Three young schoolgirls smiling

Over three thousand primary English teachers from the East Malaysian states of Sarawak, Sabah and Labuan are benefiting from a radically new teacher-led mentoring project. The English Language Teacher Development Project (ELTDP) is supporting the Malaysian Ministry of Education to make a step-change in the quality of English teaching.

The project aims to improve teaching and learning of English while raising teachers’ English proficiency, increase the use of teaching aids and encourage the involvement of parents and the local community.  However, traditional training approaches, providing one-off professional development sessions have had limited success in Malaysia, so the project focuses on developing teachers’ own reflective practice allowing teachers to identify areas to explore within the mentoring relationship. To enable this to work in the 600 schools in East Malaysia, many of which are in very remote locations, one hundred and twenty mentors have been placed across the region, each working with a cluster of schools in their area.  

Below you can read stories from some of the mentors and mentees on the ELTDP.

Students dressed in traditional costumes show off the storybooks

Sharing stories

Last October a storytelling workshop was held at the little school of SK Tiga Papan, near the Tip of Borneo.  No one could have anticipated what wonderful stories would be recorded that day, or that they would be turned into books and published months later.

Two of the stories have been made into storybooks for young readers, written in English and their original language, Rungus. I am Itut-Itut tells the story of farmer Itut-Itut who finds some of his crops have been stolen. He sets a trap and finds something very surprising.  The second story Tasu to the Rescue is the story of a dog, Tasu, who saves the day when his family’s crops stop growing.

Children’s stories are nothing without colourful illustrations and this was another cause for celebration, as both books had very talented illustrators.  One of them, Antud Didi, was a former pupil of SK Tiga Papan, who lived in the village and this was his debut as a book illustrator.  He told us “this project is a bit of a surprise, before I started the project I was just drawing and painting a little as a hobby.  I never dreamed someday I’d be doing this.”  Antud was mentored by experienced artist (and the illustrator of the other book) Jainal Amambing, who helped him learn and grow; "working with Jainal has been great. He gives me lots of technical advice based on his experience which is very useful.

The books were launched at the school and many VIPs attended, including the Head of the Academic Sector for Sabah, many district education officers as well as British Council representatives; Tricia Thorlby, director of the ELTDP project and Keith O’Hare, director of English projects for Malaysia.

Children dressed up in Rungus costumes, there was music and traditional sashes adding to the festive atmosphere. The school was packed with people from the village and after the speeches there was traditional dancing accompanied by local musicians.  The stories were the stars of the day, with a dramatization of “Tasu to the Rescue” by preschool children and a reading of “I am Itut-Itut” by year 4 pupils. 

The books now have pride of place in a Rungus Museum set up at the nearby Tampat do Aman longhouse.

They are also available to buy online:

Keeping It Going: Sustaining Professional Growth

ELTDP  Symposium 2015

The buzz had already started well before 4th March when the British Council ELTDPs Symposium took place in Kuching. 

Teachers’ selfies had been appearing across social media and had even made it into the local press, after they shared what “It” is that keeps them going in their teaching careers.  By the time the opening ceremony had started and the 350 participants were settled in, the excitement and “buzz in the air” described by Gavin Anderson, Director of British Council Malaysia, was evident. It was a very hectic and full programme over 3 days, attended by more than 150 teachers from Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan along with their mentors, head teachers, local education staff and Ministry of Education officials.

The mornings started with international keynote speakers Anji  Maldarez , Jamie Keddie and Jim Scrivner, followed by around 90 smaller workshops and presentations that continued for the rest of the symposium. The fun continued into the evenings with a gala dinner, traditional dancing and a wonderful sunset boat cruise. 

The workshops and presentations were very varied but all showcased the theme of “Sustaining Professional Growth”.  For many of the teachers who presented, this was the first time sharing their experiences and practices with their colleagues. The creative showcases allowed a more informal time to discuss and look at other teachers’ ideas, resources and have the opportunity to meet the illustrators of the two storybooks that were created by a Rungus community in Kudat.

It was all over far too quickly and at the closing ceremony two teachers spoke enthusiastically about the inspiring, amazing time they had enjoyed. There were many new friends made; sharing of ideas; support networks made; exchanges of emails and fond farewells and promises of “Keeping it Going” into the future.

Watch a short video about the symposium.

Storybook project - families sharing local stories

SK Tiga Papan is the most northerly school in Sabah where ELTDP mentors work and is surrounded by high coconut palms which sway from the sea breezes blowing in from the South China Sea. The famous Tip of Borneo, where the Sulu and South China seas converge, is within walking distance and the Rungus villagers of Tiga Papan support themselves by growing coconuts, bananas, fishing and collecting sea shells. Life moves at slow pace and no exception is made for the day of the Storybook Project workshop, held at the village school.

