By Annabelle Lee

MALAYSIANSKINI | Eleven years ago, Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (Tamil) Ladang Krian’s 100-year-old buildings were on the verge of crumbling, as was school morale.

Today, it boasts a well-equipped computer lab and a winning streak in coding, robotics, and mathematics competitions. Each of its 12 classrooms is decked out with either an Android television screen or a digital smartboard.

Behind the transformation of this rural Tamil primary school in Nibong Tebal, Penang is ICT teacher Premalatha Selvaraj.

With an insatiable desire to learn and an unconventional approach to teaching, “Cikgu Prem” has managed to introduce technology and opportunity into the classroom.

Interestingly, Premalatha told Malaysiakini she never intended to become a teacher.

When the 38-year-old graduated with a communications degree back in 2009, it was smack in the middle of a global financial crisis.

Jobs were scarce and when an opening for a temporary teaching position at SJK(T) Ladang Krian came up, she took it, only to be shocked by the deprivation she saw.

“It was a big culture shock for me when I entered the school and found out there were still students whose families were kais pagi makan pagi (living hand to mouth).

“I found the school to be in a worse condition than the primary school I went to. And I was in Standard One in 1991,” she described in a recent Zoom interview.

The school’s dilapidated state coupled with her daily two-hour work commute put her off at first. She kept trying to get a transfer but was turned down every time.

In hindsight, Premalatha credits “fate” for how the transfer never worked out, and how her temporary teaching job morphed into a career some 12 years on.

From ‘katak’ to Google coach

These days, Premalatha teaches ICT to the 250 students at her school five days a week.

After school and on weekends, she switches gears to become a trainer, guiding teachers on how to use Google applications in their classes.

She has conducted hundreds of hours of training sessions and was recently announced by Google’s Certified Innovator Programme as one of its 11 coaches.

It is an accolade reserved for experts of the global technology giant’s suite of education tools and Premalatha is the first Malaysian to have achieved this.

While the award garnered her significant attention and made her a sought-after panellist, she shared that her journey began at a point of frustration eight years ago.

At the time, she described herself as a katak di bawah tempurung (living under a rock) who felt inferior to her peers in urban and better-funded schools.

She recalled grabbing whatever opportunities were available just to improve herself.

This desire got her noticed, and she was eventually roped into the Google ecosystem in 2014 just as it began rolling out applications tailored to classroom settings.

A whirlwind of all-expenses-paid workshops later, Premalatha became a Google-certified teacher.

Around this time was also when her students won a consolation prize in a Frogasia song and video competition, which attracted a contribution of 41 Chromebook laptops to her school.

Suddenly, for the first time, she could teach her students ICT using actual computers rather than describing it off a page of a textbook.

“It was just the right timing,” Premalatha recalled with a smile.

She began teaching her students how to work collaboratively and simultaneously on a Google document.

She then showed them how to draw mind maps, use the chat function, and build a Google Cardboard viewer, which provides a virtual reality experience when used with a smartphone.

Premalatha remembered how she was unable to issue any homework as her students – many of them from lower socio-economic backgrounds – did not have internet or digital devices at home.

“At first, I wondered how I was going to teach them. Because they were struggling to even find the letters on the keyboard. They would type the letters one by one.

“After that, I realised that they grabbed it very quickly. Even when I taught them coding.

“As long as you give them the opportunity and the space, they will make use of it,” she said.

Eventually, the school secured enough funding to build a computer lab.

Other teachers began conducting classes at the lab, using computers for subjects like English and Mathematics under Premalatha’s guidance.

She also started holding workshops at the computer lab on weekends, showing teachers from nearby schools how to integrate technology into their lessons.

Before long, she had to move her workshops online as demand was coming from educators throughout Malaysia and the Asia Pacific.

Premalatha eventually became one of Google’s top teacher leaders in the region, but ironically continued to face resistance from some colleagues at her own school.

That was until the Covid-19 pandemic hit, causing schools to close and classes to move online.

“When Covid-19 came, they had no choice. They had to do it. Those teachers who used to say ‘I cannot’ started doing online classes.

“Even though it was a disaster, Covid-19 still did good things for us. Teachers who used to say ‘I don’t know how to do this’ started to chase me to ask me how to do this and how to do that,” she said, chuckling.

My students are better than me

Despite all her experience and exposure, Premalatha is reluctant to call herself an expert.

The ICT teacher oversees the robotics programme at her school and over the years, her students have managed to win awards.

However, she readily admits she has “no idea” about robotics and insists she has little to do with her students’ success.

According to her, all she does is facilitate the exposure and point her students to YouTube whenever they have questions.

“I just bring the robot to the students and they just explore it lah. I just give it to them.

“When they come and ask me ‘teacher, how to fix this?’ I say I don’t know. I will ask them to look up YouTube to see if they can fix it. Then after a while, they will be able to fix it,” she said.

By bringing technology into the classroom, Premalatha regards herself as more of a facilitator of opportunity rather than someone who knows best.

“I just give them the opportunity so they can explore it themselves. I can say my students are better at robotics than me,” she said matter-of-factly.

Hungry for more

Born on the Tali Ayer oil palm estate in Bagan Serai, Perak, Premalatha came to Penang as a child when her family moved out in search of employment.

The youngest of eight siblings, she discovered the computer at 13 when her elder brother bought his first one.

Behind her brother’s back, she began tinkering with the machine and eventually decided she wanted to master it.

Premalatha went on to become the first university graduate in her family, and later the first to obtain a master’s degree in the field of technology in education.

She is now planning to pursue a PhD in technology, hopefully under a government scholarship.

She plans to take a well-deserved break to study before returning to SJK(T) Ladang Krian to sow what she has absorbed.

“There is still a lot I need to learn,” Premalatha said.