Guest Article: Living on Campus as an English Teaching Assistant

by David Peterson
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
I wake each morning at the sound of the azan, the Muslim call to prayer. The call comes not from the local mosque, but from the surau, or prayer room, on the school campus. The voice delivering the call is not a religious official or teacher, but one of my students. Rotating the task among themselves, a group of boys delivers the azan 5 times daily. Whenever I am away from the school I find I am conscious of its absence.
I am the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at SMK Panglima Garang Abdul Samad (SMKPGAS), a secondary school in Pahang state, Malaysia. Because I live in teachers’ rooms on campus, I sometimes spend all day with my students, who range in age from 12 to 17. SMKPGAS is located in a rural area and has an entirely Malay student body.
I am not trained as a teacher. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I studied sociology, a field of study that addresses societal and institutional phenomena. Because the school is an institution so many of us pass through in our lives, it is one of the foci of the discipline. I find my theoretical knowledge of education is quickly becoming more practically orientated with each passing day.
Peterson accompanies students on a field trip.
On a typical day, I teach 3 to 5 classes. Because the Malaysian school system is heavily orientated toward performance on cumulative year-end exams, I try to add variety to the curriculum through conversation-based activities, games, and group work. Sometimes I even hold class outside – in the shade, of course. I often accompany the students when they have a special assembly, camp, or field trip (left).
Between classes, students have come to expect that I will stop them and ask questions in English, requiring an answer for passage. Initially many students were shy, but the principal instituted a rule that any student who fled my presence would be required to accompany me for an entire day. Since that time even the shiest student will deliver an answer to my queries, though punctuated by nervous giggles.
 
My day does not end when the last class is dismissed. Most students leave at the end of the school day, returning home to one of a half-dozen kampong (villages) scattered over a 30 km stretch of rural highway. Outside of school, I interact with them when I see them shopping in the town market or playing sports after school. Roughly a third of the students, however, live on campus during the week due to the distance of their home villages.
I spend much of my time with these on-campus students. I eat with them twice daily, sharing their meals of rice and spicy Malay fare. In the evenings, I attend a study hall with students where they can seek tutoring in English and other subjects, or simply practice English conversation.
Peterson plays sepak takraw with students.
The students teach me how to play popular sports, like futsalor sepak takraw. Because I am not the sporting type, they often beat me despite my advantage in speed and size. Sepak takraw (left) is a game played in Malaysia and Thailand named after the woven rattan ball that is used in play. It is much like volleyball, though played with the feet and head only. My school is known locally for sepak takraw. The team is capable of stunning midair flips to “kill” the ball by kicking it directly toward the opposite court.
 
 
 
Students are excited to share their culture with me. Although I am not Muslim, I occasionally attend the daily and Friday prayers at their invitation. Students and teachers alike are always eager to share a new dish or snack with me. In the evening I sometimes wear the kain pelikat, a men’s sarong; for Friday classes I wear the baju Melayu, the traditional Malay men’s costume (right). Students are always delighted to see me wearing their traditional clothing.
Peterson (center) wears the traditional baju Melayu on Friday classes.
When I first arrived at SMKPGAS in February, a group of students had gathered to greet me. When I asked them, “How are you?” the entire mass of students ran away in giggles. The change in the past three months has been remarkable: the students now greet me, ask me questions, and are happy to participate in an exchange of cultures that I am confident is as meaningful for the students as it is for me.                                                
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