Tuesday, December 31

4th Birthday In The Jungle

As much as I'd like to complain about not being able to celebrate the new year or my BIRTHDAY with the people I love for the fourth consecutive year, I realise that I have a lot to be thankful for.
Perhaps I have reached the 'acceptance' stage of grief. I have certainly seen myself go through all of the stages since 3 years ago when I first saw the vision of the fall of my school & started my struggle against it.
Perhaps it's time I started looking at the things I have & giving thanks for them? I do have a lot to be thankful for & I will list them down here in no order of importance.

I am thankful for...

  • A good God who loves to give me surprises.
  • A wonderful family. A great dad who sets an excellent example for me. A mom who cares for me & makes sure that I have everything I need. Brothers & sisters whom I can be proud of & are willing to spend time with me.
  • The best friends in the world. The industrious Nesa in Penang: always a great sounding board & partner in crime. The bulldozing Shin in Kuching: setting a great example of determination & will overcoming all obstacles. The humble Lung in Kuching: showing me what a family man should be like. Bros: Guna, Chee Chee, Shawn, Syahir, Mien, Nas, Najib, Hilmi, Hadi, Star, Azhar, Hafiz, Sara, Nicky, Ning, Wei Chien, Shiok, Asrul, Ah Yang, Hansen, Rapik, Kenneth, Yazi. Chicks: Sarah, Agnes, JY, CY, Cat, Jamie, Nancy, Siti, Willie, Mau, Aimi, Fiffy, Fa, Nisa.
  • Great colleagues to work with. Project X: Flo, Lya, Tim, Zak, Ijai, Pjoe, Din, HS. Teachers: Wes, Lau, ZF, Nije, Min, Myris, Tang, Patrick, Orben, Ifeane, Sunita, Andrin, Balat, Richard. Staff: Kat, Victor, Junai, Norwasti, Ilau, Nisi, Dangkan, David (groundsman), Anding, Joe, Galleh, the kitchen ladies.
  • Great invaluable mentors: Dad, Clement, Markus, Arthur, Sariee, Evelyn, Thanga, Kay, Jon.
  • Students who are so easy to manage & malleable.
  • A career which fuels my soul.
  • A boss who allows me to do whatever I want to do.
  • Involvement in important panels within the ministry.
  • An informal leadership/influence within my industry.
  • Making a difference in a neglected community.
  • A healthy body. Good genes. Good looks.
  • Making more than I can spend. Having all my material needs met.
  • The ability to play football & futsal. Both of which I love to bits.
  • A bike & the ability to enjoy it.
  • Big dreams & the drive to realise them.
  • Finally, 154 people who wished me happy birthday! (You know who you are!)

Give this a go!
Listing down things to be thankful for is intensely therapeutic & humbling. Let's balance our chase of material dreams with a little dash of thankfulness.


Saturday, December 28

At The End of 5 Years

I have been experiencing sleepless nights & I am haunted by many things. Some of which are recorded in an insomnia induced rant I posted a few days ago. Instead of being busy & ignoring my inner most concerns, I am fortunate enough to have a few days off to think about it, talk about it & read up on it. And it helps. I spent an incredible amount of time speaking to God & quietly reflecting. The world has a way of engaging you at multiple fronts & pulling your attention in all sorts of directions. An undisciplined spirit can get lost in all that noise. It's good to have ample of quiet time to myself. Esp at this pivotal point in my life.

Why did I panic about my career all of a sudden?
Sub-consciously, I knew that my time was up. You see, 5 years ago, I made a promise to myself to commit myself to any government school anywhere in the country. I would root myself & give it my all. Therefore, in my posting application form, I put in 'Dimana Saya Diperlukan & Kebolehan Saya Dimanfaatkan'. In my heart, I didn't care where I was. They can send me to a mountain, jungle, plantation, island, wherever. All I wanted to do was teach & serve. I wanted to see if I had what it takes to be a good teacher. If I failed to do that, I'd quit before I made a career out of killing the desire to learn in children.

