This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on April 16, 2018 - April 22, 2018
The Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia results were released last month. We congratulate the students who did very well and to those who did not, it is not the end of the world. Some will pursue tertiary education but most will not. When a school does well, the credit goes to the tuition teachers. When it does not, teacher absenteeism is blamed. School teachers tend to get a bad rap, but there are many good teachers too.
The Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia was invited to speak at the recent 22nd Malaysian Education Summit hosted by the Asian Strategic and Leadership Institute. The theme was “Creating the right environment to enable quality education”. The focus of our session — “Rethinking education: How can education today meet the needs of tomorrow?” — was on literacy rates, including health literacy, which are rising, although required skills, such as financial, technological and problem-solving, have not developed much. The discussion required us to deliberate on the skills required for the future and how we could plan and structure education to teach students in a more wholesome manner.
Some degree of teacher absenteeism is globally accepted. So we decided to take two steps back and address instead extreme teacher absenteeism in schools where students are deliberately left behind by teachers. The National Transformation Programme for Education speaks about upgrading good teachers but little is being said about bad teachers, which is a sensitive topic — no one wants to get the teachers all worked up and defensive.
Politically, teachers are a sizeable vote bank and politicians are quick to defend them no matter the situation, but we know that bad teachers are the weak link in the education system. We have heard this many times before: we have picture-perfect policies but implementation is imperfect.
According to the recently released Unesco Global Economic Monitoring Report 2017/2018 (GEM), a review of teachers, school administrators, parents and officials in 24 countries found that 54% believed the code of ethics had a significant impact on reducing misconduct. Therefore, the teacher code of ethics shall be the guiding light.
We see the code painted on school walls but hardly hear it being uttered by teachers. Maybe, teachers should declare it at every assembly just as students are made to mechanically recite the Rukunegara. Then maybe, teacher absenteeism will gradually fall as it slowly and painfully tugs at the heart strings. If it does not, then it is probably time for the teachers concerned to call it quits. Teachers have to be honest with themselves and do their part too.
The GEM report also points out that “in schools with no or low community monitoring or parental involvement, or very poor resources and facilities, teachers are more likely to be absent”. Not surprisingly, literacy rates are high in Peninsular Malaysia, at 95%, but significantly lower in Sabah and Sarawak, at 79% and 72% respectively, because their communities are poor, inaccessible, less educated and probably have lower expectations of their children. Irresponsible teachers take advantage of this by reporting for work but not attending classes, and falsifying records.
In November last year, in a news report entitled “Malaysian civil servant sacked after missing work for 2,002 days”, the Minister of Education admitted that it was not a teacher but a staff member of a rural school and, indeed, of almost 3,500 cases of wrongdoing committed by employees of the ministry from 2010 to October last year, 55.4% were related to absenteeism.
“Imagine a student walking an hour and a half to school, where there is no path or public transport, only to find no teacher when he arrives. Who is to blame? What can parents do if they are not literate and cannot afford to find out whether the teacher had to attend to regular, non-classroom administrative duties or was simply negligent, backed by a local politician who helped appoint the teacher in the first place?” the GEM report asks.
The question that begs to be answered is, who is accountable for extreme teacher absenteeism? It is obvious that the teacher will be the first to be reprimanded and shown the exit but it should not stop there. Those higher up should also be held responsible and admonished for student abuse. This will send a warning to bad teachers that they have to shape up or ship out.
As an extension of the exit policy, the Ministry of Education could offer a voluntary separation scheme to teachers with a poor attendance record. Get rid of them rather than allow the malaise to spread and rob students and their families of a better life. Replace them with inspiring teachers.
If nothing is done about bad teachers, the good ones might exercise the exit policy and opt for the private sector where it is more lucrative, what with the mushrooming of international and private schools and tuition centres, and home-schooling becoming an alternative and popular learning choice.
If the situation worsens, there will be little left of national schools.
For most people, education is the best way out of poverty. Return to our students their right to a proper education.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is the chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, which is an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders
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