Sunday March 4, 2012
Teaching a familiar language in a foreign land
By AMINUDDIN MOHSIN
They come from different backgrounds and are in Malaysia for many noble reasons but these English teaching assistants are determined to teach and make a difference here.
THE English Teaching Assisstantship programme is a familiar back drop of the Terengganu state education system, and more than 80 teachers from the United States (US) have taught in the state since 2009.
After claims by the state government that the US teaching assistants were successful in improving English among students, the Education Ministry has since adopted the programme and part of its funding.
The federal government has franchised the programme and US English Teaching Assistants (ETA) are part of the education system in Johor and Pahang too.
Although the effectiveness of the programme can be debated, there can be no doubt that it brings a new dimension to the teaching of English.
With each and every ETA approaching English and their students in different ways, the diversity they bring to the table should be enough to give pause to any skeptic.
According to SMK Indahpura, Kulai, ETA Charles Hornstra, the position of an ETA is unique because they are given some amount of freedom when teaching.
“Despite the fact that the syllabus students study is pretty much set in stone, our role allows us to work around the rough edges.
“We are ‘English teaching assistants’. The key word here is assistant, we are not teachers per se, we assist in teaching the language.
“That gives us the mobility and space to tackle specific problems which students face. If students lack confidence, we ‘give’ them confidence,” he said.
Charles or affectionately known as Cikgu Charlie to his friends and students added that the freedom ETAs are given vary from school to school.
“We ETAs keep in touch with each other and share our experiences. In most cases they tell me they have the liberty to pursue different avenues of teaching.
“I personally broached the idea of having an English-speaking zone in school, where students must only speak English,” he expounded.
He said that the idea was well received and it landed him with a few cans of paint, a paint brush and watch duty.
“I’m glad they liked my idea, but I didn’t know I was going to be painting the walls to the English-Zone myself.
“But I’m working on it with an open heart since it was my idea. Once it’s complete I’d have to keep watch to ensure students follow the rules,” he said.
Charlie, a Rutgers University Political Science graduate said he signed up for the ETA programme because of his love for politics and curiosity for foreign culture and governments.
“I always read about the cultures of other nations and their political institutions. But I’ve never gotten the see them first hand.
“So being here in Malaysia under the ETA programme is an amazing chance to experience a foreign country. It’s pretty nerve-wracking as well since it’s my first time living outside the US,” added the 23-year-old.
For the uninitiated, the ETA is part of the Fulbright programme which was established in 1946 by US president Harry S.Truman to promote international goodwill through the exchange of students in the field of education, culture and science.
Today, the programme has evolved and offers numerous scholarships and grants. Among the options given to US undergraduates is the English Teaching Assistantship programme.
The programme’s primary source of funding is the US state department, but it also receives funding from participating governments and host institutions as well as corporations and foundations.
ETAs in Johor
Whilst Charlie’s love for politics and culture led him to the ETA programme, some of the other ETAs have passions that directly correlate with teaching English.
SMK Taman Sutera ETA David Prihoda, also known to his students as Cikgu David is a graduate in English from Ottawa University, Kansas, said becoming an ETA gives him the chance to share his love of the language.
“English is my love. Poetry my niche. So, while I have this opportunity, I want to share as much of my passion with the students as possible.
“And when I say students, I mean every student in SMK Taman Sutera. It’s unfair if only classes I teach get to interact with me,” said David.
He explained that he was supposed to be assigned to Charlie’s school, SMK Indahpura, but was switched after a last minute request by Charlie.
“The last minute switch was a blessing in disguise because SMK Taman Sutera has special needs classes for disabled students and my girlfriend in the US has a sibling who is deaf, so, I really appreciate the situation.
“Furthermore it is a great way to improve my teaching skills, to communicate with people who are shy or not proficient in a language is one thing but to communicate with those who can’t speak at all is a whole different ball game,” he said.
David added that in contrast to normal students, those with disabilities show more confidence.
“They are not afraid or shy to approach me, they tap me on the shoulder to get my attention and start signing what they want to say.
“When I don’t understand, they grab a pen and start writing down what they want to say. It’s quite the paradox how they are more confident that those who can speak,” said the 22-year-old.
He explained that the biggest problem he faces in school is bringing down the communication barrier between him and his students.
“The only thing harder is finding the opportunity to teach English through the use of poetry, which the students find even more perplexing.
“But I always try to develop a laid back atmosphere in class, so the students can get used to me and I can build a rapport as a friend to them,” said David.
He added that he wants them to feel that there is no need to be perfect when speaking or writing and that he himself is not perfect.
David said that in order to make his students feel more at ease with him, he speaks in Malay to show them that even he struggles with a new language.
“They see that it is not an easy task to learn a new language and I am having a hard time with it myself,” he said.
David shared that he used to teach English to the local Hispanic community in his hometown and that helped him to communicate better.
“I learnt to use and read body language and signs. It really helps me understand my students. It helpful when explaining unfamiliar words as well,” he said.
The expressive poet said he decided to become an ETA in Malaysia because of his admiration for a local poet who goes by the online pseudo name Poesy Liang who suffers from paraplegia.
“My greatest joy during lessons is when I am able to use poetry to teach students English and they are responsive to my efforts.
“They will ask me, ‘what kind of questions should I ask before starting on my poem?’ Initiative like that puts a smile on my face,” he said.