What have I found out about myself after 5 years?
The 5 years are over & I have achieved what I had set out to achieve. I found out that I can:
-adapt to a life of simple necessities.
-influence rural children: engage a rural classroom which is weak academically but easy to manage.
-influence peers: work in a team & motivate each other to work hard in a challenging situation with little or no reward.
-influence outside the organisation: draw talented people to travel to the middle of nowhere & help out at my jungle school.
-work at high levels: with senior officers on all sorts of meetings, panels, committees, trainings & conferences.

After 5 years, I found out that I can be a good teacher. Even though I am hard on them, my students can understand why I do what I do & they can accept it. Also, the most important consideration of all, they improve & are motivated to continue to improve on their own.
A major factor is my analytical skills (an ability to break down large issues into smaller parts & get to the root of the problem), a willingness to learn (I read books, articles & seek mentors) & the determination to do whatever it takes (no fear of rejection, fighting for what I want, involve peers/experts, or do it myself). This is my niche, every individual has their own.

Now what?
I have reached the deadline I set for myself. Which is why I am so lost. I am at a crossroads. If I want to make a move, I'd better do it now.
NOW I have to decide whether teaching is something I want to commit myself to or whether there is another calling for my life.

I have come to the end of my 5 year 'vision' for myself. I will spend even more quiet time alone to craft a vision for the NEXT 5 years of my life so that I do not end up groping around in the dark hoping to find gold. The probability of that is even lesser than striking a 4D jackpot.

I will share my thoughts on this blog.

Wednesday, December 25

Insomnia Induced Insecurities

I don't have anything worthy of sharing tonight. I just need to unload something off my chest so that I can finally get some sleep. I've been trying for hours & I'm not getting sleepier. I really hate sleepless nights. It's when I start to think about stuff & worry & fret & it is unnecessary & it doesn't get me anywhere. This is another side of me that doesn't get much time in the light. Most of the time, I find solutions & I get busy at being a solution to things.

But I'm also afraid inside & I'm so insecure about myself & my future. I don't show it much because I'm a guy. I don't like to show my weaknesses. I'm also practical. Revealing or sharing my insecurities doesn't really help me to overcome it. Also, I'm sort of a hippie. I chose to promote what I love instead of bashing what I hate.

I'm sleepless tonight & I can't stop thinking about next year. Sure, I've got a secure job & decent salary. I've got good friends & I love them. I've got a great family who supports me always. But every time I go back to work, I'm detached from all that. My support system. Every time I come back to them, I feel like such a lost cause. I don't know the new people in the circle. I miss key events. I'm totally lost in conversations. A detached stranger to all the people that I love. I miss out on so much of what is going on in the lives of the people that I care about.

Then, I think about my love life. People so easily peg me as a sower of wild oats. I don't do that. I've never even paid for sex. I'm confident & I try to project myself presentably. Esp in a professional setting.  Also, being single doesn't help. People look at me weird & think that I'm either a player or gay. What's up with that? Perhaps I should be a total slob. (I'm slowly turning into one actually.)

Sadly, I don't have love to look forward to next year. Heck, not even a chance to be able to pursue love. I'll be in the jungle most of my days. It'll be hard enough to meet someone let alone get to know them or maintain a relationship. 5 years in the jungle. I don't know what to say. It's not looking up for me.

And then I think about my career. I'm starting to have doubts about whether I want to dedicate my life to teaching. I want to grow personally & professionally. I want to experience things. If I can't grow, I get pissed off. If there's something preventable keeping me from achieving what I want to achieve, I get pissed off. I'm working really really hard in the jungle. There is no doubt about that. I'm also getting recognition from people who care. My work appears in local newspapers. Still, I believe that much much more can be done where I work. But there are preventable obstacles there due to oversight or ignorance at high levels. Perhaps I can be ignorant too? No wait... I can't. I will always want to do more. And please don't tell me to make the best of what I have. What do you think I've been doing all this while?

Perhaps it would be better if I quit & do something else. A wise investor needs to know when to cut a bleeding investment which is taking more than it is giving. Perhaps I can go corporate or run a simple business. I'm willing to make less money but be where I am able to do what makes me happy & add value to the community. I am also willing to fail.

