Interview : TikTok guru @sir_asai

English teacher and internet sensation Ahmad Shahrul Azhan has no qualms keeping up with Gen Z to make teaching virtually ‘happening

KEEPING students engaged with educational content as we deal with the pandemic can be a challenge. Even more so, coupled with the distraction of social media.

But 45-dyear-old Ahmad Shahrul Azhan Ibrahim’s (aka @ sir_asai) internet savvy attempt of turning TikTok into a space of learning has been well received not just by the Zoomers of his classroom, but the general public, too.

Now with more than 239.1k followers, almost double the amount when The Vibes first reported his efforts, the SMK Long Ghafar 2, Kota Bharu, English teacher is more than just a viral phenomenon, but a heroic influence.

He shares with us more about his life story, unique approach to educating and why he will never give up teaching – even if it means sharing a couple or more video contents a day.

The TikTok Guru was looking at innovative ways to engage with his students and started to produce video content in late November last year, after taking notice of his students using the social application every single day. – Pic courtesy of Ahmad Shahrul Azhan Ibrahim

Could you tell us about your background as an English teacher? Have you always taught the language?

ASAI: Yes. I started teaching the subject in 2001 (right after I graduated), which means it has been two decades since my teaching English for Form 4 and 5 students. Right after SPM, I enrolled in the MPIK/UK Twinning programme, where I studied at The College of St Mark and St John in Plymouth, England. Shortly after, I got a degree in TESL from Exeter University there as well.

How many schools have you taught at since you started your career?

ASAI: Two. I first taught at SMK Jeli. It is within the rural district of Jeli, Kelantan. The second and current school I am teaching will be my fourth year.

Born and raised in Kota Bharu, @sir_asai has always loved English since young, crediting his English teacher back in school as his inspiration and learning the language mostly through songs, movies, television programmes. – Pic courtesy of Ahmad Shahrul Azhan Ibrahim
Born and raised in Kota Bharu, @sir_asai has always loved English since young, crediting his English teacher back in school as his inspiration and learning the language mostly through songs, movies, television programmes. – Pic courtesy of Ahmad Shahrul Azhan Ibrahim

Who inspired you to become an educator?

ASAI: Born and raised here in Kota Bharu, I have always loved English since young. My English teacher was my inspiration. I remember that she was freshly graduated from the United Kingdom. And I wanted to follow in her footsteps – to be in the world where I (at the time) got to see on the television. 

Growing up what was your childhood and learning the English language like?

ASAI: I learned English mostly through songs, movies, television programmes. These were basically my ‘teachers’. For music, my favourites would be ‘Hangin’ Tough’ by New Kids On The Block, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ by Madonna and ‘One Moment in Time’ by Whitney Houston. As for TV shows, I loved ‘Growing Pains’ and ‘Beverly Hills 90210’. I also grew up reading X-men comic books, with Wolverine as my best-loved character.

Back when you were a student yourself, were there any challenges that you faced when it comes to learning English?

ASAI: Students’ perception of the language and subject was a challenge. If you are good at English, you are considered stuck up.

Are you helping to address some of the personal challenges you mentioned in your current teaching methods?

ASAI: Yes, I am making learning more accessible and fun. It is important to create an environment where pupils would not make fun of each other or scared to learn the language.

When and why did you decide to teach via TikTok?

ASAI: It started in late November 2020 because I noticed the majority of my students use the social application every single day. I was looking for more innovative ways to teach English to keep their attention. So, when I decided to conduct my first task on TikTok, my students quickly responded.

It was a huge success and it encouraged me to do more. The platform also gave me ideas and kept me informed on the current trends and topics students today love. Equally, I learned a lot about social media trends from my students as well, such as the Instagram filters. 

The English teacher based in Kelantan is on a mission to create an environment where pupils would not make fun of each other or scared to learn the language. – Pic courtesy of Ahmad Shahrul Azhan Ibrahim
The English teacher based in Kelantan is on a mission to create an environment where pupils would not make fun of each other or scared to learn the language. – Pic courtesy of Ahmad Shahrul Azhan Ibrahim

What does your family or your school make of your contents?

ASAI: My family, the principal and my fellow teachers at school are very supportive of it. I am the youngest of four siblings and my sister is also an English teacher, but she teaches UPSR school students. She uses my videos for her class.

Seeing how classroom settings can be intensely instructional, tell us in detail how you are able to develop a sense of coach-peer-relationship with your class?

ASAI: I am not married and do not have children, but I do view my students as my own kids. I do lots of activities that involve interaction and response from them, not just talk and chalk. I make them get actively involved with the lessons and the language in practice.

Has the lack of using the English language in Kelantan impede the steady growth of students learning new tongue(s)?

ASAI: Yes, because some would think that it is not important in their everyday life. This limited exposure can also extend in some states in Malaysia. We have a lot of good English teachers, and they need to be given the opportunity to shine.

I personally admire my fellow teachers of the subject, both young and old. As for the teaching environment in Kelantan, a lot of students are weak in English, and it is due to the lack of exposure and internet accessibility. This being the case, teaching English in Bahasa Malaysia (BM) is not a surprise in our state. For instance, to ensure students understand better, teachers will need to explain in BM the meaning of the English words being taught. 

In Kelantan, people are shy to converse in English due to societal norms known as ‘gedebe’ or ‘agah teh kecek baso orge puteh’. How are you curbing this in your class?

ASAI: So far, I will just scold my students if they tease or poke fun at their peers when speaking English. My main mission is to make them love learning the language so that they can use it in everyday life as they prepare for their future.

To connect with students on a deeper level as an educator, you need to allow yourself to be part of and understand their world. Give them a chance and get to know them better. More importantly as a teacher, make yourself approachable and then you will realise they will start to love you. I will never give up teaching because teaching is my life.

By Amalina Kamal – THE VIBES

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