“I started as a Male Preschool Educator” by Jie Sheng

When I was 7 years old, my ambition was to be a pilot because I love traveling around the world and thought that flying an airplane was so cool. Today I am a preschool educator as well as an early childhood researcher, which is 360 degrees different from what I wish I will become.

To be honest, I was lost after I graduated as a bachelor’s degree from my university. I didn’t know what I could do with that certificate. I am good at sports, but I was not sure how doing something related to sports can make a living in Malaysia. I was sure about one thing to myself, I do not want to stay in the office from 9am to 5pm daily. I gave myself two years in a travel agency, hoping to understand more traveling knowledge from there. I would say I did learn a lot from there when I was traveling around the world as a tour leader. However, I can’t find the purpose of my life being meaningful.

I started exploring further job opportunities available around my area. My better half was a preschool educator back in Singapore that time. She suggested that I try being a preschool educator as it’s influential and meaningful, especially a male in this field. Without any teaching qualification, I went to find the principal who was my preschool’s principal when I was 5. I explained that I had volunteered as a teacher before (it’s true as the picture shows) therefore I would like to try teaching preschoolers. I was offered a position as Mandarin Preschool Teacher. It was in 2016, my journey as a male preschool educator began from there.

In 2016, volunteer for reading program in a school of a small village

After 2 months, I started to get exhausted as my life as a teacher was repeating the same daily as getting to school early in the morning, rushing class and curriculum, educating ‘misbehavior’ children, marking workbooks, giving homework, and going home after a long day. I saw children who were lost, blank, and being passive in learning during the class. I wanted to understand the reason behind those ‘mischievous’ and ‘uncooperative’ children therefore I bought some books about parenting and education. That’s how I got to know there are so many different approaches to early childhood education such as Montessori and Waldorf. I started to question the traditional type of preschool education as it was rote learning, testing of memorizing skills, one way communication from teacher to children, etc. I eventually quit the position as I could not find all these answers there.

A month later, I found a Montessori preschool that was vacant. That time I had not understood what Montessori approach is, so I was having a mindset of learning when I joined the preschool. A brand-new environment made me excited and fearful at the same time. I continued reading books and finding answers each night before sleeping. A year passed, and I realized that it was not an authentic Montessori school that put children as the center of the curriculum. The difference with the first preschool was having more activities, no homework, and the workbook became a worksheet. There were many times that I questioned myself about the way I educated the children. It made me have negative emotions sometimes as other teachers were not reflecting on the way they spoke to the children. I spent 2 years in the Montessori school then I thought of moving on to a forest school that I found at a school event.

In 2017, I was actually having 20 children in my class but school cannot show such a big class to parents, so we separated to make illusion of small class size

I did some research online about Forest School pedagogy and I noticed a 5-day Level 3 Forest School Leader training happened to be in Brisbane, Australia. Out of my inner desire to understand this pedagogy, I checked my schedule and affordability, then booked my flight and accommodation immediately. It was a thrilling experience as it happened way faster than I expected. I stayed in a backpacker hostel with 20 double-decker beds in a room while completing various assignments from the course. I met amazing people, gained practical experience, and opened new perspectives during the training. Back in Malaysia, I started as an assistant forest school leader while fulfilling the certification requirement. In the meantime, I also arranged some visits to forest school nearby and the first was Forest School Singapore. Their forest school way absolutely confused me as they do not have any structured curriculum plan for each session. I really appreciate that the founder was generous in sharing his thoughts and philosophy with me. Unfortunately, I could not spend more time observing the whole learning process therefore I have to go back to Malaysia. 

In 2018, group photo of the Forest School Leader Training in Brisbane

The forest school that I worked at had a schedule (9am to 2pm) different from what a normal preschool does (8am to 5pm). The classroom was outdoors mostly when the weather was good (no thunderstorm). To my surprise, this forest school had a curriculum planned for the whole year. I thought we should follow a child’s interest instead of having a rigid curriculum plan to follow. The more books I read, the more I realized that all the pedagogy approaches cannot be copied directly from one culture to another. However, there is knowledge that we can learn and use it regardless of the culture differences, such as the way we speak to the child, the way we handle ‘misbehavior’ children, the way we facilitate learning, etc. I did try my personal way when I had the chance to lead my own forest school session. I made lots of mistakes because I was still exploring my type of leadership. I strongly believe we should respect every child’s interest and opinion but sometimes I didn’t make my boundary clear therefore causing chaos in the session. It didn’t stop me from believing in children, I need to adjust myself. I felt frustrated and became very negative when the assistant teacher or even the school owner was disrespectful to the children (spoke in another language in front of the children, denied explanation from the kid for misbehavior’s kid). I didn’t know how to react as I was not confident of myself at that time.

In 2019, COVID-19 struck the whole world and schools were forced closed. I had some online lessons with the children, but it was not feasible in the long term. I was left with no choice but to resign from the position. From that time onwards, it became clear that I wanted to have my own forest school or learning center that would change children’s lives and impact the community.

Written by:
Jie Sheng
Forest School Johor Bahru (Malaysia)

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