From braving the unfamiliarity of digital learning as a senior teacher, to personally housing and caring for students in need of support, Cikgu Siti Harlina’s journey as a teacher highlights a lifelong pursuit of growth and a loving commitment to her students.
Modest. That was the first thing that came to mind as we interviewed Cikgu Siti Harlina. Our Frog Teacher Award winner this year for ‘Reach for Perfection’, hailing from SK Danau Kota, tried to wave away our congratulations. “It seems odd to connect me with the idea of perfection since I am far from being perfect,” she said. “I am a bit of a late bloomer as a teacher. I took a few tries to get into a teacher’s training college. I only got my bachelor’s degree at the age of 38.”
This ‘origin story’ alone tells us a great deal about Cikgu Harlina.Her determination and capacity for self-growth continue to play out in key points throughout her teaching career. During the Covid-19 pandemic in particular, Cikgu Harlina had to adjust to remote learning as a senior teacher. This was a big shift that came after more than 20 years into her teaching career.
“You can imagine what my computer skills were like as a teacher of my age,” she laughed. “I didn’t have any of the right tools for remote learning. I had to start completely from scratch.” Feeling anxious and unprepared, Cikgu Harlina signed herself up for coaching with educational consultants.
“It was quite an experience. My coaches were young enough to be my children. But they were very patient and helpful. I learnt a lot from them.”
At the start, everything was nerve-wracking for Cikgu Harlina. Even things like using Google Meet. She had to grow her confidence to use these tools. “My consultant complimented me for persevering through this as a senior teacher.”
Fast forward to the present where schools have gone back to in-person learning, Cikgu Harlina still conducts extra Malay language classes via video call. Her digital learning has not stopped here. She continues to seek advice and pointers from other teachers, especially those younger than her.
Underneath Cikgu Harlina’s diligence is a more powerful motivator; her students. Misty-eyed, she related a particularly memorable incident back in 2011. She was then on the school disciplinary committee. They were looking into two students, a brother and a sister, who had missed school for two months. It was more worrying because the sister had to face UPSR examinations that year. The teachers investigated further and found the children all but abandoned in a rented room. Their mother had passed on and their father could not be found.
“They were so thin,” she recalled, “clearly malnourished.” As a result, Cikgu Harlina and another teacher made the decision to house the two children for a few months. This was until they could find an appropriate welfare home for the two of them. To her joy, the older sister still managed to score 4As in her UPSR examinations that year.
“When students miss school or exhibit other issues, you never know what they may be going through. Rather than resort to punishment, I make it a point to understand what’s happening to them and see how I can help.”
Cikgu Harlina's love for her students and dedication to improving herself come together in a wonderful way in her classroom. Here, we have an environment where students’ voices are heard and their growth is celebrated no matter the level and pace. It is unsurprising, then, that Cikgu Harlina is often the one to take on classes with poorer academic performance.
“I don’t want to set any unrealistic expectations about academic achievement for them. I want them to keep learning. More than anything, I want them to believe in themselves.”
Cikgu Harlina shared her experience with the Standard 3 students this year. After the pandemic, they came back to school afraid of reading aloud. “When I asked them to read, they would give me blank stares. Of my entire class, I only had one student who was able to read out loud.”
It took her time and patience to encourage them. Part of the journey was to let them know that they did not need to be afraid of making mistakes. Cikgu Harlina modelled this by allowing her students to point out her own mistakes and give feedback. “These things go a long way in gaining their trust and letting them know that it’s alright to confide in me,” she said. “It seems like a small point, but I’m happy to report that they can all read well now.”
Words like ‘self growth’, ‘pursuing excellence’ and ‘personal development’ can often sound intimidating. But through Cikgu Harlina’s story, we see that it is a simple commitment to doing better than before. A commitment that stems from loving those around you and wanting to serve them better. In Cikgu Harlina’s own words, “Open your mind and heart towards learning. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or make mistakes, but make it a point to apologise when you do make a mistake. Whatever you do have, make it a point to share it with others.”
If you are an educator who is interested in growing yourself and others, the Leaps HEART Course is for you! It is a training course that follows a series of Leaps of Knowledge events based on FrogAsia’s 5 HEART values. Through the course, Leaps of Knowledge participants can put into practice the ideas, attitudes, and inspiration gained from these events. It also allows them to create impactful conversations that will, in turn, grow communities of change.