Khalifa Affnan had butterflies in his stomach when he saw his name listed as the global winner of the 2022 Cambridge Dedicated Teacher Awards.
“Initially, I genuinely thought it was a mistake,” he recalls. “After rereading the list of the shortlisted candidates and receiving the official email from Cambridge University Press, I realised that I was indeed the winner.”
The competition was established in 2018 to recognise and celebrate the efforts of educators worldwide. This year, there were more than 7,000 nominations from 113 countries and Khalifa was one of six regional winners who went on to compete for the overall prize.
The teacher from Keningau Vocational College, Sabah, says he was nominated by a former pupil who highlighted his efforts in setting up a cultural exchange programme between the college and South Korean educational institutions, ongoing since 2017, which allows students to host those from South Korean schools and visit the country on a field trip.
Khalifa adds that the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) projects in which he trains students in robotics, drones, coding and other technology-based disciplines, were also highlighted.
“These projects resulted in increased active participation of female students and special-needs learners in STEM activities. Many of my students have gained international recognition, including winning third place in a 2018 Korean robotics tournament, being a keynote speaker at the British STEM summit in 2020 and winning first prize at Paints of the Spanish Sun [an international online festival-competition].”
This dedicated teacher’s prize includes class sets of books and digital resources of choice by Cambridge University Press and a professional development package that will “help me further upskill and share my knowledge with my students. It will also benefit my community greatly with all the events and programmes I will organise”.
Recognition is motivating, but for Khalifa, what is most rewarding about teaching is watching his students succeed.
“It brings me warmth to hear them sharing their excitement in being involved in lessons and activities, and seeing them pick up new skills from their classes. It also brings warmth when former students still remember you even years after graduating.”
He knows the indelible mark teachers leave on their students and is following the same path as his late maternal grandfather,
Hasan Ali, a language teacher.
“My grandfather taught many students, including international ones who came to Malaysia to learn Bahasa. He was also a writer and a poet, and had published novels, travelogues and short stories under Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
“I was fascinated by his way of life. There was an instance when he brought a group of Japanese students to our home to experience Malaysian food. That gave me first-hand experience of the importance of building international relationships.
“He inspired me in language and cultivated my passion for writing. Back then, I loved to write as I couldn’t express myself verbally that much. As a challenge to myself, I decided to become a teacher, just like him.”
Kuala Lumpur-born Khalifa grew up catching fish in the ditches, playing football and riding bicycles around his village. It was a time when electronic gadgets were not part and parcel of life, he recalls.
After primary school, he was offered a place at the Science Selangor Secondary School in KL, where he learnt to be strong and independent. “I had to self-manage chores such as washing and ironing, schedule my activities and study without the help of my family. It separated me from the warmth and comfort of home. I am forever grateful for the experience because the skills I learnt in boarding school influenced me later in university and working life.”
He then enrolled for a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) degree at the Temenggong Ibrahim Teachers Training Institute in Johor Baru. As the course is a twinning programme, he had the chance to study for two years at Universiti Putra Malaysia, where he learnt another set of skills — ICT and gaming. After graduating in 2010, he was posted to Keningau Vocational College, where he teaches English.
The college takes in students aged between 16 and 19 years and currently offers eight diploma programmes: electrical technology, construction technology, automotive technology, welding technology, culinary arts, bakery and pastry, cosmetology and early childhood education.
“Being born and raised in Peninsular Malaysia, it was a challenge to adapt to the environment in Sabah,” Khalifa says, looking back. “When I started teaching, my concerns were the language, the customs and the culture. Luckily, I quickly adapted and befriended many helpful and kind people.”
He now aims to convince parents about the importance of STEM so they will encourage their children, especially daughters, to go for it.
“STEM-related subjects help the younger generation embrace the Industry 4.0 revolution by expanding their capacity to deal with the increasingly digitalised world. Skills such as programming, robotics and application development are growing in importance, and parents and teachers must build the foundation children need from an early age.”
As for himself, this avid learner wants to upskill by learning new things in technology and joining programmes conducted by other organisations. Away from the classroom, he is also a graphic designer who creates visual artworks for clients. And when time permits, Khalifa does consultations and computer services.
This article first appeared on Aug 8, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.