Saturday, June 14, 2014

An open reply to Miss Nadilla Jamil, from a secondary school English teacher.

First and foremost, I would like to express my utmost gratitude to Miss Nadilla Jamil for having the passion and taking much interest on the issue of English education in Malaysia. It is kind of rare nowadays to find people writing or reading about English and education. Well, at least not as many as those who prefer to watch Korean Drama, Maharaja Lawak or read love novels and not care about what is going on in our education.

Let me start by saying I passionately believe a person like Miss Nadilla Jamil will make a good parent. The kind we need to have more in our society nowadays. Furthermore, I believe a parent like Miss Nadilla will take much interest about her child’s education to come and discuss with the teacher to provide more guidance for her child at home. Yes, home, where learning begins, definitely not school. Most of the time, as a society, I find out that we have always misinterpreted the function of schools or teachers. No, education does not start in school and it must not only start with teachers. It is such a shame and a huge waste if a child’s education only starts in school.
Now, being a secondary school teacher I am entitled to reply to her open letter. Let me provide you with some background of my teaching career. I am currently teaching in a secondary school, a Sekolah Agama Bantuan Kerajaan (SABK) which falls under state and federal administration but I am hired by the Ministry of Education. Having a B. Ed. TESL degree, my first option is English and I am teaching a form one, two form three and two form five classes in my school. Being students of SABK, they have fewer English periods where the form one and form three only get three periods per week while the form five as much as only four periods.

To discuss on a few matters which need to be straighten out

Thanks to the open letter by Miss Nadilla Jamil, at least there are a few perspectives being conveyed. As I do not know what is the background of Miss Nadilla, I tend to see the open letter as coming from a concerned person in the society but observing the linguistic items being used in the letter, she must have had some background in English education or linguistic or she must be an avid reader in the field. Although I am thankful for her honest open letter, there are a few things I need to point out which I tend to disagree with (with reasons of course). I will organise my points and ideas to be discussed based on the inputs from Miss Nadilla’s open letter in five different points. And yes, I save the best for the last so hold on tight until the end of it okay?

Point Number 1: You cannot teach English by using other language.

Frankly speaking, I thought so too. It is definitely not naive to think in such a way because English is a language and a tool to be used, to be mastered. Yet, is there any better language which we can use to learn English? Yes, the native language or the mother-tongue.

When I started teaching in my current school I felt like a Mr. Peter Brown, an Englishman, using full English in my lesson, from A to Z, from giving instructions to them as a group to explaining to individual students. Then I asked them, do you understand? All of them nodded and answered a long satisfying yeeeessssss! Throughout and at the end of the lesson I always give more practice questions. As expected, some failed to answer correctly but to my astonishment, most of them submitted the same answers (They copied one another). They were not bothered to try. Why? Simply because they do not understand the questions, not even the instructions. In an ideal classroom situation, students who do not understand will raise their hand and ask questions. Well dear, the reality is no student is going to put their reputation at risk by raising hand and asking questions. They prefer to keep quiet and say yes every time you ask them if they understood. This is the common situation in the classroom, a situation which we have to deal with.

Miss Nadilla Jamil, you said by all means take all the time I need to adjust my lexical choices, paraphrase, slow down my speech and use paralinguistic elements in my classroom to accommodate my student’s linguistic level. Theoretically speaking, you are right, I would love it if I can take as much time I need for the sake of my students. Yet realistically, I just do not have the time. With only four or five periods per week and a lot of things to cover from vocabulary, grammar drills, essay formats, literature contents and others; added up with the instable condition of our timetables when at times the teacher may not be able to enter the classroom because of external courses and programmes, at the other times there are school events during your period, minus the examination weeks, school holidays and so on. Now, in an ideal classroom situation all the students will be motivated, willing and eager to learn. You as the teacher only need to provide them the content and facilitate them. Well dear, in reality before you can even begin teaching you need to take some time to arrange your students, discipline, motivate and grab their attention. From having a 35 or 40 minutes per period, it is considered lucky if you only need at most five minutes for classroom management! So, as I said earlier, time my dear, is something we teachers do not have in the classroom.