Also, somebody told me very recently that I lost my shine. I was really attractive when I first started & now I've lost my shine. What the f***? Sigh... How can I even respond to that? I have given so much to my work. I've been trying my best to add value to a place where people won't even think twice about rejecting as if I owe it to them to make up for any shortages.

I've gained so much too. Experience. Stoic determination. Thick skin. Bouncing back after being broken physically, mentally & emotionally. Well, I can't get my shine back. I guess. But I accept that as my destiny. I was meant to give & add value to those wiling to accept it. I found myself when I gave everything I had to give until I had nothing left inside & yet still be able stand up & keep fighting.  5 years full of stories I could write a book about. F**k you & your opinions about my shine. If you ask me what would I do if I could go back in time, I'd do it again any day than be a spoiled pretty boy prancing around the place.

Some of you reading this might think that I'm overreacting. Perhaps I am. Insomnia can make body chemicals become imbalanced in some way. But it's better for me to do this at 28 than 38. I'm not getting any younger & if I want to make any major life decisions, I'd better make it before I'm 30. Right now, I have proven that I can achieve success in challenging situations. Also, I have proven my character: integrity & determination as well as my work rate.

I try to be optimistic & think that everything is going to be fine. I do have faith that God has great things in store for me. But maybe. Just maybe. That uneasy feeling I get whenever I think about next year. Is a quiet sign that I need to make some changes. What those changes are... I don't know yet. Whatever it is. I don't want to lose myself. I want to always be true to myself & add value to the world.

Hmm... Don't think this is working. Still can't sleep. Perhaps I shouldn't have had a latte yesterday night at a chic cafe while having a one on one chat with a... dude. Sad guy... Hanging out with a dude when he could actually be hanging out with chicks. Boo!! Whatever. Maybe I really should be gay... Nah. Can't do it.

Somebody please end my misery.

Saturday, December 21

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The MoE is seriously looking at CEFR as an internationally recognised framework for describing the ability of language learners in Malaysia. This will likely be used for foreign languages (English, Japanese, German, French, etc) & might also be applied to local languages (BM, Iban, etc).

Besides listening to speeches & presentations from industry experts, we were organised into 4 interest groups, i.e. higher education, teacher training, curriculum & pedagogy, and assessment, to explore the application of CEFR into our education system.
From 29-30 October 2013, I attended the symposium at the Sama Sama Hotel, Sepang. We were given a basic understanding of the concepts & principles of the CEFR.
Here is a summary of what I have gleaned from the symposium. Do forgive me for lapses in my understanding. Any comments & insights will be gladly appreciated.

What is CEFR?
• Benchmark for a learner’s language ability
• Can be used for any language
• Assessed based on communicative tasks
• Learner autonomy & learner-centred via self-assessment

It was developed to help immigrants to assimilate and participate in a democratic society. These are adult learners in an immersion setting. It has been applied in Europe as well as other continents and available in 39 languages. CEFR is a reference for describing a learner’s ability in any language. It can be used for English, French, German, etc.

The CEFR attempts to characterise & structure the communicative acts of competent language users. The competences are categorised into levels with descriptors of what they can do. There are 6 levels: A1 & A2 (Basic user), B1 & B2 (Independent user), C1 & C2 (Proficient user). A1 is on survival communicative language. A2 & B1 are on social communicative language. Learners have to be able to perform certain communicative tasks to achieve a level.

It seeks to promote learner autonomy via self-assessment. They found that students are usually reactive learners who wait for the teachers instructions before the engage in learning activities. When teaching stops, so does learning. Therefore, ‘learning to learn’ is regarded as an integral part of language learning. This is done via self-management of learning or self-assessment based on a set of ‘can-do’ descriptors stating what students of a certain level can do. Self-assessment is based on a self-assessment grid.

Furthermore, it should be regarded as merely a reference. It does not advocate any particular approach nor does it have powerful pedagogic implications. We can still decide the curriculum, pedagogies & assessment methods albeit some considerations; i.e. the descriptors within the levels can be used to specify a learning target, develop learning activities & guide the design of assessment tasks.

