MAY 4 — 2011 was a tough year for me. I had a hard time trying to cram three years of English in less than nine months. The UPSR was in September. The school was counting on me to deliver great results.
Some of the boys couldn’t even write their own names properly and I first found out about this on the first day of class.
Our first lesson was on body parts. I distributed a worksheet, which showed the picture of a boy with arrows pointing to various parts of his body. The Year Six boys, all 28 of them, groaned and said they had learned it way back in Year One.
“Great. This shouldn’t be a problem then,” I smiled and asked them to start.
The task was simple, or at least I thought it was. They were to label the various body parts correctly. The one who got the most correct answers would win a prize from me; a new, fresh-from-the-shop mechanical pencil or as the kids called it, “pensel shaker.” That got their attention so before long everyone was busy working on their worksheets.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a miracle. I had been warned that the class was quite weak, though nobody explained why. I smiled, choosing instead to wait and see for myself. It wouldn’t do to be prejudiced towards my own pupils.
Checking their answers that night gave me a massive headache. There were 34 kids in that class and none of them were able to identify all of the body parts correctly. There were spelling errors, lots of them. Some even wrote their answers in Malay, although that too suffered severe misspellings. One boy spelled “hair” as “hear.” Another wrote “terlingga”, which if spelled correctly should be “telinga”, for “ear” in Malay.
The next day, after giving the prize to the winner, I asked them what they had been doing in Years Four and Five. What happened? Did they not learn these things before? How come they couldn’t even master the basics?
The class was silent. I told them it was okay, that I wasn’t out to punish them but I just wanted to know. One by one, they started talking.
What I found out shocked me. It was my second year at my current school. The previous year, I was in the afternoon session, meaning I hadn’t paid much attention to the morning session goings-on. I didn’t know most of the things these children were telling me. I later talked to a colleague and asked if any of their stories were true. She confirmed them and told me that it was a good thing he was transferred at the end of the year.
For the past two years, their English teacher had been a problematic guy with a very spotty attendance record. The first year was better. It got worse the next year.
Mr Z would go missing from work without notifying the school and, whenever he turned up, would come up with some lame excuses. They had had so many relief teachers for English that they didn’t know who their actual teacher was anymore.
The headmaster and senior teachers had advised Mr Z to turn over a new leaf. He would nod and promise he would but eventually would go back to his old irresponsible ways. The staff knew about this too; we even had a meeting on upholding the ethos of the teaching profession. But as with everything that involved bureaucracy, it took a while before any disciplinary action could be taken against him.
By then, the damage was done. November came with the news that more than half of his Year Six class had failed the UPSR English exam. Some of the kids were really angry. One girl asked how he could do such a thing and abandon them like he did. Nobody could give her an answer.
The class told me that whenever Mr Z was in class, he would tell stories and let them do whatever they liked instead of actual work that could help improve their English. That won him their adoration, and they would bring him rambutans and kuih from home all the time. Sadly, as they later found out, their love was not appreciated.
At the end of the year, the class found out that even though they had paid for the school magazine, they couldn’t get one as the teacher did not pass the money to the school. They had also given some money to him to fund the class party but on the day of the party found both their teacher and the promised food missing. The boys were angry about what happened and asked me if they would ever get their money back. I promised I would ask the headmaster.
The answer that I got was disappointing. I was told it would be difficult to do so, since he had already transferred to a different school. He did come back to settle some affairs but the money that he gave was not enough to even cover the money for the class party, let alone the school magazines.
I asked what we could do. I just couldn’t accept him getting off scot-free just like that. Someone told me I should go look for him to ask about that. I tried. He promised to give the rest but words are wind. He never honoured that promise. Until now, the kids still ask about the money that teacher owed them.
This is not a tale to shame anyone but rather a cautionary tale for all of us. Teaching is a challenging task because the effects cannot be seen almost immediately. By then, the bad practices have already been ingrained in them. It can take years to undo the damage bad teaching can do to a child.
Not only that, breaking the trust the children have placed in you is just plain cruel. It is individuals like Mr Z who give teaching a bad name. Our education system is already flawed and in need of many reforms. A bad teacher is not someone who can help improve the system.
* The views expressed here are the personal views of the columnist.