Malaysia Day Exclusive: Dzameer Dzulkifli on Teach For Malaysia

We’ve seen it all from films such as Freedom Writers and Stand and Deliver. A teacher moves to a tough neighbourhood meets with kids from difficult backgrounds, and eventually inspires them to learn and to want to be better people.

We’ve even got our Malaysian version titled Adiwiraku, based on Cheryl Ann Fernando and her experience as a Teach for Malaysia (TFM) teacher at SMK Pinang Tunggal in Kedah. 

Cheryl’s real students also acted in the film as themselves. Image: IMDB.

Indeed, Adiwiraku is just one of the many inspirational stories from Teach For Malaysia, a non-profit organisation that aims to provide equal opportunity for all children in Malaysia to learn.

Since beginning its operation over a decade ago, TFM has not taken a break in fighting for this cause. We at sat down with its Managing Director and Co-founder, Dzameer Dzulkifli to ask what drove him to start this journey in the first place:

What is Teach for Malaysia?

Dzameer (left) helping students in a school visit. Photo: Teach For Malaysia FB page.

Teach For Malaysia is an NGO that believes a child’s background should not determine his or her outcome in life. 

We want to change this, and we do this by recruiting top graduates and young professionals who’ve never considered a career in teaching, to teach for two years in underprivileged communities as full-time teachers.

Why Hire Top Graduates and Young Professionals Instead of Teachers from Conventional Education Backgrounds?

I guess the idea behind that is that many of us grew up being told to be doctors, lawyers or engineers and no one was told to be a teacher. We want to convince people who are on paths to becoming doctors or engineers to pass on their knowledge to the next generation first before exploring other career opportunities. 

What Made You Start Teach for Malaysia?

I learned about it first in the UK, the Teach First programme. I was then working as a consultant while my brother was in reforestation work, and he was just offered a PhD, and I was proud and amazed by him for following his passion. 

Reflecting on my passion and what I care about led me to discover that it was around education and developing talent. 

What Do You Feel When You See the Positive Impact of the Organisation?

Over 8 years of operation, TFM has impacted more than 120 schools, 92,000 students; and produced 415 leaders to band together to solve education inequity in Malaysia.

Proud and happy. 

It’s sometimes hard to celebrate the small successes or the big wins. We are always caught up with thinking about the challenges or thinking about all the things that go wrong. So it’s important to pause and take a breath about what’s going right. 

What Are Some of the Challenges That the Organisation Faces?

I think as with any NGO or organisation, we have the challenge of recruiting the best people for the job. How do we fundraise? How do we work with the government on a larger scale? But I think these challenges pale in comparison to what the students that we serve go through. 

For example, there was a house that I went to visit in Perak, where the father had stage four cancer.  The daughter had so much potential but she didn’t want to pursue a tertiary education because she didn’t want to be a financial burden to the family. She preferred using the money for her father’s medical care. 

It’s how do you look into these type of challenges and how do you match up the two, in that sense. 

Please Share with Us the Impact That This Organisation Will Have on the Future Generation

It’s hard to quantify. But qualitatively, what we’re trying to achieve in Teach Malaysia is to ensure that all children grow up to be empowered leaders of their own learning, their lives and the future of the country. 

We want to make everyday Malaysians realise that we don’t have to wait for a teacher, a principal, a parent or even the government to tell us what or how to do it. We can change our situation and our lives, if we want it to, and if given the right opportunity. 

One of the initiatives birthed from TFM Alumni is MYReaders, a program to address illiteracy among kids. Photo: TeachForAll.

We have kids who are inventing devices to detect flooding in paddy fields using Bluetooth technology. Even a teacher doesn’t know what’s going on, but the students are able to just push through and create such innovative designs. The possibilities are endless.

Are There Any Stories You Want to Share That Have Touched You Personally?

It happened back in 2013, our second year teaching at a school. When we first started Teach for Malaysia, there was this goal question – what is our long-term success? If any parent feels comfortable sending their kid to a public school, that’s our goal. 

One day we got a message from a parent who said that one of our teachers, Ranjeetha, had been able to change the minds of her children, who had previously been disinterested in studying or going to school, to be excited about going to school and learning, even on the days when they were sick. 

It’s just really beautiful to hear a child wanting to learn, and then a parent also recognising this and then telling us about this. It was a beautiful moment. 

What Is Your Motivation to Continue This?

My motivation to continue with Teach Malaysia comes from my family. 

My brother and I had the privilege to go to a public, private and international school. In that process, I realised that the schools narrowed or constrained education of a certain type of intelligence on me; and my brother was labelled as a failure in more than one school. 

It only took a different school to realise his potential and his ability. And they said they thought he was a genius, but they told my parents that he would struggle in school because it was just not designed for gifted students like him. He is now a PhD holder in environmental science from the University of Zurich. He’s doing reforestation work in Sabah and Perak, saving not only the Malaysian rainforest but also global resources. 

So I kept on thinking about other untapped potentials that we had across the 10,000 schools in Malaysia. And what problems could they be solving. Could they find a cure for cancer? Would they solve our traffic problems or whatnot? 

In 2016, MDEC flew a batch of Malaysian students to Silicon Valley. Seven of these students attended social enterprises ran by TFM Alumni. Photo: Arus FB page.

Who Do You Do This For?

In Teach for Malaysia, we do it for the kids. 

Any Last Words You Want to Share with Anyone Who’s Reading This?

Teach for Malaysia is always on the lookout for more help to do the work that we do. Apply to join the two-year fellowship or donate online to help us support our work – MYR25 a month helps impact one student. 

What do you think?

Written by MK Zainal

MK was once involved in a magic gig. You know the trick where they cut a person into half? He was one of the halves.

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