Monday, December 31, 2018

Making 2019 the Best Year for Teachers

The new year is here! - and everyone on social media is posting reminiscence, reflections and memories of 2018 as well as hopes, resolutions and ambitions for 2019. For many Malaysian teachers, I know it's a mixture of feelings. Many are sad because the holidays has ended, but at the same time are also excited for what 2019 may bring. Staff meetings have started since last week for most schools, classrooms decorated, lesson plans prepared, yearly plans printed and bound etc etc. Regardless of what some people say, I believe with all my heart that Malaysia has some of the best teachers in the world.

Image from Global Education Census, published on New Straits Times
I'm sharing here the links to a few articles on Malaysian teachers:

Malaysian teachers among the most dedicated in the world - Cambridge Assessment International Education
Malaysian among 50 finalist for Global Teacher Prize 2018 - Malay Mail
Malaysia's 2019 Global Teacher candidate talks about learning disabilities, and his hope - Malay Mail

We don't hate the burdens

I saw some making cynical comments about the Minister's announcement on reducing the burdens of teachers. As a response, this is all I want to say: teachers NEVER want their burdens to be reduced. We actually love our burdens (yes, I'm serious).

We love all the burdens related to teaching. We love decorating our classrooms till the wee hours of the night. We find cutting coloured papers, or drawing with markers, or laminating A4 print-outs, or meddling with Adobe Photoshop to create our teaching materials therapeutic. Regardless of what we say (or how often we actually do it. Haha!), we actually love writing lesson plans (for ourselves and our classrooms, not for anyone else!). And despite our constant complaints about how our students are driving us crazy, we actually love them with all our heart and can't imagine our lives without all the craziness. Let me explain this: we are just sick of all 'burdens' related to non-teaching stuffs.

We would rather use the time when we stay up all night keying in meaningless data into a portal (that we doubt anyone would ever use for anything) to prepare our lessons. We would rather use the time we spend to 'screen' students to no end to do some actual teaching - to teach the children how to read, and write and count - not to 'diagnose' whether they can do it or not (of course they can't do it, we have no time to teach them with all those 'diagnostic' work). We would rather spend the time that we do to prepare for the school's 'big programmes' (to impress I-don't-know-who) to connect with our students, to communicate with them personally and individually, to understand them better so we can teach them better. We would rather use the time we are forced to spend on preparing 12 or 24 or 36 files to prove how efficient the management of our schools are to finish our marking, to give individual feedback to our students, to make an impact on their learning. We would rather be in the classroom all day than to use our precious time to do work just so some people can have something to brag about on Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

So let me say it again. Teachers never want their burdens to be reduced. What we want is this: for people to just let us teach. No more nonsense. We are teachers. Our job is to teach, and we'll embrace the job - burdens and all. Don't reduce our burdens. Just get out of our way and let us teach.

Well...I can rant endlessly about this, but this is not what this post is about.

Looking back

I know I haven't posted much since I joined PPD KK three years ago. Working as a District English Language Officer (DELO) has been an adventure. I remember receiving a mixture of reactions for my decision to join PPD.

From Confession of an Addict: Some thoughts about Teachers PD (Part 2)
 It wasn't an easy decision to make, but I did explain in that embarrassingly long post the justification for my actions - why I did what I did. In sum, this is what it was actually about:

From Confession of an Addict: Some thoughts about Teachers PD (Part 2)

I did experiment with a few ideas during my short term as a DELO, but I guess I'll reserve the sharing for another post. What I do want to share in this post is what I've learned through the three years of tumultuous yet rewarding experience.

What teachers want

When I tell people that I never actually left teaching, in my mind I was thinking about going back to school after I've 'satisfied my curiosity'. But after doing what I've been doing for quite some time, I realise that working with teachers is not that different from working with students. The experience is similar, in so many ways. What do teachers want? The same things that all students want.


