Sunday, July 13, 2014

I don't have what it takes to be a teacher

What makes me want to be a teacher? I've been pondering on this question lately. I've been proudly calling myself a teacher for years. But am I actually a teacher? Am I doing what I thought I should be doing as a teacher when I first decided to join this profession years ago?

What is teaching?

If you look up the word 'teaching' in the dictionary, you would probably get a definition like "imparting knowledge to or instructing (someone) as to how to do something." If you try to search it on the Net, you would get synonyms like 'informing', 'drilling', 'enlightening', 'coaching' and etc ( The following, however, are some answers I got when I asked several teachers to define the word 'teaching':

"It is to make someone a human."
"To touch lives."
"Giving my students education and providing them with opportunities for a better future."
"Serving others."
"Making a difference in my students' lives."

I don't have what it takes to be a nun

I was a science student, and in the 90's when you were a science student in a science boarding school in Malaysia it means everyone was expecting you to be a scientist, or an engineer or a brain surgeon. I didn't want to be all those. All I wanted to do after I finished school was to do humanitarian work. My dream was to go to Africa or India where there are lots of poor children. At that time, I wanted so much to work with under-privileged children and to help them. I read Mother Theresa's biography and she inspired me so much.

So I went to a convent to see if I could become a nun. I spent a few days there in silent retreat and prayer. The sisters told me to meditate on God's words and to do a lot of discernment to 'identify my calling.' On the final day, Mother Superior called me to her office. She said: My dear child, you don't have what it takes to be a nun. I was taken aback. But why Mother? I know I'm not a holy person, and I have lots and lots of sins, and I'm lazy to pray and read the Bible, but I'll try my very best to be better. Please, please give me a chance.

Mother Superior smiled and she said it wasn't because I'm a sinner - we're all sinners. She told me that God just doesn't want me to live in a convent because He apparently wants me to be out there in the world actively serving people. Tell me child, what's on your mind? What kind of people do you want to work with? I told Mother Superior that I want to work with children. She said: Then go. It's your calling. Find those children and work with them.

So I went to find those children...

Fast forward to a few years later - I decided to become a teacher. During the admission interview, I was asked whether I would be willing to be posted to a school in the most remote area of Sabah. I remember telling the interviewers: Oh, please, please do send me to the most remote school in Sabah! That's the very reason why I signed up for this. I was accepted to the teachers training college and graduated as an English teacher three years after that.

I wasn't posted to the most remote school in Sabah, though. I was posted to a school in a nice little village by the sea, just two kilometres away from the town. I thought: Well, this is nice and peaceful. Nothing much here. Maybe I'll stay for a few years and then try to move to another school with bigger challenges.

Or so I thought.

Making a difference?

This little school by the sea isn't as peaceful as it looks from the outside. The classrooms are filled with seemingly happy, smiling children but underneath those happy smiling faces there are untold stories - many of them heartbreaking. I know, because I work with them.

I wanted so much to make a difference in the children's lives, so I worked really, really hard. After a few years, I felt like I was going round and round in a circle. I could feel that there was a large void inside me, but I didn't know how to fill it in. I wasn't sure whether I was doing the right thing. Am I making a difference?

Am I teaching?

The first few months as a teacher was very confusing for me. The headteacher kept reminding me how important it is for us to raise the grades for English in the standardised national examination for that particular year. Apparently the school had been in the district's bottom rank for the past ten years before I came. They had no English teacher since the last one left to further his study. We have no more excuses, cikgu, no more excuses. We've been asking them to send us an English teacher, and now here you are. Give us more passes and A's, okay? Or someone-someone from up above will drop a bomb on us.


So I worked my butts off to raise the grades and to improve the school's performance in the examination. I don't think I cared much about that someone-someone from up above dropping a bomb on us, but I really really thought at that time that what I was doing was helping the children. Exam results are important. Right? It will determine their future. Right? Without good results in the examination, these children will be doomed forever. Right? Right? So I worked like crazy to prepare my students for the exam. I drilled them like crazy. I worked in the mornings, afternoons, evenings and nights to 'raise the grades' and to 'improve the percentage of passes.'

Over the years, I thank God that I managed to more than double our school's percentage of passes for English in the national examination and our school is slowly crawling up and leaving the bottom rank. As much as some people and all those someone-someone from up above are happy with our performance, year in and year out in every staff meeting I would still be reminded without fail how important it is for me to work harder. Apparently I haven't worked hard enough.

