The stay at home orders left most of us unkempt, even Global Teacher Prize finalist Samuel Isaiah.
A girl stared at him unshaven with shoulder-length hair while eating in a Kuantan café. She looked like she wanted to remember where she met him.
He stared back and thought that she couldn't have been more than fifteen. He realized that she was one of his ex-students from many years ago.
"Do you remember me?" he asked.
"Yes, you are sir. Samuel," she replied.
This brief exchange immediately reminded him of the reasons why he was inspired to be a teacher for Orang Asli students. It was never about their academic achievements, but rather about making education meaningful for them.
If neglected, students in Orang Asli communities would drop out of school at a young age. Not only are you pushed into the world of work, but you can also get married at a young age. Samuel makes it his business to change this vicious circle.
"It's not about you, Sam. It's about your children. "
Samuel leads a presentation / Photo credit: Samuel Isaiah
As of 2014, the Global Teacher Prize has many Malaysian teachers in the top 50 finalists.
In 2020, Samuel was named in the top 10 for successful crowdfunding for laptops and tablets to equip the classrooms in SK Runchang, Pahang.
Although Samuel was recognized for what is known as the Nobel Prize of the Teachers' Brotherhood, he told Vulcan Post that he would never apply for it.
The only reward he pursued was to get his students to believe in their own potential.
"But before I went to the United States in July 2019 to do my Masters in Education, a lecturer and mentor said to me, 'Sam, I want you to apply for this," he said.
He didn't see the point in glitz or glamor and countered. But she insisted and told him:
"Sam, you are going to do this for your kids. In the eight years you've been teaching, the Global Teacher Prize has given you the best platform to share the skills and amazing things that come with it Your kids can do. It's not about you Sam, it's about your children. "
Without expectations, he sat through the many essays and zoom interviews with judges and poured his heart out on everything he believed in.
He also reported on his principles applied through the projects in the Orang Asli communities.
He has crowdfunded on Give.my to equip classrooms with tablets and laptops / Photo credit: Samuel Isaiah
It was an honor for him to be included in the top 10 when the results were announced in November 2020.
Although he did not have the opportunity to physically meet his students at school, he received calls from their parents. All of the applause he received from his students conveyed essentially the same message: "If Mr. Sam can, so can I."
In addition, the recognition could help SK Runchang. The school received a substantial amount of money from the government.
Samuel has contacted several NGOs to plan his next steps to improve the school.
But there is still one big problem …
Infrastructure Still missing in rural areas
Despite equipping his classes with laptops and tablets in 2015, the next big problem was the lack of infrastructure at home. Although the schools are equipped, the students were not stuck at home.
Editor's note: The information in the above paragraph has been edited to reflect greater factual accuracy.
When the MCO arrived in 2020, teachers, students and their parents had to fill a colossal void in the Orang Asli communities.
Even if teachers were to conduct online lessons without any devices, technology, or connectivity, children would not be able to access them.
“What the teachers in these rural communities did instead was physically go door to door, delivering and collecting their worksheets and homework. That's the best you can do, ”said Samuel.
It is exhausting for the parents too. Imagine you only have one smartphone in a family with four children.
The parents – who also tend to be undereducated – had to delegate which homework was for which child and try to guide them through the homework.
Their teachers had to go door to door and hand in their homework during the MCO / Image Credit: Samuel Isaiah
"The COVID-19 pandemic has basically eradicated all forms of adequate education, especially in the underprivileged community," he said.
“The sad fact is that students are left behind because, in perspective, any education they receive is entirely from school. They have no other source of education, they have no tuition, YouTube, or online materials. Nada. Zero."
This was the turning point for Samuel when he realized that everything school teachers could do was severely limited on a larger scale.
It has to be a collaboration with multiple sectors, governments, NGOs, and corporations that come together to help these communities.
Study to overcome the barriers
Today, Samuel has a sabbatical from teaching to do a Masters in Educational Policy at the State University of New York.
He realized that he needed to study and learn what is being done in other successful countries in order to tackle problems on a larger scale.
He went on to explain that in this way he can touch the lives of not only the 10% of students who make it, but also the 90% of students who fail. Just like the 15-year-old, he met in the restaurant.
As soon as he returns to the school in Pahang, he plans to empower more teachers with his methodology through training and workshops.
He will show them how to adapt and develop their own methods. "And if I can support that with research and science, I believe I can make meaningful changes for the Orang Asli community," he concluded.
- Read more about what we wrote about Samuel Isaiah here.
- You can read more of the didactic pieces we wrote here.
Selected image source: Samuel Isaiah