Becoming Cikgu Rachael

Guest Article by Rachael Chesley
St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame

I pull into my school parking lot on my pink motor scooter while wearing a bright, floral baju kurung. The security guard smiles with a light wave and I shout, “Selamat Pagi!” As I pull carefully into “my spot” at the shaded corner of the lot, students gather around and yell, “Teacher Rachael! Teacher Rachael! Good morning! Scooter so cute!”
ETA Rachael Chesley wearing a Baju Kurung with students
Some of the older male students even jokingly say, “Miss Rachael, can I have your scooter?”
“You want a pink scooter?” I ask them as I take off my helmet and grab my bags.
“Yes!” they yell and run away.
A year ago, my mornings consisted of frantically grabbing for my business books and calculator, while rushing to make my 8 AM class. I never thought that my mornings a year later would be filled with so much wonder and laughter and such a breadth of cultural experience.
Initially, when I moved to Kampong Amer, Besut in Terengganu, Malaysia and started teaching at SMK Permaisuri Nur Zahirah, I was surprised to witness how little English my students actually knew. It posed a greater challenge beyond what I had already expected, while it also presented an incredible opportunity to foster such a large span of growth during my nine months at the school with my students. Although the students were excited to have an “American girl” at their school, they were extremely hesitant and apprehensive about using or practicing English. Therefore, to build their trust in me and to instill motivation in them, my first priority was developing a routine with each class and every student.
Ever since February, I walk into each class and say, “Hello, class!”
They stand up, and say “Good morning, Teacher!” in unison.
“How are you today?” I ask the class with the enthusiasm of a child on her birthday.
In Malaysia, it is most customary to say “fine,” when someone asks how you are. However, I strove to encourage my students to use different, more enthusiastic words that can really allow them to express their feelings. Therefore, I taught them new words like “Great,” “Awesome,” “Good,” “Spectacular!” while doing a thumbs up. I also taught them “Alright,” or “Okay,” while putting their hand out and moving and turning it slightly back and forth. Some students have gotten this concept down, while others need some practice. 
ETA Rachael Chesley and a student
Of course, some students thought it was silly at first. However, now, all around the school, students give thumbs up when something good happens or when they say “hello” to me! Beyond the thumbs up, I taught students “air fives.” As I exit class or when I see students around school, we exchange “air fives.” I even taught the “air fives” and thumbs up to my Special Education class. They absolutely love to do these when I come to their class once a week to teach English songs, such as The Hokey Pokey! While these are simple and basic encounters, they are not to be overlooked. Overtime, I have watched as they have consistently increased enthusiasm and excitement in my students.
Meanwhile, a successful and beneficial project that has been underway since February is the Permaisuri Nur Zahirah/Lincoln-Way West Pen Pal Program that I initiated for my Form 2A class. With this program, my 2A students have handwritten two letters to, as well as received two letters from, their pen pals in a freshmen Western Civilization class in my hometown, New Lenox, Illinois. This initiative has proven to be not only exciting for both classrooms of students, but also an excellent way to facilitate enthusiastic cultural exchange. It is incredibly rewarding to help the students draft their individual letters with thoughtful consideration, as well as help the students dissect the meaning of the letters they receive back.
Students show off letters from their American Pen-Pals
 Furthermore, the First Annual Permaisuri Nur Zahirah English Magazine has been meeting, which is a group of about 18 students who are working together to create an English magazine to be unveiled in October 2012. These students and I chose key areas to focus on for the magazine, and the students are going out into their communities to learn more about the places and people around them. They are conducting interviews in Bahasa Malaysia and translating them into English, while also writing excerpts about areas of interest to them. Meanwhile, we are reaching out to other students to submit their own individual poems, short stories and song lyrics to be included in the publication.
While establishing new projects at my school, I have striven to get involved with the events, clubs and projects that are already important to my school. I have written the lyrics for and coached Choral Speaking, participated in Pandu Puteri (Girls’ Guides) and English Society, and I have helped with the track team and netball team. In addition, I have been teaching a PMR Creative Writing Class for selected Form 3 students once a week. Whether it is participating in a bowling tournament with the teachers or celebrating Prophet Mohammad’s birthday, there has been a plethora of activities that have allowed me to become part of their school community.
Students practice for their Choral Speaking competition
 The school in general is more chaotic than I could have imagined, and the teaching is very challenging as well. But, when it is all said and done, at the end of every day, I encounter a new challenge, a fresh opportunity and walk away with a new experience to learn from as well as having learned more about myself.
The most important thing I have learned is that whether a good day, or a bad day, I need to be a reliable, consistent rock for my students. An English speaking world and having to speak English seems like a far, distant idea to most of my students. Many of them think, “Why do I need to speak English? I’ll never use it.” So, the challenge is to unveil their own potential to them, and tie English into their own life within their own means and community. In addition, the challenge is to show them the possibility that they could very well go to university or even travel someday. For the last four months that is what I have been striving to do and for the next five months that is what I will continue to do; show them how to use English to tell their very own story within their very own community, while introducing them to their potential.
At the end of the school day, with beads of sweat on my forehead and bags of kuih in my hands, the students gather around and watch as I unlock my scooter. I awkwardly get comfortable on the seat while maneuvering in my baju kurung. Sometimes it makes me nervous with so many people watching, but as I pull out of the parking lot, they all shout, “Be safe, Teacher Rachael!”
“See you tomorrow!” I shout.

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