To add an informative perspective to my argument that we can actually teach English using the student’s mother tongue, in the field of linguistic there is the theory of Universal Grammar which is said to be proposed by Noam Chomsky, a well-known philosopher and linguist of our modern era. It is about us, humans having a commonly built linguistic context with similar language properties being shared by all human languages. If we observe carefully, the structure of sentences for different languages are almost the same. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, subjects, predicates and other linguistic items. Most language has these functions only to be used in different arrangements and obviously with different vocabulary and pronunciation to separate the languages. So, by explaining and comparing English sentence structures to the mother tongue (in my case, Malay language), it somehow helped students to understand better.

In addition, a personal experiment which I carried out after getting tired from the tireless tries to explain ‘how to write and arrange the structure of an article essay in the Directed Writing Section in Paper 2 SPM’; I tried using Malay to explain. The next thing I know, most of my students managed to write an article essay. Even those who do not understand the question, they were able to at least arrange the structure of the essay and the points given according to what I taught them; using paragraphs, sequence connectors and the main points. If you read their essay (the weak ones), it is incomprehensible but at least they submitted an essay! Before this they used to submit empty papers so this is kind of a huge achievement for them (and for me, yeay!) considering that they are going to face the big SPM this year. Only after getting them to submit not an empty paper, then only I can go with my next agenda, for them to write an intelligible essay.

Moreover, today on the market, there is also this book ‘English itu Mudah’ initiated by Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) teachers. I strongly encourage those who are comfortable learning in Malay language and who want to understand grammar items better to buy this book as it provides explanations and examples in Malay. If you go through the book obediently, you will be able to understand grammatical properties, relate them to the structures in Malay language and thus help you to write better English sentence. We all know that writing is ‘the thing’ being tested in our education system, so yeah. Speaking can come after your writing because it is the way of our education and as for me; there is no harm in taking a step at a time, as long as it keeps the students ‘in’ with what you are teaching. After all, it is as said by Stephen Krashen in his famous ‘i + 1’ input hypothesis. Give students something which is slightly above their level, to keep their confidence and motivation up to help them progress through the learning.

Point Number 2: In Malaysia, English is about SPM, the big examination

Yeah, I did say SPM and described it as ‘the big examination’ because that is actually the summary of our education. After a long 11 years of studying, SPM is the answer. Well, personally I do not believe it is right to summarise education as SPM. Yet hey! Let us admit our current reality. Everyone wants to know about SPM. The universities look at SPM and even scholarships are given out based on SPM results. Why? It is because contrary to your passionate believe that education does not go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings, our education actually starts there, in the meeting room. We teachers, we are merely the officers who carried out orders to achieve the targets set by people who met in the meeting room. They believe SPM is the target and by SPM, it is always about reading, writing and grammar!

You honestly said, when our (read: the teacher’s) discretion is removed, our education will stop working. By saying this, you allow me an opportunity to honestly agree to what you said. However, I will not say it has stop working. It is still working but the question is, is it still working correctly the way we want it to? The recent internationally-recognised PISA and TIMSS results, the decline in our student’s discipline, the lack of interest among students when we talk about school and classroom and also the lack of interest from parents to participate in school activities thus empowering the function of school in their children’s belief system are among a few examples which have honestly provided answers to that honest question. Parents, admit it, more of your kind come to school to receive that RM100 Bantuan Persekolahan 1Malaysia than the number of those who are there during school PIBG meetings. To those who came, who donated, who voiced out opinions and ideas and supported school’s activities; we teachers would like to convey our deepest and sincerest appreciation to you. You are the nation-builder, by taking care of your child’s education and not make us, teachers, feel like everything is burdened on our shoulders when they are actually your sons and daughters. Again, thank you.

Dear Miss Nadilla Jamil. Yes, like you I believe education is much more than written examination. Yet, being realistic, I must say I tend to focus on their performance in written exam. This is due to the fact that it is the written exam that matters in our system. Well, at least I passionately believe this is one of the biggest issues for teachers. Especially for teachers whose students are sitting for big examination like me. Trust me, you do not want your students to slack out in the written examination because if they do, you are the one who will be on the hot seat of test and trial. The education officers are going to come to your school that ‘did not make the grade like every other school’ to ‘find out what’s wrong’; and the principal and administrative school officers are going to come looking for you to get answers. No, they do not want explanation or listen to you rambling about ‘the right way’ to teach, they just want answers.

