Sep 19, 2013

Of Teachers, English and Choosing Your Battles

A few days ago (or was it weeks?), I went on a ranting spree on Twitter. Ganaesh thought it would be better if I compile everything and put it here. (It's a pretty important topic what!  -Ed.)

I didn't realize it was this long! I have added a few more to the original tweets if you were following me that night. It's a bit long, so have a cup of your favourite beverage with you before you start.

Thanks for reading! :)

Earlier this year, I was ecstatic when Muhyiddin announced that English was going to be a “compulsory pass” subject. I shared the news with some friends who also taught English, and they too were giddy. But then things went quiet. I thought that the plan got scrapped. Tidak apa. Life goes on.

Now it’s in the Education Blueprint, and they even have a deadline of sorts: English must be a “compulsory pass” subject by 2016. The blueprint is not perfect. Others have already ranted and raved about it (much better at than me I may add) so, I’m not going to rake about it here. Where was I? Oh yeah, English as a passing subject.

Getting a pass is not hard for those schools categorized as Band 4 and above. Unlike MUET, the band system for Malaysian schools is from 1 to 7 (1 being the best and 7 being the worst). I guess most people will think: There they go again, the government is just implementing things out of their asses again and putting more work for teachers/burden for the students/stress for the parents.

A little anecdote here: In 2012, a programme called “Teaching English Literacy and Literature” (TELL) was implemented. It was a mentor-based programme for primary teachers.  What it’s supposed to do is show teachers new strategies in teaching English to kids. It must have done well, as the skill of teaching English among Year 1 teachers improved by 54%, and English literacy among students improved by 16%. It must start somewhere at least. Yes, there is a chance that the numbers are wrong (it has happened before!), but at least there is improvement. It won’t be long before other teachers go through a similar programme. (POSITIVE THINKING!)

I can’t stress the importance and benefits of English proficiency. At the most fundamental level, if you’re good in English you’ll at least understand what people are saying about you. Imagine how embarrassing it is to be a minister with a poor grasp of English. Imagine how many sarcastic and rude jokes and slander just pass you by.

And yet my timeline is full of people unhappy with making English a compulsory language to pass. That is sad.

It’s not easy to teach language. English is especially difficult to teach because of all the prejudice, assumptions and stigma connected to it. I don’t understand why people think language is constant (or even stagnant) and yet say a language is dead if it doesn't fit what they have previously known about them. Language is very much alive. You can kill a language if nobody uses it, like Latin or Sanskrit.

The fact is, language is a cheat, a liar and a thief. That is how it survives. It cheats by simplifying itself, always constructing and deconstructing. It lies by changing its meaning. Take the words "gay" and "adorable". A long time ago it meant something else entirely. When language steals, it steals from EVERYONE. It doesn't just steal the nouns, it steals the grammar too. English is one of the biggest "language crooks". Why do you think there is always an exception to the rule?

If the Malay language is to survive, it needs keep on adding words to itself… even if it pains the users and their ears. And since the words in a language are based on popularity, there will be words that die.

Kutubkhanah (library).
Sa-orang (someone).
Laki-laki (man).

These are words we laugh at now because of how dated they are.

So people shouldn't worry that English will kill Malay, or vice versa. As long as there are users of the language, it will not die.

Are our teachers ready to teach English, though? This question has been there long before the Education Blueprint came out. Teaching has become that one job that everyone hates, but thinks it’s easy to do and is envious of the perks. Teaching English comes with own pluses and minuses. It is the most beloved and hated subject in schools.

People also have a preconceived idea that rural teachers are rural folks and urban teachers are urban folks. I think the words "rural", "native" and "indigenous" have such negative connotations to them that people will think these labels mean backwards and poor. Anyway, teachers have their work cut out for them. Some see it as a never-ending prison sentence; some just wait for their monthly salary.

Think about it for a moment.

All jobs are like that. There is always that one slacker in a department or in a company. On a smaller scale, it’s that nominal member you have in a study group. That one person who never come for meetings/meetups, that one person who never does their part. But why do teachers get more flak for this attitude?

Because they're supposed to set an example.

In a perfect world, anyone who wants to be a teacher must have the patience of a saint, the knowledge of a professor (or Google), and the temperament and voice of an angel. They must be pillars of communities and paragons of society.

But we don't live in a perfect world. Deal with it. What we do have are Malaysians from different backgrounds, with different beliefs and principles. For better or worse, we are Malaysians. Anyone can complain that our education level, our schools are bad/poor/backwards/old-fashioned. It's not perfect, yes. But we have to consider that this, all of this, is all trial-and-error. Nobody knows what they are doing. We play by ear. We research and gather evidence. We are a young country, just 56 years old. What do we truly know for sure?

