Heart and Soul: Teachers Day – Musings from an English language teacher


The writer (front row, right) with her students. Photo: P. Komala Devi

Heart & Soul
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The mediocre teacher tells

The good teacher explains

The superior teacher demonstrates

The great teacher inspires.

– William Arthur Ward

During the springtime of my life, my mum bought me a small slate and chalks. I used to scribble whatnot on the slate while play-acting as a teacher. Unbeknown to me then, I would one day make a living from teaching.

Upon completing my secondary education, I responded to the call for English Language teachers. My 35-year career took me to the various states.

I was posted to the "rice bowl of Malaysia". Being a digital immigrant, I spent my life’s summer immersed in teaching and creating teaching aids. Subsequently, I was called by the headmaster to sign my confirmation form. I was surprised to see good remarks about me. I asked my boss why, without observing me, he had given me such high marks. He replied that my voice goes beyond the classroom walls. He could clearly hear me teaching from his office, where he himself had picked up some lessons in the English Language. He praised me for teaching well.

Soon, I was appointed to the state panel to draft questions for examination papers. It was a tedious, stressful task as we had to follow many guidelines but I enjoyed it. I juggled between teaching in school and drafting questions when needed.

After I grew bored of being in the same place, I decided to venture to the historical city six years later. It was one of the friendliest places in the country. I spent my free time exploring the city on my own. I got the opportunity to do my degree while teaching.

Soon, I was absorbed into the state examination panel again, this time facilitating in educational workshops as well as marking examination papers.

By 2004, I had already been teaching for 16 years. My juniors got promoted as heads of language departments in schools while I was merely used as a kuli to prepare question papers and instilling discipline in school as a member of the school disciplinary board. I decided to move again.

I moved to the "state of nine districts" where bought my own home. I was at the peak of my career here. Again, I was in the state examination panel, drafting questions for PMR and SPM papers. I also had the opportunity to mark them and, at times, MUET papers.

After 23 years in teaching, I did not see any opportunity coming my way nor was I recommended by my superiors for a promotion. All that was given to me were exam classes each year. I toiled away, teaching and giving extra classes – just to see my superiors beaming with pride when good results shot up! I moved again.

It was time to go back to my hometown. I returned to the "tin city" and landed in a good school even though I very much wanted to be in my alma mater. I was happy teaching and decided to finish my remaining 12 years there. But it did not happen as I intended.

I was given two examination classes which were taken from another teacher as she was not performing well, according to my superior. The move angered the teacher and, rather than dealing with my superior who made the move, she started sending me nasty SMS-es. To avoid any further confrontation, I had no choice but make a police report. Not wanting to be in the same school with her, I got a transfer and moved out.

I was over the moon when I was transferred to my alma mater, not knowing that I had gone out of the frying pan, into the fire. I was not well-received by my comrades who feared I knew more than them.

I got comments on my exam papers which I prepared accordingly while they cut and paste questions and got them approved and verified by their cronies. I was criticised on technical errors, to which I voiced my opinion. They could not take it and saw me as a threat.

The international programme was the last straw when I was asked to do a post-mortem. I complained about their wrongdoing. As a result, I was segregated and ostracised in meetings by those who couldn’t even proofread the school magazine draft correctly. During events, I was given the task of cleaning up.

Umpteen times, I told my superior that I wanted to leave for another school. I even went to see the department counsellor for advice. My principal requested me to stay on. Five days later, I was diagnosed with cancer and went through surgery and treatment. I took two years' medical leave.

I asked for a transfer and, this time, my principal was willing to let me go. In order to speed up my transfer, she even said she would inform the officer “I do not want this teacher”. I recalled the poem Sad I ams (by Trevor Millum).

Eventually, I had a soft landing in a school near my home. This is paradise. I am happy teaching here. My colleagues are very good to me. My talents were slowly recognised and I was encouraged to teach the exam class. I wish I had landed here earlier when I was healthier and energetic. Due to poor health, I am not able to go through examination "battles" anymore.

Autumn is fading away, and winter slowly creeping in. My retirement is due. I ask myself, “Have I been a mediocre, good, great or a superior teacher?”

My ex-students who have become parents, holding good jobs, are still in touch with me. Whenever they visit me, I beam with pride when I listen to them tell their children they had the best English teacher.

Happy Teachers Day.

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