"Why are you giving the students easy questions in the test, cikgu? You should give them harder questions, so that they'll be familiar with the 'real' examination questions."
"And what has singing got to do with exams? The kids should be spending more time doing exam drills, not singing."
"Why are you spending so much time working with the parents? What has that got to do with exam?"
"I've been observing your students for a long time. I think they're way too happy. This is not good."
"Oh." I said. "But why?"
"Because they're going to sit for their big exam in September! Don't they even care? You should be careful not to let them be too happy. A little bit of stresses and worries would do them good."
"Let's concentrate on the good and mediocre students, they can give us more A's and help increase the percentage of passes."
"What about the weak students?" I asked.
"What can we do with them in just a few months? They can't even read, and the exam is in September! No, no, this isn't cruel, cikgu. You've got to understand. This is called 'working smart.' "
"Let's use the periods for Physical Education, Arts and Music to teach Maths and English."
"But Physical Education, Arts and Music are important too!" I argued.
"I know, cikgu, I know. Of course they're important. But they aren't tested in the exam."
"Give us numbers, cikgu. Do you know how important numbers are? Numbers are everything!"


I'm not helping the children. I'm not teaching them anything at all. This isn't teaching, cikgu, and it has got to stop.

But why is this happening?

Do you know what question I get asked the most by Year 6 English teachers? It's this:

"Cindy, do you have a formula to help the very weak students to pass the UPSR? I mean, those who can't even read? How do we get them to answer the questions correctly?"

Here's my answer: If a child can't read, then we should focus on getting him to learn how to read. Not to pass the exam.

But really. I can't blame the teachers. I can't blame the headteachers, or that someone-someone from up above either. If I were to blame anyone or anything, it's how we have decided to evaluate the performance of schools and teachers.

The school with the best result in the national examination is almost always the 'best' school. The teacher who can 'produce' the most A's and the highest percentage of passes are almost always the 'best' teacher. I believe it's true to a certain extent. After all, how else are we going to determine the academic performance of the students? The national examination is an important determiner. That's why schools and teachers are hard-pressed from all sides. By hook or by crook, they need to get their students to perform. The exam results will reflect on them.

However, what we seem to be forgetting is that education isn't all about academic performance. These are not my words - it's our National Education Philosophy. I'll put it here in case you can't remember what it is:

“Education in Malaysia is an ongoing process towards further effort in developing the potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner; so as to produce individuals who are intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically balanced and harmonious, based on a firm belief in and devotion to God. Such an effort is designed to produce Malaysian citizens who are knowledgeable and competent, who possess high moral standards, and who are responsible and capable of achieving a high level of personal well-being as well as being able to contribute to the betterment of the society and the nation at large.”

The right track?

What if schools are no longer evaluated? What if schools are no longer ranked and given scores or bands? What do you think would happen? There are plenty of evidence to show that when people start to rank schools, the one who would be losing the most are the students. Is this what we want?

Some people would argue that evaluations are important, because it would let us know that we're on the right track. Alright then. I'll grant them that. Evaluations are important. Some sort of evaluations are necessary because we want to be on the right track.

So what is this 'right track' all about? Examinations? Academic performance? Does examination results determine how much the students have learned? Is it an accurate reflection of the progress of a student? Does it indicate the effort of a teacher?

As much as examinations and academic performance are important, it just constitutes a small part of the bigger role of a school as an educational institution. As I understand it, schools and teachers are in the business of providing education. And our National Education Philosophy clearly states that 'intellect' is only one of the many aspects of education. It is only one aspect in the list of aspects that we have to develop in order to 'produce' these so-called 'balanced and harmonious' individuals. Furthermore, examination  - especially one that is standardised across the nation - isn't the best indicator of an individual student's level of 'intellect.'

Someone would argue that "Oh, but we do have extra-curricular achievements as one of the aspects in the school evaluation instrument." True, but how would schools be scored for this particular aspect? If you have students who manage to represent the school in district, zone, state or national level in any extra-curricular competition, then your school would get a score. The higher the level, the higher the score. Again, the focus would be on the students who are performing. The cream of the cake. What about the students who are 'so-so', or even weak? How would the scores reflect on the progress that a student make - let's say a student who used to have very low level of confidence is able to muster enough courage to participate in a public speaking competition. The student doesn't get any place - he loses in the competition, but the effort is undeniably not something that we can just take with a grain of salt. It's something big, and we have to show people how big it is. I believe all teachers would agree with me. Things like that are our proudest moment as teachers. Yet I doubt that the evaluation instrument provides any space for us to showcase that.