Sama Sama Hotel was superb & the rooms were perfect.
It had everything a professional would need & more!
Summary of CEFR levels:
• A1: Learners can interact in a simple way rather than relying purely on words and phrases.
• A2: Learners can cope with a basic range of social interaction and make simple transactions in shops, post offices & banks.
• B1: Learners can maintain interaction in a range of contexts and cope flexibly with problems in everyday life.
• B2: Learners can engage in sustained and effective argument and have an enhanced language awareness.
• C1: Learners have good access to a broad range of language that allows fluent, spontaneous communication.
• C2: Learners can communicate with a high degree of precision, appropriateness and ease.

Implications on Curricula:
• Reflects learner needs & accommodate learner initiative & control of the learning process
• Regards spontaneous & authentic use of target language is a precondition of effective learning.
• Foster Learners managing their own learning/autonomy
• 4 domains of language use: personal, public, occupational, educational
• Learners focus on the here-and-now of their own learning, not on the as-if communication in the ‘real world’ outside the classroom.

The food at the Degrees restaurant was awesome too. There was plenty of variety & the quality of the food was good.
Implications on Pedagogy:
• Engage learners in interaction in the target language.
• Do not set out to teach A1 tasks. Students acquire them by being engaged in A2 interaction.
• Descriptors include activities that can be mastered via sustained target language use.

Implications on Assessment:
• According to the understanding that language learning is language use.
• An action-oriented approach on what learners can do.
• Promotes autonomous learning. Helps learners to identify learning targets, monitor progress, and self-assess learning outcomes.
• Rating criteria made based on the descriptors & their implications should be arranged in a progressive continuum.
• Both formative and summative assessment.
• Includes teachers assessment, peer assessment & self-assessment.

Useful Websites:
For English Language Proficiency Benchmarks, ELPs & assessment kits (primary & post-primary)
www.coe.int/lang & www.coe.int/portfolio
For information on how CEFR was adapted in Ireland.

Some of the leaders (from ELTC, Eng Lang Standards & Quality Council, lecturers, teachers, etc) I met at the conference.
I believe that our education system is very much in tune with the CEFR’s philosophy as it is very similar to the existing PBS system. Also, our current curriculum & pedagogies can be retained even if we use CEFR as a reference. However, some tweaking & recalibrating may have to be made to our assessment methods & especially on how to bring about learner self-assessment & autonomy.

It would be great though if we could have a grading system that allows easy comparison between our local students & the students abroad. Looking forward to seeing what will come out of this.

View all the pictures on my FB page.

Thursday, December 5

The Ultimate Motivation Programme

Giving students portraits of themselves in graduation robes so they can visualise being graduates = purpose.
Thought up & sponsored by Sarah Lasung of Teach For Malaysia.
What do you think of when someone mentions ‘motivation programme’?
Most schools conduct a motivation camp or organise a 1 week talk with invited speakers & that’s it. Actually, for some schools, that is good enough because parents take care of the rest of the motivating. That is, if the students have got attentive parents. What about those students who do not?

My students come from a poor socio-economic background. Many from broken families & their guardians are either illiterate or uneducated. They are aware that education is important but most are ill-equipped to support their children.
Also, my students stay in the hostels so they spend most of their time at school. Having so little contact with their guardians, we cannot expect the guardians to be able to make much of a difference.

Based on my personal beliefs & building upon the success of my 2012 PMR Motivation Programme, I decided to conduct an upgraded version for this year’s SPM students. (This year’s PMR Motivation Programme was delegated to the 2012 programme alumni.)

Here is the Ultimate Motivation Programme I devised & executed this year:

#1 Heart2Heart Discussions

"Begin with the end in mind." -Stephen Covey
Form the very beginning of the year, it is very important that students have a clear idea of what is expected of them & what they have to achieve by the end of the year. This will put the year into perspective & all their struggles into context.

I did this by having Heart2Heart sessions with the students individually first. Then, in groups.
Before the individual meetings, I conducted a workshop for all the students on study tips as well as how to prepare a target for SPM & a study schedule for the entire year.
It is important that students prepare their own targets & schedules instead of teachers doing it for them as they need to take ownership of their own learning.

During the individual meetings, we’d discuss their targets & compare it to their past achievements.
This is when I adjust their targets up or down depending on how they performed in the past & make them aware of the amount of work required to achieve their desired results.