When you're put in a position where people see you as someone in charge - either as a classroom teacher, or an education officer, or a school leader or anyone in similar capacity - it's natural to have those whom you're supposed to be in charge of to want some form of validation from you. The need to be acknowledged - it's human nature. Students want to be acknowledged by their teachers. Good teachers always brag about their best students. And 'best' students are not limited to those who have done well - most of the times 'best' would mean those who have put in their best efforts no matter what the result. Why do teachers do this? There are many reasons, but the main ones are to motivate that particular student, and also to inspire others.

Being a teacher myself, I know I do want some form of validation from those in charge. Most teachers I know want that as well. It's not because we crave compliments. We don't do what we do because we want to be recognised. Students want validation from teachers because they want to know whether they're on the right track, whether they're doing what they're supposed to do, and to give themselves the motivation to keep going. Teachers want validation from their superiors and those in charge for exactly the same reasons.

Even without the appreciation they deserve, most teachers I know would persevere nonetheless. But let's face it. Teachers are humans. Some teachers are closer to being saints than others, but they're still humans. How long can you go on without burning out? As a DELO, I have seen otherwise good teachers fade away when put in an environment that offers very little encouragement. On the other hand, less motivated teachers can bloom and prosper under great leadership and when surrounded by inspiring work culture. We know students learn best when the environment, culture and leadership allow them to be their best. Why shouldn't it be the same for teachers?


Good teachers know that when they trust their students enough to give them ample spaces to grow, the students will often blossom. For many teachers, teaching is all about the ultimate Montessori goal - for the students to work as if the teachers don't exist. Guidance is necessary, but there's a fine line between scaffolding and controlling. Students want you to hold their hands, but when they're ready to go - you've got to let them go.

With teachers, it's no different. Why do some people think it's necessary for teachers to write reports that no one will ever read just to make sure that teachers are doing what they're supposed to do? Evidence, we need evidence, some people say. Sorry to disappoint, but reports are not very good 'evidence.' I can produce a report in less than 20 minutes as a 'proof' that I've done something - but whether or not I've done the job (and have done it well) is a totally different matter. And if nobody is going to read it, why should I bother? Let me tell you something. The amount of time and energy spent by some teachers to post what they've done on Facebook, Instagram or blog are almost the same as what they normally spend on reports. But ask any teacher which one he or she prefers: post what you've done on social media. or write a report that no one reads. Which one is more authentic? Which one more likely tells the real story? I don't have to announce the answer - everyone knows better.

I know some people think it's risky to assign teachers with a task and then let them go about it their own way, with little monitoring, with limited form of control. Monitoring and control are often necessary, but there are times when we just have to let go. We've got to trust our teachers. As teachers, we often take this risk with our students, because we know that it's human nature to want to do better if we feel that we're trusted. Why should it be any different with teachers? It might be a risk, but it's a risk I'm willing to take. I can provide plenty of evidence that trusting people works better than constantly hovering over them like an unwanted CCTV - but let's keep those for my next post.

Opportunities to grow

I often say this and I've repeated this many times. As a teacher, it is a sin for me to not teach my students. But a greater sin than that would be to deny my students the opportunities to learn. I would argue that it's exactly the same for teachers.

Someone who's in charge of teachers can choose whether or not they want to appreciate the teachers working under them. A simple thank you is usually already more than enough. But if even the smallest display of gratitude is perceived as being too much, then the least we can do for teachers is to allow them the spaces to grow.

If we can't provide teachers with quality teacher professional development that they thirst for, then don't hinder them from looking for it themselves. Teachers who don't mind spending their own money to attend courses, seminars, and conferences to develop themselves should be encouraged to do so. If someone in charge thinks attending too many conferences and seminars can make a teacher neglect his or her duties in school, look deep within and ask why this is happening. Whose job is it to provide teachers with professional development opportunities? Why are these teachers looking elsewhere? Have we done enough?


