Dear Thelma: A student worries that a teacher's unconventional methods of teaching might affect his exam results.

I am a secondary school student. I just finished Penilaian Tingkatan 3 (PT3) and I’m very worried about my results.

Throughout the year, I had an English teacher who was new to the school. She was a nice teacher all around, but I started to worry about her teaching at the start of this year. By March, she had not touched the textbook or reference book even once in class, and she kept saying that we did not need to follow books to learn the language.

At this time, all my friends at my tuition centre told me that their schools had already finished with their syllabus and were starting to practise for the exams. When I told my teacher about this, she simply said that she had her own way of teaching her students.

We often did things that were not actual learning. For example, she played games which took up the whole 40 minutes of class. She often split us into groups and made us do activities that involved doing nothing but having discussions. This was useless when we could have been doing past-year paper questions or revision instead.

Once, she made us act in class, and the preparations and presentations took up English classes for the whole week. She did not use the reference books and didn’t give exercises to us, and this made me worried over whether I had done well in the actual exams because I felt I was not prepared at all.

When I asked her about possible exam questions, she refused to give us hints. She didn’t do extra classes either, unlike my aunt who is also a teacher. She was not doing anything that a teacher is supposed to, in my opinion, and it was bad for her students.

I see how my aunt teaches, and all the things she does for her students, like train them with past year exam papers to make sure they are prepared. My teacher did not do this at all, so how am I expected to do well?

When I came home from school, my mother would ask me if I had homework. When I said no, she would worry. I didn’t want to tell my parents about this teacher, because I didn’t want them to go to school and jeopardise my good relationship with this teacher. 

I also didn’t want my friends to dislike me because I caused them to do more work in class. Yet, I also do not want to disappoint my parents with my results. — Worried Student

Thelma's advice:

Your anxiety about your exam results is understandable. Any student would have such concerns. However, your assertion that your teacher’s methods have been useless is a bit unfair.

What is the essence of a discussion? It is communication. And, what do you need to communicate? Language and its skills. Surely the activity was not useless. You must have learnt, aside from critical thinking skills, how to communicate to others what you are thinking. Also, you would have learnt how to understand social cues that would tell you when it is your turn to speak. 

Last, but not least, it would have given you the confidence to speak up and speak in public.

The acting exercise would have done the same thing. And, your teacher had the good sense to set you an exercise that tests your public speaking skills as it is the number one fear afflicting people in many parts of the world.

Learning is not just about being able to answer exam questions. It is about acquiring knowledge and skills that you did not have before, or improving what you already know. Learning a language, especially, is about appreciating its beauty in the spoken and written word. Learning is not only about knowing how to answer exam questions.

So your teacher did not focus on the syllabus. The question is, did you learn anything? Looking at the very articulate letter that you have sent in, it can be said that you have learnt plenty. Instead of comparing yourself to other students, perhaps it is better to compare what you know now with what you knew before this teacher.

Or, compare who you are now and the person you were before this teacher taught you. Be honest. How much have you grown? What new skills and abilities do you have now compared to before?

Without brushing aside your anxiety, it has to be said that it is refreshing to see a teacher who was not focused on teaching students to answer exam questions. Instead, she was focused on actually teaching students.

This is not to undermine your aunt’s teaching style. She has her own way, as does your teacher. It is hard to say which is better. But, in this very exam-focused environment that we are in today, it is no wonder that you doubt your teacher’s ability.

We always see reports about employers lamenting the poor language ability of those just entering the work force. Could this be the case because schools are too focused on getting students to get through exams rather than actually teaching them the language, and the skills required to use it properly?

You want to do well in your studies, and no one can fault you for that. However, you must realise that doing well is not just about getting A’s. It is also about improving yourself – knowing something new; gaining a new skill. 

Think about it and reflect upon yourself. Chances are that your year with this teacher has made you a new and better person. Then, you can judge your results when you get it.

■ Is something bothering you? Do you need a listening ear or a shoulder to lean on? Thelma is here to help. Email star2.thelma@thestar.com.my. Include your full name and address (which will be kept confidential) and your preferred pseudonym for publication. No private correspondence will be entertained.