M. Bakri Musa
Second of Six Parts: The Challenge of Providing Teachers
In Part One I discussed measures to increase the English fluency of kampong pupils, key to enhancing their employability and self-confidence. These include increasing the hours for English instruction, introducing immersion classes as with our earlier Special Malay and Remove Classes, and even bringing back colonial-era English schools to the kampongs. This section focuses on the special challenges of attracting teachers, specifically to teach English, and on improving kampong schools.
Malaysia has a deep reservoir of English-speaking teachers trained under the old all-English system. They are now all retired, but given sufficient incentives they could be readily enticed to teach in our rural schools. Right now there are only half-hearted attempts at attracting them, with the efforts left to local headmasters. These headmasters, brought up under the existing system, are only too aware of their own limitations in English. They are not about to be welcoming of or risk having their own inadequacies exposed by these hitherto senior English-fluent teachers; hence the failure of the current policy.
To overcome this entrenched resistance you would have to impress upon the headmasters that their ability to recruit these retired teachers would be a major factor in their (headmasters’) promotions or bonus payments. We should also insist that future candidates for headmasterships, as well as other promotions within the ministry, be based on demonstrated competence in English. That is a very effective way of conveying the message on the importance of English. For those retired teachers, a call back to teach would be an opportunity to not only augment their pension income but also re-ignite their intellectual and professional challenges.
Another source of teachers would be born English-speaking spouses of Malaysians and expatriates. Again, we have plenty of them. The issue of working visas is administrative, and should be readily solvable. They may not be trained teachers, but given a brief training as we did with earlier “normal-trained” teachers, they would be able to handle their classes. Their limited teaching skills would be more than compensated by their enthusiasm and English fluency. They would also bring much-needed attitudinal and cultural changes to the class. They would expose our kampong pupils to a very different way of learning as well as speaking English. You can be certain these teachers would not be indulging in “Manglish” or “rojak” English, not to mention their improving our students’ accent. These teachers with their different cultural and personal experience would open up the world of our kampong kids. That would be reason enough to recruit these teachers.
For spouses of expatriates especially but also for those foreign spouses of Malaysians, this would also be a splendid and quick opportunity for them to learn and adapt to local culture and society.
The last and most expensive recourse would be to import teachers from English-speaking countries. The least expensive (in fact cheaper than hiring locals) would be to recruit from India and the Philippines. Some of my best and most inspiring teachers in high school were from India. That was then, however. Today I am uncertain whether bringing in teachers from those countries would serve our students well.
Another source, though not as cheap, would be Eastern Europe, specifically Poland. They may not be born English speakers but thanks to their superior education system they have acquired near-native fluency in that language.
Japan imports thousands of young Americans under its JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program; likewise China, Thailand and South Korea. Malaysia cannot match what the Japanese and Koreans are offering, about US$45K annually, but then living costs in Malaysia are considerably cheaper. Thailand has no difficulty getting foreign teachers for about 30K bhat (RM3K) per month. Malaysia could easily better the Thai pay. Foreigners, especially Americans and Brits, would have minimal difficulty adjusting to our roman script as well as other aspects of our society.
Thailand attracts essentially two groups of teachers: one, fresh graduates on a year or two hiatus before entering graduate or professional school; and two, seasoned mid-career teachers. Again, America provides a deep reservoir of both. Many Americans, especially those bound for graduate and professional schools (and thus among the brighter ones), take time off after graduation. These are the students who sign up for such programs as the Peace Corp and Teach For America. Malaysia obviously cannot match what Teach for America could offer in terms of salary, but can more than compensate for that deficiency with the adventure, experience and exoticness.
As for mid-career teachers, there are plenty of them who have become disillusioned with the highly bureaucratized and increasingly alienating and violence-plagued American public schools. With their pensions vested and their children now grown up, a Thai or Malaysian pay would nicely supplement their pension income, especially if we also provide them with living quarters. In my view these are the teachers we should actively recruit; they will transform our students and schools.
Many rural schools have teachers’ quarters. Most however are occupied by religious teachers. Well, we have a glut of them so we do not need to attract or cuddle them by providing them with houses. Reserve those quarters for foreign teachers and those teaching science and mathematics.
Currently Malaysia brings in scores of American “teaching assistants” under the Fulbright Exchange Program, a government-to-government initiative. I fail to see why Malaysia cannot recruit American teachers directly and independent of the US government, unless of course those Fulbright “teaching assistants” are funded by the Americans.
When we bring in these foreign teachers, we should not assign them individually rather as a group, preferably three to five to a school. If they were to be alone at a school, their influence would be minimal and be diluted; it would be difficult for them to make an impact. We need a critical mass of such teachers to effect changes in attitude and culture, quite apart from reducing the “foreignness” they would feel.
I had one such wonderful Canadian math teacher at Malay College, Mr. Neil Brown. He was taking a year off before pursuing his doctoral work at Cambridge. He was highly effective; our class set a national record for the number of As in calculus, but his impact outside the classroom was minimal. The local teachers dismissed him as a “hitchhiker.” If Malay College had a few more such teachers at the time, they would have triggered a cultural change among both teachers and students. More importantly, the local teachers would not be so disparaging of their foreign colleagues; the locals might even learn a tip or two from them.
This incidentally is what China is doing today. On a recent trip to Beijing I was surprised that the plane was full of teachers, lecturers or professors on their way to teach at various levels in China. I recently read the memoir of one such teacher where she related how touched (and scared!) she was in that her students would more readily confide their problems to her instead of the local teachers. She soon found out why. Those students did not trust their local teachers as they were seen as agents of the party or state.
A similar sentiment and mindset exist among our students. When I addressed Malaysians here in America, I was always conscious, as were the students, that there were representatives of the state, or more specifically UMNO (they are the same anyway), in the audience keeping an eye over the students. Not that it bothered me, but it certainly did some of the students. Incidentally there were also representatives from the religious department, more for policing than spiritual guidance!
The intimidating effect remains the same, and it affects not just the students. A British educator posted in Malaysia once confided to me that his local colleagues and superiors were none too pleased with him when he included some of my essays for his students’ reading assignment! It is such instances, more than anything else, that poison the learning atmosphere of Malaysian classrooms.
In recruiting these foreign teachers, I would look for additional skills they would bring, as for example their ability in drama, music and fine arts generally, as well as in sports so they could coach their students.
Improving our rural schools must begin with the teachers. Knowing the inadequacies of the education system generally and our teacher training program specifically, we would have to wait a very long while before we could get better trained local teachers. In the interim we have to adopt the measures suggested here.
It reflects our national priorities that we have a cabinet level decision-making mechanism to import maids but not to bring in skilled teachers.
Next: Part Three: Extending the School Day and Year