Passing on the Spirit of Learning

Learning can be difficult, but having the right teacher could change your life.

“Good morning class!”

“Good morning, Cik Halizan…”

“You all should know the drill by now, hands off your book, and stand up straight! Now Mr. Danial, What’s the formula for standard deviation? ”

“Wrong, next person…”

It was very common for my Additional Mathematics Teacher, Cikgu Halizan to throw us a pop quiz after each sub-chapter. We all would crack our heads memorising all the formulas the night before her class.

Those that didn’t bring their textbook or calculator would face her wrath, her death stares and intimidating tone could petrify even the bravest soul.

It’s undeniable that she was probably the strictest teacher back in my high school time. Fearsome to students and even other teachers alike.

One of her unique classroom rules was that we could never excuse ourselves from her class unless it was urgent and important. Not even other teachers could call us out from her class unless it was absolutely necessary.

She doesn’t sound like a good teacher, right? On the contrary, once you know her better, you would find out that she is a great teacher.

“If you cannot even be present during my class and would often excuse yourselves from my class, how can you all learn well?”

“It’s better that you make silly mistakes now with me than later not being able to pass in SPM right?”, she said.

Though she was often being labelled as a strict teacher or “Cikgu Garang”, now to think of it, she was strict with student learning behaviour during her class. That was so that students could be fully prepared to learn Additional Mathematics, which is perhaps one of the hardest SPM subjects until now.

Outside of the classroom, it was pretty much another story. She is more caring, funny and inspiring. She would often have casual conversations with students during recess time or after school so she could know more about her students. Oftentimes, she would give us advice about university courses, career choices and global trending topics. As the internet was not as accessible as the current time, she taught us how to apply for local public universities, which scholarships were available after SPM. I owed it to her for she was the one that inspired me to take up STPM which got me a place at the University of Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS).

“Class, mathematics is not about getting the correct answers, but how to obtain them, how to test the validity of your answers; Maths is more than grades and exams and methods, be confident with your answers, it’s always okay to make mistakes! Learn from your mistakes, check your steps, not the answers. In reality, there is no answer book to real-life problems.”

I believe that is her teaching philosophy, I could vividly recall her didn’t care much about the textbook answers but more about our answers and how we derived them. Many times she would split the class into small-group learning, empowering student leaders to teach other students. She would even invite us to be her teaching assistants especially when she found out our subject teachers were not in school. She believed that by teaching others, we would learn more.

When I was a Fellow at SMK Pulau Ketam, I took after a lot of her teaching persona. Just like her, I would encourage students to rely less on calculators, emphasising more on understanding the hows and whys rather than the answers as it’s important to gear students up for higher-order thinking. I believe if she were to observe my class, she would find similarities in mine too. It is interesting to see how a teacher’s actions could affect student actions.

To Cikgu Halizan, know that your learning spirit has been passed on to the next generation, I am sanguine that some of my students would endorse our learning essence too.

Sew Jun Wu taught as a 2020 Cohort Fellow, at SMK Pulau Ketam, Selangor. He is currently a Programme Coordinator for Program Duta Guru under Teach For Malaysia.