After every exam, I’d chair a group session to listen to them share their struggles, study techniques & triumphs. I wanted them to reflect on their performance as well as learn from each other. I did this for every student throughout the year.

#2 Reminders

What is the point of having targets if students are not reminded to ward off procrastination?
Children are easily distracted & they need constant reminders. Even adults need reminders to keep them focused on achieving their targets. Reminders need to be engaging & ongoing throughout the year.

I believe that students relate easily with visuals. Reminders need to be self-accessible. To make it effective, there needs to be some form of peer accountability / transparency as well.

List of Reminders:
1. Fujifilm Instax: I took Instax pictures of students holding a piece of paper on which their targets were written. They had to display these photos where they could see it every day.
2. Exam Results: I’d print out & post their exam results on the classroom notice board so that they & others can track their progression.
3. SPM Schedule: I had the SPM schedule printed & posted on their notice boards as soon as it was announced so that they could tweak their study schedules accordingly.
4. Weekly Motivation: Every week, I'd meet up with them for a jogging session & speak to them after that.
5. The Heart2Heart sessions.
6. Peer accountability: I did something simple where the more responsible students reminded the others but I think this is an area for further development in the future. I can incorporate peer rewards (giving thoughtful gifts to buddies who improved) & peer reminders (talking to each other on a scheduled basis about the status of their preparations).

#3 Jogging: Building Cardiovascular Health

I can barely remember the National Philosophy of Education but I do remember 'holistic' (aka JERIS) & for good reason too.
Any motivation programme should include regular physical exercise.
There is plenty of research to show that exercise leads to a healthy cardiovascular system which leads to better blood/oxygen circulation which leads to better cognitive health.
Exercise also helps students to sleep better at night. Sleep is important because it is when the brain turns short-term memories into long-term memories.

I started my exercise programme from the very first week of school. I’d gather up all the students for a jog around the school. Then, we’d so some stretching & exercises. Finally, I’d sit them down around me for a motivation sermon/reminder about how important it is to stay focused on their goals.

I chose jogging instead of games because I wanted EVERYBODY to take part.
When it comes to games like volleyball or football, some students will be passively watching. Also, jogging is something that everybody could do. Everybody would then be able to experience the benefits of physical exercise.

#4 Inviting Speakers

Excellent Students from SMK Kapit.
The #missionKatibas team.
RELOs from the US Department of State.
Eventually, students would get tired of the same old dog (me) barking the same old tune again & again all year long. So, I roped in a few foxes, giraffes, hippos, zebras & bald eagles to do it for me.
Bear in mind that not everybody is willing to come all the way into the jungle WITHOUT BEING PAID. But when we reach out to altruistic people & offer them an experience that money cannot buy, there will be people who would be willing to come AT THEIR OWN EXPENSE. For these people, I am thankful.

List of Invited Speakers:
1. Program Jalinan Kasih. My school lacks student role models: students who can be used for benchmarking or as an example. I knew that students learn more from their peers than they would from adults & I needed to take advantage of this desperately. I wanted to provide them with peers who are excelling at school.
Cikgu Ho from SMK Kapit was very interested in visiting my school so I challenged her to bring along the best students from her school to influence & share their tips with my students.

2. #missionKatibas. Motivational speakers are expensive & hard to lure to a school like mine. So, when I found a group of professionals who were highly competent & interested in coming to my school, they became motivational speakers to both my PMR & SPM students for FREE!
Kudos to Sarah, Trish, Sonia, WaiLeem & Esther.

3. Jalinan Kasih Antarabangsa. The ultimate motivation activity would involve having native speakers of English at my school. When I got to know English Language Officers from the US Department of State, I knew I had to invite them to my school. To my surprise, Dr Kay was as adventurous as I hoped she would be. She brought along her super cool boss, Dr Dawn, too.

#5 Building Exam Competence

Unfortunately, if students are going to be evaluated with exams, they need to build exam competence on top of their language/subject competence.
That is why it is important for me to conduct PMR & SPM English Exam talks.
For a school like mine where the students do not have access to tutoring/tuition centres, they are totally dependent on the teachers who enter their classes for exam competence. Therefore, it is even more important for the teachers themselves to be exam competent before they can pass the knowledge on to their students.

