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The stay at home orders have left most of us unkempt, even Global Teacher Prize Finalist, Samuel Isaiah.

Unshaven with hair hanging at shoulder length while dining in a Kuantan coffee shop, a girl was staring at him. She looked as if she was trying to recall where she’d met him.

He stared back, thinking that she couldn’t have been older than 15. He realised, she was one of his ex-students from many years ago.

“Do you remember me?” he asked.

“Yes, you’re Sir. Samuel,” she replied.

That brief exchange instantly reminded him of the reasons he was inspired to be a teacher for Orang Asli students. It was never about their academic performance, but making education meaningful to them. 

If left neglected, students in Orang Asli communities would quit school at a young age. More than being pushed into the workforce, they might get married at a young age, too. Samuel is making it his mission to change this vicious cycle.

It’s Not About You, Sam. It’s About Your Children.”

Samuel conducting a presentation / Image Credit: Samuel Isaiah

Since 2014, the Global Teacher Prize has had many Malaysian teachers in their top 50 finalists.

In 2020, Samuel was listed in the top 10 for successfully crowdfunding for laptops and tablets to equip the classrooms in SK Runchang, Pahang.

Despite being recognised for what’s been dubbed the Nobel Prize of the teaching fraternity, Samuel told Vulcan Post that he never wanted to apply for it.

The only reward he was chasing was getting his students to believe in their own potential.

“But before I left for the United States to pursue my Master’s in education in July 2019, a lecturer and mentor told me, ‘Sam, I want you to apply for this,’” he said. 

Not seeing the point in the glitz or the glam, he countered. But she persisted, telling him:

“Sam,  you’re going to do this for your kids. For the eight years you’ve been teaching, the Global Teacher Prize, it’s going to give you the best platform to share the capabilities and the amazing things that your kids can do. It’s not about you, Sam, it’s about your children.”

With no expectations, he sat through the many essays and Zoom interviews with judges, pouring his heart out about everything he believed in.

He also shared about his principles that were applied through the projects over in the Orang Asli communities.

He crowdfunded on Give.my to help equip classrooms with tablets and laptops / Image Credit: Samuel Isaiah

Being listed in the top 10 was an honour for him when the results were announced in November 2020.

Though he didn’t have the chance to physically meet his students at school, he received phone calls from their parents. All the cheers he received from his students essentially conveyed the same message: “If Mr. Sam can do it, I can do it too.”

Furthermore, the recognition was able to bring in some help for SK Runchang. The school was awarded a handsome sum of money from the government.

Samuel has gotten in contact with multiple NGOs to plan his next steps in improving the school too.

But there’s still one big issue…

Infrastructure Is Still Lacking In Rural Areas

Despite equipping his classes with laptops and tablets back in 2015, the next big problem was the lack of infrastructure at home. So although the schools are equipped, students stuck at home weren’t.

Editor’s Note: Information in the above paragraph have been edited to reflect greater factual accuracy.

When 2020’s MCO hit, teachers, students, and their parents in Orang Asli communities had a colossal gap to fill. 

For example, even if teachers conducted online lessons, without gadgets, technology, or connectivity, the kids couldn’t access them. 

“What teachers in these rural communities have been doing instead, was physically going door to door delivering and collecting their worksheets and homework. That’s the best they could do,” Samuel told.

It’s strenuous on parents as well. Imagine having only one smartphone in a family with four kids.

The parents—who tend to be under-educated as well—had to delegate which homework was for which child and attempt to guide them through it.

Their teachers had to go house to house dropping off their homework during the MCO / Image Credit: Samuel Isaiah

“The COVID-19 pandemic has basically removed any form of proper education, especially in the underprivileged community,” he shared. 

“The sad fact is, students are being left behind because, in perspective, whatever education they receive is solely from school. They don’t have any source of other education, they don’t have tuitions, YouTube, or online materials. Nada. Zero.”

That was the tipping point for Samuel, realising that whatever school teachers could do was severely limited on a larger scale.

It needs to be a collaborative effort with multiple sectors, government, NGOs, and companies coming together to help these communities. 

Studying To Overcome The Barriers

Today, Samuel is on sabbatical from teaching to pursue a Master’s in Educational Policy at the State University of New York.

He realised that to tackle problems on a larger scale, he had to study and learn about what’s being done in other successful countries.

He further explained that doing so will enable him to help touch not just the lives of the 10% of students who make it, but the 90% of students that don’t. Just like the 15-year-old he met at the restaurant.

Once he returns to the school in Pahang, he plans to empower more teachers through training and workshops using his methodology.

He’ll teach them about ways they can adapt and come up with their own methods as well. “And if I can support that with research and academia, I believe I can make significant changes for the Orang Asli community,” he concluded.

  • You can read more about what we’ve written about Samuel Isaiah here.
  • You can read more education pieces we’ve written here.

Featured Image Credit: Samuel Isaiah

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© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)

Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)