So we learn from other countries. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Kids are rarely on the same level of understanding or intelligence in the classroom. Teachers will always have to choose whether to save all the smart ones, or save the weak ones.

If it was you, who would you choose?

If you choose to save all of them, your time, energy and resource will be depleted. You will have no time for yourself or your family. If you choose to save the weak ones, it would be an uphill battle, your energy and resources depleted, and your good ones will fall behind. If you choose the good ones, you would have some semblance of a life. The weak kids would go amok, but your KPI will be (kinda) safe.

We would be so lucky if we have eager young minds in our classrooms. Actually, we do have those kinds of minds, but they are mixed in together with the kids who have something to prove, kids who couldn't care less, kids dealing with family issues, kids with identity crisis, kids with raging hormones, etc. I had the honour of going into different classrooms. I've seen the best and the worst.

You would think that the problem with these “problem kids” would be gangsterism, drugs, thievery, sex, abuse, smoking, peer pressure, etc. Not really. As cliché as this sounds, from what I've seen, it's the absence or lack of love.

Yes, Malaysia, our kids are malnourished of love.

They look for it voraciously. They look for it from their parents, their friends, their teachers. They need it constantly. Their need for it is so strong, but their understanding of it is often wrong. These kids don't care because they know nobody cares. The way to get through to them is not through what you believe, but through the understanding of what they believe, and changing that belief.

It’s cute when we ask toddlers what they think love is. Now try asking the same questions to our teenagers.

No, I’m not talking about relationships. I’m talking about care and attention.

Imagine a classroom of 30 students. Without smartphones or computers for distraction, what will they do? In a 45-minute class, they will study. Now multiply that 45 minutes by eight. How long do you think their attention span for each class will be? It’s not like the teachers’ lessons has a record/repeat/pause button.

For English teachers, there are no subtitles. In a worst case scenario (which is usually the real-world scenario), each student comes to school with a suitcase full of their own problems: break-ups, broken families, parents fighting to get custody of them, abuse, bullying, etc. One teacher cannot handle all of them.

Even if there was that one teacher who could give them the attention, the care, the love that they need, remember that the students will eventually advance to the next class/form/level. Without proper follow-up, there is a very chance that the students will go back to the emotional state they were in before.

But ain't nobody got time for that.
Nobody has time for anything. Not care. Not attention.

That’s not all. Have you ever wondered where all the money allocated for education goes every year? Of course you do.

My question is, if it were you, how would you distribute the money?
Easy, give it to poor schools and high-achieving schools.

Next question: HOW MUCH should each school get?

Therein lies the problem. Most would think like this: get the number of schools in Malaysia, divide it equally between them. Cannot like this, my friend.

What if the school is big?
Money not enough.

Small school how?
Too much money.

Ok fine, what if we look at the performance of the school depending on the number of students? Yeah, this is fair. If they want to get more money, all they need is to improve their results!

Yeap, you won't be far from the truth if you think like that. So now schools have to cherry pick their kids to get a higher chance of funding. It doesn't matter if it’s urban or rural. What happens to those cherries that nobody wants? What happens to those kids who just don't make the cut? We can't take away their rights to an education. So we put them in lower performance schools.

This is why the good schools will always be good and the bad schools will always be bad.

Unless there is change.

In this day and age, there are still kids who stop schooling at 13, 15. Macam zaman datuk nenek kita. And we don't care. Somehow we think that it’s okay, they are just a small percentage. We won't get affected one.

If you're religious, start praying. Pray that these kids find work that can sustain themselves or a family. Pray that they don't turn bad. Because without any usable skills or knowledge or an education, how are they going to live without desperation? Live in dignity and safety?

Pray that you never meet them in a dark alley somewhere, waiting for you or your loved ones, with the intention of pawning off your valuables. Pray that you never have to worry about having your car stolen or your house broken into. Pray that they will have children who will continue their education further than what their parents have. Pray that their generations are full of scholars or at least useful members of society.

Because of English becoming a “compulsory pass” subject, it may worsen the situation... or it might just give these kids a fighting chance. Bigger avenues to be pursued. It would be too much to ask for a miracle. But at least try to be the solution. Go to the proper channels. It's time we fought for this cause, because it's not just about learning to use English properly. It's so much more than that.

It always was.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Parents have to do the affordable best they can, to their children's education for whatever shortcomings of the Education Ministry and to meet the requirements of the elected cabinet and democratically parliament approved policies. Forget the school with lousy systems and inefficient "saya yang mengikut perintah teachers, held to ransom by both parties.Better schools and mentors are a matter of Politics of affordability .Afford the dog whisperer .