I have invested a lot of my time & effort into building my knowledge on exam competence but I am only 1 teacher teaching 1 subject. There are plenty of other subjects at school which are as equally important for the success of my students. So I thought about how I could provide an opportunity for the teachers at my school to connect with more experienced teachers & build up their own knowledge.

Providing opportunities of development to other teachers so that together we can make a bigger difference.
Thus, I coordinated a Benchmarking & Sharing Visit to SMK St Elizabeth, Sibu (one of the top 10 performing schools in Sarawak). I made sure that each exam subject had at least 1 teacher represented. I wanted the teachers to learn from the best teachers at SMK St E & then bring back that information for the benefit of their students.
The teachers were very receptive & most of the teachers went on to conduct talks on their respective subjects.

#6 Being A Book Mule

Well past the second half of the year, a few students came up to me to ask for my help in acquiring reference books, past year questions & model exam papers. It was then that I realised that my students had difficulty acquiring paper resources essential for their preparation. They were deep in the jungle while the best books were only available in a land far far away called Sibu.

And so, I became a book mule. I carried the books from the book store to my hotel, hotel to the wharf, wharf to the express boat, express boat to the sampan &, finally, from the sampan to their classrooms.

I decided to purchase all the books they needed with my own money first & pass on my 15% teacher discount to my students. They come from a poor socio-economic background so the discount would go a long way. Also, I wanted the discount to be a motivating factor for actually using those books. I made this point extra clear to them too.

Even though I foot the transportation bill & some students did not pay me back for their books, I did not feel bad about this. It actually felt really great to see my students fully equipped for their preparations. Now they have absolutely no excuse & I harped this point on them again & again & again to great effect!

#7 Finishing Well

"How you start is important, very important, but in the end it is how you finish that counts." -Forbes
Students don’t need a dictator: Someone to tell them what to do.
They don’t need a friend: Someone to be close to them.
They need a mentor: Someone to tell them the hard truths & make it easier for them to achieve their goals.
They also need to know that someone will be there for them until the end.

This year, I decided to stay at my jungle school until the end of SPM; foregoing more than half of my year-end holidays. I did this even though there was no internet at school & the water pump broke down so I had to bathe & wash my clothes from a communal reservoir as well as cart bucketful of water up to my 3rd floor apartment for cooking, cleaning & toilet business.

I have been building them up since the beginning of the year & I am not about to leave them behind at their most pivotal moment. I have seen what it was like without anyone to watch over them during this period of the year when the school is empty & all the best teachers are gone. Not a good thing.

I stayed back to make sure that they had food, water, a suitable place to study, a guardian & recreational activities. Every night, I would gather them into the hall & sit there with them to make sure that they stay focused on their preparations. I did this until the last day of SPM.

On the very last day of SPM, I had a BBQ with whoever was left & we toasted to success in the future.


At the end of the day, I am just a Guru Akademik Biasa. I don’t get paid extra to do this. Neither do I get extra credit in my LNPT (annual evaluation).
To complete this motivation programme, I had to overcome many obstacles including bureaucracy, back-biting & sabotaging. Naturally, it took a lot out of me because I took on too many roles at once.
But, the sense of achievement is... priceless & oh so satisfying.

I, myself, am not free from sin. I have stepped on toes & undermined the jurisdiction of other officers at my school. I would like to take this opportunity to apologise publicly to anybody whom I have offended in the process of completing this programme. Sometimes I forget that I need to consider more than the students in my decision making process. This is something that I am working on & will improve on in the future.

Next year, I will NOT carry out this programme. There are actually plenty of capable people at my school who are paid to come up with such programmes. I am not one of them.

I want to focus my energy on my subject matter (English) & come up with more innovative programmes to promote the use of English at my school & in the local community. I have not focused on English language programmes since I became Ketua Warden 3 years ago. Since then, I have been working on ambitious large scale programmes like this one. I have several ideas of what to do next year & it is all so exciting to me. Trust me. It's going to be ground-breaking.

Here's to an amazing new year full of surprises!

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