Chrishen Gomez recalls his teachers’ day experience as a student and offers reasons why we need to reengage with our teachers in a meaningful way. Chrishen is a conservation biologist and a former programmes and partnership coordinator of Impact Hub Kuala Lumpur’s Empowered Learners Pillar.
It is 5:30am and my alarm goes off. It is a school day. It begins with a rigorous morning routine of prompt showers and last-minute packing. Today, however, is no regular school day; and there is little for me to pack, because there will be no studying today. While this is supposed to be a usual cause for elation, that is not the case for today.
I begrudgingly drag myself to school as I prepare to endure a long litany of speeches and ceremonials. The days leading up to this celebration were filled with secret brainstorm sessions on how to creatively skip the festivity altogether. I arrive in school to be met with more chaos than I am accustomed to. All the chaos has made teachers anxious. I hear multiple shouts all around the assembly hall “masuk barisan dan diam!”, or “tolong diam sekarang, jangan bersembang”, or the desperate “jika kamu tidak diam, saya akan kenakan demerit untuk satu kelas!”.
The reason for such chaos soon becomes evident as guests-of-honour slowly take their seats, escorted by the school principal, who fires sharp glares at teachers who are making vain attempts to establish order. I look at my teachers and wonder how hard it must have been for them to get out of bed and endure such a stressful morning.
The date today is 16 May, and it is Teachers’ Day.
10 years on, I reflect on this moment as a sad memory. While I am sure, in many places around the world, celebrations such as these evokes fondest schooling memories, but for a sizeable majority of us, all it brings back are feelings of stress, anxiety and boredom.
Teachers’ day celebrations became a spectacle of our systemic ingratitude towards the teaching profession. I could cite the entire litany of explanations this culture has permeated so deep within the system, but to what end? However long that list may be, my ingratitude had successfully solved none of them.
One year ago, I had the esteemed privilege of working with teachers to develop solutions that would help bridge the widening gap between schools and the modern world. My experiences offered me fresh insight on the plight of the teaching profession. While I met a great many highly passionate, skilled and geared up teachers, there were equal numbers of teachers who were visibly “tired”. I use the word “tired” for a general feeling of nothingness. It seemed where passion and excitement and joy used to reside in one’s heart was now a hollow chamber. Had they lost their love for such noble a profession, or was it never there to begin with? I decided then, that dismissing these feelings would achieve nothing. I sat down in a classic canteen and listened to their stories over teh tarik.
In my conversations, I gathered this. Every teacher begins their career by being thrown into the deep. There are no training wheels, or simulators. Your first time in the classroom, is the real deal. 30-40 young minds waiting to be led by you. Needless to say, the beginnings of this journey are tumultuous. To make matters worse, for a teacher, there is no hiding their mistakes or weaknesses. Day after day, their lack of experience is made a spectacle for all to see, coming in contact with over 100 students daily. Many teachers begin their career with heavy criticism from every possible source. With the wrong bunch of students, each class can feel like entering a lion’s den. Parents often use Perlembagaan Persatuan Ibu Bapa-Guru (PIBG) meetings as their avenue to lament their frustrations with young teachers.
In my time working with teachers, I expressed a desperate need for tools and facilities that would help them do their job better. They pay a great price every time they enter a classroom unprepared. To me, a teacher is akin to a stage performer. The profession requires them to be on public display. Their every action, word, and deed heavily scrutinised. They carefully orchestrate an environment and flow of thought to optimise the conveyance of knowledge. They pour their hearts out into every lesson and leave it in the hands of strangers who know them very little.
There is a gaping void in the teaching profession, and I believe that void is gratitude. We must start by affirming teachers when they do well. Encouraging teachers to be better at what they do, providing them the support and empowerment that they need to mould our children into greater human beings.
Let us make our first innovation in Malaysian education “teh tarik” sit-downs with teachers for a chat.
Bornean Carnivore Programme
WildCRU, University of Oxford
Former Programmes and Partnership Coordinator
Empowered Learners Pillar
Impact Hub Kuala Lumpur