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Women in Malaysian education: Chai Sheau Fen, Acacia Montessori

by on 08/03/2024 745

Running a kindergarten was never on the cards for Chai Sheau Fen. Originally from finance, she entered the world of early education thinking that running a kindergarten would allow her to “work half days”, as she put it. 

Little did she know the challenges she would face, which led her to discovering Montessori education, where she found her calling. Today, she manages Acacia Montessori in Kota Kemuning, which prides itself as an authentic Montessori preschool and kindergarten dedicated to nurturing young minds.   

Tell us more about yourself.

I started teaching 18 years ago. Coming from a corporate background, where I worked nine to five, I had a simple mindset: I wanted to venture into something that I could do for just half a day, so I decided to open a kindergarten.  

After a few years, I couldn’t continue as the environment was very stressful. The conventional system didn’t allow room for me to understand each child’s needs–it was like a book that everyone had to follow, regardless of what level they were at. That was when I started looking for something else that I could implement. 

While travelling to countries like Taiwan, the U.S, South Korea, and the Philippines to visit different schools, I was exposed to methodologies such as Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, thematic teaching, and Montessori. During the trip, I met a nun who was also on an educational tour. She invited me to her school in Taiwan, which is an established Montessori school that follows the AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) standards. 

Acacia Montessori Kota Kemuning

The moment I stepped into the premises; I knew that it was something I wanted for my own school. The children in the classrooms had freedom to move about; they were calm and comfortable in interacting with each other and their environment, and they did purposeful work. 

After that, I went for AMI training in the U.S and received my credentials in 2012. While all of this was happening, I had a piece of empty piece of land (in Kota Kemuning), which allowed me to build my own school according to Montessori requirements, such as having large classrooms. That was how I founded Acacia Montessori. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced while running a school? 

In the beginning, my focus was on getting quality teachers rather than getting more business! (laughs) It was a struggle to find teachers who shared the same vision and values. Now coming into our eighth year, I am very appreciative that we have a great team. 

Acacia Montessori Kota Kemuning

Managing people can also be challenging, as I want everybody to be happy when they come to work, which will translate to how they interact with the children. This is one of the reasons why even though I have been approached with inquiries about franchising, I’ve declined as I think to successfully run a school, one must have in-depth knowledge about not just children’s development, but also how to manage staff. This is something that I am still learning more about every day.

How do you inspire your staff? 

I believe in making connections and having open communication. As I do not have a business background, managing the company comes from learning and personal experience.  

A big part of being a leader is being able to support teachers in handling issues and providing solutions to their problems. One way I help my staff is by spending time inside the classroom to do observations, which is crucial in Montessori. By observing the child and their interactions, we can figure out the crux of the issue together and discuss possible solutions that are positive and appropriate. 

What is the best part of your work? 

I think the Montessori method has really allowed me to connect with children emotionally, understand their needs, and support their development. Getting to influence them positively and see their transformation brings me joy. 

In Montessori, teachers are gentle and use positive approaches to handle situations, and we follow the child’s pace when it comes to lessons. When the child is ready to learn something, it’s easier for them to grasp it. It's individualised and very different from the conventional system, which is ‘touch and go’, from the way relationships are built to the syllabus that the children study. 

Chai Sheau Fen Acacia Montessori

Some parents may not agree, as they might be worried that their child is falling behind their peers. For example, in a conventional system, all pupils may be expected to hold a pencil at age four. Here, they may do so at four, four and a half, or even five. When they have that readiness, picking up skills is easier.

How do you balance work and family life? 

In the early days I used to work nonstop because I was truly committing myself to the field. Sometimes, I’d wake up in the middle of the night to do work!

Datin Zara Davies

After having my children, I tried to balance out my schedule. I’m very thankful for a supportive family, especially my husband and mother-in-law, who helped care for my kids when they were young.  

Something I enjoy doing is cooking for my family, so I’d plan all the ingredients in advance, and once I get home from work, I cook. After having our meal, I spend time with my children. It’s a very short time; I help them with homework, reading, and we play before bedtime.  

I’m glad that I was exposed to Montessori before I had my children as it changed my perspectives on life, both as an educator and as a parent. These days, I’m not overly worried about their future. If they are in a good, prepared environment, and I’m able to support their needs, especially emotionally – they can be who they want to be, rather than what I want them to be. 

What sort of improvements would you like to see in the early childhood education sector? 

There’s a saying about trauma that goes, “It takes a lifetime to heal your inner child.” It has a ring of truth because the early years are a crucial period in a child’s life. 

In the private kindergarten sector, we can play a role in educating parents on how they can understand and support their child’s needs. I’ve met people with childhood traumas that they are still unable to heal from even into adulthood, which affects how they connect with others and maintain relationships. 

What would be your advice to other women who are keen to be part of the education field?  

Being able to regulate your emotions is important, and so is having a genuine interest in understanding children. I think it is a blessing for children when the adults around them are calm. Children are products of their environment, and when you understand how to handle and nurture them, you get wonderful children who can go on to achieve great things.