An interview with Derek Fleming
Derek is a South African secondary English teacher. He has been teaching in Brunei since 2016.
CfBT: What do you like most about Brunei?
DF: I live in a very remote area and really enjoy the peace and beauty. I also like the people here who are uniformly friendly, polite and welcoming.
CfBT: Please describe where you live.
DF: I live in a district called Temburong which is cut off from Brunei by Malaysia although this isolation is set to end in 2020 with the opening of a new bridge. How this will affect life in Temburong remains to be seen. I am, for now, privileged to live in a tract of some of the last untouched rainforest on earth…something future generations might see only in books. I am no great naturalist or botanist, but still enjoy getting out into the fresh air and greenery as much as possible. My actual house is the best housing I have been provided with in over twenty years of teaching abroad.
CfBT: Please describe a typical working day.
DF: I start earlier than most people as I am usually at school around 6:30 am. This is not required although it allows me to leave at 2:00pm as opposed to 2:30pm were I to arrive at 7:00am. I work better in the morning and am usually pretty tired by the afternoon, so this suits me. I have four classes and a typical day will see me teaching three lessons. Each class lasts for one hour which is ample to achieve a lesson objective. In between classes, I plan, mark, create resources or do extra duties like CCA and supervision. Occasionally we have staff meetings after school which last until 4:30 and also the rare evening obligation like the school singing contest. On most days I leave school at two, but, owing to large class numbers, I often find that I have to complete marking at home although I still usually have time to unwind and read or watch a movie.
CfBT: What school do you teach at? Describe what the local students and teachers are like.
DF: I teach at Sekolah Menengah Sultan Hassan, Bangar. I teach four classes with a total of about 130 students. This is not typical for Brunei, but the lower school in Temburong (years 7 and 8) has inordinately large numbers owing to lack of classroom space. I found it a little difficult at first but one soon adapts, and the students, while being pretty normal teenagers, do not generally cross lines which might not even exist for their western counterparts. They are fun but respectful, and I have grown fond of all of them–even the naughty ones. I cannot speak for the rest of Brunei, but the lower ability classes in Temburong tend to be much lower in English than the curriculum requires, and this can be frustrating. The top classes, however, have gifted students who are comparable to any I have taught previously.
CfBT: What are the teaching resources like there?
DF: We do have resources although an ongoing problem is the lack of resources for lower ability secondary students. Their level is such that the only resources available for them are designed for primary students and are, as a result, too immature and uninteresting. This problem can be overcome by creating one’s own resources. I teach the top and bottom classes in year 7 and find that I can usually adapt the higher level lesson plan by tweaking some things to make it appropriate for the weaker class. This involves a bit of extra work but no more than one would normally do in any other Asian school. The textbook is also out of date and does not really meet the needs of the updated curriculum, but this too can be adapted with a few adjustments. Our school is well resourced with photocopiers and projectors, and we receive an A4 copying allowance. We also have access to the local CfBT office with computers, internet, printers and photocopiers (supplied with A4 and A3 paper).
CfBT: How does teaching in Brunei compare to home? (e.g. discipline teaching hours, admin load, etc.)
DF: The teaching hours are reasonable although the admin load seems to be growing. I have not, however, taught at home for so long (I have lived in Asia for 25 years) that I am not qualified to make a valid comparison.
CfBT: What do you do in your free time?
DF: I jog every day off and running through uninterrupted greenery with my favourite music playing is really good. I also go on long walks. It must be understood though, that Temburong does not offer the diversions available to one in KB or Bandar, and for a person to be successful here one needs to be self-sufficient and to have one’s own interests. I love literature and have really enjoyed the opportunity to read many of the great masterpieces that I might otherwise have missed…although my amazon bill is killing me!
CfBT: What do you do in your holidays?
DF: Sometimes I go away as all major South East Asian destinations are within a 2 hour flight. I am, however, so comfortable and at peace here that often I just stay and unwind.
CfBT: Please describe how you get from place to place (transportation in Brunei).
DF: I drive around Temburong but going over to Bandar by car earns me eight stamps in my passport, and passports can fill up very quickly. I, therefore, usually take the boat and while the schedule is not always reliable, particularly in the early mornings and late afternoons, the trip itself is idyllic and something I never get tired of.
CfBT: What advice do you have for teachers who are thinking about moving to Brunei?
DF: Don’t arrive here with preconceived ideas. Everybody has their own experience and if you come with an open mind and are willing to take it as you find it, you will find it growing on you until one day you realise that you are actually very happy to be here.