By Andrew Headspeath
The Oxford English Dictionary describes teaching as “imparting knowledge.” For most people, we’d think of knowledge (in a classroom context) as subjects such as Maths and English. Imagine then Rachael Francis’ horror when in the first year of her Teach For Malaysia (TFM) Fellowship, a student asked her about a boy she liked.
“At the start, I was a very business oriented person,” she said. “I came to just teach the class and that’s it. I didn’t want to know which boy you’ve got a crush on or what he said to you today.”
Now in her third year as a teacher, Rachael’s outlook has changed completely. She’s learned that if students can’t relate to you on a personal level, “they’re not as engaged.”
“You need to reach the students individually, to know their struggles and where they’re coming from. Otherwise, you’re just a stranger that walks into their class every few days.”
Rachael Francis grew up with a deep passion for words. Graduating in English Linguistics and Journalism, the Ipoh-born teacher found herself interning at several magazines and online portals. Despite her determination to break into media, her cousin suggested the TFM Fellowship programme.
“I had zero intention to apply and didn’t even know what the organisation did. I was curious and learned about TFM’s vision, which really resonated with me,” she said.
Rachael brought her love for the English language to her school in Pahang.
The 27-year old rolled up her sleeves and set up not one but three initiatives encouraging English.
First, she invited guest speakers to the school, showing kids “there was a very real need for English” outside their community.
Rachael also got in touch with friends working and studying in different countries abroad. They would send her students postcards each week, describing far-away places around the world.
According to Rachel “the students loved it,” and were “really excited” to receive them.
“I encourage my students to learn as many languages as possible, not just English, to engage with the world.”
Rachael’s third and most sustainable English-language initiative is a drama club, which she still runs to this day.
Trainers come in and teach the kids acting techniques in English. The club soon became “a very safe space”, and students, even those from outside her own classes, joined in.
“What was interesting was that some of my really weak students that couldn’t string together a sentence were actually joining the club.
“It was very interactive, and they were putting aside their fears about their language-level and just immersed themselves,” she said.
The club soon became a place for kids to tackle social issues through drama, covering topics such as belonging or feeling estranged.
Rachael says students were sharing how they felt, even in broken English. This taught her to slowly open up, forming better relationships with them.
“I discovered this one particular girl, who I thought was very strong and confident, was dealing with a lot of personal struggles on her own. When she started talking about these things, I realised there are many things we don’t see, that does not come out in the classroom.
“When a teacher enters a class, it is always like okay, how do we solve this algebraic equation today. It’s never like: what’s your struggle today?” she said.
One of Rachael’s biggest successes came from an unexpected place. Last year, she had a Form Four class of 20 boys and three girls, who were “really high energy, very restless and wouldn’t sit down.”
It was a very challenging time, because they didn’t like English. In order to engage with them, she had to adapt, inventing games and other alternative techniques to catch their attention.
“At the end of every class I felt like crying,” she said. “It wasn’t that they were disrespectful, it was just so tiring.”
Yet Rachel’s hard work soon paid off, and the rowdy class were improving. At the start, almost everyone was failing English – by the end, all of them passed.
On Teacher’s Day, the kids left a surprise for their teacher: a box, with a note reading “from gentleman boys from Cohort four.”
Inside, Rachael found handwritten notes, in English, from all her students. For her it was “beyond anything (she) could imagine”.
“A lot of them wrote things like ‘I’m sorry I can’t buy you a gift’, but these things are the things you keep with you for a really long time,” she said, smiling.
“Your pen can run out of ink but these are very important memories.
“I realised the reason they were putting in the effort to learn was because I was putting in that effort, and we had this relationship that helped us to grow together.”
Despite her two-year Fellowship ending last year, Rachael decided to stay as a teacher to further develop her initiatives. She hopes to establish a sustainable, “holistic” system, where older students train the younger ones, gaining skills in leadership and event organisation.
In a few years she hopes to work with disadvantaged children, who don’t have the “privilege” of dedicated teachers.
Looking back at the TFM Fellowship, she explains it “has changed so many lives.”
From the young graduate without direction, Rachael has transformed into a passionate educator, involved in the nation-building of Malaysia.
“If we look at every individual that has done the Fellowship, you can definitely tell that the experience has changed them,” she said. “It allows us to understand our education system in a way reading an article would just not do.
“For me, it made me see that education is not just black and white,” she said, speaking with the passionate conviction of a teacher.
“It’s not like ‘I taught that student very well, so it’s his fault he’s not listening.’ What if he was having a bad day because his mum didn’t have time to prepare breakfast? Simple things like that affect our emotions all the time.
“It’s always deeper than you might think.”
Rachael Francis is a 2014 Teach For Malaysia Alumna, currently teaching at a school in Pahang. She decided to continue her journey as a teacher to establish English-language initiatives for her students.
For more information on the mission to end education inequity, visit teachformalaysia.org .