After graduating with a degree in business marketing, I never thought I’d be teaching in an underprivileged community in Johor for the next two years.
It’s been an experience unlike anything I expected. I was faced with intense, immediate challenges from day one, and I had to learn to thrive.
On a daily basis, I encountered problems that were urgently real — the decisions I made, and the actions I took literally impacted lives.
This was profoundly humbling to me. I knew I had to grow as a teacher and a leader, so I could serve my students and their community to my best capacity.
#Understanding my community
On the Fellowship, I had to problem-solve every day. The community I taught in is a mix of industrial and kampung — most folk worked as factory labourers, rubber tappers or ran market stalls. And unfortunately, many in my community suffered from drug addiction.
One of the first things I noticed is the frustration — or worse, the hopelessness — of the community reflected in the attitudes of my students. They speak in terms of budak kampung (village kids) and budak bandar (city kids). “Budak bandar bolehlah, budak kampung mana mampu (It’s possible for city kids, how is it possible for us),” they’d tell me.
A daily problem I faced was motivating my students to come to school. To some of us, schooling is a fundamental right and need; but in the community I taught in, education is taken lightly by both students and parents.
I learnt to expect poorer attendance during market days, when 1/3 of the entire student body would be absent, because they’d be helping to run their parents’ gerai (stalls). At the marketplace, it is clear for the students to see the rewards of their labour spent selling wares. In the classroom, the rewards of their labour are less immediately intuitive.
It’s a colossal challenge for a fresh graduate — to shift the mindsets of an entire community — but instead of feeling overwhelmed, I realised this was the perfect opportunity for me to grow, and to challenge others to grow with me.
#Insight and new perspectives
During my second year, one of the students I taught was Hakim*. As I taught his Form 1 class both English and Sejarah, I got to know him well. Hakim is an exceptionally bright student, even among his peers in the “top” class. Although he was regularly absent from class, he always managed to score well during exams.
However, when Hakim absented himself for two continuous weeks, I knew something was wrong. Through speaking with his friends, I discovered that Hakim had stopped coming to school because he couldn’t afford the bus fare.
This jarring revelation changed my perspective — and forced me to rethink my privilege. What backgrounds do my students come from, that they are forced to choose between their education and a few RM? And most importantly, how can I use my position and my knowledge to best solve this problem?
#Stirred, not shaken
The short-term solution seemed obvious. Coincidentally, my birthday was coming soon, so I reached out to my friends and “fundraised my birthday”, to put together a small sum to cover Hakim’s school expenses. However, when I visited Hakim’s home to surprise his family with the money, I discovered an even bleaker truth.
I didn’t get to meet Hakim’s parents that day, but I learnt a lot. I learnt that Hakim’s father had left his family a long time ago, and that his mother suffered terribly from drug addiction. I learnt that Hakim had his meals at his neighbour’s, because his mother, in her state, couldn’t provide for the family.
I learnt how naive I was, to think that a small sum of money would solve all of Hakim’s problems. This got me thinking: what can I do to empower Hakim, and the countless other students like him, to break free of their circumstances?
Intuitively, I knew education was their way out. I rationed out the sum I’d raised so that Hakim could afford the bus fare, and convinced him to return to classes. But I needed to do more — I needed to teach them how to fish.
Warda was a Teach For Malaysia Fellow in the 2016 Cohort, who taught Sejarah at a high-need school in Pasir Gudang. She graduated with a Business and Management with proficiency in Mandarin Chinese from the University of Exeter.