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The Star 24 Mar 2013 All for a good cause

The Star: All for a good cause

The Star 24 Mar 2013 All for a good causeVolunteers who teach under-performing students in their quest to learn, move on and have a better life, need to be saluted for their commitment and determination.

AS THE standard of living of Malaysians improves towards the upper end of the developing status, we start to find cause for volunteerism. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), renowned philosopher in the field of ethics, approached ethical volunteerism in many of his works.

Kant and many others of his time, the defining pillar behind ethical volunteerism is will. Quoting Ali Shariati in his work ideology, Zul Fikri Zamir, co-founder of Teach for The Needs (TFTN) asserts that even if there were 1,000 Aristotles and Platos in Ancient Greece, their social lives can never be improved with no one to act.

Willingness can only come about with undisputed belief in a cause. When one believes in a cause, chances are the resulting efforts and activisms become more sustained.

It is these kinds of will and spirit that TFTN aims to cultivate, enable and leverage upon.

Made up of a group of benevolent young qualified teachers and volunteers, the organisation works on a nimble model of providing free after-school tuition to primary school pupils from underprivileged households.

What TFTN brands as “education activists”, these “teacher-ambassadors” and young volunteers start their own initiatives in their own localities, whether it be staying back after school hours to teach tuition, or to adopt a local orphanage under their care and programme.

A first of its kind, TFTN joins others within the education non-governmental organisations, currently inhabited by the likes of Teach for Malaysia and EduNation.

Addressing different segments via various modus operandi, they have one thing in common; putting on the “concerned citizen” hat in addressing pockets of deficiencies within the Malaysian education system.

Why education?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) is a good starting point to substantiate the works of the likes of TFTN.

Pisa is a recognised tri-annual testing system conducted on 15-year-olds of the 70 over countries that contribute 90% to the global economy. The idea is to assess the efficacy of the respective education systems, in promoting critical and problem-solving skills instead of memorisation amongst their pupils in the reading, Mathematics and Science subjects. Malaysia ranked 55 out of 74 countries, putting it in the bottom 33rd percentile.

In his speech, at TFTN’s inaugural Education Convention held at Universiti Malaya’s (UM) Education Faculty on Dec 8, 2012, Zul Fikri extracted the lessons learnt from the Finnish education system, which emerged top in the survey.

Despite ranking 70th in the preceding surveys, Finland was found to have topped the rank in 2009 after having revamped its schooling systems drastically; by providing total autonomy to schools and doing away with rigid examination systems.

Zul Fikri had at the event addressed the issue of Malaysian school-going children being spoon-fed with the aim of scoring straight As. However they had lost sight of the purpose of learning and going to school, and this resulted in their poor performance in Pisa.

During its sessions with teacher ambassadors and volunteers, TFTN discovered some interesting revelations.

While one teacher picked up the Iban dialect because his students could not converse in Malay, another had to travel three hours to a rural Sarawakian village by boat not to mention an encounter with crocodiles along the way!

One teacher in Banting found herself starting with the letters of the alphabet on a UPSR student! She had to come up with creative techniques with plasticine to ensure that her 12-year-old illiterate student managed to grasp as much as possible.

As educational opportunities correlate significantly with household economic status, strata, and exposure to infrastructure and amenities, sections of the school-going pupils within the system have been identified as “deprived”.

To assist teachers dealing with these children identified as deserving of the “TFTN-experience”, the organisation’s volunteers were then exposed to structured pedagogical approaches to special needs education via esteemed speakers during the convention.

Prof Dr Saedah Siraj was one of them; a known personality in the field of academia, her inputs focused on provision of education for special needs children.

Having experienced major parts of their growth and development within less-conducive households, the former dean of the UM’s Education Faculty stressed that the learning process for special needs children must be designed strategically.

These strategies typically include direct teaching, structuring content to suit the child’s current emotional and morale state, varying activities using the five senses, continuous and interconnected revision exercises, spelling and dictation and, a special focus on behaviours and manners.

