Bridging the gap — enthusiasm that breeds determination

One teacher from the rural area of Lawas, Sarawak managed to bring his students out from their comfort zone to visit the world like they never before.

Education is considered a vital element in the development of a society, a system, and a country. Driven by creativity and passion, dedicated teacher Muhammad Nazmi Rosli is determined to break the barriers between students from the rural areas and let them experience the world like never before.

Teacher’s Day this year saw Taylor’s College and The Risers awarding Lawasborn teacher Muhammad Nazri Rosli the RISE Educator Award — chosen through public voting — as well as the RISE Educator of the Year Award, carefully selected by a panel of judges.

The RISE Educator Award aims to celebrate teachers who have made an impact on the lives of students in Malaysia, allowing parents and students to nominate teachers who have inspired them. Nazmi, fondly known to his students as Cikgu Nazmi, grew up watching his mother work as a teacher and in trying to follow in her footsteps, he set his eyes to be a teacher as well. He wanted to be someone important, a person who can impact those around him.

Growing up, Nazmi closely followed his mother in her journey as a teacher. He remembered the first time his mother was transferred in 1998, back when little Nazmi was still in kindergarten. “She was posted to a rural village called Long Semado. It was very far, around seven to eight hours journey from the nearest town, and up until today, there is no electricity in the village.”

Nazmi and his students in SK Long Sukang.

Life-changing experience

Recalling the times he spent at the village, Nazmi described that it was very silent at nighttime.

“All you could hear were sounds of crickets, owls and some other creatures lurking in the dark.” As a boy who grew up watching Power Rangers and playing with friends, he lamented how it was impossible to do so in Long Semado. “I used to hear cars and motorcycle sounds at night, but at the village, there were none.” Despite the challenges, Nazmi said his mother never falter.

“One night, I woke up and I saw my mother preparing her next-day lesson plan under a candlelight. I asked her what she was doing being up late, and she told me she was planning something important for her students, as they are depending on her for guidance.”

Although he was still too young to understand at the time, witnessing his mother’s dedication firsthand made him aspire to be like her. “Since then, when I was asked about our ambition, I would write down ‘teacher’ everytime. I wanted to be someone who can create a change.”

A shocking discovery
Nazmi uses readily available materials to recreate scenarios in class.

When he was little, Nazmi did not really understand the dire state of the village and considered life there to be normal. “I spent my time there in the late 90s, and now it’s 2021, but still, not many changes can be seen,” he lamented.

When he finally became a teacher five years ago, Nazmi was thrilled. “On my first day of teaching at SK Long Sukang, Lawas, I was excited. I was teachimg my primary five students on the topic of saving money. To my surprise, the students had no clue of what an Automated Teller Machine is.

“We are talking about 11 year old. At that age, even if they have never done any transactions before, they should have known what an ATM is!” Curious, Nazmi asked around.

“Then I realised, these children have been isolated and have no exposure to the outside world.

They spent their whole life in the village. All they do every day is have fun at the river or catch fish by the paddy field.”

He also expressed disappointment at exam questions given to these students. “Since they were standardised, we often get writing questions such as Describe your experience having a picnic by the beach’ or ‘Experience travelling on a plane’. My students had never even seen a beach, let alone have a picnic at one! And don’t get me started on the plane thing. How can they answer?

I feel like it is really unfair to them!”

Discrimination

Oftentimes, Nazmi said that there were comments on how students in the rural area have no hope in academics. But he stressed that it is not the students’ fault. He blamed the three layers of discrimination against them that had hindered them.

“There is this huge gap between rural students and urban students in terms of studies, and I get upset thinking of the people who frowned upon these children. Whenever the teachers take these students to join competitions and such, judges often look down on them and said they would never win. “And that’s the outer layer of discrimination for these children. The second layer comes from within the community. The parents would rather these children help them in the paddy field instead of pursuing education,” he added.

Explaining further, he said that parents from these villages have the perception that working on the farm would be more useful.

“This creates a sad stigma where parents believed their children won’t go out of the village. And children believed that going to school isn’t beneficial.” What saddened the teacher the most was how the children put zero hopes in their academics.

“They asked me, what is all that learning how to answer papers for? They think they are going to fail anyway.”

The final layer was the discrimination from demotivated teachers. “They would often complain of being posted to the rural areas since there are no means of communication here.

They also believed that they don’t need to try hard. They often think that the students learn things in the morning, and forget everything by noon.”

Regardless of these discriminations, Nazmi said that for these rural children, their only hope is the teachers that would become the bridge for them to the outside world. “From my observation, we need to solve the huge gap we have here. Teachers would have to go beyond their teaching hours, and pay grade to help them.”

Danger Room

A determined Nazmi decided, “If my students have never been to the beach, I would build them a sea. If they have never been on a plane, then I would build one for them to experience.”

His most significant project with the students would be the Danger Room, inspired by Marvel’s Professor Charles Francis Xavier (Professor X). Analogising his students as the mutants from X-Men, Nazmi said that they are very much alike as they often face discrimination from the outside world.

Nazmi, a fan of comic books and a figurine collector, applied X Men’s Danger Room concept in his classes to help his students.

“Danger Room is like a simulation of the outside world. Through this method, I can go beyond the syllabus. One of the topics required me to talk about clothes, so I built a laundromat in the class. Apart from introducing the appliances used, I also taught the students of the dos and donts at the laundromat,” he explained.

Aside from that, the innovative educator also created a crime scene for his students to solve using grammatical problems. Through all his projects, Nazmi attributed them to his passion for turning recyclables into useful things. “I even used a car seat from an abandoned 4X4 vehicle to create a giant Rafflesia for my students.”

Teaching through excitement

An interest that stemmed from his childhood days, Nazmi said that with ample time back then, he enjoyed collecting recyclable materials and turning them into different things. “I was also greatly inspired by the Art Attack and Crocodile Hunter TV shows. The late Steve Irwin taught me that education only dies when we stop being excited about it. And the way he taught children to care for animals was through excitement.”

On his final and fourth year in SK Long Sukang Lawas, the school produced the highest scoring student in essay paper examinations in the district, an achievement that is nothing short of incredible and further proved that rural students are on par with their counterparts in urban areas.

As a passionate and dedicated teacher, Nazmi’s only hope is for the rural children to be able to see the outside world.

“To me, teaching is more than just academic achievements. I believe that teaching is allowing children to see what the world has to offer to them. And letting them know that they can be who they want to be, even beyond their imagination,” said Nazmi.