Guest article by Elizabeth DeMeo
Johns Hopkins University
But seriously, like, haunted? As in—
It was my second week of teaching and I was sitting with students, trying to absorb all the small idiosyncrasies that would come to be the hallmarks of our next ten months together. At the moment, the topic was ghosts, specifically those inhabiting the back wing of SMK Maran 2.
How many are there?
Are they dangerous?
“Not if we leave them alone. But if we bother them, they get angry.”
So this is why we don’t use the entire back half of the school? Because it will anger the ghosts?
My students looked at me, exasperated. Why was this so hard to understand?
Well, has anyone ever tried to do anything about the ghosts?
“Adeeb slayed them.”
Adeeb was the ETA who’d been at my school the previous year. Apparently, he’d gone where students dared not tread to confront the spectral creatures head on.
He… slayed them?
“Yes! It was AWESOME. He stayed late at night and scared them all away from the English Room. Wait, Miss—have you seen the English Room? We painted it with Adeeb last year. And it was where we would practice guitar with him. Do you play guitar, Miss? Adeeb plays guitar and he taught us how to play and we played so many songs. You can watch our videos online…”
Their voices continued, tumbling over one another in excitement as they told me story after story. The more they spoke, smiling as they recounted late nights and weekends spent with Adeeb, the more I began to realize that the ghosts weren’t the only spirits lingering at SMK Maran 2.
|ETA Elizabeth DeMeo with a student at SMK Maran 2
Contending with legacies of previous ETAs was not something I’d prepared for. Arriving in Malaysia, I’d seen the year ahead as an isolated bubble in which I was the only westerner in my school’s consciousness. While I was cognitively aware of prior ETAs, and their time spent with my students, I had naively assumed that their presence wouldn’
t have much of an impact on my experience.
It took about thirty seconds of teaching for that assumption to fall flat. From the moment I arrived at SMK Maran 2, I was made hyperaware of the two school’s two previous ETAs. Adeeb was mentioned most often— his guitar club was the stuff of legend among my Form 2 students, and a day seldom passed without reference to his choral speaking team or fairytale English camp. The ETA before him, Katie, was equally adored. Students remembered her creative lessons, fearless motorcycle driving, and t-shirt dyeing English camp. “Miss” they would ask me forlornly, eyes glassy with nostalgia, “You know Katie?”
Students weren’t the only ones with expectations. During my first few months at school, teachers encouraged me to coach the choral speaking team formerly led by Katie and Adeeb. Though they were gracious when I organized a drama club instead, the pressure didn’t relent. Later in the year, I took my students to Click Camp, a competitive conference designed to encourage social enterprise. Adeeb had coached a winning Click Camp team the year before and my school expected a similar result from me. Instead of being asked about the particulars of our project, I was only asked whether I thought we’d win, just like Adeeb’s team had.
In the beginning of the year, it was easy to be intimidated by these comparisons. I’d arrived in Malaysia nervous enough about students liking me on my own merits, and knowing I was succeeding a teacher whom my students had nicknamed “ghost slayer” left me deeply nervous. Although Adeeb himself reassured me that I’d be fine, I was still worried. Over the course of the year, however, I learned to relax, and came to greatly appreciate being in the shadow of two fabulous ETAs.
One of the first lessons I had to learn was to set my own bar. With students’ and teachers’ expectations ringing constantly in my ears, it would have been easy to succumb to the pressure to do everything Katie and Adeeb did, or to try and succeed in the same ways. And while I did occasionally cave to this temptation, I found I was at my strongest when I focused on being the best version of myself that I possibly could. I didn’t, for example, need to connect with the same groups of students Adeeb or Katie had; in fact, I came to realize there was value in seeking out new students, who perhaps hadn’t had the chance to get particularly close with an ETA before. And rather than try to tough it out on the guitar in a cheap imitation of what Adeeb had done, I focused on extracurricular areas where I felt I had more expertise: a drama club, a book drive, and several murals.
|Students with their new mural
On the flip side, it was equally vital for me to realize that I could repeat some of what Katie and Adeeb had done. In the beginning of the year, I was always apprehensive when students spoke highly of past lessons and activities. How, I’d think to myself, am I going to top that? What can I possibly do that’s unique?
