WHEN I was asked to give a talk at the 22nd Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) Conference in Johor Baru late last month, I was invited in my capacity as a writer.
I must say that was “very nice” of the organisers to ask me to speak of my writing, instead of my teaching experience.
Since it was a Melta event, the teachers who filled the room for my talk, were obviously those who taught English.
I also spotted individuals from Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Dubai and Bangladesh among the audience. Be it over breakfast or at the convention centre, I had no qualms approaching them.
One of the conventional meanings of the word “confer” is after all, to “have discussions” or “exchange opinions”.
What a waste it would be if one should attend an international conference and come back, none the wiser, about what other teachers or lecturers (particularly those from other countries) really think and feel.
People matter to me. I don’t shy away from introducing myself to new people or talking to them because I feel that every person is important and has a story to tell. But in order to hear that story, I must be able to strike a conversation with them first.
I must tell you that I was rather timid as a child. It took several teachers in my growing years to encourage me to believe that my natural gift of the gab was a plus point.
One English Language teacher told me pointedly that if I were to approach people with sincerity and honesty, there was no reason for them to turn away.
When I shared with her my dream to be a journalist, she also said something that stayed with me a long time: “In that case, you must work on your people skills.”
She was right. Ever since I got over my shyness and began to take a genuine interest in people, my life was better. It was the ideas, opinions and thoughts of people whom I spoke to who enriched my life and my learning process.
Learning from people
At the conference, I made it a point to speak to many participants, all of whom I must say, had opened up readily to me.
I ended up learning a whole lot from these conversations.
My talk was entitled: “Teachers’ Writing: The Power of the Shared Experience”. Being a down-to-earth person, the first thing I told my audience was that I was primarily there to inspire them to write.
It is hard for any to be able to write, especially at short notice and under pressure.
Since writing is often a solitary pursuit, affected by the mood and temperament of not only the writer but the circumstances surrounding him or her, people write best when they are ready to write.
Further, and even though it is not the norm to do so, I dedicated my talk to my husband and daughters. I wanted my audience to know that every writer cherishes the moral and emotional support a family gives. This support matters. A sulking child or an irked husband detracts from good writing.
With 10 years experience under my belt, I could teach Biology with my eyes closed but I rarely read any books on personal or professional development. As for writing, I could write long letters to friends but I did little else with my writing talent.
This column changed my life in a big way as I began to read extensively to fill the gaps in my knowledge base. I also made the decision to pursue my Masters’ degree. I obtained a scholarship and a year’s fully-paid leave to pursue it.
Engaging my mind fully, its ripple effect allowed me to discover my penchant for both academic and creative writing. It was at this time that I wrote my first books of children’s stories.
The best part? Since education formed the core of both my teaching and writing, I finally found myself leading a life filled with true purpose and meaning.
A writing boost
My KEW (knowledge, experience and wisdom) factors enjoyed a tremendous boost in tandem with my writing.
In the talk, I also mentioned the Sanskrit saying: Matha (mother), Pitha (father), Guru (teacher) and Deva (God). It is true, for who are we without our parents, teacher and the almighty?
I still believe that it takes caring parents and teachers to make all the difference in a child’s life.
But, we live now in an era where the advent of the Internet and the rapid proliferation of social media platforms have dramatically altered the landscape of literacy and language teaching and learning.
The feedback I received both from the senior and young teachers was gratifying for me.
There was another salient fact that I gathered from attending this conference.
In one of the forums entitled: “The Challenges of Educational Change”, the panelists from Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan made it all too obvious that while English is respected for its importance and necessity, it is a contentious issue all across Asia.
At the crux of the problem are the low proficiency levels among younger English Language teachers, a cultural distrust of the language itself, and a prevalent attitude that a national language should suffice.
This had led to generations of students who can’t speak, write, listen or read well in English.
As far as English competency is concerned among students and teachers, I see three divides emerging strongly: the rural-urban, the have-have nots and the proficient-deficient.
Depending on their financial capability, parents in Malaysia are free to choose the schooling option that best suits their children’s future needs: vernacular, government-run, private, international, abroad or home schooling.
As for English, and the way the education blueprint and teacher quality is panning out these days, I think parents who aren’t happy with the way their child is progressing in school, will just have to seek private tutors. Sadly, this is the real situation.
Saying this, I find myself thinking of the many children in rural schools who rely entirely on their English Language teacher at school to teach them English. Who is speaking up for children like them?
And, for that matter, who is speaking up for the English Language teacher who is forced to wrestle with a multitude of demands, when all she wants is to do is come into class and deliver a creative lesson?