I have a whiteboard stuck on my wall that says, “Anything is possible with a mind to learn, practice and reflect.” With this mindset, I am unstoppable.
Here’s my story. I come from a Malay background, but I was born and raised in Japan. I enjoyed an all-Japanese environment through age 11 until, one day, my parents told me I spoke too much Japanese. They had tried to maintain my bilingualism by speaking English to me at home but spending most of my time speaking Japanese at school did not help. I was thinking in Japanese, answering in Japanese and doing my maths in Japanese. I loved studying, maintaining perfect grades and my attendance rate.
During my teenage years, I started at an international school in Tokyo. I still had a little bit of confidence since I at least understood English. Boy, I was in for a surprise. It turns out, understanding conversational English was not enough to understand academic English, especially the sciences. Moreover, academic culture had shifted. I was used to a classroom with a teacher in front, absorbing knowledge, applying it through my answers on tests―the traditional learning pedagogy. Now there were reports, essays, presentations, discussions; it was an overwhelming number of ways to apply knowledge.
Knowing all the answers in my Japanese classroom, I felt smart. Being utterly confused in my new international school, I felt dumb.
“I decided that my reality could change with the right commitment. I learned, I practiced, I reflected”
I felt like a complete failure. That translated to my poor social life as well, since I was in a new school. I didn’t feel understood, and I didn’t have the linguistic freedom to make others understand me. I still remember wanting to cry when I got my first assignment to write a lab report in my Middle Years Programme (MYP) science class. No one had ever taught me how to structure my assignment, and I was too scared to ask. I sat down at my father’s computer, feeling frustrated that I could not type fast. I was bitter, bitter that I was about to lead a life with poor grades with peers who typed fast and used fancier words that I didn’t understand. I was used to the 400-letter manuscripts you filled in by-hand, in Japanese.
This was the first time I had to write something through the computer, in English. Microsoft Office sounded so adult. Researching information online felt so alien. But as alien as it was and as insecure as I was, a part of me was excited. It was freeing to know that topics you didn’t know about could be researched. It was liberating to have MYP teachers tell the class, “there is no right or wrong answer, so come up with your own. Just back it up with research.”
It was a new challenge that assured me that I wasn’t failing, I just hadn’t learned it yet. That was a revelation, a turning point.
In August 2011, my family moved to Singapore, and I joined the Australian International School Pte Ltd. Unlike the uncertainty I felt when I entered the international school in Tokyo, this time I was prepared. I knew that this was a chance to create a whole new first impression. I found myself jumping into every opportunity that interested me, and it helped that the school had a top-tier music department. I joined bands, musicals, choirs, ensembles and explored performance arts to the fullest. P.E. had always been my worst subject, but I decided that my reality could change with the right commitment. I learned, I practiced, I reflected.
What helped the most was that I had wonderful friends and teachers as well as a school counselor that I could turn to. Despite telling myself I was bad at maths through my previous school, my grade nine mathematics teacher told me I was capable of handling the advanced maths classes. He helped me realize that my bad grades in maths were merely because I didn’t know the terminology. My English teacher in grade 10 believed in me and helped me build enough confidence in the language, so much so that I found myself pursuing English at a higher level (HL). Overall, I had so much positive influence from wonderful people who validated my potential and helped me practice becoming confident. I learned, I practiced, I reflected.
By the end of my high schooling, I was able to run long distances, hold a school captaincy position in the arts and have the confidence to pursue 4 HL subjects that included English: language and literature, mathematics, music and economics.
I was never the highest achiever, but I was definitely the most excited. It was a stark contrast to my insecurities when I started out. Back then, I wouldn’t have dreamed of any of this.
“I had so much positive influence from wonderful people who validated my potential and helped me practice becoming confident.”
I realize now that it was a simple mindset shift. A mindset that understands the goals of the IB programme and what constructivist education teaches. Back then: Knowing = smart. Not knowing = failing. Now: Knowing that you don’t know everything and doing something about it = smart.
Through the IB, we were constantly put into a cycle of investigating, planning, applying and reflecting. This is what I now realize sustainable learning looked like. Sustainable learning means you not only learned the content you’re supposed to, but you also acquired the skills and curiosity to be able to learn more. You learn, you practice, you reflect. Repeat.
So, when I entered Waseda University in Tokyo, I realized I wasn’t alone in my journey. There were so many students at university who went through similar experiences as I did, to varying degrees. I got a part-time job at a local tuition school (juku, we call it) and realized that I loved to teach. My mission became to give back; to help struggling students going through the insecurities I had when I transitioned to an international school. By the second year at university, I founded a private tutoring service Kokusaba for students in Japan pursuing international education. We have university tutors who can not only help with academics but also connect to students by passing on our stories to help them out. Our experiences and empathy are our largest asset.
Looking back at the girl who felt dumb in school when she transferred to an international school, I want to tell her this: You are allowed to be an idiot who doesn’t know a lot of things. Embrace not knowing, because that opens up the world to so many new exciting things to learn and people to learn from. What matters the most is that you keep learning, you keep practicing and you keep reflecting.
Repeat after me: Anything is possible with a mind to learn, practice and reflect.
Ishanaz Bahar is the founder and CEO of Kokusaba Learning Partners, a personalized tutoring service that connects internationally minded tutors with students from Japan pursuing international education. She studies Economics at Waseda University in Tokyo, where she can be found organizing ensembles and musicals or singing with the Waseda New Orleans Jazz Club. On off-days, you will find her hunting for her next favorite cafe in Tokyo or singing her lungs out on long distance drives.
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