Having almost 3 decades of teaching under her belt, Cecilia Zamira Louis recently returned from her eye-opening experience in the US as a fellow of the Fulbright ILEP (International Leaders in Education Program).
The ILEP is a cross-cultural exchange opportunity for Malaysian educators to be posted to universities in the US in a semester-long cultural, professional and educational exchange program.
I had the pleasure of meeting Cecilia and a few others recently at a debriefing event for recipients of various Fulbright programs in Malaysia hosted by the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE), a bi-national Fulbright Commission established by the the US and Malaysian governments in 1963 to promote inter-cultural understanding through education and educational exchange between the two countries.
Cecilia is an educator and GKMP Bahasa (Guru Kanan Mata Pelajaran, or, Head of Language Department) at a school in Gelang Patah, Johor.
She started in the 1980s teaching music at the primary level, and, after a decade of moving around schools, she eventually picked up English from the headmasters of each of the 3-4 schools, and which saw her studying TESL to improve her proficiency in the language.
After her graduation, she was posted to a Secondary School in Skudai, Johor Bahru, which she recounts was a ‘huge cultural shock’. She felt a great emotional burden as she attempted to counsel students who were suffering a lot in their journey of self-discovery as they transitioned from primary to secondary school.
Through her ex-classmate, she learnt of the Fulbright program and was encouraged to try and apply as she was greatly concerned for the welfare of her students and sought to improve the quality of education she could provide.
Her successful application thus saw her move to the states for four and a half months as she was posted to St Rose College in Albany, New York. Her program comprised lessons and audit classes with a middle school in Albany.
I learnt that when planning your lesson, teachers must have a clear instructional routine that will help students practice the skills needed in future. Also, students need different routines, as different children learn in different ways.
As teachers we need to understand what is going on in the mind of a child, especially teenagers.
She was also exposed to different perspectives on education during her exchanges with academics and fellow educators such as through conferences and meetings.
One of the things Cecilia was excited to share about was the method of learning employed in the classes she was at. Teachers of different subject matters frequently collaborated to approach the education of their students in a thematic manner.
Unlike in Malaysia, where students are ‘spoonfed’ information from textbooks and are forced to memorise and regurgitate them during exams, students in her classes in Albany were given a specific theme each month.
From Mathematics, to History, to Geography to even Science, their teachers would prepare teaching and homework material that revolves around a certain theme, say, the Civil War, and this theme would pervade most of their classes in creative ways.
Mathematics, for example, would have Civil War-themed problem questions, while English reading and comprehension passages would be about the Civil War. Literature would touch on Poetry during the Civil War, and so on and so forth.
This linked approach thus helps students to remember facts, concepts and theories more easily as they can relate more easily from the exposure. This makes learning and understanding less reliant on rote memorisation. Furthermore, classes are also more fun as teachers apply interactive elements such as energizers and refreshers during lesson time.
Cecilia’s school experience saw her being partnered with Mrs Mickey Young from Farnsworth Middle School, Albany.
One thing that I can boast about is that I actually taught in an American class. I taught all the four classes for a week. It was so exciting and the kids were lovely.
I used a strategy learnt during my Audit Class – Anticipation Guide, to teach about Batik.
The American Experience
Cecilia felt that she assimilated well into the campus and American culture in Albany. She had the opportunity to visit the Niagara Falls, dine at a posh Italian restaurant and even catch the Broadway musical, The Lion King!
“I felt at home, and did not feel homesick or lost. This can only be because of the way the American people behave.”, said Cecilia.
She was also free to join any society in college and she chose to volunteer her time with parents of autistic children (The Friday Knights program) and the ‘Sponsor-a-scholar’ program (an outreach program by St Rose students to interact and connect with High School students).
I guess when you are a first world nation, there are certain things that you do that set you apart from the rest. You can walk up to anyone if you need anything and they will try their very best to help. No matter who you are, anyone and everyone will greet each other.
There was no shortage of things to do and places to go and sights to see in the US!
Cecilia did not just stay in Albany in her 4 months, though. The stipend provided to her for her time there was more than sufficient for her to travel around the country.
Back in Malaysia
Since coming back to Malaysia, she has only done one course, with a primary school in Kluang on Teaching Strategies. The generous stipend given was also enough to allow Cecilia to purchase much-needed electronic teaching aids and equipment such as a laptop, an LCD projector and a printer, which she has put to good use in her classes, making her lessons far more interesting.
As a determined and dedicated educator, Cecilia is always giving her 100% to her school and her students.
She has made attempts to reach out to offer her services to several primary schools and the PPD (Pejabat Pendidikan Daerah, or, Local Education Offices) to share what she has learnt, but sadly, none of them have actually expressed any interest in it, much to her frustration.
In Malaysia, they look not for qualification but “kulitfication”…
… so what I do is to share everything that I know, the teaching practices that I have learnt and tried out in my own classroom, on my Facebook.
I have quite a few junior and senior teachers who are my FB friends, and so that is how I am spreading my knowledge.
The Fulbright-MACEE Program
The Fulbright Program is the flagship international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.
It has accepted approximately 294,000 participants, chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential, with the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.
Jamilah cares deeply about the human condition. A humanist, skeptic and feminist, she is a proponent of both human and animal rights. An avid gamer, she lives somewhere in PJ with her two cats and plays Dota 2 in her free time.