Teaching is one of the few professions where the maxim "it's nothing personal, it's just business" doesn't apply. We all know it's personal. We're moulding humans, for goodness sake. How can it not be personal?

Good teachers know how important personal connection with their students is. Listen to testimonies and sharing from great teachers, award-winning teachers, teachers who have touched people's hearts and changed lives. What do they have in common? It's the extent to which they've gone to establish a meaningful connection with their students, the extra miles they've walked to get to know their students at a deep, personal level.

Of course, we can still be a reasonably functional teacher without going through all the troubles of establishing personal connections. There's no sin in that. We can go into the classroom, teach, then go home. We still teach, students still learn. We can do that if we want to, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I know many teachers who don't want to do just that. They want to do more. They think it's important that they do more.

A DELO, or a coach, or a school admin also have that choice. We can still be a reasonably functional DELO, or a coach, or a school admin without going through all the troubles of establishing personal connections with the teachers we work with. There's no sin in that. We do our work, they do theirs.

But I know some people in those positions who don't want to do just that. They want to do more, They think it's important that they do more. I know I do.

Let's make 2019 the best year for teachers

We can make 2019 and all the years after that the best years for teachers - not by reducing the so-called 'burdens', but by doing our parts the best we can, and letting teachers do their parts the best they can. My suggestions:

1. Validate teachers, Acknowledge them. Appreciate their efforts. Validation, acknowledgment and appreciation should be given to those who have worked hard all the time - not just when the number of straight A's or percentage of passes in national examination reach our KPI. We're no longer ranking students and schools. We should stop attaching teachers' commitment and competence to the school's performance in national examination.

2. Trust teachers. Give them spaces. Allow them the autonomy to do their job. For anyone who has difficulty believing that teachers can do their work without the need to produce a written 'evidence', a better way to ensure no slacking off is to join the teachers and do the work with them. Try to be more useful by lending some helping hands. That way, we can see with our very own eyes whether or not the teachers are doing work. E.g. instead of asking for a report to 'prove' that a school has conducted its PLC, drop by and do the PLC with them.

3. Provide teachers with ample opportunities to develop themselves. Ask teachers what they need. Organise trainings based on the teachers' needs. If we can't do that, don't stop the teachers from seeking the knowledge elsewhere. Encourage teachers to grow, and provide opportunities for the teachers to use the knowledge and skills they have gained to contribute to the school. If teachers feel lifted, they'll lift others. It's a ripple effect.

4. Get to know the teachers. Connect with them. Talk to them, be their friend. I've been directed to a few allegedly 'problematic' teachers during my years as a DELO, only to discover that these teachers are actually great teachers who are just burned out. Some almost wither because they're being put in an environment that doesn't nourish their growth. We know that no two students are the same, and that we should differentiate instructions to suit individual needs. Why shouldn't it be the same for teachers? Often all a teacher needs is someone who cares, who understands how hard it is, who doesn't mind giving the teacher a second chance.

I have a lot more suggestions, but these four are top on my list. Many would say that some of these suggestions require too much work, we don't have enough people in our department, they're too idealistic to be pragmatic.

And I wouldn't disagree with that. I'm a teacher. A teacher is someone who has hundreds of children under her care, knowing that she might not be able to help them all but she tries anyway. One child at a time, every hour, every day. If I'm more concerned about being pragmatic than being idealistic, I would have quit this job a long time ago.

One final thought...

Years ago, a young lady who was training to become a teacher asked me how she can be a good teacher. I told her to never forget that she was once a student.

And once you become a teacher, don't ever forget that you're one - no matter what department you're being posted to, what position you have to handle or what responsibilities you have to shoulder.

Happy New Year, everyone! Have a blessed one! -ccj

You cannot be all things to all teachers. But sometimes, just sometimes, you will be the right colleague, friend, mentor, counselor, servant, shoulder-to-cry-on, listening-ear at the right time. You will be the exact person that one teacher needed more than anything.

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