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Know Your PJrians: Cikgu Yasmin

Chemistry teacher Cikgu Yasmin goes the extra mile to find unconventional ways to keep her students engaged in the classroom. In 2015, a former student showed his appreciation by nominating her for the Global Teacher Prize.

Text by Aizyl Azlee
Photos and video by Teoh Eng Hooi

 

Growing up in Taiping, Perak, Yasmin Noorul Amin and her siblings’ favourite board game was Saidina. Funnily, her favourite town to purchase every time she played, was Petaling Jaya, which ended up being where she has settled in real life and become an icon of an educator.

“Technically my house is in KL, but it’s near the PJ border. But I’m definitely a PJ-rian because everything I do is based in PJ,” she says laughing.

Cikgu Yasmin, as she is affectionately known even outside of school, has been teaching chemistry at SMK La Salle PJ for the past 13 years of her 15-year teaching career, where she is adored by her students.

That adoration grew beyond the walls of La Salle and became national interest in 2015 when she was nominated for the Varkey GEMS Foundation Global Teacher Prize, an international award given annually to the best teachers in the world.

Alas, she did not receive the top prize, which carried with it a prize money of USD 1 million, but she was shortlisted as one of the top 50 finalist in the world.

“Initially I didn’t even believe it, thinking it was a scam. Because who’s going to give a teacher 1 million US dollars?” she says about receiving the news of her nomination for the first time.

“Turns out a student had nominated me, and proceeded to get more of his friends and also my ex-students to nominate me as well. And then when the nominations were announced in December 2014, it changed my life.”

What works for her for getting the students engaged in their studies, is to “be one of them” and changing her own 40-year-old mindset to better understand the students’ actual needs instead of forcing a lesson onto them.

She actively participates in hiking trips that often take place at Bukit Gasing, which is conveniently just behind their school. On top of that, she also organises more ambitious trekking trips, such as to Gua Batu Maloi in Negeri Sembilan and Bukit Saga in Ampang.

Cikgu Yasmin explains that it isn’t just a healthy activity, but an opportunity to develop camaraderie.

She stresses that development of that camaraderie, and safe spaces for healthy relationships and activities are important for students. Cikgu Yasmin also looks forward to possibly developing her lab as a hub for students to hangout even after school hours.

“The first thing I wanted to do if I had won the Global Teacher Prize, was to renovate the lab because my students like to come here and lepak,” she says.

“And I have always felt that if there could be a space in PJ that can be made a lepak place that is proper for students, this lab would be a great hub.”

She is also known for employing unconventional methods to keep students engaged in her chemistry lab, which includes “sleeping” in class to re-energise tired students.

“I call it a ‘sleeping activity’ but they’re not actually sleeping,” she explains.

“Whenever I notice that the students are having trouble paying attention in class, I would ask them to close their eyes for five to ten minutes and think of happy thoughts while I play them some relaxing music.”

The song she plays in class has remained unchanged over the years — Richard Clayderman’s piano rendition of Romeo and Juliet. A song which she describes as a perfect balance of soothing, but not sleep inducing.

She also uses pop culture references when explaining scientific concepts, most popularly using superhero movies’ fantastical elements to explain real life considerations when attempting experiments.

It helps with her bigger picture goal, which is to encourage her students’ interest in engineering and fill the gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Cikgu Yasmin, who was an engineer herself before becoming a teacher, says engineering is too abstract an occupation for most students to imagine, let alone consider, as a career path.

“It’s easier for me to explain to them what an engineer does. If you knew that engineers are the ones at the forefront of cutting edge technology, would you not want to be part of that?” she says.

Despite her reverence for her former profession, she does not miss it. Back when she was two-years into her career as an engineer, her father noticed that she was good at sharing ideas and imparting knowledge onto her siblings and suggested she considered teaching.

She took the consideration seriously, and enrolled at a teaching college, where she was awarded a Best Student Award, and never looked back because she feels she can also serve the engineering field as a teacher.

“Instead of being an engineer, like what I had [been doing] in the first two years of my working service, now I am still an engineer, but I’m engineering minds,” she says.

“And I felt like — okay, this is my calling.”


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