by Cynthia C. James
Interviews with Going Digital ELT (GD-ELT) Inspirers is a new series on this blog, created specifically to acknowledge outstanding English Language educators who have made significant contributions in the field of digital technology in language education in Malaysia. These educators have gone above and beyond their calls of duty to provide meaningful learning experiences for their students. They have also helped and inspired fellow teachers from all over Malaysia and around the world with their determination, selflessness, ingenuity, and generosity in sharing their knowledge with others.
The GD-ELT Inspirer featured in this issue is none other than Dr Sirhajwan Idek from Keningau Vocational College, Sabah, Malaysia. In this interview with our team member Cynthia C. James, Dr Sirhajwan talked about his latest projects, his teaching philosophy, his views on teaching during the pandemic, and most of all, what inspires him and keeps him going.
A Kota Belud-born Sabahan, Dr Sirhajwan Idek who has been teaching in Keningau Vocational College since 2012 certainly needs no introduction. He started becoming a household name in the field of education in Malaysia since 2016, when he won the Macmillan Teacher at My Heart award from Macmillan Education. In 2017, he was listed in the Top 50 for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize. Since then, Dr Sirhajwan went on to bag numerous other international recognitions and accolades for his relentless initiatives and efforts in promoting education innovations both locally and internationally.
To date, he has more than a dozen awards for individual achievements under his name, and a dozen more for group achievements in his role as a team manager and advisor.
A Chat with Dr Sirhajwan Idek (DSI)
CCJ: You need no introduction, but can you tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you been teaching? Where are you teaching currently?
DSI: I started teaching in February 2012 at this school which was then known as Keningau Vocational Secondary School before it transformed to Keningau Vocational College. We had major changes but it remains under our Ministry of Education as secondary education. My major role at this school is to guide and manage our students and teachers in research and innovation.
CCJ: You have won lots of awards and recognitions – both locally and internationally – you are an inspiration to many! Can you tell us a little bit about how it all started? What motivated you to participate in all these competitions and apply for all the grants?
DSI: Thank you! I feel bad and guilty whenever people mention this since I know many teachers out there who have done so much but they remain unsung. I was just trying my luck in 2015 when I discovered a competition called Macmillan Teacher at My Heart. I first did not feel like submitting an entry and I informed some senior colleagues from other schools to give it a try. They were all reluctant so I thought it wouldn’t do any harm if I went for it. I did and I forgot about it until I received an email stating that I won. Winning that competition gave me more confidence to try to win more and subsequently, pushed my school to explore more international opportunities like winning grants. There is no limit in what you can do.
CCJ: We know that you have conducted countless wonderful and inspiring projects. But we are particularly drawn to a project on equipping learners with information literacy skills to examine online resources which you have conducted recently, which once again has won an international accolade. Would you mind telling us a little bit about it?
DSI: Information and Media Literacy (IML) refers to the skills in gathering, evaluating and communicating information that is now mostly accessed through online platforms like social media and online news. The concept of IML is becoming more relevant in the era where there is an overwhelming amount of information and some might be misleading and false. Hence, students need to be taught on how to evaluate the credibility of every source of information as spreading rumors, conspiracy theories and fake news can be harmful to everyone.
CCJ: Your team at KV Keningau has won an international grant to conduct a STEM project recently. As an ESL educator, what makes you want to delve into STEM? What inspires you and your team to conduct this project?
DSI: We won the YSEALI Seed for the Future for our project that focuses on STEAM (STEM + Arts). It was a project that we initiated in order to train our students to be able to use the arts of communication, empathy and aesthetics in their projects while introducing them to emerging technologies like drones and 3D printing. I think STEM programmes like hackathons can provide an excellent platform for students to put their English language skills into practice by using it to present their projects and write their presentation materials.
CCJ: What is your view on the use of digital technology in the classroom? Have you always used digital technology in your classroom?
DSI: As an English language teacher, I believe the focus is to train our students to master the language skills particularly speaking, listening, reading and writing. With the increasing usage of technology in our daily life, it is crucial to explore digital technology as new platforms for students to either learn the language or to apply what they have learnt.