Though I can’t pinpoint the moment when it left, I realized midway through the year that this desire was gone. There wasn’t much of a difference in what was being said—the students were still enamored with Katie and Adeeb. However, I found myself responding in entirely different ways to their recollections. On one level, I was simply more tired. After several months of late nights and early mornings, I no longer had the mental energy to construct brand new lessons, or reinvent the wheel for the sole purpose of distinguishing myself. Now when I heard those same stories about Adeeb’s and Katie’s successes, I would think, Oh, that worked! Great!
On a deeper level, I realized there had been a shift in my perspective. I hadn’t seen it before, but early in the year my focus was very much on myself in relation to everything around me. All I’d think about when students recounted tales of Katie and Adeeb was, How can I measure up? What can I do to make them love me just as much? In thinking this way, I was really thinking of myself, and not of the students asking the questions. Several months in, I realized I could actually care less whether it was me, or Adeeb, or Katie a student was talking about—what mattered was that a student was talking! In English! Instead of responding to their anecdotes with comparisons to myself, I began to say simply, “Hey, you just nailed the past tense! What else did Katie do?”
Once I learned to look beyond my own insecurities, I was able to see what an incredible benefit it was to have had past ETAs at my school. This was perhaps most evident in the classroom; it was while searching, bleary eyed, for lessons on the Malaysia ETA online platform late one night that I came across Katie’s lesson plans. It’s easy to feel alone when you’re teaching—though other ETAs can relate to some experiences, it’s also the case that each school is highly individual, with a unique set of joys and challenges. Finding a document filled with lesson plans that were executed successfully at my school was like hitting the jackpot. I felt like a coach with a playbook designed specifically for my team. And while there was no secret touchdown formula contained therein, there were ETA equivalents: pages and pages of games, activities, and insights about what students had enjoyed.
Additionally, Adeeb paved the way for some of my most successful extracurricular activities. Towards the end of the previous year, he worked with several students to construct the aforementioned English room. It was not only clean, bright and beautiful, but most importantly private, set away from the fray towards the back of our school. Thanks to Adeeb’s savvy ghost-slaying, my students were not afraid to enter the space, and we were able to use the room for drama club practice. It was also perfect as a gallery, and we began using it to display favorite examples of students’ art and writing.
|ETA Adeeb Syed with a student who worked with both himself and Elizabeth
While my experience with past ETAs was an individual one, I think it speaks to a broader point about continuity from one year to the next. It’s an incredible shame that at the end of the year, ETAs take with them all the knowledge they’ve gained about how to succeed here, wiping the slate essentially clean for the next group of newbies. One way to mitigate this loss is to have ETAs teach for longer periods of time, which we have begun doing in the form of Senior ETAs who stay on for a second year. Additionally, it helps to keep the schools where ETAs are placed consistent, because just as the ETAs acquire knowledge about the schools, the schools acquire knowledge about the ETAs.
Even if an ETA leaves after a year or switches schools, there are still several ways their learning can live on. Formal methods include written documentation, like Katie’s pages of lesson plans. Informal networks like Facebook connection groups and face-to-face conversation can also be invaluable, and I can attest firsthand to the knowledge I’ve gained from keeping in contact with Adeeb throughout the year. I am deeply grateful to both him and Katie, and I can only hope I’m able to pass on half as much knowledge as they’ve given me to the ETAs who walk in my footsteps next year.
And for anyone who’s wondering how things turned out with the spirits haunting SMK Maran 2— while I can’t say I’ve ruled out their danger entirely, I can state with conviction that at least two of the ghosts here are friendly ones.