By Rob Gordon

12 July 2014 - 12:34

'The children are a delight, always smiling and so keen'. Screen shot from British Council video.
'The children are a delight, always smiling and so keen'. ©

Photo: Screen shot from British Council video.

Can you imagine living and working in beautiful, tropical Malaysian Borneo? Rob Gordon is one of over 120 British Council mentors working with primary school teachers across the rural provinces of Sabah and Sarawak, helping them to develop their teaching methodology and improve their English language skills. Here, he describes a typical day in the job.

The rural primary schools of Malaysian Borneo schools are fascinating places – a strange mixture of relaxed chaos and strict controls. I visit five schools each week and one of the first and most important tasks is to get friendly with the very strict-looking security guards who you’ll find at the gate of every school. I love being in the wooden classrooms, many built on stilts to avoid the regular flooding, with open or no windows and doors, walls bare of any displays and not a computer or projector in sight. When I arrive, I often find teachers at the front of the class orchestrating the children in their chanting and drilling, occasionally stopping to shoo away a wandering cockerel or stray dog.

It is such a privilege to have the opportunity to spend time in the schools and work alongside the teachers, reflecting on the best ways to teach the children. I can honestly say that it is a humbling experience, seeing teachers often working in conditions which are so far removed from those in England. Sometimes it’s easy to suggest approaches and ideas which work in England but which are just so obviously not appropriate for these circumstances. I very quickly realise that I am far from being the expert here!

Inside the classroom, shouts, chants and laughter reverberate from around the school. Bands of children march past the classroom (practising for sports day). Teachers relax and talk in the school canteen over fried bananas and sweet coffee. Guru Besars (head teachers) worry about the Year 6 national test (UPSR) results -- a board at the school gate announces '316 days to UPSR'. The children are a delight, always smiling and so keen to say 'Good morning', taking my hand and putting it to their foreheads as they greet me. For many children, English is their fourth language after Bahasa, Dusan and Mandarin. If they speak any English, they are certainly too shy to use it, and so I’m getting some useful practice with my Bahasa Malayu!

Just when I think I'm beginning to get used to primary schools in Borneo, there is always something to catch me out. Leaning over a desk, I notice one boy has an enormous bug crawling over his shoulder – one of those gigantic black beetles. I jump back and hesitate to tell him, afraid he might jump out of his skin, but when I point it out to him, he calmly picks it up and pops it back into his pocket!

Watch a short film about the British Council and Ministry of Education Malaysia's English Language Teacher Development Project (ELTDP) – a primary teacher education programme covering 600 schools in East Malaysia.

Find out more about becoming a British Council mentor in Malaysian Borneo on our jobs page.

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