Whether it’s helping her students overcome their aversion for Malay Language, or reforming some of the toughest disciplinary cases in her school, Samsiah Bte Mohamed Diah gets the job done by staying grounded.
Samsiah Bte Mohamed Diah, Fairfield Methodist School (Secondary), President’s Award for Teachers 2016 finalist
Sirens wail as bullets fly into walls and earth, kicking up sprays of dust. Above the din, Samsiah commandeers her boys: “Utara! Timur! Barat!” They drop and roll accordingly, paying attention to her Malay commands for North, East and West, avoiding the shrapnel and staying clear of the invading forces.
Minutes later, they pick themselves up from the classroom floor, laughing over the simulation activity. Samsiah’s normally stern visage relaxes for a moment, as she looks on with satisfaction. Directional words are part of the basic vocabulary for any language, but they may be challenging even for native speakers. That’s why Samsiah – who learned the Malay language a little later in life – is so determined to help her students and make the language come alive for them.
Beyond classrooms and textbooks
Her main strategy is to let her students experience Malay in a real-world context. “Beyond the textbook, I come up with my own lesson materials,” she says. Hence the four-day homestays she arranges for her students in Malaysian kampongs, where they get to wake up at the same time as the locals, eat their food, and even help out in making noodles. And the local excursions to places like Arab Street and markets, where they have to converse with shop owners and stallholders.
Samsiah is so convinced of this approach that she’ll find any way to give her students the experiences they need to appreciate the language. Some years back, she planned an overseas learning journey, but it hit a snag because there weren’t enough Malay Language teachers in the school to run it. Undeterred, she approached her Geography colleagues, who were organising their own learning journey to Bali, and asked if her class could tag along. The trip went ahead, with both groups sharing logistics while having their own programmes.
Immersive activities like these not only help Samsiah’s students improve their linguistic skills, they also help to address any preconceptions they may have about Malay language, religion and culture. It’s an issue close to her heart. Being of Arabic and Chinese descent and brought up in a Peranakan environment, Samsiah went through her own journey of discovery into her identity and Mother Tongue.
Once her students are ready, she’s even happy to turn the lessons over to them. Every year, Samsiah gets her Secondary 4 class to develop a Malay Language event from scratch. The most recent one was an Amazing Race-style event at Sentosa, where participants from all cohorts had to solve puzzles relating to Malay words and idioms. “I want them to have a sense of ownership towards the subject,” she says. “When kids have fun, they learn better.” Her students’ achievements back this up – ever since she started teaching, she has managed to help even the weakest of her students pass their final exams.
Tender loving care
Samsiah hasn’t only succeeded with language students of differing abilities. She’s also done well with cases of difficult behaviour. Over the course of her career, she’s helped students who live in juvenile homes, others who suffer from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and even a few who ran afoul of the law. Some of them were referred to Samsiah because she has a reputation for strictness, and more importantly because she knows how to reach them emotionally.
Apart from her Malay Language students, Samsiah has invested a lot of time to encourage and guide the PA Crew which she is in charge of. One of the students used to smoke, drink, steal, shout back at teachers, and sleep outdoors. Instead of focusing on his faults, Samsiah affirmed every little positive action, eventually speaking up on his behalf on one occasion. The boy, who confessed that he felt very unloved, was moved by Samsiah’s concern, and pulled up his socks. He received a CCA award and went on to graduate from ITE. The bond that Samsiah has built with the PA Crew is so strong that they keep in touch with her even after they leave school, and many return to coach their juniors.
This ability to connect with even the toughest of students is something Samsiah gladly imparts to her colleagues. As a mentor in the Skilful Teacher and Enhanced Mentoring (STEM) programme, she has given younger teachers advice on how to manage their classes and win their hearts.
“There’s no point in scolding difficult students,” says Samsiah. “To me, being strict is not about shouting at them. It is telling them the pros and cons of their behaviour, and setting boundaries.” She uses more relaxed settings to connect with her students – over food or a brisk walk – and takes the opportunity to weave in some life lessons. Samsiah chuckles as she recalls her students’ feedback: “They always tell me, ‘Cikgu, you are very real.’”