While efforts are being made to adjust the education system, there are still many issues that have remained, causing discontent among teachers.
WE almost didn’t see Mr Leon at first in the long queue at the check-out counter in our local convenience store. His shopping cart was piled high with items ranging from onions and cabbages to garden fertiliser packs. Right at the top of his pile, and hanging rather precariously from the edge of a mop handle, were two unmistakable pairs of panty hose.
“Hello, Mr Leon,” said Dilla so loudly that shoppers in other aisles turned their heads to look. Well, well, well, it looks like retirement has finally domesticated you.”.
Mr Leon smiled a little sheepishly when he recognised us.
“Haven’t seen you two for quite a while. What’s it been, five years? No, six. So how? Still in the education business?”
Mr Leon had been a science teacher in national secondary schools for about 30 years before he retired. Although we live in the same city, we hadn’t seen him since his retirement dinner six years ago.
He chatted with us briefly and said that he had taught in a private school for about two years after he retired. “And then, I finally retired,” he said, “really and finally. Hung up my whiteboard markers and erasers. Never looked back since.”
“So, what do you do these days?” asked Dilla. “Apart from weekly grocery shopping duties.”
“Ah, this”, he chuckled waving a hand at his overflowing shopping cart. “Yes lah. My wife sends me out with a long list every Friday. She says that after 25 years of marriage, it is about time I know the difference between fabric softener and floor detergent. Ha ha... the truth is, she’s glad that she can now concentrate on her online business and watch her favourite TV dramas while I take care of some household duties.”
Teachers have often complained that many non-teaching duties take up a big chunk of time that could have been better used to plan, strategise and focus on their core business of teaching.
He stopped and rearranged a few items in his cart. “Actually, I don’t know what she finds in those drama series, same old overused plots, stereotypical storylines, love twists, ghostly girlfriends, evil mothers-in-law, always so predictable.
Same old issues
The good thing is that you can miss almost 10 episodes, go off for a three month vacation, and when you come back, nothing much has changed. Same old melodrama, same old declarations, promises, complaints, much like our school system. You come back after five years, 10 years, and the issues are still the same.”
“What did he mean?” queried Dilla after we left the store. “Do you think he was referring to the senior assistant-lab attendant affair and the time his wife marched up to the staff room demanding an explanation? Real drama, that one... I even went to class 10 minutes late because of that.
“Or, remember the time when our 50-yar-old unmarried Geography teacher got proposed to by her childhood sweetheart? Right in the middle of her lesson too... and he even brought roses.”
Thinking about it, yes, there had been and probably still are moments in teaching life which could parallel climactic scenes in our local TV drama series. But somehow, I had the feeling that there was a more serious meaning in Mr Leon’s jesting that went deeper than forbidden love affairs or delayed confessions. Despite all the proclamations and figures that are held up to show how much we have progressed in the teaching service, the underlying feeling is that in many aspects, not very much has really changed.
Although the issue of increased paperwork and administrative duties not directly linked to pedagogy is one that is frequently raised by teachers, it is not something exactly new. I remember how it used to be about 15 years ago.
On top of the list of things that caused discontent among teachers was the amount of filing and documentation that was required of them. Teachers said that many of these non-teaching duties took up a huge chunk of time which could have been better used to plan, strategise and focus on their core business of teaching. “Let teachers teach” was the general outcry of teachers a decade ago, and the cry is still resonating in staffrooms in schools throughout the country.
To be fair, there might have been attempts by those in decision-making positions to address this issue. For a brief moment, there seemed to be a flicker of hope when announcements were made about how this will be “looked into” so that teachers could spend more time and energy on the core business of teaching.
And then, suddenly, new programmes are created, changes take place and almost with a vengeance, there are more forms to fill, more paperwork to deal with, longer reports to write and documents to prepare, which are sometimes inaccurate representations of the actual learning and teaching scenario in the school.
Other issues that have been carried along throughout the years include the lack of transparency during decisions on promotions and awards.
However, open dissensions regarding this seem to have decreased in recent years either due to a feeling of futility, acceptance, or simply, lack of interest.
There are many more points of contention that were familiar to teachers a decade ago, and which are significant even today in many schools; unfair distribution of duties, less-than-satisfactory food in the school cafeteria, unfriendly office staff, school heads’ unrealistic expectations and reliance on one-dimensional correlation that ignores all other factors and simply relates students’ academic performance to teachers’ competence.
And yet, there was little change, the effort towards transformation is taking place in almost every school. We see evidence of this in the new curriculum standards, the revamped 21st century classrooms, teaching records, emphasis on thinking skills, and the associated paraphernalia and terms.
To what extent these changes will be embraced and how deep they will go in transforming the face of education in the country are questions that can only be answered in the future.
The measure of true success of these transformation efforts will show in the kind of people we ultimately produce from our education system.
And by this, it will not mean so much whether they manage to achieve post graduate degrees or become highly paid professionals, but by how well they treat their fellow men and the world they live in.