18 May 2007

Teachers deserve a better lot in life

The Sun

Terence Fernandez
Teachers' Day which fell yesterday always puts me in a pensive mood.

Being the child of a teacher, I observed first-hand, the problems my father faced and the issues he had to grapple with.

These issues have over the years been constantly raised by teachers' groups - low pay, long hours, heavy workload, extra-curricular activities, weekend classes, holiday kursus, transfers and being at the mercy of the headmaster if you happen to be on his wrong side - an unfavourable assessment would mean no pay increase.

I could understand my dad's reservations when he tore and threw my application for Teacher Training College into the dustbin.

Until today, I thank him for that.

Not that teaching is not noble, but the way teachers are treated and rewarded, it is not worth it, said Dad, who was at one time the deputy president of the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP).

Although we were not rich, our family of five could get by on Dad's three-figure income.

Vacations, though, were restricted to the year-end Christmas holidays to visit grandma in Tapah.

Mum, however, being the voice of reason in our family, would emphasise that Dad being in government service helped us buy a house on low-interest government loan and obtain free textbooks and healthcare.

We were fortunate to be living in a small town where the cost of living was low and Dad did not have to take on a second job.This, of course, changed as my siblings and I grew older and our needs became more complex and expensive.

Even Mum was inspired to start her own private kindergarten, which I am proud to say, is today the most popular in town.

Dad finally gave in to Mum's complaints that he should spend more time giving tuition like his colleagues rather than immersing himself in union work.

But if not for the union, teachers would be worse off, Dad reasoned.

Until today, he brags about taking on education authorities and his former headmaster who initiated his transfer to a rural school in Kelantan when I was a toddler.

He wrote a letter to then Education Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad claiming he was victimised for voicing teachers' rights.

Mahathir replied, instructing that Dad be transferred back to his former school.

During his 30 years in the NUTP, there would be constant calls to our home from teachers seeking transfers, claiming victimisation by school heads and seniors and unfair annual assessment which is at the discretion of the principal.

These complaints translated into longer hours and heavier workloads so much so that Dad even installed the office fax machine at home.

Once I got a shock upon answering the phone at home: Ini pejabat Datuk Anwar Ibrahim...

The then Education Minister was trying to resolve another union dispute.

Fast forward to today and the complaints are similar. Pay rise after pay rise have been given by the government, but only in a trickle.

The escalating cost of living, especially in urban areas, even see some teachers living below the poverty line.

It is grossly unfair for the architects of our public service and politicians to keep harping on the fact that teachers must be patriotic and put Ònation above selfÓ.

These are words that come out of the mouths of people who are chauffeured to their jobs in plush offices.

The prime minister's annou-ncement of a raise for all civil servants is certainly a relief but this has to be accompanied by better and more equitable working conditions and a vast opportunity for self-improvement.

In the case of teachers - as with most public servants - it is not just money that matters, but respect for their craft and job satisfaction.

Then we would have fewer teachers moonlighting at tuition centres, being involved in politics or scouring the newspapers for teaching opportunities in tax-free Brunei. And, perhaps, fewer cases of teachers venting their frustration on their students.

What about Dad? He is retired from both public service and the union and works with an international education-based NGO.

At 61, he travels more extensively than he has ever before and treats us to expensive gifts and dinners - something he could not do when we were growing up.

He says it is satisfaction in his current job that makes him look younger today than he ever did in his 40 years as a government teacher.

He cites the absence of bureaucracy and the opportunity to put his ideas across without offending his superiors, the freedom to disagree without being accused of insubordination, the chance to grow as an individual and being paid his worth.

Aren't these, after all, reasonable expectations of anyone in the workforce? Happy Teachers' Day to Dad, Mum and all cikgus!

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