Each day, Abel Cheah, a Teach For Malaysia Fellow, works in classrooms where students barely make it through high school. Despite this, Abel fundamentally believes that he and other teachers can make a difference if they work hard enough to build the necessary mindsets, knowledge and skills for his students to succeed. Abel is part of a growing global movement of teachers and educationists who believe that every child has a right to an excellent education. Below is an open letter that he wrote while reflecting on Malaysia's 56th independence day (known locally as Hari Merdeka). I am confident that Abel's legacy will spread beyond the 150 students he currently teaches. - Dzameer Dzulkifli, Managing Director, Teach For Malaysia.
I write this on a piece of scrap paper at the back of the dark, stuffy classroom where I teach my 13-year-old students. It's their second English Diagnostic test this year, the usually raucous group quiet and hard at work. A student walks up to me with his test paper in his hand - "Sir, ini betul kah?" ("Sir, is this correct?") His sentence re-arrangement reads like this: "after she saw, a running cat mouse". I can't help him during an assessment, but I patiently remind him of lessons we've had over the past year.
This is one example of the English proficiency outside my comfortable Malaysian urban middle class bubble. Some of my high school students read at kindergarten level, and many are years behind academically. They are part of a bigger problem: based on a recent survey of 13,000, 2 out of 3 Malaysian students failed to meet basic proficiency in English in the mandatory national examinations. In other subjects, Malaysia ranks in the bottom third of countries participating in the PISA international assessment, and has declining performance in the TIMSS ranking. My students' children have a 60% likelihood of continuing on in the same cycle of poverty and under-education (Malaysia Economic Monitor: Inclusive Growth, World Bank, 2010).
Meanwhile, we, the urban and educated, obsess over increasing reports of violent crime. The blame game seems to shift between the police force, the government and the fashion choices of the woman on the street. But these crimes are merely symptoms of a deeper problem: the education level in our country.
Victor Hugo once said, "He who opens a school door, closes a prison". Research attests to the relationship between education and crime; correctional populations in the US report a lower educational attainment, with an estimated 40% of State prison inmates having not completed high school or its equivalent, while only 18% of the general population failed to attain high school graduation (2BJS, Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1997 and 1991; BJS, Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, 1996 and 1989; BJS, Survey of Adults on Probation, 1995; Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, March supplement, 1997).
I believe that the lack of education is our modern day enemy-of-the-state. But there is a greater problem than even the lack of a quality education: our apathy and ignorance of this problem.
Recently a colleague of mine, who like me, decided to teach in a high-need school was asked, "why are you doing what any of us can so easily do [teach]?" In her friend's mind, a graduate from Harvard University choosing to teach Mathematics to underprivileged children is wasting her talent and qualifications. This is not a unique perspective. In July 2013, the Malaysian government pledged to transform teaching into a profession of choice, including through tightening its selection criteria (Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, Preliminary Report, Chapter 5). However, in my circle of friends, practically no one aspired to be a teacher.
There is a mismatch between what we believe, and how we behave as far as education is concerned. We know that education is the best way forward for the advancement of Malaysia and the development of her citizens, but we so often treat the teaching profession with disregard. We mourn the state of our country's education system, but we leave the teaching of our next generation of citizens to "other people" -- people who in our minds are lesser than us. And so we get what we pay for.
This year, Malaysia celebrates her 56th Independence Day. There will be fireworks, grand speeches, and stories of our forefathers achieving victory from national foes. But instead of killing enemies long dead, should we not turn our eyes to a very real, living problem we face?
This day of independence, I ask my generation: to the most educated and equipped generation of our country's history; to a generation who has neither experienced the grips of colonialism, nor cowered at home for safety during that one dark day of racial riots in 1969, will you not teach?
Teach, because no other endeavour develops one's leadership and character more than the endeavour to mentor, encourage, and guide another human being. Teach, because we have a different kind of freedom to fight for today -- the freedom from education inequity. Teach, because nation-building begins in thousands of dark, stuffy classrooms, just like this one.
Abel Cheah is a Teach For Malaysia Fellow and nation-builder. He is currently teaching in a rural school in Malaysia.
Dzameer Dzulkifli is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Teach For Malaysia, a partner in the global education network Teach For All.