Jeremy Downing: Reflections from Malaysia

Voices - Partner stories - 16 May 2016

Reflections from the 2016 Teach For All Global Teaching Summit by Jeremy Downing (2015 Cohort, English Teacher at James Cook High School).

In thinking about my recent trip to South East Asia, my mind wanders back to lunchtime on a Tuesday, sitting on a plastic covered floor, munching on boiled fern (which I found extra strange, as the Silver Fern is a national symbol in my country), blinking back the rice wine sleep (that would come in half an hour or so), and discussing learning with teachers from six or so different countries. It is one of those moments where you check yourself and think: is this really happening, in the middle of a Borneo palm plantation? If one thing impressed upon me the most during my time in Malaysia, taking part in the Teach For All Global Teaching Summit, it was the shared struggles and successes of teachers from the four corners of the globe, despite the huge differences in context. Since returning home to Aotearoa New Zealand, I have discussed with friends and colleagues the sense of community I felt as I began to realise that a teacher in Estonia, Haiti or the outback of Australia were not only of a shared profession, but a shared passion for all students having an equal chance at learning. The strength of these connections can be measured further than the spike in my Facebook friend numbers, but in my understanding of the world of education that little bit more; and like my aunty told me during gale force winds at my cousin’s wedding, “These extreme conditions will make the memories much more clearer.” Indeed, the heat, the humidity and the rice wine of the traditional longhouse made the memory of these teacher connections that much more palpable.

The buzzword around the longhouse experience was “disorientating experience”. The thinking being that only by experiencing something outside of your comfort zone, outside of your view of the world, will your mindsets be challenged and changed. In essence, take action and put yourself out there. It is good advice. I’ll admit, I did not feel that much out of my comfort zone. Maybe it was the rice wine, but the people were welcoming, without being over the top and made for a down-to-earth authentic experience. The experience provided space for guests from 40 different countries to connect together, more so than connecting with the locals (who were generally busy going about their business). Hearing about Malaysia’s strict religious laws (some can be put in prison for choosing a religion different to that of their birth), the clash of cultures as France accommodates refugees from North Africa, the historic oppression of indigenous Australians and how that affects teaching in the middle of the outback, and teachers in India who look after 80 students each day, definitely pushed my thinking outside of the familiar. My challenge was reciprocating, by gentling dismantling the perception that Aotearoa New Zealand is perfect, without undermining the great work that is going on in Education in my country.

So the challenge now is to keep those connections alive. Facebook is good for this. Initially it has been a time of sharing photos, videos and sending through resources promised. How we keep these relationships alive beyond these requests I guess time will tell. The good thing is we all continue to be connected formally through the Teach For All network. A network that at the very least promises “a couch to surf”, as one of my friends described it, when visiting other countries, but more aspirationally an opportunity to continue to build a global education consciousness, one that supports each other intellectually, emotionally and resourcefully. I’m not sure when I will have the pleasure of attending another Teach For All global conference, but until then, I will mull over the moment etched into my memory: one of shared stories, a lunch of ferns and plastic flooring.