When you see a need, you can either be apathetic or you can do something about it. Noticing a huge gap between students in good schools and those in under-privileged schools, Dzameer Dzulkifli decided to give up his career at an international consulting firm to co-found an educational NGO that has made a huge difference in the lives of tens of thousands of students.
Dzameer speaks to Savvy about his motivations for starting Teach For Malaysia, the source of his idealism, and what he hopes to achieve in the long run.
How would you describe Teach For Malaysia (TFM)?
I like how a former colleague and good friend, Shie Haur, described Teach For Malaysia. We have the heart of an NGO, the soul of a social enterprise, the brain of a corporation and the tax-exemption status of a charity!
What was it like working for Pricewaterhouse Coopers?
Initially it was challenging, as I did not develop enough soft skills in university. But at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), I had a great manager and mentor who helped me develop those skills and within a year I successfully transitioned from a fresh graduate to a young employee. By my second year in PwC, I was thoroughly enjoying the work environment.
Yet you left that job in order to start a NGO. Where does your idealism come from?
My idealism was probably seeded in my youth — reading too many comics and watching too many movies about right and wrong! It was always about doing the right thing. It probably helped that my parents were successful in their careers and therefore didn’t need me to support them financially. To be honest, I’m a bit nervous about starting my own family and providing for them. I suppose having my own kids would be a true test of whether I’m able to remain idealistic.
You once volunteered to teach Mathematics at the UNHCR myanmar Refugee Education Centre in Kuala Lumpur. What prompted you to do that?
The volunteering stint came from a realisation that I did not balance my time at university. My time was split between academics, sports and music, but I still felt something was missing. As I was complaining about this over dinner at my grandmother’s house one day, she “voluntold” me to teach at a centre she was actively involved in.
How much of that played a role in spurring you to create TFM?
Actually, that volunteering experience wasn’t pivotal in the founding of Teach For Malaysia. It was my experience of failing to get into the Teach First programme in the UK that really motivated me to start Teach For Malaysia. I had cruised through my studies by scoring well in exams and didn’t see or feel the need to stretch myself in other areas. The crushing rejection from Teach First was the first spark of self-awareness for me. Later, when Keeran, a colleague in PwC, pushed the idea that we should start Teach For Malaysia, I thought, yes, we should do this!
What do you think can be done to promote more idealism amongst Malaysians?
I believe social impact work cannot be viewed as sacrifice as it would then be unsustainable. Instead it must be perceived as truly a win-win situation for all parties involved. Teach For Malaysia’s focus on leadership development is critical towards driving change in the communities we work in. However, it also helps provide a very clear benefit for the career progression of our alumni as it’s transferable into any other field they choose to pursue after that. Many employers line up to recruit our alumni and this element greatly allays our applicants’ parents’ concern that their child had studied so hard only to “end up as a teacher”!
How many teachers have you recruited so far and how many students have benefitted from TFM?
We’ve recruited over 360 Fellows. As for students, the most conservative estimate is 73,000 as of 2017 but we don’t have enough resources to track all of the students our Fellows have worked with in the classroom.
The middle class are able to send their kids to private schools. Are the poorer students doomed to be disadvantaged because richer students have access to better schools?
There’ll always be a gap and at the moment the gap is very, very large. I do hope in my lifetime that the Teach For Malaysia movement can be a catalyst for a deep systemic and structural reform. We’ve seen London shift from one of the worst performing regions in the UK, 15 years ago, to becoming the best today. Teach First contributed greatly to that large scale transformation. I hope in time the gap in Malaysia will reduce significantly and there’ll be a point when more and more middle class families would find that the public schools do provide quality education and this would further reinforce the virtuous cycle of improvement.
What is the main difference your teachers bring to the students they teach?
This is very hard to say as I don’t like comparing our teachers to existing teachers because we want to work together with the system. However, we recognise the differences in our recruitment, selection and training approaches. Teach For Malaysia’s approach is solely focused on placing teachers in low-income communities. That allows us to be very deliberate in the design and execution of the programme and our teachers are extremely well-supported for the technical and emotional challenges that come along with it.
Teachers who sign up for TFM work for two years. What happens after that?
About 30 per cent continue as full-time teachers for the Ministry of Education, 37% continue working in the broader education and social sector, while the others are in a range of roles across Corporate Malaysia or pursuing further studies.
How much of TFM’s funding comes from the government, how much from the private sector’s CSR programmes and from public donations?
Currently 20 per cent is from the government, 77 per cent from private sector and 3 per cent from individuals who support our programme. We’ve been lucky to have some long-term supporters like Yayasan Hasanah, YTL, UBS, Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, Yayasan DayaDiri and many more. We are also finding that many individual Malaysians are extremely generous by donating RM50 or RM100 a month to help us. So, we just have to figure out how to get the word out to many more people just like any commercial sector that wants to generate growth.
How long do you see yourself doing this?
Teach For Malaysia specifically? I would say between 10 to 15 years in total. I’ve just completed eight years. In the long run, I still do see myself in education and specifically in public sector education but the civil service at the moment doesn’t have opportunities for those from the private sector to join. So I will either have to try to influence that or explore other possibilities in creating a role to support and drive education reforms.
Do you have time for hobbies?
I think it’s of the utmost importance to have a healthy work-life balance to encourage high-performance in the workplace. I make enough time for my wife, parents, siblings and close friends. I also deliberately have a balance of action and creative orientated hobbies. Currently that’s CrossFit and gardening.