CCJ: How do you see yourself as a teacher? What is your teaching philosophy? Does it align with your view on the use of digital technology in the classroom?
DSI: I believe in catering to students’ individual needs, styles and preferences. Obviously, students have their own preferences in what kind of digital technology that they would like to use to accomplish a task. It is consistent with the concept of allowing students to have choices in learning.
CCJ: The pandemic has forced the closures of schools all over Malaysia. How has your experience with remote teaching been so far? How are your students doing?
DSI: Most of my students were able to access the online platforms while few had difficulties in doing so. I have been trying to tackle it by contacting their guardians since parental support is necessary in making sure the students are able to continue their learning remotely. What I like about remote teaching is the fact that we are able to engage with the students beyond the traditional and fixed schedule which increases the quantity and quality of interaction that I have with my students.
CCJ: How do you conduct remote teaching, i.e. what tools/platforms do you use, what type of activities, how long? Can you give us one or two examples of your favourite digital tools and activities?
DSI: Since I believe in the relevance and significance of information and media literacy (IML), I like to conduct activities that are related to it since it can involve various language skills too. I like to get my students to do Web Quest which is a task that consists a sequence of activities that require students to search and analyse information from various types of online sources. I will then get them to present their findings and the students will do peer evaluation on each other’s presentations. They are free to choose any topic and I always recommend them to choose topics that are current, practical and impactful.
CCJ: What are your biggest concerns with regard to schools being closed and students lacking in face-to-face interactions with their teachers for an extended period of time? Any thoughts on how this can best be handled – especially in our capacity as classroom teachers?
DSI: Face-to-face interaction is vital in the development of our social skills. Since physical distancing and travel restriction are two of the primary preventatives measures that we need to adopt, family’s involvement is necessary in optimising the limited interaction that students can establish at their homes. Thus, students should be able to do interactive activities like role-play, speech and sketch with their family members. To a lesser extent, doing this with their neighbours is possible but there are certain risks that we need to consider before planning any activities.
CCJ: What do you hope would happen when schools can finally resume as ‘normal’, i.e. teachers and students can go back to being in their physical classrooms again?
DSI: I hope it is possible to maintain the recommended number of students in each class in the previous school reopening since such number, approximately 15 students, is ideal for an effective classroom.
CCJ: Do you think teachers will continue to utilise digital technology when they go back to their physical classrooms and no longer have to do remote teaching?
DSI: I am confident our teachers will continue to use digital technology since the pandemic lockdown and school closure have inadvertently revolutionised our teaching approach and everyone had learnt to adapt to the new norm in our education.
CCJ: What words of advice would you give to teachers who aspire to be innovative and successful like you, but do not have the confidence to participate in competitions/conferences etc.?
DSI: Believe in your ideas and don’t ever underestimate yourself. Focus on improving yourself and your ideas. You should learn to be inspired by what others have accomplished but you should never compare yourself with them or worst, try to be like them. Focus on being the best version of yourself since you have no idea how powerful you can be until you truly discover what you are capable of.
Watch this video of Dr Sirhajwan Idek's inspiring presentation as the Macmillan Teachers at the Heart Scholarship Winner at the NILE@21 Conference
Under the guidance and mentorship of Dr Sirhajwan Idek, a group of students from Keningau Vocational College, Sabah conducted a project that proposes the usage of a series of strategies in training students on information literacy. This project has won the Community Innovation category at Information and Media Literacy (IML) Global Hackathon by UNESCO and The Republic of Korea.
We will be publishing an article specially written for Going Digital ELT by Dr Sirhajwan soon! We will be sending updates through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn - so be sure to follow us on any of our channels to avoid missing anything.
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Published on: 2 December 2020
Cynthia C. James has been in the field of education in Malaysia since 2005 and has served as a primary school teacher, teacher trainer, published author, online community manager, and district education supervisor. She is currently teaching in SK Serusup, Tuaran, Sabah. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other articles in this series
GD-ELT Inspirer: An Interview with Audrey Koh
GD-ELT Inspirer: An Interview with Teacher Dilla
Browse through other articles from ourblog's homepage for more inspiring stories!
Do you know a GD-ELT Inspirer? Tell us!