On the morning of the workshop parents arrived and slowly filed into the classroom which had been cleared to welcome them. The English teachers and the ELTDP mentors were waiting anxiously, keen to start the workshop. The first activity was the sharing of wonderful storybooks borrowed from another primary school, which had benefitted from the ELTDP’s book flood in 2013. Watching everyone’s enjoyment of the books was difficult to interrupt but the next activity was the storytelling and the main reason for the workshop. 

Groups were formed, with one scribe per group, whose task was to take down a local story that parents wanted to share and pass on to their children. Malay and Rungus were spoken and the next hour was filled with a buzz of talking, disagreements, laughter and reminiscing.  Amazingly there seemed to be a different story from each group such as including “How the first rice was planted” and “The old mango tree and the ghost”. This was a wonderful beginning to a storybook project. 

“Can we come again?” the parents asked and luckily for them the next workshop will be focusing on how to simplify the stories and make them come alive for the children to enjoy. A celebrated local artist Jainal Amambing, who also attended, is keen to come and inspire the children and parents to illustrate the stories. 

One of the objectives of the ELTDP is to encourage the wider community to be more involved in their children’s education and the Storybook Project is an inspiring example of this. 

Dental disaster averted at teacher symposium

Anne Bradbury, a mentor working in Serian, Sarawak shares her story about a symposium that almost didn't happen.

Mentors working with schools in a rural area of Sarawak, organised a one-day district symposium for the teachers they have been working with. The teachers would use the event to share with their colleagues the excellent work they have been doing on the ELTDP.   Everything didn’t quite run smoothly on the day, but due to enterprising teachers it was a huge success. 

The teachers had been working hard for several weeks preparing workshops to present to their colleagues and tension and nerves were high as the day approached.

The day brought an unexpected visit from the peripatetic dental team brought in to treat hordes of nervous children. The dental teams visit each primary school once a year bringing huge noisy generators and equipment and take over the largest classroom or hall available. This unfortunately was the room that we had planned to use for our symposium and it looked like the dentists had priority! 

The mentors raced around and eventually space was found in the games room. Last minute arrangements are commonplace in Malaysian primary schools and with a little help the room was ready for the forty teachers when they arrived an hour later.

Fortunately that was the biggest hitch of the day and after that it was plain sailing. The teachers shared techniques and approaches which they had found to be successful in the classroom and discussed effective strategies to teach pupils with different learning styles. The interactive workshops proved to be extremely successful with teachers trying out activities and games and on several occasions becoming extremely competitive!

Feedback was very positive and teachers really valued the opportunity to learn from their colleagues’ experiences, and found that since the presentations were developed directly from classroom practice they were relevant and useful. Many teachers also gained confidence in their own presenting skills and using English for public speaking.

An unusual commute to work

Tom Lyndon works as a mentor in Kota Kinabalu on the ELTDP.  One of the schools he visits is on a small island and he tells us about his unusual commute.   

Tuesdays are always early starts for me. This is the day I go to SK Pulau Sepanggar. I have to wake up around 5.30am to get to the jetty before the boat leaves at 6.40am sharp. There are often one or two teachers who miss the boat and then have to wait an hour for it to come back to collect them. On mornings when I too am cutting it a bit fine, I see teachers hurtling down the road past me but luckily the roads are deserted at this time of day.

The jetty is not so much a jetty, more of a pile of rocks really. Some precarious clambering is required to make it aboard without taking a splash.  I'm told that the former Guru Besar (Head Teacher) did indeed take an unintentional dip on one occasion.

The senior teachers sit on a makeshift upper deck and the female teachers sit inside. I shimmy along a 5cm ledge gripping the rail tightly, releasing it momentarily to shake the outstretched hand of the Guru Besar and as he greets me “Assalamualaikum”. I then make my way to the back of the boat to join the male teachers.

The journey to the island takes about half an hour. The men kill time by playing cards, smoking and chatting about the football. They are eager to hear my opinion about who will win the Premier League this season.

We pass by Sepanggar Naval Base and see an array of maritime vessels, including a submarine under armed guard. The sun starts to appear from behind Mount Kinabalu and in the distance the much larger Gaya island is visible across the water.

Approaching the island we see the pupils alight from the school boats, which like the buses are also painted yellow. When it is low tide the pupils are late to school as the boat cannot get to the village to collect them. During monsoon season the sea is often too rough for them to come at all. I'm told that they have all been given life jackets, although I've never seen any, but I'm reassured that they are all excellent swimmers.

