Samuel Isaiah, 35, took the road less travelled when he embarked on a journey as an educator.
Having been recognised for several teaching accolades – Best Teacher Award 2018, Best Innovative Teacher 2018, Star Golden Hearts Award (2019) and the National Hero Teacher Award 2019; he shares the journey that changed his life.
Between his love for music and the expectation to do medicine, becoming a teacher was certainly not Isaiah’s first choice. He discovered his purpose later in life, through the relationships forged with the Orang Asli community.
Being an educator was fueled by the need to bridge the gap of education equity for Orang Asli students.
I did not have much interest in joining the teaching profession, eventually, as I went through college, university, especially when I was sent to an Orang Asli school to teach in 2012, I think that’s where I saw my calling. – Samuel Isaiah
One thing led to another, and Isaiah signed up for a TESL(Teaching of English as a Second Language) Degree. This gave him the chance to undergo training at the Teachers Training College in Penang.
SK Runchang – Where It All Began
Isaiah’s expectations were like any other graduate teacher – to be placed in a good school (fully equipped premises with a clear professional path) after his teacher training course and get on with teaching.
Little did he know that his placement would be in SK Runchang, Pahang – a small school, almost off the grid and with very basic facilities. His students were not urban children, instead, many of them were from the nearby Orang Asli community.
Instead of seeing it as a roadblock, Isaiah embraced it as a growth journey and found purpose in his placement.
Being sent to an Orang Asli school was probably the best thing that could ever happen to me because I truly enjoyed my time doing my best for the kids and it showed me the reality of education especially for underprivileged communities. – Samuel Isaiah
It was when he realised that being a teacher meant bringing more to the table. For him, teaching was about impacting the lives of his students.
Laying The Foundation
Setting foot in the Orang Asli community presented itself with mixed emotions for Isaiah. Coming from a rural area, his expectations were uncertain.
This was especially true in defining what education meant. With the additional language barrier, he was left stunned.
Initially, it was daunting but the kids were fantastic. They accepted me though it took time because I was of Indian ethnicity. – Samuel Isaiah
Isaiah took on a different approach through engaging and interactive learning which the Orang Asli kids could relate to. This involved music and encouraging problem solving, both of which eventually broke barriers to education.
Going All Out
His prior attachment at SK Runchang got him fully dedicated to the students. Making sure they received the best became Isaiah’s utmost priority.
In time, I think my influence grew at what I was doing. I got better at what I did. – Samuel Isaiah
These efforts equipped him to then train teachers regarding different teaching methods which helped schools of various backgrounds.
I saw myself impacting the lives and the practice of other teachers in other schools. – Samuel Isaiah
Empowering Other Educators And Students Through Pemimpin GSL
Today, Isaiah is the Programme Director for Pemimpin GSL, a non-profit organisation working with school leaders and teachers in the country to improve student learning outcomes.
The organisation is rooted and a firm believer that network, strategies and the right exposure are vital in a conducive classroom.
The transition was fluid so it encouraged the next step that I really wanted to do is to not just impact the kids in my class, in my community, in my school but kids in other communities. Orang Asli, non-Orang Asli, Indian, Chinese, Malay, any schools- Sabah, Sarawak and everywhere. – Samuel Isaiah
Aside from this, he’s involved in education research which involves teacher education and empowerment. He also aims to explore different areas of leadership and contribute to the academic field through research and journal writing.
2022 : Educating The Educators
In 2022, Isaiah aims to focus solely on Pemimpin GSL. The organisation is looking to expand its programmes while working on Orang Asli schools. All these efforts are in hopes to reach more teachers, schools and students.
We are hoping to reach more teachers, more schools, more students especially to help them mitigate learning loss that’s happened because of the Covid-19 pandemic. 2022 is an exciting year ahead, with lots of programmes planned. – Samuel Isaiah
Conquering Stumbling Blocks
Every profession presents itself with challenges. This wasn’t any different for Isaiah, who learnt it the hard way. This includes overcoming the existing stigma towards the Orang Asli community. Many often doubt the community’s capabilities.
According to Isaiah, there’s a great deal of evidence surrounding this stigma. The Orang Asli community are labelled as incapable, unmotivated and more. This leads to lacklustre efforts for the Orang Asli kids and community.
The (Orang Asli) kids themselves believe this stigma, believe this negativity and perception. So when you tell them to do something, they often get back to you and say ‘we’re just Orang Asli kids and we can’t do it. – Samuel Isaiah
Another challenge was bringing a new narrative to what teaching is. For Isaiah, teaching was supposed to be fun, collaborative, inspiring and relatable. However, he was placed in an environment where exams were prioritised while the learning process was secondary. Going against this typical mindset was another obstacle he faced.
Memories That Last A Lifetime
For Isaiah, there’s one recollection that will always be near and dear. Durians are replaced with books during peak seasons and are brought to school by his students. The memories of eating durian together in the classroom is a treasured experience.
That relationship that I built with the kids is something that I will remember for a long long time. – Samuel Isaiah
Bidding Adieu To Stereotypes
Having lived within the community for a period of time, Isaiah shares some insight. Society has a lot to learn from the Orang Asli community.
If there’s one thing that I learned is that we shouldn’t be going into Orang Asli communities trying to tell them what to do. – Samuel Isaiah
The messiah complex should always be refrained from, and we should be open to their ways.
According to Isaiah, he always did something together with the Orang Asli community instead of doing something for them, which made the biggest difference.
I wish people knew more about the Orang Asli community and I wish people listened more to them. – Samuel Isaiah