And then all the smirks and the head shakes you will get from fellow teachers for putting your school and them in that position to be scrutinised and examined like dissected frogs in a biology laboratory. Open to the eye of the public, to be mentioned in every district and state meetings as ‘the bad example to be followed’ in front of fellow teachers from other schools. You will not want that to happen when you receive calls or visits from concern parents (at least IF you are lucky to have parents who are concerned enough to discuss about their child with you) who will ask questions as to why is this (bad result) happening to my child? Your name, your reputation and your future are at stake. Yet do not get me wrong, it is not about me, the teacher. It is about the students themselves. It is because at the end of the day, you will be jeopardising the future of your very own students when they fail to make the grade like their every other friends. As a teacher, that will be the last thing you would want in your entire career.

Point Number 3: English is fun and grammar is just a part of English

So we have arrived to the next point. You said English is fun. Yeah, everyone thinks so but is it fun? Well, it should be fun! I should bring my games, movies, do act out and role plays for students to enjoy. Yet again, at the end of the day, everything is about the ability of students to answer the examination papers and by that let me emphasis on it again, the ability to write an essay in the examination. Therefore, no! you (read: Miss Fadilla) are not right when you said as a teacher I am not supposed to be grammar Nazis. Yes, I do not want to be a Nazi but I just have to. I need to be grammar Nazi because in the exam, there will be 20 out of 35 marks for language in the Directed Writing section. Or the fact that the marking scheme for Continuous Writing ask you to identify if the essay has multiple errors, less clarity or count the number of error free paragraphs?

Can you see? By language they mean, how many errors? So, yeah grammar Nazi, that is me. *Smirk* Grammar is not only there to make sense of semantics. In our education system, grammar is everything! I tried my best not to correct my students’ grammar when we do exercises or at least I used the approach where I corrected particular grammar mistakes which were committed repeatedly for them to realise the mistakes and not do it again. However, now, I can proudly say this, that if it is not because of my teachers who drilled my grammar and punished my mistakes (while allowing rooms for fun English of course!), I can never acquire the language in the way I have acquired it now. It is far from perfect, yes, but at least for Malaysians, if we are good in grammar, we ARE good in grammar (Say the ‘are’ Harith Iskander’s style). Sometimes, even better than those using the language as their native tongue, you know? So, thank you Grammar Nazis!

Point Number 4: The power of home and parents

Well, well, well, this is one of the points you mentioned which I cannot disagree with. In order to learn English, we need to provide a linguistic environment for our students. A very good point indeed, Miss Nadilla. Therefore, we need to always speak in English and encourage the students to do the same in order to provide the learning environment for them. Then, you asked a question, “If not you, as English teachers play the part, then who?” Now, to answer this blunt and direct question, allow me to share with you the story about SK Ulu Lubai in Limbang, Sarawak.

Once upon a time, there was a small normal primary school inhabited by normal teachers and normal students who I believe would like to care more about playing happily rather than studying for examination. Yet, this particular school has achieved international awards and national recognition for being successful in producing successful students. A fellow teacher of mine who used to teach in Sarawak once told me, “We went to a sport tournament. I was shocked to find out that the students from that school use English among them during practice session.” Well, I was shocked too. It is no wonder the school received Commonwealth award, was enlisted to receive a UNESCO award and received cooperation with international education organisations from the United Kingdom and Singapore.

The question is how they managed to do it? Put aside the fact that it is a small school where it is easier to manage and obviously with less administrative burdens for teachers as compared to other bigger schools. (Administrative burdens and teaching? *Sigh*) When I read about them, I found out that the key factor was the cooperation between the local community (read: the parents) and the school. The teachers ask the students to use English all the time, even at home. When the students do not use English at home, the parents will tell the teachers and they will work out something for the students. This kind of cooperation is magical! It is what we really need. Like what I mentioned earlier, ‘Yes, home, where learning begins, definitely not school.’

