Survival of the Kindest Part 1: Understanding the Orang Asli Children

Part 1: Understanding the Orang Asli Children

‘Survival of the Kindest’ is a trilogy of narratives, telling a story of how a teacher strives in teaching at a remote Orang Asli school. This is the first part in which the author dealt with the challenges by overcoming the stigma and changing his perspectives.

I was not a novice teacher when I transferred to an Orang Asli school in a remote area in Gua Musang. Being naive with my experiences, working with underprivileged children on a rural island and urban children with helicopter parents for years, I thought that it was just another school. Little did I know that working there would require more tenacity. It was a whole new world.

To reach the school, we have to go off-roading for approximately four to six hours through the jungle. The locality of the school caters for the Temiar people with English as a foreign language. We are also dealing with poor attendance rates and the poverty rate is significantly high. With limited connectivity and accessibility, the children do not get much exposure to the outside world.

Looking at the numbers, I was stunned to find out that we had zero passing rate for English. Teaching children whose native language differs from ours can be tough, especially when it comes to creating a positive experience despite the difficulties in communicating across a language barrier.

To top it all, I was drowned in the stereotypical views that kept on convincing me that Orang Asli communities are backward, giving constant rejection towards development. I was also repeatedly told that there is no point to provide them necessary support for meaningful schooling experiences. Trust me, some of those words are nasty.

In the case of the indigenous, we tend to assume a deficit perspective where the lack of educational attainment among the children is often attributed to their systemic social, environmental, and cultural issues. Thus, the minority students have been obliviously marginalised for decades.

I have seen first-hand how teachers were broken by the challenges and why they dreaded being at their workplace. This alarming state is not only bad for the teachers, but for the students as well. Working at a place that reeks of negative feelings is no joke. It is an experience that comes down to one question, “Will I survive?”

If there is one thing that I have learnt, it is that hating, blaming, and complaining are easy. Loving, understanding, and accepting are harder. But those qualities are what that keeps us alive. If you are not strong enough to do the hard things, you might find some comfort in putting the blame on the way things are, feel discouraged, and just give up.

Rather than gripping about problems, I rewired my brain to look beyond the surface and understand my children. For them, school is a scary place where they experience many things for the first time, including encountering non-Orang Asli teachers who are considered as outsiders. This would trigger their extreme shyness, hindering their ability to connect with us and be participative.

The children could easily become apathetic. It was difficult to get them to remain seated and pay attention. Other than that, getting them to remember what has been taught was a struggle. As I was observing a teacher scolding a girl for not writing whatever he wrote on the whiteboard, it suddenly hit me that unlike the norm, where they are usually outside, they have to tolerate being confined in a classroom, learning things that make no sense.

While most teachers strongly believed that the children are the problem, I chose to think that those are chances for me to reflect on my instruction, coming up with more relevant and meaningful lessons. In order to remove that caging, I started taking the kids out for outdoor lessons. As a result, they surprised me in so many ways.

One day, I took them for a walk around the village, gave them the computer tablets that I bought for them, and asked them to take photos of their favourite things. We came back to the classroom, selected their amazing pictures, and wrote short sentences. When a shy girl who never spoke a word to me started asking me a question, I realised that it requires less of your fight, but more of your light.

Being comfortable in their element, my children taught me that the culture of Orang Asli is their relationship to the land which is the living flesh that sustains and nurtures the community. By trying to see the problems as opportunities, I managed to reframe things in a way that would give me and my students positive feelings. Along the way, I discovered a hidden resource which is pivotal in my future projects.

Instead of letting them experience fear when they have to face physical punishment or abusive language, I tried using the most powerful classroom management technique which is building a relationship out of love, compassion, and kindness with them. Only upon understanding this, I was mentally ready to do the next thing, which is working on changing the school’s learning ecosystem.

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