On a final note David said the whole experience so far has been mind-blowing, he is treated like a celebrity and even managed to help with the school basketball team.
Another ETA who has found her passion in line with her current stint as ETA at SMK Kota Masai 2, is Shalene Gupta, a creative writing graduate from Johns Hopkins University.
“I love writing and I love getting my students to write and speak, but I share the same problems as my fellow ETAs in instilling confidence in them.
“It is a little difficult to get them to write and talk confidently but once you’ve earned their trust and friendship, they don’t stop,” she said.
She elaborated that it does not take much to get students interested in speaking or writing.
“You only need to add little twists to otherwise mundane exercises. Instead of telling them to write a letter to a friend or relative, tell them to write a letter to their favourite super hero.
“Once, they dictated the letters they wrote to each other and I was pleasantly surprised that one of them decided to write the letter in the shoes of a circus monkey. It was really creative,” she said.
She said that there was no lack of creativity in Malaysian students but it could sometimes be a challenge to get them to use it.
In the two weeks since she was assigned to SMK Kota Masai 2, Shalene wasted no time in embracing local culture and food.
“I love the food here, nasi lemak is great and char kuey teow is pretty amazing too. I enjoy the variety of food from different ethnicities.
“I also attended a celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday,” she said.
The 24-year-old added that being an American of Indian descent has made her Malaysian experience “a bit weird” because she was constantly treated as a local.
“It’s really an odd situation I find myself in, because I look like a local, so they assume that I am one and will speak to me as though I’m a Malaysian.
“But once they hear me talk they immediately realise I’m not local and they are taken aback,” said Shalene.
SMK Senai ETA Mark Pan from San Jose, California, a graduate in Urban Studies (Education) at Pennsylvania University also faces the same problem.
“Being Taiwanese American, most students seem to think I am Malaysian and so do some of my colleagues. That is before I start talking of course.
“It is very encouraging to see how welcoming they are once they find out though,” he said.
Mark explained that the reason why the first Malay phrase he learnt was terima kasih was because he had so many people to thank.
“As an Urban Studies undergraduate specialising in education, I like observing how Malaysian schools’ function and how they can be improved.
“I really enjoy being given permission to conduct my own aerobics classes and formulate part of the lesson for English classes,” he said.
Mark said he loved instilling classroom cultures that are different and progressive.
Like David and the rest of the ETAs, Mark felt he was treated like a celebrity by the students and found it to be heartwarming but a little overwhelming.
“It’s really nice to feel like a rock star, but at the same time it can hamper my work because it is more difficult to bridge the gap between us and the students. It is another invisible barrier to climb,” he said.
Kathleen Devlin, 22, a Villanova University, Pennsylvania graduate said the chance to become an ETA at SMK Puteri Wangsa has been an adventure.
“The culture here is very different as what is conventional in the US isn’t here, but there is great warmth in the people.
“My students have been very upfront and forthcoming.
“The first time I stepped into class they told me, ‘We’re not very good at English,” she said.
“That made it even more motivating for me to teach,” said Kathleen.
“As long as the students are trying, mistakes really don’t matter and if you are trying that means you are making progress.
“Getting them to believe in themselves is what’s important, and after that belief has been ingrained, nothing is impossible,” she added.
Kathleen said that in the months before being assigned to their respective schools, the ETAs had a chance to visit places like Batu Caves.
“Going to cultural heritage sites like Batu caves and seeing the different races here in Malaysia live side by side is a beautiful thing,” she said.
The overall impression one gets from the ETAs is that they have a genuine desire to teach and are proud to have been chosen to become an ETA.
“It’s not easy, there are thousands of applicants for the fulbright ETA programme and only a few get in. Only those who deserve it get in.
“I am very honoured and proud to have been selected,” said David.
David’s counterparts agreed with him and Kathleen said that she turned a blind eye to whatever discomforts or little issues she had to confront.
Shalene explained that cultural awareness is rising among the new generation of Americans and that it was necessary for social progress.
“In America we live in a melting pot of different cultures and races. In order to be active members of society we need to understand each other,” she said.
Most of the ETAs miss their families, but find everything else to their liking, from the weather to the food.
“It’s like summer all the time here. That’s amazing and the food, though spicy, tastes real good. Apart from my family, I don’t miss anything specific to the US,” said Charlie.
But what the ETAs have accomplished is not about adapting to their new surroundings nor getting their students to speak and write, it is about wriggling their way into their students’ hearts.
SMK Taman Sutera student Muhamad Firdaus Mohd Jusoh, 16, said David’s presence in the school had brought a positive change in the students.
“He tries really hard to teach us English and expand our vocabulary,” he said.
Muhammad Firdaus’ classmate, Puteri Sajeda Hussein said initially David was a little out of place with the students and there were many awkward silences.
“But after awhile he opened up to us and was really friendly. Eventually he got used to us and we got used to him,” added Puteri Sajeda.
Even the teachers attached as mentors to the ETAs have praised their capabilities.
“Mark is really enthusiatic, he always has some new idea to introduce.
“At the beginning he was a bit shocked at the lack of discipline of our students, but he adapted,” said SMK Senai teacher and mentor Muhammad Nashmin Nasaruddin.
After observing David in action during one of his classes, one can conclude that at the very least, the ETA programme will teach our students a lesson in being more friendly and open-minded.