I do not mean to generalise parents but let us all ask these question to ourselves, how many of us (read: parents) care to check if their child has done the homework given, or how is their child behaving at school, or what extra input does their child needs to improve academically? This is the crux of this issue, a fact we have to accept, that learning starts at home. Most of us teachers, we are more than willing to help, assist and facilitate parents, provide feedbacks and extra guidance needed at school but education has and must start from home. If only I can make a fatwa about this! At least, that is what I passionately believe in. Ever wondered why many children of teachers tend to be successful academically? Maybe, just maybe because as teachers, we tend to care more about academic achievement and we make sure our children care too. I repeat, I do not mean to generalise parents, I am simply asking us to rethink about the need to cooperate between parents and teachers for the sake of their children. To stop pointing fingers and obviously it has to start with the parents. Is it easier for a parent to step aside one day to come to school and meet the teachers or for a teacher to go to every student’s house to meet with the parents? I myself am teaching a total amount of 140 students more or less in three different subjects! So, parents, please consider to ask yourselves that question too.

Point Number 5: One education solution for all in our 1Malaysia? 

We have come to the last point, finally. Miss Nadilla gave a simplistic comparison in her letter. I would like to point out that IF and IF ONLY teaching English to unmotivated learners can be equalled to giving vaccine shots to small babies; it would be a lot easier for all of us then! The thing about teaching English is there is one-for-all remedy or vaccine which we can use to provide the solution for every learner. I believe this is also the case for any other subjects in education. Learners are different to one another, different in different situations, in different settings or environment with different motivations and targets. Hence my point is learners are always different. They bring different problems, ideas, motivations and targets to school with them and therefore all of us should stop trying to find a one-size-fits-all solution. It does not work that way, not at all. By all of us I am pointing at myself, at the education officers, at those in the ministry, at parents and at passionate believers like Miss Nadilla Jamil. We are all concern but there is no way we can provide one vaccine shot for everyone. Decidedly, we can force our vaccine shot on them but forcing brings different meaning than providing.

Since the World Cup is ‘the thing’ nowadays. I would like to imagine us, education stakeholders, the teachers, parents, administrators, ministry and the community as a football team. Everyone in the team needs to do what is expected of them. The goalkeeper needs to work on his reflective, positioning and handling skills; the midfielder needs to focus on improving long shots, passes, volleys and on the field vision while the striker needs to be able to dribble creatively and shoot for goals. If everyone in the team plays their part accordingly then our football team may have achieved what was promised to us earlier, World Cup qualification by 2014. *Smirk again*
The thing about our education team is, what is the vision? What are we trying to achieve? What kind of students we want to produce? Let’s take English. Do we want our students to be able to speak or to write fluently? Are we following the British style or the American style or maybe the Indian style of English? Or should we focus on building our Malaysian style of English? If that is so, what is this Malaysian style of English we are talking about? Is it about writing grammatically flawless essays or about being able to convey ideas fluently in English or is it about creating generations of Malaysian who are at least able to read and understand English materials?
All of these questions are necessary to be answered before we start to point fingers at each other. And please do not ONLY look at us teachers when it comes to education issues. We do what we have to do. We do what is expected of us and that is to teach the students to be able to answer examinations. It may not be the right thing but that is what everybody wants. We are only strikers in football team and our job is to score goals. It is also to be noted that in order for us to score goals, we need successful through balls from our midfielders. The defenders need to tackle and feed the balls to midfielders while the goalkeeper needs to keep the goal save from opponent scoring. Yet, most importantly, all of us wait for decisions from the manager who needs to have a vision first before being able to decide on the tactics effectively. Last but not least, it is already confirmed that without a suitable manager, even a highly reputable team with years of success like Manchester United has failed to perform.

Thank you again, Miss Nasilla Jamil and fellow citizens alike!

Before I end, I would like to once again thank Miss Nadilla Jamil for her kind intention and passionate believe. Please continue to do what you are doing. I would rather speak, discuss and argue about education than talk about which celebrity has the biggest wedding ring or compare to see if our car is bigger than the neighbour’s. For, the fate of our nation’s future, solely lies in our attitude towards education, if we care enough to see.

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