Expat Teachers: Living And Teaching In Malaysia
In an effective classroom, students should not only know what they are doing, they should also know why and how.- Harry Wong
International schools are growing at a rapid pace in countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Myanmar and China. With English becoming a global language, many parents believe having a good command of English can help their children excel in the business world and boost career prospects. It can also open doors for their children to live and work abroad.
Today, more and more expatriate teachers work at schools that offer international education programmes in Malaysia. A global study in 2019 ranked Malaysia the 9th best destination for expats to work and live in. Some of the international schools in Malaysia prefer to hire expat teachers mainly because they are native to the curriculums and are more familiar with the teaching activities of the schools in their home country. For example, British teachers need to obtain QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) to prove that they meet a common set of standards and criteria before they can teach in some of the overseas British schools that follow strict guidelines but cater to students from different racial and ethnic groups.
Vanessa Eves, Brittany Gaetan and Jennifer Vicencio are three Canadian teachers who have chosen Malaysia as their second home. Both Brittany and Jennifer have been teaching at Sunway International School (SIS) for more than two years, while Vanessa has worked as a math teacher for seven years. SIS offers the Ontario curriculum and only teachers certified by the Ontario College of Teachers are allowed to teach in schools that follow the Canadian curriculum.
What made Vanessa, Brittany and Jennifer decide to teach in Malaysia? What were the challenges they face as an expat teacher and how did they overcome them. Let's find out.
1. What makes you choose Malaysia? Please share your journey.
I had been interested in Teaching abroad for a few years prior as I had done a few teaching placements overseas in Honduras and Sri Lanka which really got me excited about the possibility. A Malaysian colleague of mine in Canada suggested her home country and the more I researched the culture and school opportunities, the more I realized that it would be a really great fit for me. As soon as I landed and walked around the area I’d be staying, I knew I wouldn’t be heading home any time soon!
I had come over to Thailand to work for the summer (throughout Thailand, Cambodia, Laos) and fell in love with the culture in SE Asia. I looked up Canadian schools over here and found SIS in Malaysia! I came down to Malaysia to see what the school and community culture was like, and I knew it was where I wanted to live.
Both my husband and I wanted to explore new opportunities in other countries. I was a teacher in Canada, and I believe the most rewarding experience about teaching in Asia is we are given a chance to explore something so different from our country. A friend of mine recommended SIS, and the rest is history. I am given a chance to not only teach, but also to enjoy the cultural benefits Malaysia has to offer. 2. How did you deal with cultural shock inside and outside the classroom? How long did it take for you to adjust and accept local culture and lifestyles?
When I first started teaching here I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t have anything in common with my students, especially as they were very quiet on the first day I arrived, quite different than what I was used to in the classrooms in Canada. However, once I got to know them a bit more and settled in, the class came alive and we started having tons of fun learning from each other’s experiences!
There wasn’t too much culture shock inside the classroom, however, I did find the students to be shyer than students in Canada, and more respectful towards teachers. Also, I have found a significant difference between teaching in Canada vs. teaching in Malaysia is that parents of Eastern students put a lot more onus on the student as opposed to the teacher. For example: if a student is doing poorly in a class, it is their responsibility to improve - whereas, in Canada, a significant accountability would be put on the teacher and not as much on the student.
Outside of the classroom, the main cultural shock that I found was the pedestrian culture. I find it quite alarming that pedestrians do not have the right of way in this country. The hierarchy system and racial separation in Malaysia are also quite different than in Canada. I also find the flowing time here to be quite different - in Canada, most people are on time or early for everything.
I am not quite sure that I have completely adjusted to the cultural and lifestyle differences, but I have adjusted my expectations accordingly.
I am the second-generation Canadian, my parents are from the Philippines. Coming from an Asian background, it’s easy for me to adjust myself here. Malaysia offers a unique blend of old traditional culture and modern lifestyle; this country is truly a melting pot of different cultures and food. I adjusted quickly and I truly feel at home in Malaysia. Not to mention my school has a group of Canadian teachers who offer support to new teachers so that they can adjust to the local culture easily.