Surprisingly, around 90 percent of the pupils come from the mainland. The school near to their village is only small and the road out of the village is in such poor condition that it is easier for them to come to the island instead. The majority of them are from the Bajau tribe, also known as ‘Sea Gypsies’, so perhaps they prefer to come to school on an island.

Making my way back onto dry land I walk down the jetty to the school entrance. Two pupils stand at the entrance waiting to greet the teachers as they arrive. Next to them is a sign that reads “BEWARE OF THE MONKEYS” which are truly a challenge in this school. Besides the opportunistic primates there are also two-metre monitor lizards to contend with. Apparently on one occasion the teachers witnessed one of these reptiles devour a kid - a baby goat that is, not one of the pupils!

As the teachers make their way through the gates there is one pressing issue on everyone’s mind…….. breakfast! We all make our way to the canteen to fuel ourselves for the day ahead.

From a mentee's persepctive

Fiona Wright, project manager for Sabah, shares the moving story of one of her mentees.

As part of our role as mentors we support the teachers in their professional development. The Malaysian government are encouraging all the non- degree qualified teachers to do a part-time degree course and Aisyah*, who is a mentee on the ELTDP, has recently embarked on her four year course. She asked me one day for advice on the recent assignment set by the University.  The assignment was about reading and asked about her personal relationship with reading: What she reads; her interests in reading; her earliest memories of reading; her parents’ attitudes to reading etc.  She was unsure whether she should write the truth or whether she should reinvent herself for the assignment. After she told me her story I was not only moved and humbled but I felt that her story was so inspiring that it should be shared.

Aisyah’s father left her mother when she was 6 months old. Her mother married again but her step-father led an itinerant lifestyle coming and going leaving her mother with seven more children before she divorced him. Her mother had a stall selling fish in the market which meant she had to get up very early.  Aisyah, from the age of seven years old would wake her brothers and sisters and walk an hour to take them to the market on the way to school.   She would then collect her brothers and sisters after school and look after them until her mother later returned. She had no childhood.

She remembers sitting through three years of school not knowing how to read. The teachers would ignore her and dismiss her as stupid and often she would fall asleep as she was so tired. She would try to watch television with her friends in a cafe but couldn’t understand anything because it was in English and the subtitles were in Malay. The frustration of that finally encouraged her to try and learn to read by herself. There were no books at home but she began to read signs and packet labels and by the time the exams came in year 6 she was able to read sufficiently well to allow her to go on to secondary school.

After finishing secondary school she began teaching in a rural school where qualifications were not expected, walking over an hour each day to work. Teaching was something that she found she had a talent for and she has a particular understanding and empathy for pupils with learning difficulties. She has now been a teacher for over 20 years but to have a degree is something she never imagined she ever would achieve. I will be so proud of her when I attend her graduation.

* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

A mentor's life in Borneo

Rob Gordon shares his experiences working in a rural Malaysian primary school.

The schools are fascinating places – a strange mixture of relaxed chaos and strict controls. I visit five schools each week and one of the first and most important tasks is to get friendly with the very strict looking security guards who you’ll find at the gate of every school. I love being in the wooden classrooms, many built on stilts to avoid the regular flooding, with open or no windows and doors, walls bare of any displays and not a computer or projector in sight; the teachers often at the front of the class orchestrating the children in their chanting and drilling, occasionally stopping to shoo away a wandering cockerel or stray dog. It is such a privilege to have the opportunity to spend time in the schools and work alongside the teachers, reflecting on the best ways to teach the children. I can honestly say that it is a humbling experience, seeing teachers often working in conditions which are so far removed from England. Sometimes it’s easy to suggest approaches and ideas which work in England but which are just so obviously not appropriate for these circumstances – I very quickly realise that I am far from being the expert here!

Inside the classroom shouts, chants and laughter reverberates from around the school; a band of children march past the classroom (practising for sports day); teachers relax and talk in the school canteen over fried bananas and sweet coffee; Guru Besars (head teachers) worry about the Year 6 national tests (UPSR) results – a board at the school gate announces “316 days to UPSR”.   The children are a delight, always smiling and so keen to say ”Good morning”, taking my hand and putting it to their foreheads as they greet me. For many children English is their fourth language after Bahasa, Dusan and Mandarin. If they speak any English they are certainly too shy to use it, and so I’m getting some useful practice with my Bahasa Malayu!

Finishing the week in schools, I thought I was beginning to get used to primary schools in Borneo, but there is always something to catch you out. Leaning over a desk, I notice one boy has an enormous bug crawling over his shoulder – one of those gigantic black beetles.  I jump back and hesitate to tell him afraid he might jump out of his skin, but when I point it out to him he calmly picks it up and pops it back into his pocket!