Interview: Editor Shashivarmaan on giving students a voice and finding out ‘What Students Want’

We speak to the editor-in-chief of the book What Students Want, a book that takes pride in being created, curated and edited by students.

The earliest members of the editorial board. From left, students Nurida Malik, Mohammad Shahril Hashim and Shashivarmaan himself. Furthest right is their mentor Ujval Singh Sidhu Brar, a Teach For Malaysia alumni. — Photo courtesy of Shashivarmaan Thevaraj

Education is an important aspect of nation building. Parents’ groups get very passionate with their opinions and policymakers get vocal about what they think are the right plans to roll out.

But rarely do we hear from the primary stakeholders — the students.

In 2018, non-profit Teach For Malaysia published What Students Want. The book, which was curated and edited by students, compiles the selected writings of students from around Malaysia who were given the opportunity to share their aspirations and their thoughts on what makes a good education.

We catch up with its editor-in-chief Shashivarmaan Thevaraj, who had just gotten his SPM results when the project started in 2016 and is now pursuing a degree in International Relations at Universiti Utara Malaysia.

He shares his thoughts on giving students a voice:

Q: What attracted you to participate in the What Students Want project?

In 2016, when my SPM results were announced, it was devastating. It was the results that I expected but wasn’t enough to make my family happy. Being a science stream student, I didn’t do well in my science subjects which closed the doors for me to become an engineer or a doctor just like what my parents expected.

The devastation wasn’t from the results, but from my family members who were disappointed.

It led me to call an old teacher of mine, Mr Abel Cheah, who had served as a Teach For Malaysia Fellow in my school in 2012, to talk about my problem. He advised me that it’s not the end of the journey and offered me an amazing opportunity to spearhead this project that aims to empower students.

Shashivarmaan during the early days of the What Students Want planning. — Photo courtesy of Shashivarmaan Thevaraj

Q: In what way do you feel students’ voices are underrepresented?

I think we see it in the daily scenario of a classroom. Teachers lead the lesson in the classroom and the communication is usually one way.

Why is this so? Maybe most teachers think students are incapable of making their own decisions. Similarly for parents who try to pressure their children by asking them to be what the parents want them to be without realising that the child might have thought out a future for him or herself.

Whenever a student voices out in the classroom, he or she will be deemed “rebellious” or recalcitrant because the teacher might find their own position in the classroom under threat. I personally had an experience in my school where one of my friends who gave some suggestions to change teaching method of Maths was alienated by the Maths teacher. In fact, most of the teachers ignored her presence in classroom and one day she felt depressed and cried.

That was the point I realised that students are taught to conform and are not allowed to speak out or else they will be punished for their disobedience.

Q: What are the objectives of this book and what are some steps you consciously took in your role to ensure that comes across in the book?

The objective of this book is to allow the students to articulate a realisable vision for themselves, their community and their country, to unleash the hidden talent within them especially in arts and also to instill the belief within them that their voices are valued and can drive change.

I had my personal objective as well through this book, which is to create other student leaders to initiate their own projects. Since it’s a student-centred book, I solicited submissions from students all over Malaysia with the help of the fellows who were placed in underprivileged schools.

Their submissions could be in any form that reflects their vision as students. Many students submitted their work through drawings, drama script, story and essays. A student editorial board was formed to select the best pieces and make some edits only in the aspects of grammar to preserve the originality of the submissions.

Shashivarmaan presenting at the Teach For All Global Conference 2015 in Bulgaria. He was selected as one of seven student leaders from around the world to share about student leadership, presenting the ‘What Students Want’ book project. — Photo courtesy of Shashivarmaan Thevaraj

Q: Some students in the book share about adults’ emphasis on exam results. What are your thoughts on this?

I think the whole education system was designed in a way that people actually study to score in exams but not for mastery. That’s why students end up lacking in purpose and vision.

