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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Confessions of a Cikgu

A senior teacher talks about how she is fast losing her enthusiasm for the job because of the ever-increasing non-teaching chores she has to take on.

IT was recently announced that a committee, headed by Education Director-General Tan Sri Alimuddin Mohd Dom, and comprising representatives from various teachers’ unions, has been directed to look into complaints by teachers on how they have been burdened with other chores instead of focusing on their primary duty — teaching.

However, it is comforting to know that the Deputy Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, has himself said that he feels that there is a basis to teachers’ concerns. He wants the committee to thrash out problems and get back to him with sound recommendations to improve the lot of teachers in the country. The deadline? Two months.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed. Teachers are looking forward to some positive and workable recommendations from the committee.

The story below is of a teacher with 27 years of experience whom I shall refer to as Tee. Tee loves sharing her knowledge with students. She even takes pride in class projects and thoroughly enjoys the interaction with her charges.

However, over the years, she has been burdened with paper work and has been constantly called to work on Saturday and dumped with more responsibilities.

Teachers are bogged down by unnecessary paper work which leaves them with little time to focus on teaching. — File photo

Such duties which can easily be carried out by a clerk, is taking a toll on Tee, 52, who is losing her enthusiasm for teaching. It will be a shame if the country has to lose dedicated teachers like her.

A steady job

Tee was born in a small town in Selangor, and is the eldest of 10 children. Tee’s father was a lorry driver and her mother, a rubber tapper. After completing her secondary school education, she decided to teach and had applied for a place in the then teacher training college (it is now known as teacher training institute).

“It had always been my ambition to be a teacher and my parents had no objections, so long as their eldest daughter had a steady job, or as they would refer to it, an ‘iron rice bowl’ job.”

However, before that materialised, she accepted a JPA (Public Services Commission) teaching scholarship at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Science and graduated with honours in 1983. She obtained a Diploma in Education from UKM the following year.

Tee started teaching in a secondary school in Karak, Pahang and had stints in Sekinchan, Sg. Pelek and Selayang all in Selangor, before she was posted to her present school in Petaling Jaya in 2004.

“When I began to teach in the eighties in small towns, students then were very simple and they respected their teachers.

They did not seek much outside help or tuition for the subjects they were weak in, as they do today.

“At that time, their only source of knowledge and solution to their problems lay in doing the homework we gave them in school.

“As such, the the teacher-student relationhip was good. I could actually chart the personal development my students made under my tutelage. We teachers were instrumental in shaping their personality and character,” she says proudly.

Tee does not mince her words when she is asked to comment on how teaching was like, more than two decades ago.

“Those days, all I had to do was to teach, guide and to get to know my students as well as I could. If there was paperwork, it was minimal.

“If you look at students today, you can see that, because of their exposure, they are more knowledgeable. They have higher expectations and demand more from their teachers. I even feel that some of them are very egotistical.”

There’s one aspect of her job that Tee feels has changed for the better — preparing and setting examination questions.

“It was a more difficult task back then, but now, with the advent of numerous workbooks, the computer and educational DVDs, the job has become so much easier.”

I ask her if she is satisfied being a teacher.Tee thinks hard before responding.

“When I first began teaching, my salary was very low but I was a happy teacher. Today, my salary is much higher, and rightfully I should be happy, but I am not.”

“The clerical work I have to do, is becoming unbearable. You see, as a Mathematics teacher, I already have a lot of preparation, planning and marking to do.

“Now, on top of that, there are many other deadlines to be met. All parties, including parents, the principal, colleagues and students have high expectations.”

As a ketua bidang (head of department), life at school is even more stressful for Tee.

She is in charge of several academic programmes and for her, the documentation and filing she has to oversee, is literally back-breaking.

At 52, and with menopausal symptoms, particularly hot flushes, plaguing her, Tee’s sentiments about school have not changed.

In fact, for the first time in her teaching career, she was stressed and worried when the new school year began in January.

“I was anxious about my work and the ever-increasing responsibilities for the entire year. Could I take all this and more for another year?” she asks with a frown.

Tee tells me of an ex-colleague who had just passed away due to breast cancer, and of another one, who was currently undergoing treatment for uterine cancer.

When Tee herself went for a mammogram recently at the University Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC), she was startled to hear from a nurse at the Radiotherapy Department that nine out of 10 patients undergoing chemotherapy at the hospital were teachers.

