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Unleashing Empathy In The Classroom: A Teacher’s Story

“If I were given the power to make a change, I don’t think I would go straight to changing policies. Policies require data and study, and they do not bring about change overnight. If I were given the power and resources, I would open up free tuition everywhere for all learners in need.”  Cikgu Nakiah

Cikgu Nurul Nakiah Abdullah is a full-time English teacher at SMK Tengku Bariah, Kuala Terengganu. After being inspired by her own English teacher in school, she was determined to travel to the United Kingdom to learn the language and to teach others. She obtained a scholarship to study at the University of Warwick and spent three years in the UK before returning to Malaysia. 

Source: SMK Tengku Bariah Blog

Empathy for her students came as second nature. Cikgu Nakiah learned quickly that she was able to relate and connect with her students easily. She understood her students’ needs and was able to earn their trust effortlessly. Perhaps it was her background and upbringing that gave her this gift of empathy. 

“My parents didn’t even read the newspaper. I asked my cousins and family members to buy newspapers because I needed them for the scholarship adverts to attend boarding schools like MRSM. I was the only one to apply for boarding schools in my family. I applied simply to ease my family’s financial burden. I thought, with me away for studies, I would be one less mouth to feed.” 

Embracing The Call To Be An Educator 

During the lockdown, students nationwide faced all sorts of challenges adapting to e-learning and coping with self-studying at home. Cikgu Nakiah also had some students who struggled financially as their parents lost their income during the pandemic. 

“Many of my students’ parents were carpenters, pasar malam vendors and in the service industry.” 

The Movement Control Order (MCO) has impacted many households in Malaysia, particularly those in volatile industries and day-wage earners. Terengganu was not spared.

Source: Gokayu

The number of households in Terengganu living under the poverty line (RM2,208 per household/month) is expected to increase from 11,280 to 38,859 from 2020 to 2021[1].

Cikgu Nakiah related a story of her student who had to choose between education and supporting his family financially. 

“Even before the pandemic he [unnamed student] had horrible school attendance, but he was an amazing student. Whenever he did come to school, he was able to keep up with the rest of the class. It was only when I contacted him personally that I found out why he was missing school so often.” 

The boy was a form five student, and he had been skipping school so he could work part-time at a local store. His parents were self-employed and had lost their jobs during the pandemic. 

In order to earn RM10-20 a day, the boy had to work long hours at the store. Being the eldest in his family, he shouldered the responsibility of helping to pay for his siblings’ food, milk and diapers. These were essentials that his parents struggled to afford. 

After hearing of the boy’s plight, Cikgu Nakiah could not bear the thought of losing a bright young student due to financial limitations. She took the initiative to record her lessons on Google Meet and ensured that he had a fair chance and equal opportunity to learn.

“There is a difference between being an educator and a teacher. An educator puts herself in the students’ shoes. They try to understand what that child is going through, and they adapt. We need to be flexible. Being a teacher is a job. A straightforward responsibility to teach, but educating is what makes the difference.”

For teacher’s like Cikgu Nakiah, she saw both the pros and cons of online learning during the lockdown period.  There was the inevitable internet connectivity problem and challenge of retaining her students’ attention through the screen, but there were also a lot of plusses. 

“When the lockdown happened, I saw so many different types of students. “Kiasuism” is a thing. No one wanted to lose out, students took initiative in their own learning. As I was not strictly bound to the school syllabus, I was able to creatively weave in pop-culture and project-based learning to help my students learn the English language.” 

Cikgu Nakiah is wise beyond her years and her commitment is commendable. The lessons learnt throughout her childhood and her years in the UK have led her to this point of making a difference in her own unique way. 

“I know my method [of teaching] won’t change the lives of hundreds of students at one go – but I can help the ones I meet, by implementing my beliefs into my teaching.  Even if I did have the power to make nationwide education policies, without proper implementation and the right educators in place, everything will fall through. I am determined to make a difference where I am.” 

Be inspired by stories of educators who are going the extra mile. They are heroes changing the future for students across Malaysia – one student at a time. Read about Ayu, the Orang Asli educator, Hamdan, the grass cutter turned teacher, Alternative school educators teaching the stateless children and Cikgu Zahir, who travelled 100km on motorbike to reach his students.

Special note: All photos unless sourced are from Nurul Nakiah Abdullah’s personal collection.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. The Edge Market. (2021). ECERDC outlines initiatives to spur economic recovery in Terengganu. Link

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