Stories from the front line: Kenneth Khoo


We often think the goal of schooling is to graduate with perfect grades. We emphasise academic excellence because we know it can deeply affect a student’s future opportunities. But sometimes, we fail to appreciate how important extra-curricular activities are in shaping a student’s character, and in some cases, their future too.

Bernard, one of my students, taught me to rethink my perspective on learning.

Extramural excellence

I first met Bernard five years ago, as teacher advisor to the St. John Ambulance Malaysia (SJAM) club in my school. Bernard stood out because he always took part in first aid classes, sports day parades, foot drills, and even competed in state-level competitions.

The turning point came in 2015, when Bernard’s perseverance and passion bagged him the Best Leader Award at the SJAM Penang state competition. At that point, his foot drill and first aid skills were better than even his teacher’s!

However, when Bernard entered Form 5, he did poorly in most of his subjects, while he continued to do well in co-curricular activities. It came to a point where even the principal called it out during assembly. With SPM coming up, I was so worried that I decided to run extra Physics classes every week, to help Bernard and his friends. I tried everything – scolding them, praising them for small achievements – but nothing worked!

A teacher’s dilemma

As their teacher and mentor, I was so disheartened and stressed out. I worried that my encouraging them to pursue their passion in SJAM had caused them to lose focus on their studies, and affected their future prospects.

My worries were confirmed when SPM scores were released – Bernard had failed many of his subjects. Still, I believed things might have been different if he had spent less time involved in SJAM.

One day, Bernard came to visit me. He’d gone on to work with SJAM, in the non-emergency ambulance service. He told me that he’s enjoying every moment of his new job. Every day is a new day to learn new things for him and he always looks forward to going to work, because he is doing what he’s passionate about!

WAIT – Isn’t that what we want for our children? To enjoy what they do in the future? I was relieved that in the end, his future wasn’t crushed by his active involvement in co-curricular activities.

Rethinking learning

This entire 5-year journey strengthened my belief that school is a place for students to come to learn. Learning is not just sitting in a classroom and studying hard. Learning is about doing things you have not done before, sharpening your existing skills, talking to people, watching things happen, solving problems beyond what you learn in books, responding to unexpected situations – the list goes on.

What a joy it is to be a teacher. To see my student gain employment in a not-so-mainstream way, rooted in his passion.

Who knows, one day he might save a life dear to us.

That’s the reason why I continue to Teach for Malaysia.

Kenneth Khoo graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering in Materials Engineering from Universiti Sains Malaysia. He joined the Teach For Malaysia Fellowship in 2013 and is currently a fifth-year teacher at a high-need school in Penang.


Everyone deserves a #fightingchance. Get in the front line in the fight against education inequity. Apply for the Fellowship today, or donate RM50 monthly to help empower one Fellow to impact two students.

Teach For Malaysia recruits, trains and supports Fellows to teach in high-need schools across the nation. Beyond the Fellowship, our Alumni continue to champion education in different ways. To date, we’ve impacted over 73,000 students, working with the Ministry of Education and other partners.

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