Putting out with faith into the deep and dark interiors

Putting out with faith into the deep and dark interiors

Jun 15, 2024

Shawn sees teaching as a calling – called to a mission into the interiors to serve the marginalised. He believes God has called him to be “an agent of change … for the greater good of the community.”

By Lucille Dass

Teach For Malaysia (TFM) – has a positively exclusive ring to it, right? Meet 27-year-old TFM teacher, Shawn Stanly Anthony Dass (no, we are not related), a Form 3 science cikgu in a high-needs school, SK RPS (Rancangan Penempatan Semula) Banun, an all Orang Asli school in the interiors of Gerik, Perak (a Resettlement Programme under the Ministry of Education (MOE). Shawn hails from City Parish, Penang, and it was his former parish priest, Fr Aloysius Tan (currently in Malta), who alerted HERALD about his feats.

A post-STPM stint at a tuition centre while waiting for university applications decided Shawn on a teaching career. Mark his reasons. “Majority of the children who walked through the doors of the centre came from underprivileged families, struggled academically, or were unmotivated, given their poor socio-economic background.” In comparison, he realised how blessed he was to have had a sound education. He applied to study Education, intent “on doing more in the education space.” But, “God had a different plan for me. I was offered a Bachelor in Social Sciences majoring in International Relations at Universiti Sabah Malaysia.” Although “frustrated at the offer, because all I wanted was to become a teacher,” he accepted it since entry into a public university does not come easy. Moreover, it would ease his parents’ financial burden. Meanwhile, his desire to teach did not diminish. His search led him to the TFM programme.

About TFM and its training programme
TFM is a not-for-profit organisation that works in partnership with the MOE. The TFM flagship is a Fellowship programme that recruits and places high potential Malaysian undergraduates and young professionals keen to contribute to the Malaysian education system as teaching fellows in a high-needs school for two years. Since most recruits in his batch of 27 lacked a background in education, they went through an eight-week “rigorous training” in lesson planning and classroom management before heading off to schools to work as co-teachers.

School profile and red flag issues
This K9 model school for Primary 1 to Form 3 students “is situated uniquely in the heart of eighteen Orang Asli villages.” Access to school could take an hour’s boat ride, or a 45-minute off the road drive, weather permitting, as “muddy terrain” during the monsoon render the tracks inaccessible. Not forgetting “the daily struggle with wildlife threats that include disgruntled elephants disconnecting the piping system and disrupting their water source.” And once, a tiger went to school too! This cikgu soon learnt to fix water pipes and keep his wards safe from wildlife. Another gloom – the general negative opinion held of students from the interior and their capacity to learn. Sadly, the nay sayers included folks in authority, including teachers themselves who felt it “a waste of time putting in too much effort” (I’ve heard that before…and of a city school!). Add illiteracy and high dropout rates to the pile of issues that plagued the school. “Imagine going to a class where only two out of 22 students can read and write! And you have to teach them the science syllabus.”

Meeting the needs through innovative instructional strategies
Undaunted, and driven by his passion, Shawn who was tagged with a senior teacher-mentor Cikgu Johari, set out to explore methods that might work in these challenging terrains. Interestingly, both had zero experience teaching Orang Asli children. Shawn resorted to hands-on pedagogy — using simulation and role play that involved students, to create a “world” of context and content — a learner-centred process that motivated students to achieve the learning outcomes. “Many realities were distant to my students as they lived in the interiors where the nearest village lay two hours away, what more a city?” Shawn fed their curiosity, and helped them utilise their hidden assets and minimise their deficits through the use of mixed learning modalities. On being asked how he travelled to Sabah to study, Shawn gave them a feel of flying, “I built a flight simulator using resources available in the surroundings.” Similarly, when a boy asked what a beach looked like while studying about marine life, Penangite Shawn collected sand and seawater galore to create “a beach-themed classroom” to teach them about marine conservation. A class trip to Penang fed them their “first view of a beach” and when one student asked why there was trash in the sea, his peers readily turned teachers to recall and connect with related content learned in class!

Shawn successfully challenged the commonly held notion that Orang Asli students are slow learners. He trained his team of two Form 3 students to design prototypes of water works. They won first prize at the zone level, defeating five other schools and earned fourth place at the district level in The STEM Water Rocket Challenge in 2023.

Taking to the skies
Here’s a feat few can beat; a rare feather in the Orang Asli students’ headgear! Early 2024 saw Shawn take two students, Agah and Safika, to a leadership summit, “Kids Education Revolution” in Mumbai, India! As the summit was in English, Shawn translated. He was delighted that they confidently shared their thoughts and ideas using BM during the group sessions. They even made many friends, and using Mr Google as their translator, their communication with friends in India remains afloat.

While on the flight, Shawn reveals that Agah shared how he was once told, “Orang Asli mana boleh maju dan pergi jauh? Kamu duduk di kampung saja lah.” (How can the Orang Asli go far or be successful? Just stay put in your village.) Sadly, most of the children have been stigmatised with “such stereotypical prejudices.” But now Agah is sufficiently inspired to use his free time “to teach some villagers who are undocumented and can’t attend school.” Both Agah and Safika returned home “with a renewed sense of energy and spirit to uplift their villagers.”

Having experienced new things away from home — both near and far — opened up the students’ mindsets to give them a new perspective of life. They are now more aware of their surroundings and raring to go MAD (make a difference) in ways they can.

A teacher-leader
Cikgu Shawn has proven that he is far from being just a salaried worker; he is a community leader who has sown seeds of love, trust, and diligent cooperation to enhance lives. His experience leads him to say that when placed within such a community, “don’t come in with a saviour mindset; you are there not to save them but to work with them.” He built relationships with the parents and community leaders to convince them of the value of education for advancement. Happily, school attendance and literacy levels have improved, drop-out rate has fallen. Shawn humbly let the context of his surroundings both inform and form him to become who he is. Teachers will do well to mark this!

Faith-filled and Spirit-led (Acts 6:5, 11:24)
Shawn sees teaching as a calling – called to a mission into the interiors to serve the marginalised. He believes God has called him to be “an agent of change … for the greater good of the community.” The path has been rough but Shawn stayed tough, empowered by the Holy Spirit from within. And as he leaves, Shawn hopes that one day his students will perpetuate the positive ripple effect experienced.

Rise Educator Award 2024
Deservingly, Shawn was nominated for this award. It recognises excellence and dedication in education, honouring educators who go beyond the call of duty to impact community. He stands shortlisted as a Top 5 Finalist. Winner walks away with RM20,000 in aid of upgrading school facilities, and RM5,000 as an individual prize. Results may be out even as you read this…. But Shawn, know this…the teaching fraternity and the Catholic community salute you; you’re already a winner in our eyes.

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