The Serendipitous Joy of Online Learning

I think of the time where I was in my Form 5 students class last year. It was an afternoon class, and we were supposed to do another trial examination paper from some states. Instead, we chose to watch “The White Tiger”, a newly-released Hindi movie on Netflix. I keenly observed some of my students hastily discussing the moralities of the movies while the others whispered to me another movie plan for our next class. I think of the time when they came running to me right after an English trial examination, saying that they have checked their essays more than five times. “No spelling errors, Mr. Asri. Promise”. They feared that they would misspell any word as they no longer afford to rewrite that misspelled word one thousand times. I even think of the time I walked to the hostel. I woke up the SPM candidates for their English paper and in one of the rooms I’ve been, I saw them sleeping soundly, with my self-published book covering their faces. I gently woke him up, still half-awake, he mumbled,  “I will do my best today, Mr. Asri”. I think of these times. But the ordinariness of these times is halted now.

There’s a new definition to the word ‘school’. Apparently, it takes a global pandemic for everyone to finally believe that we can no longer succumb to a restricted meaning of what constitutes a school, or a classroom beyond the confines with four walls of a room. Teachers and students around the world were pushed to change, to adapt, or even surrender to the “new normal”, as people were asked to believe, or rather, the abnormality of everything that has been going on. Teaching and learning had been in a long-distance relationship for more than a year now. The trajectory of school operation had taken a huge deviation and inevitably, everyone has their own ways to tackle the crisis.

 Despite the fact that teachers are striving for a future of the unknown tomorrow, we soldiered on. There are days where we have full attendance in Google Meet but none of the students unmute or engage with the learning. Complete silence. There are days we have less than 10 students in our class, which means extra work for us to be the unpaid detective chasing these untethered students. Why chase them, you might ask? Because we have the obligation to report the number of students who are not joining our class on a daily basis, and not only that, but we should also be able to reason why they are not attending our class. The preconceived notion was totally destroyed once we got to know that the burden of online class lies not only on the preparation of the lesson, but also the discovery of new educational apps to satisfy parents’ expectations and of course, the challenge of micromanaging the students. Teachers are further laden with excessive clerical work, the unnecessary and untimely co-curricular and co-academic activities, the new format of national examination, and lots of other surprising challenges. Burning out is an understatement.

However, in this chaotic mess, I saw a ray of hope. Last November, one of my former students from Sabah texted me saying that there was a vacancy for a part time English tutor for SPM Seminar organised by the biggest online tuition centre in Malaysia called MC Plus. The offer intrigued me as it is in line with my profession and I could foresee this as a stepping stone to elevate my teaching skills, which means I got to do this without neglecting my actual responsibility as a schoolteacher. So I applied, and was asked to record a 5-minute mock teaching video. It was not pre-planned so I remember wearing a red collar shirt and I did the most spontaneous demo lesson. To my surprise, the founder of MC Plus, Mr. Shakib called me on the same day and the rest is history. But little did I know, this little opportunity was a vastly different world from what I used to do at school.

Venturing into a new experience is something I have always been interested in doing but being an online tutor is a tough row to hoe.  It’s a different beast altogether, no kidding. My first task was a photoshoot session, for promotional purposes. I remember feeling agitated and awkward throughout the session, but the crew made it so comfortable. The boss, Mr. Shakib was also there, ever so welcoming. The series of meetings I had with other tutors were interesting as well, in contrast to the school meetings. Here, they did not talk about co-curricular activities, or who is going to organise another program for canteen day, for example. Here, among other things, they talked about which blazer suits the skin tone of a tutor, how the arrangement of a one-hour class can actually entice students’ attention, how we should organise our notes for certain seminars. It’s refreshing, to say the least. I got to focus on doing what I love, to teach, and that’s about it. Although, in my head, I was like an alien from an abandoned planet. The string of tutors here are all outstanding educators. They have swagger, they have the looks, they are insanely charming and most importantly, they are brilliant. Part of the reason is that in MC Plus, they have a “quality control” system called Nazir. These nazirs would observe each and every single class and at the end of each day, a full-length report on what works and what things that should be improved will be mailed to all the tutors for future improvements. How cool is that?

And where should I begin to describe my students in MC Plus, aptly known as Plusians. As I reflect on my first encounter with them up until now, I got a minor heart attack. My first seminar was for Form 5 students, and they used four devices for the session. As I looked at the number of students in the middle of the seminar, I noticed that there were almost 7000 students watching me live through Zoom. I acted cool – attempting to downplay the gravitas of the situation. Two hours session, four devices, seven thousand students – LIVE! But the saving grace was my new students. I was astounded by their energy, their fondness, and their benevolence. They were so responsive and engaged to my lesson, half of my job was made easier. That was, by far, the best online class I have ever had. Right after the seminar, I got thousands of new Instagram followers, I felt like a rockstar! From that point on, I enjoyed every single second with them. When MC Plus offered me to be their regular tutor, it was a no-brainer decision for me, so long as it would not interrupt my schedule at school. All my classes in MC Plus are in the evening and even if I have an urgent responsibility at school, I can always ask another tutor to replace my class.

My journey with Plusians so far was unforgettable, filled with a lot of memorable anecdotes. They have been very sweet to me and as Miss Maryam, my fellow English tutor, said, they will never judge you. Imagine having students send you a private message a day before your class saying “Mr. Asri, don’t forget that we are going to have class tomorrow! I am so excited to meet you”, every single week, from more than five different students. I remember sharing my experience of getting braces in my class, and they would always ask for my well-being and suggest me some tips to ease the pain. There’s this one time I received a question from a student from Kelantan and she said “Mr. Asri, I am blind, can I be an English teacher like you?”. My heart shattered into pieces. We had “back to school” theme class, “merdeka” theme class, we sang, we danced, and as cringy as it may sound, yes, we even cried together. A simple lesson of teaching narrative essays related to accidents had turned into one of the most meaningful classes for both me and my students. More importantly, we learn. Getting messages from them saying that their English marks improved in their school examination gives me the utmost happiness. I tried my best to make sure the class is at least a decent replacement to the joy they used to have at school.

This pandemic-stricken era is a blessing in disguise to me. If the world was not halted for more than one and a half years now, I would have never met these kind angels. And what more can you ask when you have students from every part of the nation. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, but this is my high. My thrill. I live for these times. I savoured these moments till the moment I can hopefully meet each one of them physically. Someday. 

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