Guest Article: Teacher is an Angry Bird: Teaching Primary school in Malaysia

by Nazeeha Jawahir
University of Kentucky

Siti, Najwa, Anis, and Manisah live just a few hundred meters from the ocean, but they do not know how to swim. Like many students from my school, SK Seberang Takir, they had never even stepped foot inside a swimming pool before.  My time as an ETA has been full of rewarding experiences, but one of the best moments so far was seeing the twelve-year-olds shrieking in excitement as they inched themselves down into the shallow end for the first time. 

            The SKST Swim Club is a new idea, one that I hadn’t planned on doing when I came to Terengganu. After an inaugural test run with the four students, there are dozens more girls on the waitlist, and teachers coming out of the woodwork to express their interest as well. Female students are much less likely to know how to swim than males, but the Kuala Terengganu Aquatic Center is equipped with gender-separate pools, which makes it much easier to coax shy girls to give it a try. The students’ eagerness to learn how to swim, despite their fear of the water, has been inspiring. It parallels their enthusiasm in the classroom when they try speaking English with me, no matter how broken it may be. In both cases, it turns out that all they needed was just a little bit of prodding—and that is what I am here to do.
ETA Nazeeha Jawahir with some of her students
            I am not an English teacher by trade, and initially I was a little apprehensive about how exactly I would manage in the classroom. But it wasn’t long before I realized the key to my teaching success—the more ridiculous I make myself seem in class, the more memorable the lesson is to the students. A typical lesson could include anything from acting out inanimate objects to singing the latest Justin Bieber song. The same principle goes for my experience in Malaysia: the ridiculous moments, the funny and the frustrating ones, are the ones that stand out the most in my memory. Moments such as getting rained out of our tents at three in the morning during a school camping trip, or watching students’ parents littering right after their kids had helped me with a successful beach clean-up, are more comical in retrospect than devastating. And even on the most difficult days, when the children are at their naughtiest, it’s hard not to crack a smile when the students whisper in hushed voices to one another, “Teacher is an angry bird,” referencing their favorite game and the phenomenon that has swept southeast Asia.
ETA Nazeeha Jawahir leading activities at English Camp
            A few years from now, maybe my most lasting legacy will be more Malay kids swimming in the ocean and singing American pop culture songs. That’s okay with me. These kids and their community impress me every day with their openness and willingness to just simply try. It’s been a great past five months, and I’m looking forward to five more.

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