher “hat” never wears off.

Barely a week into her retirement as SMK Tropicana, Petaling Jaya principal, Ruth was appointed as Sunway College Cambridge GCE A-Levels director.

“I believe there is so much I can contribute especially through my years of experience as a teacher.

“I don’t want to look at my retirement as the end of my journey in education.

“Teaching is in my blood,” says Ruth, 60.

She shares that teachers tend to get very involved with the problems their students face. In fact, they take it upon themselves to counsel their charges outside schooling hours.

Teaching is a calling and Ruth believes that when one sees it that way, issues such as sacrificing their time and posting locations will not be a problem.

“To make teaching and learning effective, we need teachers who are willing to lay their life for their students,” she adds.

Being posted to SMK Tropicana in 2012, a school then rampant with gangsterism and vandalism, Ruth took it as a challenge.

Along with her colleagues, Ruth would stand by the school gate and welcome her students in.

Some would come in with empty stomachs and torn uniforms.

With support from people around her, she managed to find sponsors who were willing to donate their old uniforms and provide free food to the students.

“Some sponsors were also willing to provide free tuition classes and lunch on Saturdays for the students,” she says.

To her delight, the tradition has continued even after her retirement.

“One of my objectives is to pump hope to students and teach them on the importance of a good education.

“Education can change a person’s destiny,” she says.

For valedictorian Sahadeva Prem Kumar, the drive to open his own tuition centre came after his stint as a lecturer in UCSI University (UCSI), his alma mater.

“Upon graduation, I lectured foundation students for two years.

“In that time, I found out that these students lacked basic knowledge in regards to science subjects and this pushed me to get to the root of the problem and spark the interest in them at school level,” said the 29-year-old Kajang native.

“If our country’s best students graduate and work in big companies, who will then educate the next generation?” he asks.

Being the top student in Physics, Chemistry and Biology, Sahadeva believed he could contributetowards educating children and teens.

“Education,when done right, can transform lives,” adds the First Class honours graduate in Food Science and Nutrition.

In the five years since he opened his tuition centre, he has taught students with a variety of problems.

“I had a student who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and it was a big challenge to teach him during our lessons.

“I had to constantly reinvent my teaching methods as the conventional method did not work for him,” he adds.

“I would make him imagine himself as the central character in the subjects I taught him, capturing his attention.

“Eventually, he passed with flying colours!” says Sahadeva who himself struggled in school till his early teens.

Not to be left out in today’s digital era, Sahadeva incorporates 21st century teaching methods by delivering his lessons through different mediums such as storytelling and educational videos.

Having had his own issues in school, Sahadeva knows how to engage with students involved in gangsterism.

“I relate my own stories, then tell them there is a future ahead of them ... that’s when I see a change in attitude ... for the better of course!”

His love for teaching goes beyond the classroom.

Over the weekends, Sahadeva carries out charity work with his students at homes for the aged and underprivileged.

Presented with the Excellent Teacher award in 2003, Rahmah Sayuti’s passion for teaching and teacher development is “inbuilt”.

“I love to train teachers and had a lot of opportunity to do so even before receiving the award,” says the educator form SM Sains Sembrong, Kluang, Johor.

In 2011, Rahmah, 53, was further awarded with the Special Grade C award.

“I am truly blessed to have achieved such great heights in a vocation that I had chosen.”

Rahmah injects fun in her lessons as for her, “variety is the spice of life”. An English teacher with 29 years of experience, Rahmah believes in the power of journal writing.

“Some of my students may dislike it, but there are numerous benefits in keeping a journal particularly when English is only taught for five periods.

“Journal writing allows my students to ‘be in touch with English’ outside the classroom.”

Rahmah encourages her students to write their journal entries using a digital notebook that is available online.

Through this application, she can access her students’ work easily.

Her drive to become a teacher came from various people who inspired her in her younger years.

“I believe teaching has chosen me as much as I have chosen teaching,” she says.

While many opt to move up as lecturers after spending several years as school teachers, Rahmah has no regrets staying on and teaching in school. While nothing beats the thrill of seeing students succeed, it is particularly heart-warming when it invovles children from less privileged backgrounds.

“What is important is that they have not wasted the opportunities given to them and have a better life today,” she adds.

While it maybe encouraging to see young adults choose teaching as their “career path”, Rahmah says that it is not enough to merely speak about their passion.

“That passion for teaching must be reflected in their actions and commitment.”

Ruth adds that the best part about teaching is in helping to nurture and mould young lives.

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