Malaysians are friendly but reserved at the same time. Getting some of the Malaysian students to speak up can be quite a challenge. However, with proper training and support, most of them are able to horn their communication skills and express their thoughts and ideas clearly.
3. Do you face any cultural barrier while living in Malaysia?
With English being a common language, I didn’t face too many communication issues which were extremely helpful at the start. However, I definitely had to learn some of the Malaysian slang and the different aspects of Malaysian life. Before I moved to Malaysia I had no idea about the three main ethnic groups that lived together here. There was definitely a lot of learning involved and I always tell people that teaching abroad means being both a teacher and a student. As long as you keep an open mind and be willing to adopt some lifestyle changes, living abroad will be an adventure.
I don’t think I have experienced any significant cultural barriers while living in Malaysia as I usually learn as many cultures and customs as I can before travelling to a new place. However, I have recognized that my white-privilege is more prevalent in Malaysia and SE Asia as a whole than in Canada. I have been in situations where I have been given opportunity specifically because I am Caucasian, and have been told that is the reason. I find that people are generally much nicer to me than my non-Caucasian friends, and I find this to be problematic.
As mentioned, I try to learn as much as possible about the culture and customs of a country before moving or travelling there. When something comes up that is foreign to me, I usually ask questions and seek clarification to help my understanding. This often turns into a neat way of sharing culture.
Moving to a new country is exciting and exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting as well in the beginning because adjusting to a new culture requires time. It’s easy to communicate with the Malaysians as most of them speak English. Malaysians are naturally friendly and nice. Still I need time to adjust myself and learn to see things from multiple perspectives.
Becoming respectful to all the cultures, understanding the differences in viewpoints and giving myself permission to make mistakes help the adjustment process. On top of that, working at a school that has one of the largest communities of expat teachers enables me to find familiar comforts outside my home country.
4. Coming from a country that promotes the idea of individuality, personal independence and identity, how do you adjust your teaching styles to promote critical thinking skills to Asian students?
I constantly remind my students about the importance of critically thinking in art by reminding them that we are in a digital age. Students are constantly flooded with visual images from Instagram, Facebook, advertisements, etc and knowing how to read and interpret these is essential. When I meet with parents I try to expand on all of the practical applications of art and provide them with many career examples where the same problem solving and visual thinking skills learnt in art class are required. Encouraging self-reflection and helping students identify their passions and strengths can contribute to their identity development and I encourage students to put all of this expression into their artwork.
As a math teacher, I believe that there is a significant balance between the two areas of intellect. It is first important that the students know the material and truly understand it before they are able to become critical thinkers with what that information means and be able to apply it to new situations. Memorization is great for some aspects of learning, however, with access to the internet at our fingertips and computers being able to do any logical calculations for us, the ability to think through things and apply it in different situations is becoming increasingly more important in today’s society.
In these student’s futures, computers will be able to take over a lot of jobs - but a computer can’t take over the critical thinking element of what information means or the connections we can make to it - the human touch. When you ask a student to memorize a certain way of doing a math problem, you are telling them that there is only one correct method - however, often there are multiple ways we can approach the same question.
Finding ways for each student to learn how to solve a problem by letting them come to the solution in their own way (with guidance) is where personal independent and a creative mindset are valuable in mathematics. Sometimes I will present a problem to the students and see the different ways that each of their brains can solve the problem.
Cultural background plays a role in how students behave and learn in a classroom. Anyone who has taught a class filled with international students of different nationalities knows the difference of how these students interact with each other and their teachers. Malaysian students are more likely to have less active discussions and fewer questions. So it’s important for me to create a learning environment that they feel comfortable in. It takes time to develop relationships with students. As teachers, we need to be compassionate and gently encourage them to speak up.
