My role as a Malaysian English Teaching Assistant is…

When I arrived at SMK Mengkarak about 5 months ago, I told the students they could call me, Miss MacKenzie, Cikgu, Guru, or even Z. I wanted them to feel comfortable. I did not think it would be that difficult. I thought all of them would claim a title quickly and easily. But little did I know, the simplest task would begin my next 10 months of a maze called “My role as teacher is…? “


Today, I exchanged numbers with our canteen worker, Cik Ma. When she wrote down my number, she looked over to another teacher and asked if I am technically Miss or teacher. Next week marks the half waypoint in my grant. I have worked and lived in Bera for 5 months now and yet, the question in her mind is still What exactly is your role here?” Like many Eastern cultures, roles are significant. Hierarchy is important. One would not dare to disrespect someone of a higher status by not greeting him or her with the correct title or even, speaking over him or her in a meeting. One could not even disagree. So the fact that it is 5 months in, and I am the third and final ETA, and she still is unclear what to call me tells me she is not alone. Everyone is confused.


Not only is it her, but various teachers call on me differently. Some call me a Cikgu and consider me their equal. Some call me exclusively my name and others, Miss. The Principal calls me Mac, which is endearing and speaks to a particular comfort her and I share with each other. But the ambiguity goes beyond my title.


How I am treated, respected, and given responsibility modifies daily. You see, I am called an “English Teaching Assistant”, but this has hundreds of interpretations. I am given double class periods to do with as I please as long as it is centered on English. Which, after realizing the level of my students’ English parlance, lacking verbs, nouns, subjects, and often times filled with Malay words, I knew that I needed to return to some basics. But beyond my classroom, I am required to spend an extra 5-10 hours of extracurricular time with them. This is time outside of the classroom, doing some sort of activity. I started dance, drama, and newspaper club. In essence, the MOE wants me to encourage English conversation to increase the students’ linguistic capabilities.

But that ends my requirements. That ends my time- my official, recorded time with the students.


But, somehow, I end up doing so much more.


Some days I am an entertainer. On special days I often am called upon to do a dance, an act, sing, anything short of juggling on a stage. Yesterday was Hari Guru, teachers’ day. The day before, I heard that I would be singing a Justin Bieber song “Cold Water” with another teacher, never mind that I am tone deaf. I told them they would learn the hard way.


Some days, I am a relief teacher, which I do happily. In general, about ¼ of the teachers are gone for any given reason and there are no substitutes, so if teachers are available to relieve classes- but here in Malaysia, even if you are suppose to be somewhere, that doesn’t mean you will be. I would rather the students have some sort of teacher, so sometimes I walk around the school to see who wants to play a game. Today I walked past a senior classroom to find their teacher was gone so they couldn’t take their exam, so I broke out UNO and we practiced our colors.


Sometimes, I am a Camp Counselor. Part of my job is to put on two English camps. This can be anything from watching a movie to taking my students to Thailand. This also means, that ETAs across the country need assistance with their camps. I spent about all of April trekking across the country to my friends’ camps to assist in any way, shape, or form. I brought some students around Cameron Highlands as we learned about eco-tourism. I attended a battle camp in Pekan. And cleaned up a parking lot full of trash in Kedah. Sometimes this means I am there to speak in English and take selfies, and sometimes it means actually teaching a subject.


Sometimes, I am a conflict manager. Some of my students have tense days and go through emotional turmoil when they have a fight with their best friend, and I am their ear. I try my best to listen and understand with their BM and give the best advice with my little BM in my English sentences. But we hug it out and apologies are made. Of course, 10 minutes later, everyone is back to normal.


Sometimes, I am the Orang Putih, guest, student, or interfaither. I head to Hindu festivals and am dressed up in a Sari to visit the temple. Or I am invited to community members’ houses for dinner. And most days, I am the student of Bahasa Meleyu, learning lagi words every day. I am the teacher everyone knows about. I am the one that gets her hair touched because it could not possibly be real. Or I am the one that asks why boys are always first in line and ladies behind.


But most of all, I am a supporter. I am their confidence builder. I encourage students to perform for Teachers Day (which they did!!). Sometimes, I remind them that they should be themselves- whether this is through drama or dance club. And I tell them to fight for what they believe in and let their passions lead them. Some days this means that I show up to dance club and allow them to dance how they please, and others, it’s reminding them that they are so much more than they are projecting on the stage. Some days, it is telling my male students that are made fun of for being “feminine” that they are beautiful and should not allow any one tell them differently. And then marching off to the one that bullied him and giving him a piece of my mind.


In many ways I have a hard time explaining what it is that I am actually doing here. I find it hard telling others what I am and what I do, but because it has taken me (or is still taking me) a while to really grasp what my role here in Malaysia is.


At first, I configured my role as a teacher of English and an educator of western culture and religious tolerance. However, over the past 5 months, it began to develop and morph into something more.


I DO consider myself a teacher. A teacher of English, the U.S.., Iowa.. a teacher of ideas. A communicator of sorts.- an introducer of western ideas like homosexuality as humane, protection of the Earth, and civic engagement. Critical thinking. That ankle showing is not embarrassing, but common. Teaching by example, showing what all of my female students can be one day- a confident, intelligent, and successful woman not limited by the need to marry or barren of children unless she wants to. A teacher of respect, cultural appreciator, and love.

So, what is my role?

Well, that is hard to define. In 5 months, Malaysia Fulbright English Teaching Assistant will be written down on my resume. Many will read it for what it is, a grammar corrector, but it does not even come close to define my actual role during this year. But really, what can get any closer? Maybe I should write,

 “2017- Malaysian Fulbright ETA: Teacher of Humanity.”


4 thoughts on “My role as a Malaysian English Teaching Assistant is…

  1. Great read, Mackenzie! It appears that key in this adventure is your willingness to BE there, take what comes your way, and create a thing which did not exist before (all in English:) – a very good lesson in being human!

    Liked by 1 person

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