In 2013, my friends and I entered our classrooms as Teach For Malaysia fellows, armed with our flipcharts, marker pens, and sticky notes thinking we could change the world. It wasn’t long, however, before, we felt defeated by the numerous issues we encountered in our school: student truancy, substance abuse and gang activity, disruptive classrooms, a discouraging working environment, and more challenges that didn’t have easy or obvious solutions . We were passionate and eager to help beyond our role as teachers, but didn’t know where to begin.
It was one of my co-fellows, Charis Ding, who helped focus us because she felt strongly that illiteracy was at the root of many of these problems. Motivated by this belief, Charis spent months developing a literacy toolkit. When she shared the toolkit with me, I was excited about its potential, and together we designed a programme that brought together students from her Form 1 (ages 13 to 14) classroom who were struggling with reading and the students from my Form 4 (ages 16 to 17) classroom who were the strongest readers on Saturday mornings to read in pairs.
The following year we continued our programme, and in addition two other Teach For Malaysia fellows, Tay Sue Yen and Rachel Lim, started implementing their own literacy initiatives using our toolkit. The four of us collaborated closely, refining the toolkit and programme design to better meet the demands of teaching in a high-need school. Through rigourous programme impact measurement, we determined that our toolkit helped students achieve an average of three years of reading growth in six months.
Our district education officers spread the word about our initiative’s progress, and more teachers began asking to use our toolkit in their schools. Before we realised it, we were envisioning bringing our toolkit all over Malaysia and beyond.