‘Teacher and God both are here, to whom should I first bow?
All glory to the teacher, path to God he does show.’
Education is increasingly becoming the primary determinant of overall development, with nations investing massively in such ‘weapons’ of mass instruction of which the teacher is the face, voice and symbol. However, despite being the fulcrum of student achievement more than any other aspect of schooling, the teacher, today, is himself in need of help and compassion.
Feeling overworked and unsupported, the teacher often is the scapegoat for all the problems of a system; the roots of which lie beyond their reach. Such problems are found in deeply entrenched educational processes and structures traditionally resistant to change.
No Government can legitimately claim to take care of its children’s education if it fails to take care of its teachers. Given the increasingly daunting challenges facing teachers, the profession is now no longer for the faint-hearted.
In a bid to restore the dignity, status and glow of the profession, it would be a welcome move to create evidence-informed strategies on the well-being, efficacy and effectiveness as part of a well-defined teacher policy.
National Comprehensive Study on Teachers
As a first step, there is need to commission a national comprehensive study on teachers in order to review working conditions, teaching hours, work-life balance, psychological well-being, nature and causes of grievances, the various layers of complexity of the profession as well as measures to motivate teachers.
The following factors that trigger bouts of grim feelings and sap teacher morale and confidence, would likely top the list of teacher grievances:
No voice in policy and programme matters.
The teaching force is denied any voice in policy and programme matters though teachers are expected to churn out the best out of non-performing students to make them at par with more brilliant ones through a programme the pedagogy of which may not always arouse interest.
Automatic promotion system
The first sour side of the system is revealed nationally when students are found ignorant of the basics of education even at the end of primary schooling. The teacher is expected to successfully prepare these students for the national grade 9 exams a couple of years later. Expectations from the teacher are high and rising within a system that fails to keep pace and yet teachers have to account for poor student performance at the level of quality assurance.
Over-populated classes are a stiff deterrent to personalised instruction which is crucial to dissect the needs and strengths of each child as well as to monitor progress and provide prompt feedback.
The practice of mixed-ability teaching begs a thorough review as the teacher is unable to adapt lessons from a fixed curriculum to an over-populated class with vastly different needs, strengths and aptitudes.
The unbridled emphasis on the exam-centric approach, with test scores being the only criterion for student and teacher evaluation, limits the scope of what is taught, and fails to reveal the full story. Having to show good results even in the teeth of unfavourable school conditions is cause for stress and early teacher burn-out.
Review of education system
Any education system needs to be reviewed periodically after a reasonable time frame because education, by its very nature, is dynamic. But to have the entire system shoved aside with each incoming government without any prior consultation with relevant stakeholders is to purposely murder in order to dissect.
For all its perceived benefits, educational technology often leads to teacher stress in the absence of proper training because teachers end up facing more challenges than receiving benefits. In certain circumstances, technology tends to be subject to egregious hype — an eagerness to demonstrate that schools are on the cutting edge.
Additionally, the vastly-uncontrolled use of the mobile phone by students renders the teacher’s task neither easier nor more agreeable.
Replacement of teachers on long leave
To replace teachers on long leave often takes equally long to be effected. In the meantime,
I) students are left unattended.
II) Teaching staff saddled with their own full workload, merely hold the baby during replacement periods. At best, students are asked to ‘open a book and read.’
III) the already-overburdened teacher, in retaliation to what they perceive as an abusive replacement practice, starts absenting themselves more often.
IV) supply teachers, with hardly any professional preparation, are called to the rescue as a quick fix. Through no fault of theirs, supply teachers merely grope their way through the route until it becomes rote. In normal circumstances, the supply teacher feels abused and bows out of the system at the earliest opportunity. Then follows a parade of several temporary teachers in quick succession during the same term.
Besides, the distance some supply teachers are often made to travel daily is heart-wrenching.
Teacher recruitment system
The teacher recruitment system should be rendered merit-based in an attempt to improve teacher quality intake and raise the status of teaching as a career choice and develop teaching as a knowledge-based profession. In Singapore and Hong Kong, teachers are drawn from the top 30% school-leavers while in South Korea and Finland, from the top 10%.
Delegation of responsibility
Promotion of teachers effected through delegation of responsibility vested upon the Ministry by the PSC is an outrageous insult to the very principle of meritocracy for it leaves teachers demotivated, with frustration and anger pounding in their veins.
Admission of students
While private schools are able to select or reject any student, public schools are bound to enrol everyone, irrespective of ability, activity, and aptitude. With limited options at their disposal for disciplining unruly students, teachers feel more exhausted than energised, resulting in further stress. It is only when things spin irretrievably beyond control that parents search for scapegoats and the teacher becomes the obvious executioner’s choice. Parents then become hostile, quite at variance with their pre-admission, soft-spoken persona. Unruly students and parents need to be warned, in no uncertain terms, that certain behaviours demand stern actions, not a psychology book.
A political response to teacher-student problems often results in focusing only on low-hanging fruits: simply transfer the teacher, provided the trick is done to the satisfaction of students and parents though such a move may be wrongly perceived as a punitive measure.
Real reform and significant progress depend on tackling the deepest and most stubborn educational challenges instead of resorting to papering the cracks.
13. Stigma attached to the profession
There is a general perception that those who are good at nothing else end up joining the teaching profession. Such a stigma, which dents the teaching profession, is fed partly by the media which focus on isolated cases of teacher shortcomings, while being blind to their positive impact, in the manner of a single falling tree that makes much more noise than a whole forest that grows.
The teaching profession has been at the receiving end of criticism from the general public mostly unaware of the teacher’s everyday life at school. The teacher, despite their own stress-related issues, often runs the extra mile to make up for children’s lack of parental care, support and affection. When they look beyond behaviour, at the individual behind the behaviour, they often find a silent cry for help.
That, too is part of teachers’ commitment, despite being considered unsung heroes of a lesser god.