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  • Writer's pictureStacey Chiew

A Path Toward A Better World – My Journey to Become a TeachSDGs Ambassador

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. - Theodore Roosevelt
Photo: Stacey Chiew

In 2018, I had a rare opportunity to meet one of the most sought after speakers in the world, Dr Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Dr Yunus is also a member of the board of the United Nations Foundation. I wanted to find out what made this 78-year-old man remained enthusiastic and optimistic in tackling world issues. He doesn’t show any sign of slowing down at all.

Unlike most of the retirees his age, Dr Yunus spends two-thirds of the year outside his country, Bangladesh, travelling around the world teaching sustainable business models. He is famous for his unapologetic view of “humans are not born to work for anybody else or send job applications”. He has been spreading such concept since winning the Nobel peace prize in 2006, helping millions to escape poverty.

The topic he shared with his audience that evening was taken from his latest book: A world of zero poverty, zero unemployment and zero net carbon emissions. It was a full house in the auditorium. Dressed in a simple Kurta Pajama, a traditional Indian men’s wear, Dr Yunus down to earth personality made the audience feel warm and welcome. He was humble, gracious, sharp and charismatic.

Dr Yunus believes leadership is for everyone. His ability to connect with others and inspire them to see their full potential revealed the traits, qualities and characteristics of an effective leader. He was optimistic about the future and committed to his goal of making the world a better place.

At the end of his speech, I could see why a world of three zeros is achievable. The solution is to adopt the 17 ambitious sustainable development goals introduced by the United Nations in 2015. The challenge -- it won’t be an easy path. However, everything is theoretically impossible unless we constantly upgrade ourselves to think better and do better. The world we live in today is the result of the contributions of the great men and women who are willing to go the extra mile to do something most people have not done before.

So I did some research about his work the next day. One thing led to another, I was directed to a website called TeachSDGs. The website was packed with information about how educators worldwide empowered their students to become agents of social change by adopting the 17 global goals into their classroom.

Knowing education innovation is necessary to meet the educational needs of the present and future generations, I joined TeachSDGs team in a heartbeat. Connecting myself with the global teacher group has allowed me to take a peep into the different approaches of teaching and learning in different countries.

In December 2018, I received an email from the TeachSDGs founder, Dr Jennifer Williams, I was appointed as one of the 255 TeachSDGs ambassadors for the United Nations sustainable development goals for the year of 2019.

It was one of those “words can't describe it and pictures don't do it justice” moment. I was excited and extremely grateful for the opportunity given to me. Being a TeachSDGs ambassador, I am allowed to access teaching materials related to the 17 goals. At the same time, the professional development provided by the TeachSDGs team, the resources and detailed lesson plans from The World’s Largest Lesson have been a constant source of guidance and inspirations to me.

Needless to say, I have the whole TeachSDGs village behind my back, supporting me as I learned to integrate the 17 global goals into my art classes. Having my principal’s approval had certainly made things easier for me.

Unlike countries where schools have successfully incorporating SDGs into their school syllabus, many students in Malaysia have not heard of these goals. I looked forward to introducing them to my 118 students with the hope of encouraging further learning. We also participated in an art exchange project with two of the high schools in the USA.

There was no issue incorporating SDGs into IGCSE art syllabus. The lessons went well. My students were challenged to come out with solutions to tackle real life issues beyond the traditional classroom. Most of them viewed the project as “the United Nations project” instead of just another school project. One of my students informed me that her mother was very pleased to know that SDGs were taught in the art room.

I divided the project into four parts, and students were asked to form small groups. First, they chose one of the goals and explored the subject matter in details. Then they wrote two pages research paper about the goals they selected and used the information to develop poster design ideas. The project ended with slides and videos presentation.

My students knew very well that the moment they stepped into the art room, they no longer are passive recipients of knowledge, but active, hands-on learner. I introduced the content of the project but they decided what to do with their tasks. In a way, the project was an eye opener for some students, because they developed insights into issues that matter to them and were able to discuss them openly to gain a better understanding. They learned to see the world from different perspectives and challenge their assumptions.

The road to a meaningful project is not always a smooth ride. At the end of the day, it was all about enjoying the process of creation and the result of the process, grades were not the primary concern.

TeachSDGs is at the infancy stage in Malaysia. Addressing SDGs in a developing country can be quite a challenging task because most people are not aware of the importance of SDGs due to lack of support from the government, schools and general public. Not to mention most teachers prefer to “work inside their own areas of expertise”. An innovative and a reflective mindset are required for teachers to think “outside the familiar zone” in order to have a change of heart. It is important that educators should possess the ability to redefine the purpose of education through meaningful critical thinking.

As educators, we need to prepare the modern day students to become adaptable learners in a fast-changing world. Allowing students to explore global issues of what is right and what is true will certainly inspire their curiosity to ask more meaningful questions.

The TeachSDGs community has successfully sowed many seeds in different parts of the world, teaching something worth learning. Shifting the attitude and changing the traditional mindsets of certain groups of people often require time, patience and resources. But I am uplifted by the resilience of human spirit, especially the persistence-effort of the TeachSDGs team and teachers from different parts of the world who commit themselves to achieve the 17 goals by 2030. Resilience is what drives us to do what seems impossible in the first place. We need to empower our future generation to become creative, innovative problem solvers.

Richard Curtis, a TeachSDGs advocate, British producer, and film director said,” If we are to create long term sustainable change we have to start with the young. If we teach children about the SDGs - from Goal 1 (No Poverty) right through to working together (Goal 17) and remind them of the Goals, year after year, teach it to them like I was taught the lives of the Kings and Queens of England - or the 10 Commandments—then these lessons will stick and galvanise them into taking action of their own in the name of all the Goals.” His words rang true in my ears.

I am passionate about my work. As a teacher and an artist, I enjoy guiding my students to develop better skills in art and teaching them the values of elements of design and modern principles of art. But most of all, students must recognize that art has the power to influence culture and society. As a TeachSDGs ambassador for the United Nations sustainable goals, I believe students deserve to explore real-world issues so that they can learn to make more sustainable choices and take the necessary steps to make their future more secure. After all, the future belongs to them.

As Steve Jobs once said, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Life works in mysterious ways. Now looking back, the speech delivered by Dr Yunus on that fateful August evening, who would have guessed that he was one of those many dots that connected me to a group of global educators who are just like him, racing against time to make the 2030 Agenda a reality.

To do the right thing, there is no wrong time, every moment is always the right time. It is not about the age either. Do it because you care and you can. I want my students to know that young people are changing the world. They need to have an awareness of the real issues that matter in their lives, so that they can use their voices for good--to safeguard nature and humanity.

Article published in Dreamic Educational Magazine, 2019.

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