And the consequence? Not very different from the consequence of the over-emphasis on examination performance. The students with 'potential' will be given all the focus and attention, while the 'hopeless' ones cast aside.

So how can we say that we're on the 'right track' if the creams of the cake blossom, but the rest cast aside? How can an educational institution be on the right track when it does little to help the so-called 'hopeless' children? Isn't its supposed role is to 'give hope to the hopeless'? I know many teachers who would want to spend more time on kids who are already in Year 6 and yet still can't read or write very well. But most can't afford to do so because they're expected to spend all their focus and energy on students who have the so-called potential to pass the national exam!

And what about the students with 'no potential'? Let them go and let them be. We can't do anything, it's too late. They'll fail anyway.

And please don't get me started on another aspect of how schools and teachers are being evaluated - the filing system and the paper works. How many files a school or a teacher should have, how complete they are, do they write the necessary reports according to the correct format. No, no...please. Don't even let me get started on that.

Life-changing business

I'm very lucky to be given the opportunity to work part-time with a non-profit organisation on a web-based education project. In one meeting, the project coordinator told me that the way her organisation evaluates the success of a project is to see how much it has brought changes to the lives of people. This would be determined through surveys, research, reports and feedback from stakeholders, among others. I remember thinking to myself: If Malaysians schools are to be evaluated that way, would it change the way we work? Would it shift our focus?

For instance, would we still be focusing on the number of A's and percentage of passes? Or would we be focusing on researching how much our students' improvement in listening, speaking, reading and writing skills help them become better learners, or in other words change their lives?

Would we be focusing only on the 'creams of the cake' and the so-called 'potential' students? Or would we give equal opportunities for all students to succeed according to their own abilities so that we can have more lives changed as a result of our work?

Would we try to minimise communication with the parents of our students? Would we think that spending too much time with them is unnecessary because it doesn't contribute directly to the students' performance in exam? Or would we consider these communications necessary in order to get their feedback about whether or not our work changes lives?

Would we be worried and alarmed when we observe how carefree and jovial our students are in school, when we think that they should at least be a bit worried and stressed about the coming big exam? Or would we be glad and thankful that school seems to be a place where they can feel happy and safe and free, because it clearly indicates that we are doing something right in changing their lives for the better?

If schools are to be evaluated that way, then for sure schools and teachers would strive the best they can to do what they're supposed to do - to change lives.

Schools would try their best to reach out to more children and help them.
Schools would try their best to reach out to the community around them.
Schools would spend their funds on projects that change the lives of people around them.
Schools won't be that secluded institution consisting of blocks of buildings where teachers come and go, students come and go.
A school will become an organisation that has a life of its own. An organisation that reaches out, builds network, collaborates and helps people.
A school will do what it's supposed to do - to provide education opportunities for as many children as it can.
And teachers aren't just teachers - they are humanitarians.

I don't have what it takes to be a 'teacher'

Now I know why I want to be a teacher. It's not because I've always wanted to be a teacher. What I've always wanted is to be a humanitarian. I want so much to work with poor and under-privileged children and provide them with opportunities for a better life.

In many ways, I think teachers are humanitarians. That's why I finally decided to become a teacher, and that's how I finally fall in love with the job. Teachers change lives, teachers educate, teachers give people chances.

But if as a teacher I'm expected to ignore my students who need me the most just because some people think they're not worth it and that they 'have no potentials', then I think I don't have what it takes to be a teacher.

If as a teacher my so-called 'core business' is to produce more A's and to improve the percentage of passes and NOT to give my students opportunities for meaningful learning experiences, then I think I don't have what it takes to be a teacher.

If as a teacher I'm expected to treat my students as numbers and not individuals with feelings and emotions, then I think I don't have what it takes to be a teacher.

Maybe I can still go back to that convent and have a few words with Mother Superior. I hope it's not too late.



  1. Great experiences and a nice article for reading. Yes i want to be a teacher!

  2. Inspired one cyn! IF ONLY there are thousands of you out there, our edu system would be much meaningful ..


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