Wooing rural teachers


Support needs of educators in outskirts to fill vacancies, say stakeholders

TEACHER shortage can cause a loss of learning, more so in rural areas where students do not have alternatives to supplement their learning.

This, said Pemimpin GSL programme director Samuel Isaiah, can significantly impact the rural community, who rely on schools as their main activity centres. Pemimpin GSL is a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on strengthening leadership in schools across Malaysia.

“One of the biggest concerns for teacher shortage in rural schools is everything revolves around the school.

ALSO READ: ‘Address shortage in Sarawak’

“In rural schools, education is school and school is education,” Samuel told StarEdu.

Unlike students in urban areas who have access to other means of education, such as tuition classes and extracurricular activities, rural students are very reliant on what happens in the classroom, he said.

What makes the teacher shortage problem even more acute, he added, is the burden existing teachers have to face.

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Samuel, who was a teacher at Orang Asli schools in Pahang for eight years and a Top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize in 2020, said teachers play a dual role in teaching and catering to the community for activities like gotong-royongs, parties and events.

“This is burdensome for the teachers, and even more so when there is a shortage,” he said.

According to the National Union of the Teaching Profession, there are schools with up to 10 vacancies to fill, with some young teachers posted to states like Sabah and Sarawak, rejecting the offer as they were unwilling to be away from their families.

In an interview with StarEdu last month, Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek said Sarawak recorded the highest shortage of teachers but the problem would be tackled soon as the ministry had received over 260,000 applications for some 18,000 vacant teaching positions nationwide. In meeting the needs of rural schools, primarily in Sabah and Sarawak, the ministry has also allocated RM920mil under Budget 2023 to upgrade buildings and infrastructure in 380 dilapidated schools.

The Education Ministry Educational Planning and Research Division reported in 2020 that 42%, or 4,323, out of the 10,218 schools in Malaysia were categorised as rural schools.

According to the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, states with a higher proportion of rural schools, like Sabah and Sarawak, recorded poorer student performance than states with less rural schools.

In the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) 2011 examinations, urban schools were four percentage points ahead of rural schools, while in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations of the same year, the gap grew to eight percentage points between urban and rural schools. Both these gaps, however, had reduced by five and two percentage points, respectively, from 2005 and 2004, with the blueprint seeking to reduce the urban-rural achievement gap by 50% by 2020. The progress was going well until it was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Samuel.

More ‘intentional cultivation’

Samuel cited the lack of professional development and the lack of community support as the two main reasons why teachers choose not to teach at rural areas. He said the stagnant career for some teachers in rural schools deters them from staying.

“Teachers have limited access to further develop themselves because of the lack of Internet access and resources,” he said, adding that rural schools are often far apart from one another, so it is much harder to connect with other teachers.

Asserting that many teachers start out with high morale before their careers plateau after a few years, he urged the ministry to place more emphasis on teachers’ professional development.

Teacher development is one of the key ways to increase teacher morale and encourage retention in rural schools, he said.

He added that at present, most of the budget for teacher development is placed in training pre-service teachers.

“There needs to be more attention on teacher development for those in service,” he stressed.

He added that working conditions, such as limited resources, inadequate infrastructure and being away from home, can also deter teachers from choosing rural areas or staying longer.

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Teach For Malaysia (TFM) head of coaching Chew Mei Yee said more consideration can be placed on ways to support the specific needs of teachers in rural schools.

Some of these include better access to communication and longer breaks, especially for teachers not from the areas, she offered.

She also suggested that the ministry consider further incentivising teachers placed in rural schools, especially those who stay for the long term.

“More intentional cultivation for teachers who desire to teach in rural areas is needed,” said Chew, adding that the need and impact of teaching in rural areas should be made aware to those enrolled in education programmes.

“TFM fellows do well because they join knowing they will be placed in rural or high-need schools,” she said.

The desire to serve in such schools helps the teachers to adapt and adjust to the different areas, she added.

Currently, TFM recruits fellows, who will then be posted to rural or high-need schools for two years in specific states allocated by the ministry.

While each cohort comprises 25 to 50 fellows, she said it is certainly not enough to mitigate the nationwide teacher shortage. Teacher shortage, said Samuel, is a recurring issue, and is one of the many educational problems that require a collaborative effort from both public and private bodies.

“The ministry should be more open to foster partnerships with private organisations passionate for a change,“ he said, adding that there can be better transparency about the current educational problems, and the ministry can leverage the exposure and skills from multiple organisations to support teachers better.

“Successful collaboration can accelerate changes, and better solutions can be made together.”

The ministry is not alone in facing these teacher challenges, he concluded.

Call for multifaceted approach

"School shortage can result in a significant and disheartening impact on students, as they struggle to learn and develop fundamental skills.

It’s challenging for teachers to provide individual attention and support to each student for larger classes, further exacerbating the problem.

Moreover, the shortage of core subject teachers can lead to other subjects being affected, as literacy is a fundamental skill required across all areas of learning.

This can lead to a vicious cycle of poor academic performance and disinterest in studies, ultimately resulting in a detrimental impact on the students’ future prospects.

Attracting and retaining teachers in high-need and rural schools requires a multifaceted approach. For rural areas, it is essential to focus on recruiting local teachers to serve in their communities.

Local teachers are likely to be more familiar with the culture and language of their communities, which can create a more conducive learning environment for students.

They are also more likely to be invested in the long-term development of the communities, helping to reduce teacher turnover rates.

Providing ongoing professional development is crucial for teachers in high-need and rural schools. This can help to improve the quality of education and support the long-term retention of teachers.

Through financial incentives, professional development opportunities, and community-based recruitment and placement strategies, we can create a more sustainable and effective education system for all students.– Shermaine Julang James, Teach For Malaysia (TFM) 2023 fellow

"Being in a rural school is challenging physically, mentally and emotionally for teachers. Some teachers have sustained long-distance relationships for over five to 10 years as they serve in a rural school.

They can only see their families on the weekends, and travelling a long distance is physically tiring, especially on unpaved roads or by boat.

Moreover, negative comments about their insufficient contribution to their students’ performance can be discouraging and destructive for teachers.

It is important to have adequate support to boost the motivation of these teachers because it is a huge commitment. Maybe every few years, there can be a motivation camp for rural school teachers.

Teachers in rural schools are given many roles which involve other stakeholders. While teachers in urban schools can have the workload distributed, those in rural schools sometimes hold up to three or four roles at a time.

Teachers also have a lot of existing responsibilities, such as filing and reporting systems. Most of their time is focused on these tasks instead of class preparation. In the end, this impacts the students’ learning experience.

More financial incentives are needed for teachers in rural areas. Some teachers travel more than 100km to 200km daily to their schools, and even buy meals for students because of their insufficient meal allowance. School facilities such as learning spaces, transportation and equipment should be given attention. Teachers’ quarters should be well maintained, such as water supply, electricity and bedding, so that it is conducive for the teachers to stay for a long time. – Shafiqah Badrolhisham, TFM 2023 fellow

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