From the time my children were in national school (they are now in their twenties), parents have had to contend with seasonal teacher absenteeism. It was especially bad during the sports season as 25% of the teachers would accompany students for competitions and there would be no spare teachers to teach.
So, classroom walls would be collapsed to combine classes so that minimal teaching could be conducted or the students would be supervised by prefects, which meant no teaching and learning would take place. The worst-case scenario would be unsupervised classes and students being left to their own devices until a teacher finally appeared, if at all. Some students would just not attend school.
It came as no surprise to me then that a study by Khazanah Research Institute, citing research conducted by the World Bank, showed that despite going to school for an average of 12 years, Malaysian students receive only nine years worth of meaningful education. Therefore, about three years of schooling do not contribute to their educational achievement, which I believe is due to teachers being consistently absent — with or without good reason.
Fast forward 10 years, and the problem has not only persisted but worsened. Yet, no clear solution is at hand. Maybe having teaching assistants is an answer. The private schools separate academic and non-academic staff into different departments that have clear responsibilities and thus do not face such a situation. However, it can be a costly affair that requires excess funds, which we do not have the luxury of having at the moment.
So, bad memories came flooding back when I read that a former student of SMK Taun Gusi in Kota Belud, Sabah, had filed a lawsuit claiming that her English language teacher failed to turn up for class for seven months in 2015.
The named teacher had been present for only one week of the entire academic year. That was the week the Education Ministry and the State Education Department had sent officials to investigate a formal complaint of his extreme absenteeism. The teacher returned to his old ways thereafter. Only the poor, silent and long-suffering students will ever know the neglect they suffered and for how long more the teacher continued to be absent with little or no conscience.
Since the lawsuit was made public, two more students have come forward to back up the claims of the plaintiff. There may be more but not surprisingly, many students are not brave enough to step up and reveal the truth.
The question is, how was the teacher able to get away with it for so long? Teacher attendance records need to be filled every day. Lesson plans need to be completed and submitted. There are standard operating procedures to follow, checks and balances in place, red flags and human intervention kicking in at every stage.
Yet no alarm bells were triggered, unless the records were fabricated or the principal was in cahoots with the defendant all along. The teacher did it because he could get away with it. Poor students will not be heard, he probably thought. Their parents are uneducated and the students have no future, so “do not bother me”. His salary and allowances continue undisturbed. His pension is intact. The exit policy is weak and hardly enforced.
I hope a thorough independent investigation is carried out. Apart from the defendant, there are others involved in the case, namely the principal, the school, the district education department, the state education department as well as the education ministry.
It is ironic that these departments conduct the investigations themselves. Of course, they will give themselves glowing reports because they cannot catch themselves or each other red-handed. In fact, the teacher under another probe behaved very well during the investigation and records were fabricated to ensure the evidence tied in with the fake story. This must be prevented from happening again.
Alternatively, internal auditors can be sent in to ensure a thorough and independent investigation to ensure all parties are given a fair trial. This may well be the landmark case that aggrieved parents, including teachers who are parents, are waiting for.
Whatever the decision, it will nonetheless address the culture of teacher absenteeism, which is inexcusable. It is a culture that needs to be eradicated. Short and long-term solutions have to be found in order for any idle time to be eliminated so that students can finally enjoy their right to quality education.
Let us apply the rule of law. The image of the school has to take a back seat and we have to take stock and deliberately absent teachers have to be exited from the system, not transferred, if the Education Minister is truly sincere and serious about revamping the education of our children.