Perennial paradox in the issue of supply of teachers

A PARADOX is a statement or situation that is seemingly self-contradictory or opposed to common sense and experience, and yet has the possibility of being true.

This is where two propositions as ostensibly reflecting two inter-related and inter-connected situations contradict each other – so much so that both are held up to the point of being contrary to one’s expectation, assumption and presupposition.

Hence, a paradox cannot be resolved or dissolved into a coherent, unified “synthesis” – where the fusion or amalgamation carries within itself consistency and the quality of non-contradiction as embodied by Aristotelian logic.

Then again, experience runs deeper than logic, as the saying goes.

Less is more, and highly skilled but low paid jobs are some examples of real-world paradoxes; the latter of which rings true for teachers in Malaysia.

Teachers should be regarded as highly skilled since they possess specialised knowledge in their respective areas, especially in relation to the fields and disciplines of the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc.).

The capacity and ability to impart and transmit knowledge also requires techniques and methods – considered as skills and aptitude in their own right.

This is why teachers are the critical mass in our quest to be a highly-developed nation and leading knowledge economy – riding on the back of digitalisation. They are the frontliners in the education system.

A teaching crisis resulting from a supply shortage will potentially impact and disrupt the nation-building process.

In June last year, Education Minister Mohd Radzi Md Jidin announced that the Education Ministry (MOE) will hire 18,702 Grade DG41 teachers through a special “one-off recruitment drive”.

Fast forward a year later, the programme managed to hire approximately 14,000 new teachers to fill in the gaps arising from the nationwide shortage.

Notwithstanding, the programme will still amount to a stopgap measure as it does not address the actual crux of the problem – why is there a shortage of teachers in the first place?

Teaching is often held up as being one of the “noble” professions in life.

Educating and shaping young minds to become well-functioning members of society is no small feat. However, it is no secret that government teachers are not paid as well as they should.

The basic starting salary for government teachers ranked DG41 is about RM2200 with a RM225 increment per year. The base salary for starting teachers is RM700 more than the new minimum wage rate.

The entry level or starting salary for a DG44 teacher (i.e. the next rank after DG41) is about RM3600.

While teachers also receive allowances based on certain criteria, the amount received when compared with their actual job scope is disproportionate.

For a DG41 teacher to rise to the next rank of DG44, they need to work for at least eight years to even be considered.

Her or his basic salary will cumulatively increase by only RM1800 within these eight years (i.e. RM225 x eight years).

The problem arises when teachers are expected to take on a slew of additional responsibilities, with only that basic salary as the compensation.

Teachers are not eligible for overtime payments as stipulated in their contracts. With government teachers often times having to do administrative work and school duties, such as extra-curricular activities and planning school events. In tandem with their teaching duties, they can end up working up to 11 hours a day.

The working hours will be more when considering some boarding school teachers also act as wardens.

A common situation for teachers is having to prepare teaching materials using their own money. Some schools, especially in rural areas, do not have photocopy machines, so teachers have to cover the costs of printed materials on their own. A month’s worth of teaching materials can cost teachers up to RM200, further reducing their disposable income.

Some argue that such sacrifices are a given and expected of those who aspire to become teachers. However, teachers need to be fairly compensated as they, too, have bills to pay and other expenses to bear.

As such, it is not surprising that one of the reasons contributing to the nationwide teacher shortage is the lack of fresh graduates applying for teaching positions with the government.

The lack of attractive remuneration is a deterrent.

Teach for Malaysia co-founder Dzameer Dzulkifli said a reason for this lies in the grossly underpaid nature of the teaching profession.

However, it is possible that there are other barriers other than the unattractive salary that discourages the taking up of the profession.

The standard route to becoming a teacher takes about four to five years depending on the programmes.

The usual pathway is to enrol in one of the institutes of teacher education (IPG) in Malaysia. Alternatives, such as Teaching English as a Second Language courses, are also offered in several public universities.

As a requirement for graduation and accreditation, there is a need for some form of practical training. The teaching practicum requires trainee teachers to be attached to a government school and assume the role of a teacher for three months. The practice is similar to internships.

The teaching practicum is unpaid. The trainee teachers are given responsibilities as full-fledged teachers without salaries.

Like normal teachers, the trainees are required to cover transportation, teaching materials and other costs at their own expense.

Their placements are also determined by the IPG or university. Meaning that for students attached to schools in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, they would have higher living costs compared with other states.

Most students rely on pocket money from their parents, bursaries or loans to finance their practicums. This situation will prove burdensome for B40 students. The financial barrier will see youth from such communities deterred from enrolling in teaching courses.

Furthermore, the shortage of teachers is also attributed to the fact that many quit before the end of their career, i.e. opting for early retirement.

According to National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Wang Heng Suan, more than 10,000 teachers have been submitting early retirement papers over the last few years. At the same time, an equal number of teachers leave the service on mandatory retirement.

Although the government said that it will absorb contract or interim English teachers on the basis that the required proficiency level under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages C1 is fulfilled to ensure students achieve “independent proficiency” in the language, these non-financial incentivisation measures are still inadequate.

Hence, to mitigate the problems mentioned, Emir Research proposes several policy recommendations for the government to consider:

- Provide salary increments based on regional cost of living differentiation. Emir Research previously published an article, in which it highlighted the importance of reconceptualising the minimum wage as starting point instead of a benchmark. The concept will similarly apply in the case of a teacher’s salary, wherein the base increment of RM225 should be adjusted according to the locality of the schools. After all, cost of living allowance is already provided according to the location.

- MOE should allocate funds to every school for teachers to reclaim teaching material expenses and other ad hoc expenses. At least, the fund can be used by the school to partially reimburse (up to 50%) the teachers, so as to help mitigate the burden on their disposable income.

- Extending the scope of the compulsory minimum allowance of RM900 for internships for government ministries and agencies to cover teaching practicum – but where it is further topped up with RM200, for example.

- Introduction of incentive packages to retain and attract teachers in difficult-to-staff positions, especially in rural areas. A retention “bonus” of RM2000 can be offered to teachers in such areas in Sabah and Sarawak, where there is less supply of teachers. They will be eligible for the “bonus” up to five years.

To reiterate, the future of a country heavily relies on its ability to educate its citizens; the responsibility of said monumental falls onto the shoulders of teachers and educators.

In short, higher salaries and financial incentives go beyond attracting, retaining and inducing good performance.

Teachers deserve to be recognised as such – with a financial package that aptly commensurate with their responsibilities and sacrifices. – April 27, 2022.

* Jason Loh and Rosihan Addin are part of the research team of Emir Research.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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