“Do you think it’s caused by stress?” she asks.

I found her question disturbing to say the least. Can it be?

Blank expressions

“You know,” she tells me, “I also find myself thinking a lot about my students these days. Sometimes, when I see ‘blank expressions’ on their faces, especially from those who are academically weaker, I wonder to myself ‘Why are they here? What do they feel about having to learn something that is not relevant to their daily life?

“For some of them, Mathematics is such an alien subject that even I begin to wonder what I am doing with them. On top of that, I feel that students today have to learn too many subjects and this makes life very challenging for the weaker students.”

Tee is of the opinion that the Government should set up more vocational schools to provide living skills training to this group of students.

“At least then we can help produce our own skilled workers, rather than having to import them.”

Tee feels that these days, she is more like a clerk doing paperwork instead of spending time giving personal attention to her academically-challenged students.

“Just think. Each class has about 30 to 40 students, so to be efficient, one has to have classroom management skills too. With the type of students we have, it is no easy task managing them. Many young teachers are afraid when they have to enter a classroom.”

Tee also regrets that with her increasing workload, she has little time to mentor and guide young teachers at her school.

“These teachers lack experience badly, and I feel they need to be guided for at least a year.

“With senior teachers being bogged down with non-teaching duties, there is hardly any time to develop a young teacher’s potential, or help boost their self-confidence.

“Often, they just get thrown into the deep end of the pool and unlike us — the teachers of the older generation, who had so much more grit and resilience — this group of young teachers take a longer time to adjust and cope.”

Tee tells me that despite being graduates, many of them lack communicational skills.

“For the teaching of Science and Maths in the higher forms, young teachers simply aren’t competent in the language of instruction.

“Students then start complaining and parents start calling up the school demanding an explanation.”

Tee shakes her head. “If I’m given the choice today, I don’t think I’ll choose to be a teacher anymore. I’m not against teaching; I enjoy being with my students. In fact, I’m at my happiest when I’m in the classroom. But our job today isn’t just to teach and deal with students, is it?”

“Don’t get me wrong. In class, I still do all I can for my students. I know they view me as a stern person because I follow the rules and I mean business when I am teaching them. I’m a hardworking and responsible teacher.

“I do sometimes crack a joke or two, and we all laugh together. Sometimes I tell them stories about my difficult childhood and how I had to be like a mother to all my younger siblings — how I had to act responsibly even when I was just a teen and the amount of housework I had to do and how difficult life was for me.

“I know my students admire me for the determination I have shown through the years to make something of myself. We have a good relationship – my students and I. I am firm but kind. I even treat them with sweets and chocolates.”

Tee also shares with me what she thinks about her relationship with her students.

“Oh, without question - they are very bold, talkative and not as disciplined. They want to be treated as friends rather than as students. In class, they are quick with their comments and remarks.

“In fact, I get aggravated when my students are rude or indifferent.

“But, personally, I’m a cheerful person so I do let down my guard once in a while and have some fun with them. As a teacher, I realise that they have needs that I must meet.

“For their sake therefore, I have to be prepared mentally and emotionally, as well as be sound in my own knowledge, especially in the subject that I teach. So far, that has not been a problem with me.

“When they tell me that I’m the best Additional Mathematics teacher they’ve had, I feel truly rewarded.

“When they get good results in Maths, some of them have even hugged and thanked me for being their teacher.

“I like getting positive feedback from my students, and I must admit that I feel young because I’m always surrounded by them.

“So, you see, it’s not the teaching part I don’t like. It’s the other chores that get me down.”

I ask Tee what is the best compliment she has received as a teacher. She is wistful, but her answer moves me as it still does her.

“One of the happiest moments in my life was when a mother thanked me for helping her son to be a cheerful, confident young man.

“The mother told me that her relationship with her son had improved tremendously because of me. It felt very good that I had such an effect on someone’s life.”

Does Tee have any advice for young teachers?

“Be committed, be knowledgeable and be prepared for what you are supposed to do. Always remember that if you want your own children to be taught by good teachers, then be a good teacher to the children of others. What goes around comes around.”

On a serious note, Tee is already thinking of applying for optional retirement next year simply because of the ever-increasing non-teaching chores.

by NITHYA SIDHHU

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