Stuck in tough posting for two years

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
MALAYSIA. Sunday is World Teachers' Day, but the event is one of protest rather than celebration. The TES reports from around the globe on staff depressed by the decline in their status and pay.

When Rebecca Welch started teaching in the mid-1960s, the racial divisions which had dominated Malaysian education were fading.

Malay, Indian and Chinese schools, not to mention the expatriate-founded mission schools, were increasingly coming under government control.

Thirty years later, she decided to opt out of government service and now teaches in a private college, her state pension and medical benefits still intact. During the course of her career, she has taught in a Chinese school, a mission school, and two elite residential schools for selected, but largely Malay, students.

When she started teaching in 1964, women earned less than men. As a probationer, she was sent to the small town of Kampar where she was the only Indian teacher in a Chinese school of more than a thousand pupils. Despite that, she was welcomed.

The Chinese students were much less tolerant of the English-educated Chinese because they felt they had betrayed their roots.

The school was tough, but it was two years before she could change her posting. Then, as now, government teachers had virtually no say in where they are sent when they qualify. After five years of service they can apply for a transfer and express a preference for a particular posting, but if there is a "requirement" for them to teach in particular places, they will be sent there.

Ideas of good postings have not really changed. Peninsular Malaysia's west coast is far more developed than the east coast or the interior and most young teachers prefer to be near the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Although it may be necessary, the placement policy poses problems, with teachers being sent to work in remote areas and made to serve in communities of which they have little understanding.

Rebecca was lucky. When she was sent to Ipoh by a sympathetic supervisor, it was a different world. The girls at the convent school, run by an Irish nun, were polite, well-behaved and of all races. It was here, too, that she opted for an opportunity that would transform her career.

The French government had offered to train teachers to teach French, so she persuaded the headmistress to let her go to France for two years. She returned in 1976 as one of Malaysia's first French-trained teachers. but then she had to find a school that wanted her unusual skills.

The next 10 years saw her time divided between prestigious boys' and girls' residential schools in Seremban, a town 60 miles south of Kuala Lumpur.

Over the years, she has watched the status of the profession decline. Thirty years ago, teachers were held in high regard, but this is no longer the case. Morale is low and many teachers are trying to leave government service for more lucrative positions in private schools where classes are smaller and discipline is better.

To make the move is costing many of them a small fortune as they are required to repay their training costs.

Teachers in government service complain about being deluged by administration as well as having to cope with classes of more than 40.

The government is now working hard to improve the status of teachers and to make the profession more attractive, partly because of what is seen as the growing indiscipline of Malaysian youth.

Schools are being asked to lead the drive to instil social and moral values. Every lesson, regardless of subject matter, is now supposed to contain a moral teaching point. Some teachers have the power to cane.

However, reversing the downturn in teacher morale is proving tough. Salaries are improving but are still low, and the twin burdens of paperwork and extra-curricular activities are driving more teachers to seek early retirement or positions in private schools. Others simply leave altogether, attracted by the better prospects offered in a rapidly-expanding commercial sector.

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