On November 17th, Teach For Malaysia’s first cohort of Fellows became the first members of the Teach For Malaysia Alumni Network. In his speech, 2012 Fellow Abel Cheah captured the essence of the continuing mission towards ending education inequity. Read his speech below:
Yang Amat Mulia Tengku Ali, Yang Berbahagia Tan Sri Dr Jemilah, Yang Berbahagia Dato’ Noor Rezan, Yang Berusaha Encik Chen Li Kai, Board of Trustees, guests of honour, Teach For Malaysia staff, 2013 Fellows, 2014 Fellows and my brothers and sisters from the 1st cohort of Teach For Malaysia Alumni.
A very good afternoon to all of you. My name is Abel Cheah, and I stand here on this day of Induction and celebration, on behalf of the 2012 Fellows, to speak about the Fellowship journey as it draws to a close, and the Alumni movement as it begins here today.
2 years ago, on this very day, the 2012 Fellows, sat together in room L415 in Institute Aminuddin Baki for a lesson on Checks for Understanding with Reid Hickman, after a morning in Kem SKORlah, where we met our very first students. So much has happened since then. In the last 2 years, each of us has spent over 75,000 minutes teaching over 250 young lives. Some of these moments were shared with you, our corporate partners, government officials, TFM staff and Board of Trustees. Together, the Teach For Malaysia community has touched over 11,500 lives.
“How does one move on, at the end of a journey both so heart-breaking and inspiring?”
This week, as the school bell rang in the corridors and classrooms for the last time this year, an incredible chapter of our lives closed; an amazing journey drew to an end. And we are here today to thank you, the people who walked with us, spurred us on, even carried us up at times, along the way.
How does one move on, at the end of a journey both so heart-breaking and inspiring?
Today, I find solace in the words of Mr. Frodo Baggins from the Lord of the Rings, who at the end of his own Fellowship (no pun intended!) said: “And the Fellowship of the Ring though eternally bound by friendship and love was ended… We were home… How do you go on when in your heart, you begin to understand there is no going back?”
Today, I recognise that, at the end of a great journey, one may be too easily tempted to do one of two things: to either spend the rest of his days living in the shadows of his travels; or to be overly contented with his current conquest, declaring that he has ‘arrived’, that there are no more journeys left.
All of us in this place can too easily fall into either of these categories.
We, the fellows, can choose to revel in the accomplishments of our two years and remain nostalgic, in the fact that under our care, students have improved academically (some, by 2 or 3 grades), or that our students have become confident young men and women, who can now stand before crowds to present ideas, perform choral speeches, tell stories, act, or solve an Algebraic equation.
These are indeed achievements worth rejoicing over but we do a disservice to ourselves, our students and the Teach For Malaysia community if we bask in them for too long. The truth is none of what we did was by our strength alone, or even by TFM’s strength. We have, in the words of Isaac Newton, “stood on the shoulders of giants” – giants who are present with us here today, in our schools and communities, who often take less credit than is due. The truth is there is more to be done.
Perhaps, we could be overly contented with what we have done, deciding that as our two-year commitment to educate and inspire the youth of our country has ended, so is our obligation as citizens of Malaysia. We could choose to pat ourselves on the back today, and set camp right here, at the end of this journey, declaring that we have ‘arrived’.
But that would betray one of the most valuable lessons we have learnt from our Fellowship: that ending education inequity will take more than just a humble teacher, much like us fellows who spent the last 2 years teaching in the obscure villages of Simpang Durian, Juasseh and Kampung Sungai Manggis. It will take extending the boundaries of our villages to Putrajaya, Jalan Travers and Jalan Sultan Ismail where an entire community of leaders, from all walks of life in a diversity of fields, come together and collaborate for this cause, over the long-haul.
“Ending education inequity will take… an entire community of leaders, from all walks of life in a diversity of fields, com[ing]together and collaborat[ing] for this cause, over the long-haul.”
The mission to end education inequity would need more than just good lesson delivery; it would need a corporate CEO who will inspire our students with stories of success and hard work, or a policy-maker who will craft useful and teacher-friendly policies, or a government official who will champion the cause of making quality education available to all children in Malaysia; all of these working together.
We will not declare that ‘our job here is done’– not when every day, thousands of students walk to school with empty stomachs, and return home with emptier dreams. We cannot afford to stop fighting — not when thousands of other passionate Malaysian teachers continue to educate the next generation, or when that Teach For Malaysia staff stays back in the office to organize that school trip, or when that Dato’ squeezes in his time to make that meeting to discuss how he can further contribute to the organization.
Today, I will speak about a fellowship that never actually ended, and a journey that never truly stopped. There is more to be done!
“We will not declare that ‘our job here is done’– not when every day, thousands of students walk to school with empty stomachs, and return home with emptier dreams. We cannot afford to stop fighting… There is more to be done!”
For us, the fellows, these last 2 years were far from just a mere stint of charity, or an exercise at feeling good about ourselves (in fact, I’d argue that we barely felt good at times), but an initiation into something bigger: to lose ourselves “in the service of others”, as Gandhi said.
That is how we’re moving on, at the end of a journey both so heart-breaking and inspiring.
“There is no going back”, as Frodo said.
For no longer can our eyes – eyes that have seen what a student can achieve with a little bit of hope and patience — now look upon the children of Malaysia with apathy and ignorance.
No longer can our ears – ears that have heard heart-wrenching stories of our students’ childhood and the sound of over 250 students shouting at the top of their lungs every day for 2 years – now ignore the unheard voices of the next generation.
No longer can our hands – hands that have carried one too many teaching aids, or that squeezed the shoulder of a discouraged child, or that marked a thousand essays – now fold themselves in the face of great need.
“We will do more…”
No, we will do more than revel in an incredible experience. We will do more than remain satisfied in the little we have achieved. We will do more for the kids, all of us, from the high-powered boardroom seats in Putrajaya, to the chalk dust-filled classrooms; from the oil rigs in Miri, to the recruitment talks in a university; from the corporate cubicles, to the teachers’ tables.
We will do more, because the Zuls, Kai Longs, Roganis and Melvins of our Fellowship have taught us the joys of giving and in doing so, growing as individuals and leaders.
We will do more, because another journey awaits us.
Happy Induction Day; and to the Teach For Malaysia community, thank you once again.