as logged by Vivian Lee
I was reminded this again as I taught a 13 year-old boy from Myanmar yesterday morning.
After a few days of teaching English at Sekolah Kebangsaan Sri Setia, alongside with a group of young volunteers like myself as part of the UKECharisma Project Kuala Lumpur, I witnessed a great deal of gradual achievements, some disappointments and a lot of patience all in one day through both children and teachers. But the most important aspect of the programme was the volunteers’ determination to achieve the main goal – inspire these children to learn English in their pace through the available resources they have.
There were striking differences of teaching at SK Sri Setia and CSO Imbi, a refugee centre located at Jalan Imbi. At the school, a team of two or three of us (occasionally supported by more, if we needed assistance) would teach English to approximately 30 students in one large classroom for an hour. In contrast, each of us tutored a student individually for two hours straight. We were also overwhelmed with the lack of spaciousness of the refugee centre and we managed to fit ourselves (including more volunteers outside our programme) in several classrooms. However, I personally felt a greater bond with my student than the group at Sri Setia because he had my whole attention and he was not distracted at all (the school had a mix of bright or inattentive children).
The moment I entered the class and was asked to tutor him, I instantly saw a glint of willingness in his eyes, ready to learn. He took his textbook and pencil case out, then laid them neatly on his desk. Although I admitted that I preferred to teach English, he needed help for Mathematics Standard 4 (not because I hated the subject, but I had so little confidence that I did not know what I would need to teach him! Arithmetic and algebra were my only strengths). He pointed out the chapter about lengths (1m=100cm; 1cm=10mm etc.) and I felt slightly calmer about teaching the subject. His strength was his arithmetic, but the concept of measurements was very new to him.
Using my previous experience of learning this subject, I taught him as I would have taught myself. During the first few minutes, I was honestly perplexed by the textbook’s syllabus, but both of us got straight to doing his homework. First, I showed him how to calculate and convert measurements by writing my own examples on his notebook. Then we attempted some questions in the textbook. If he did not understand, I would explain again and reiterate the steps. At that moment, although there was no right or wrong approach to teach, I realised there were other alternatives which would make the student understand better and quicker. For example, converting 4.82m to 482cm would be by just moving the decimal point two places to the right (multiply 100). My student’s approach to the conversion was writing out the numbers and multiplying it step by step. Then I drew the upside-down rollercoaster underneath the numbers to show that this was a quicker approach. As we used this method, he suddenly smiled and understood. The practice of conversion was quite difficult for him to understand at first because he was confused whether to multiply or divide. So we had to repeat by using my own examples. I even asked him to call out numbers and he appeared to be happy with this idea so he was not distracted by his friends.
I saw great progress in those two hours. Not only for him, but also for myself. My confidence to teach grew vastly, and hey, I still know this subject even though it wasn’t my field! Patience was also tested for most of us, but we kept in mind that these children were disadvantaged because they had different upbringings and environment to the children at Sri Setia and had no access to the local schools.
When I talked to my colleagues, our experiences shared an important message: curiosity, eagerness and perseverance are the key characteristics to successful learning. My student showed no signs of boredom or frustration of learning Mathematics. So were most of the other students whom my colleagues taught. When he gained confidence in lengths, I let him answer the questions independently towards the end of the class to test his understanding. As I marked his homework, I gave him high fives because most of his answers were perfect. As we finished, he thanked me and I was touched by his appreciation. How a teacher and student can achieve so much in so little time.
I really hoped that he remembered what I taught him after we left the centre. But during those two hours, I was sure he did. He can go far in life with a positive attitude in mind, guided by the people who will fully support him in his education. I came out of the centre, feeling a tinge of optimism and responsibility for the children I have already taught.