Is it fair to heap praises on the educators of yesteryear and throw brickbats at those from the current crop?
TEACHER TALK BY MALLIKA VASUGI
IT was between the fifth and sixth courses, if I remember correctly, that I heard the two-word question again, pronounced in strident notes over my shoulder, “Still teaching?”
I was at a wedding dinner and very much looking forward to the garden fresh, mixed vegetable delight which was at sixth place on the menu, when I turned around and nodded in affirmation, trying to look as if I meant, “Yes, isn’t it great, I am still teaching even after all these years,” while at the back of my mind, I was debating with two questions: “Does he mean I look like I am too old to be still teaching?” and “Where, oh where have I seen this person before?”
After a few minutes of casual chatter, I remembered him as the father of one of my students almost 10 years ago.
“So what is the decision going to be, Malay or English? I hope they don’t change. I’ve got one more son in Year Four this year. I want him to continue in English. But you know, the teachers these days … not like before, not like my time you know. Nowadays the teachers, they can’t even speak one proper sentence in English.
“How to teach in English? My wife and I … everyday we have to coach our son at home in all the English words. If not, finish lah. Really, you know, nowadays the teachers not like before, no dedication, no commitment ... cannot even teach properly … but,” he added hastily, “I don’t mean all teachers lah. There are still are some very good teachers around. But mostly all older ones. Going to retire soon. Then what?”
I was trying to formulate an appropriate answer to his “Then, what?” when the next course appeared.
So, what would I have said? That teaching, like all other professions, has its fair share of both exemplary employees and the unproductive ones on its payroll.
That no, not all “older” teachers were more committed and skilled and not all the “younger” ones were incompetent.
And if there were amongst us teachers who were really apathetic, ineffective and greatly lacking in proficiency or teaching expertise, then, to an extent, the system of education that they themselves experienced and the system that placed them in teaching positions were also to blame.
We forget that teachers are also products of the system that we sometimes deplore.
If any empirical evidence could prove that teachers, who were themselves students during a different educational phase turned out to be more effective compared to others, then perhaps further studies could be done to identify the elements of that particular “phase” in our educational time-line that produced professionals of a higher calibre than others.
So far, the plans for the development of national education are admirable and reflect noble aspirations.
We have our National Education Blueprint with its six core strategies to raise standards in our system of learning. Feedback thus far has been favourable.
We have our cluster schools created to accelerate excellent educational institutions in the Malaysian education system.
We have our smart schools, vision schools, master teachers, awards for excellent teachers and so on.
At school level, we have our regular staff-development courses intended to make us better teachers, put very simply.
So, are our teachers of today “better” than teachers of say, thirty years ago. How does one define “better” in the first place?
If by “better”, we mean “possessing more pedagogical knowledge or skills”, then perhaps the teacher of today is in a better position.
After all, we have the wonders of ICT at our disposal. We have the benefit of knowledge accumulated through years of educational research by experts. Unlike 30 years ago when preparing teaching aids meant long, laborious hours of drawing large charts and diagrams on multi-coloured manila boards, today we are spoilt for choice when it comes to the selection of resources and teaching aids for our lessons.
The cupboards in our school resource rooms are already overstuffed with all kinds of teaching paraphernalia, geometric models, courseware and maps to name a few.
We have the benefits of modern technology, access to the Internet and air-conditioned staffrooms, or at least some of us do.
Teachers themselves generally have higher academic qualifications, compared to before. Many have post-graduate degrees. And yet, we still hear accusations about teachers who under perform, who are indifferent, who don’t teach and who just don’t measure up.
We have language teachers, trained overseas on Government scholarships, who have difficulty constructing grammatically correct sentences. We have teachers with degrees in mathematics who feel intimidated by students from the more academically advanced classes.
Also, we have teachers who are so absorbed with the running of their lucrative private tuition classes that their role in school has become a watered-down secondary.
But what about 30 years ago? Were teachers of that era really more dedicated and professionally superior or has the passing of time cast a rosy tint on the way things really were back then?
There are some who would vehemently protest and allude to memories of their favourite teachers in the past, the paragons of teaching standards, role models who shaped and moulded them into what they are today.
And then we will have those who remember the fearsome, spirit-crushing punishment meted out by their former teachers and heave a sigh of relief that their own children will not have to go through the same experience.
One charge, however, that is seldom made against the teachers of before, or even the very senior teachers of today, is that they lack knowledge of their subject or teaching expertise.
Has the quality of teachers really deteriorated over the years despite every effort made by the authorities? The issue is so subjective and almost impossible to define. Hence, there could never be conclusive answers to this. But if we were to narrow it down to the number of teachers today who are generally incompetent, then perhaps questions need to be asked about the prerequisites of admission into teacher-training institutions.
How low or high are our present standards? Have we created a situation where students who apply for teacher education do so only because they have failed to qualify for anything else?
Are the selection procedures fair and based on merit alone or are we going to get teachers from any particular ethnicity who outshine their colleagues in work performance simply because they were academically much more highly qualified to begin with?
What about the present state of affairs.How do we deal with teacher apathy or inadequacy? While teachers cannot be subjected to extreme characterisation, there seems to be a fair amount of compensating going on in schools.
Teachers who are capable of more compensate for those who are not. And so, overall, the picture is still pretty good. We do have an able and committed teaching workforce.
The Star Online: 26 Oktober 2008