Real life isn’t like standardised exam questions. It’s a constantly changing environment that requires strong interpersonal skills that our current system fails to cultivate.

From an early age, our parents would advise us to go to school, study hard, score well in exams and get a good job. But I haven’t seen any parents telling their kids to go to school, learn a lot things and be a knowledgable person.

Q: What are some immediate actions you think adults can take to empower the students in their lives?

There’s a quote which perfectly describes adults’ actions to empower students — “It takes a village to raise a child”. It starts with parents.

We need a new style of parenting where the parents really understand their children. By understanding their children, it’s not about what their kids like or don’t like, but about what they’re good at and their key strengths and weaknesses. Parents shouldn’t expect teachers to do all those things. It’s ultimately the task of parents to understand their child’s behaviour and psychology inside out.

On the other hand, teachers should teach not for exams but for mastery. Not to expire the interest of the child but to inspire learning and curiosity.

Q: What are student issues that are dear to you at the moment, that you feel needs to be highlighted more?

Education inequity poses a serious threat to the students. Education is something that everybody should be given equal access to because one way or another, it’ll help to empower them or change their destiny forever.

Inequity breeds social problems among students and if we could tackle inequity in education, I think we could solve problems involving students.

Student labelling and categorising is  also another issue that I think needs to be addressed. Segregating students based on their academic performance or ‘intelligence level’ based on exam marks should be abolished. All students are intelligent and they’re good at something which they don’t know and that’s why they come to school, to educate themselves to find what they’re good in the first place. We should allow students to mix with peers from different backgrounds and different thinking so that they understand each other, help each other and finally lift each other up.

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‘What Students Want’ is available in all major bookstores across Malaysia. The book is available for purchase through their publishers Gerakbudaya either online or at their physical store.

Q: What have you learned from the experience of producing What Students Want?

It totally changed my perspective on life. What Students Want taught me the importance of having a purpose in life. While working on the book, that purpose was to empower students, and that drove me every single day to get this book done. I don’t want the upcoming generation faced the similar changes like me and could get a quality education despite their background.

I also realised the significance of having a mentor in life. I’m grateful to have met Mr Abel Cheah and Mr Ujval Singh Sidhu Brar. Without Mr Abel Cheah I wouldn’t even have entered this book project and Mr Ujval Singh Sidhu Brar was my mentor throughout the journey of What Students Want and he still is.

The project also helped me learn that together we can do so much. When you have a mission that inspires people, you can synergise, share solutions and ideas to make the problems easier to tackle. Education is a global problem and it unites people around the world to call for action. I was lucky to have other student editors who share the same vision and mission, giving ideas and taking my position whenever I couldn’t lead as I was busy with my STPM  examination during the editing process of the contents.

What Students Want also took me out of my comfort zone. All the amazing things we want lies outside of our comfort zone. It’s just that we don’t want to put ourselves in that position to acquire it. I learned to be patient, catching up with deadlines and learned to multi-task although I’m still bad at it. It was uncomfortable, stressful but in the end it’s all worth it. All the hard work finally paid off and I’m really happy about it.

Q: Lastly, what do students want?

Others might have other opinions but this is what I believe; Students want someone who believes in them when the rest of the world don’t. They want someone who can enter their world and be the navigator of their exploration rather than just giving commands or instructions.

And it’s not only students, we all want someone who believes in us, whether it’s our parents, friends, or our girlfriends or boyfriends because it’ll give us the boost we need to go further than we thought was possible.

We just have to believe in the capability of our students that they’re able to take agency over their own learning and lead their own future and we have to support them in their undertakings. Rather than seeing them just as children, let’s see them as stars where not all the stars will shine all the time, but with moements where it’ll shine the brightest and we just have to witness it.

That’s what students want. Belief and inspiration to do the best. To do more and to do more than dream.

To get your hands on ‘What Students Want’, it is available at all major bookstores around Malaysia; and available for purchase online here.

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