I usually begin by asking direct and simple questions to encourage discussion. As students become more comfortable in class, I will ask more challenging questions to transform the classroom into a more dynamic learning environment.
5. What are the challenges you face in a multicultural classroom settlement?
A big challenge sometimes is integrating different ethnicities together. Sometimes cultural groups tend to stick together which is completely normal as you typically would feel more comfortable around familiarity, but a lot of really great interaction and learning comes from getting to know people from all different backgrounds. I constantly try to facilitate discussion or group work with groups of students who don’t normally work together and encourage learning about different cultures.
I don’t see too many challenges that arise from a cultural difference. I often find that the students all work well together and ask each other questions about their differences. In math, it is really great because the students have all learned different ways to approach the same problems - so we all get to learn new ways to solve!
One way to bring students of different nationalities together is to look beyond where they are from, and do my best to understand them in a more holistic way. Students are humans, there are no perfect classes. Each student is different even if they come from the same cultural background. What every student needs most is effective and flexible classroom management skills from teachers.
I teach in a school where majority of the teachers are native English speakers. Although most of my students are non-native English speakers, this is not an issue as students will gain confidence in their ability to speak English due to the fact that they are surrounded by native speakers.
6. How do you support students with mental health issues? What is your biggest challenge if any?
I think it is very important for teachers to promote the classroom as a safe space so that students feel comfortable coming in and feel at home. I welcome students to work in my classroom during lunch when I am there, and always encourage them to come visit, borrow materials, and make sure they know they are always welcome in my classroom even if they are no longer my student. I try to have one-on-one conversations with my students as much as possible that don’t revolve around the assignments. Even just questions like “how’re you doing today” or “how have you been” can allow a student to open up if anything is bothering them. I ensure my students know about the assistance our school can give them. For example counselling, guidance etc so they know who they can talk to if they need help.
I have always been very transparent with students that in my culture, we are open about mental health issues. When I am not having a great mental health day, I let the students know. I try to normalize the lows that people have in their lives and let students know that it is okay to not be 100% all of the time. I find this openness allows students to come to me with their issues and concerns and I always find a way to talk through as much as I can with them before referring them through the correct channels.
The biggest challenge is having students come forward with their struggles. I find it to be quite taboo in Eastern culture to talk about mental health issues and the teaching staff and I are trying to break the stigma that surrounds it.
It would be easier for all teachers if being a teacher is about teaching the subject, go home and relax. Many times, teachers are expected to act as parents, tutors, counsellors etc. These days, the most common mental health disorders among students are depression, ADHD, disruptive behaviour and autism. Having a flexible approach in class is important to improve these students’ behaviour. Be open-minded, patience and kind. Keeping open lines of communication with parents can offer better support to their children. Many parents try to hide or deny the fact that their child is having behavioural or emotional problems. It’s important for them to consult a mental health professional for additional support as most teachers are not trained to handle kids with mental illness. Holding back information can affect classroom learning, early detection and intervention strategies can help the child to learn better.
I would like to thank the Chief Executive of Sunway College Ms Cheng Mien Wee for arranging my meeting with Vanessa, Brittany and Jennifer. I was given access to observe how Canadian teachers taught in a multi-racial environment and peeked into the Canadian education system, where hands-on learning is prioritized in the classroom.
To motivate students to speak out, Canadian teachers use inquiry-based learning questions to spark class discussion, especially questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer to challenge students to think. Students are also trained to reflect on and evaluate what they have learned in class so that they can find ways to improve their learning inside and outside the classroom.
Unlike the traditional classroom setting, where classroom seating consists of rows of fixed seating, students are found sitting in pods in SIS. Tables are placed together to form groups to facilitate the flow of ideas among students and effective discussions around course topics.
At SIS, students not only get a taste of Canadian style of teaching and learning from their Canadian teachers, they are encouraged to look at the world with an open mind. Respecting other cultures and learning to embrace diversity of the students in the classrooms has become a common practice in the school.
Article written for Dreamic educational magazine 2020.