Education activism also aims to address the quality issue behind the quantities that form the teaching faculties of Malaysia’s education system.

At the convention, an excellent forum titled Pendidikan Negara brought forth very pertinent trends with regards to the teaching profession.

The quality and efficacy of the teaching faculty for the first time was discussed in a forum of a public nature, not only involving teachers from the government system, but also of observers and Malaysian individuals passionately driving for change to the education system.

The forum efficiently revisited the “choice” issue amongst cohorts of teachers streamed into the government teaching profession; where very many teachers especially of the newer generations did not choose to become teachers in the first place, rather out of lack of choice given limited qualifications.

Edmond Yap, co-founder of EduNation which provides free online education materials, argued that Malaysia cannot afford to gamble its future generation on substandard policies governing the teaching profession.

Dzameer Dzulkifli, co-founder of Teach For Malaysia, eloquently supplemented that the absence of an “exit clause” is especially worrying, in that teachers risk almost no chance of being removed from the classroom due to non-performance.

He added that no other high-performing organisation would keep individuals or teams that didn’t add value but he remains hopeful as the new Malaysia Education Blueprint addresses this.

In the same forum, Zul Fikri shared that TFTN too was founded to share some of this responsibility.

Rather than continuous lamenting, Malaysians should instead take their own effort to fill in whatever gaps that they separately identified to be in need of improvement.

The way forward

Education activism à-la TFTN is premised upon two major components.

One is the levelling of opportunities for underprivileged and troubled pupils. The second is to enable ambassadors, under a supportive ecosystem that supports their initiatives and provides professional input for career-development.

Instead of cascading directives from a central committee in an “outward” fashion, the organisation encourages an “inward” incoming of ideas and initiatives from volunteers themselves. Apart from provision of core tutorial hours with measurable outcomes like academic performance and test scores, this “enabler” role involves providing a platform to teacher-ambassadors in dispersed locations for networking, a symbiosis of idea-sharing and ultimately a sense of belonging.

Alongside Prof Saedah, the convention brought forward Ustazah Khadijah and her proprietary module: Teknik Mendorong Pelajar Corot Gaya Rasulluah which utilises educating-by-example techniques which the holy Prophet Muhammad practised in encouraging troubled pupils.

A major take-away from her workshop was implicit provocation. Rather than outright assertion or scolding, she propagates the use of differentiated reward systems and treatment, which will result in the relatively troubled child questioning these practices.

This has a higher chance of the pupil giving attention when explained to. With professional inputs like this, TFTN hopes to put an extra plus point in the teacher-ambassadors’ resumes, and ultimately enhance their pedagogic experience.

With more and more professionals with no teaching backgrounds coming on board, organisations like TFTN and Teach For Malaysia can also leverage and celebrate their respective specialisation and skills.

In fact, there is a niche yet significant need for professionals to play their roles in bringing up nascent movements like TFTN to its feet.

This is by incorporating their established commercial and corporate-setting methodologies and experiences into things like structuring an organisation chart, establishing a treasury and secretarial function, and designing a performance management system that promotes some extent of accountability and results-driven environment.

Conventions like the TFTN Education Convention 2012 serves as a great platform to collate ideas, conduct annual reviews, and chart goal-driven trajectories.

With teachers and volunteers from vastly different locations and settings coming together, chances are the exercise becomes more realistic and all-encompassing.

Passionately behind the foundation of TFTN, despite being a non-educator, I shared with my fellow volunteers at the convention of the organisation’s achievements for the year 2012 and how TFTN had found a very meaningful place within my heart.

Being a strong proponent of balanced and levelled educational opportunities and equality, I echo TFTN in our stance that specially addressing under-performing pupils typically labelled as “naughty” and “lost cause” by society may just turn out to be the most critical fundamental step in uplifting the economic status of many neglected pockets of the society. I have always believed that education forms the backbone of any society.

The importance of education can never be overemphasised and the lack of it causes instability, rise in poverty and ignorance.

Volunteers are not paid — not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.

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