Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why It Is Frightening To Be A Teacher

Frightening to be a teacher?  Sounds laughable, right?  But I do feel fear when I am in school as a teacher or an administrator.  Some people would call me paranoid but I think it is better to be paranoid than to be in a dock in some courtroom or at a hospital bedside some place.

Let me twist a Robbie Burns poem

How do I fear thee (O' burden of a teacher)?
Let me count the ways...

1. In Loco Parentis

In English, that means 'in the place of a parent'.  In legal terms, that means a teacher is expected to be as responsible as a parent for the safety of his or her students while they are within the school grounds or under his or her care.  And they may be liable in the same way a parent would be, where the law is concerned.

I attended a course by an IAB lecturer way back in 2000 and listened in horror as she detailed the many different ways I could've been in trouble with regard to the way I dealt with students. 

If a rock falls on a student within the school grounds, the school has to answer.  Even if the rock fell at 5.30 a.m. and no teacher was in school... and the student climbed over the school fence to get in.

If a student breaks his or her leg while on a school outing, the teacher AND school has to answer.

If a student whacks another student over the head with a piece of wood in class, the teacher in the classroom (AND the school) has to answer.  Woe betide that teacher if he or she was supposed to be in that classroom according to the school timetable but he wasn't.

Things really go to hell in a handbasket if the student on a school outing didn't get written permission from the parents or the teacher isn't one of those given permission to use the school van (in the case of an accident).  It doesn't matter if the outing is an informal one organized by students who just invited the teacher along.  As long as the teacher is there... it's IN LOCO PARENTIS!

Once, my La Salle boys decided to go on a biking adventure from Penampang to Papar and invited me and another teacher along.  It was a whole day event and I had lots of fun.  Imagine driving (did you think I'd bike all the way??) along lush green padi fields, stopping by white sandy beaches and drinking ice-cold juices at roadside stalls.  Then when I got home and my dad (who happened to be a Nazir) found out, he really ripped a strip off me for that.  If anything had happened to the boys, I would've had to answer. 

2. Lawsuit-Happy Community

Nowadays, lawyers are everywhere and parents are not afraid to sue teachers, principals, schools... even the Education Minister if they think they can do so.  While I respect the right of every parent to safeguard the rights of his child (I too am a parent), sometimes things are taken to a ridiculous extent.

Teachers nowadays are wary of disciplining a student for fear of being slapped with a lawsuit at the end of the week.  But sometimes some students can be too much.  Yes, there are procedures in place with regard to the disciplining of students.  But the bureaucratic maze can delay things so much that the student will only be punished six months later.  How could that be, one may ask?  Very easily... in a former place of work, the discipline teacher sent letters to the parents which went unanswered.  Then the teacher went in search of the house.  Imagine an address as simple as 'Kg Bahagia, Kota Kinabalu.'  Believe it or not, such addresses exist.  By the time the teacher found the house, he was informed that the parents had moved away (without the student!).  No wonder the letters went nowhere!  Then the poor teacher had to ascertain who was the legal guardian of the student.  All this without the cooperation of said student.  And later, the teacher told me that he feared for his safety while walking in the kampung as everyone there stared at him in a hostile manner.

Even then, the teacher was worried about trespassing and the non-delivery of the letter.  The student involved had been in a fight and the parents of the other student was threatening all sorts of action over what they perceived as apathy on the part of the school.

3. Trigger-Happy Students

Last but not least, the students themselves.

I would like to think that the majority of the students in Malaysia are gentle happy souls.  But if you, as a teacher, come across one hostile youth with a machete or a Molotov cocktail, that is already one too many violent person to deal with.

I won't elaborate on that... it speaks for itself.  That is why many teachers fear teaching in inner-city schools and prefer to stay in the rural areas. 

I have been fortunate in that I haven't had many run-ins with violent students. 

However, I HAVE charged at two boys who were each of them double my weight and were about to start fighting.  I didn't have the chance to feel fear as I only thought of stopping them before the first punch. 

I have also faced up to a young man who spat the F expletive at me in class.  That doesn't sound so 'bad', does it?  But if I hadn't handled him and showed his classmates that I didn't accept such behaviour, I would have been in for a hard time in his class.  Incidentally, he had a problem but not with me... poor kid was struggling with problems at home... and luckily I didn't begin by yelling at him.  When I asked him if I had done something to upset him, he just deflated.

And yes, I have gone nose-to-nose with stubborn young people.  I don't know if it was my fierceness or my foghorn voice... but somehow or other, I have been fortunate to come away the 'victor' in all the confrontations.  And university never prepared me for this...
I've come to realise that I 'won' these confrontations because the students knew I was right.  It's easier to win with righteousness on your side.  But if a teacher is wrong... well, students nowadays don't back down like they used to.

But a word of warning, a smart teacher must know when to be hard and when to be gentle.  A wrong move may take you down a path that will only lead to more pain and trouble... if not for you, then for the youth who is probably only lashing out at a world that is hostile to him or her.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How Challenging Teaching In Sabah Can Be

As a teacher, I have had many memorable experiences but one of the most fascinating has got to be observing my colleagues from other states as they deal with their first days in Sabah.

Born and bred in Sabah, I never really had much reason or opportunity to question what sort of image Sabah presented to the outside world (which includes other states in Malaysia) until I went to university in Kuala Lumpur.  And, of course, when I began working as a teacher.

My first inkling of how 'scary' Sabah can be to outsiders came during my third year in university.  I had coursemates who quickly got married ... it was the first time I had ever heard of 'nikah gantung'.  Apparently, they could get married but it was a sort of 'marriage on hold' (if such a thing exists..).  What mattered was that they could get a marriage certificate that would help 'save' them from the jungles of Sabah and Sarawak. 

Then, during the briefing I attended to receive my first posting, I found myself sitting next to a teacher who was posted to a school in the interior.  When she asked if the school she had been posted to was far, the officer in charge gave a large guffaw and said that she'd only need to spend three hours on the buffalo.  I wonder if he realized that we didn't laugh.  Till today, I am still not sure whether he was serious or not.

However, bearing in mind that there ARE a few schools in Sabah which require survivor-style effort to reach, the majority are still not that remote.  In most cases, there are roads or rivers that offer hope of reaching the schools.  Heh heh.

I confess that my first posting was to La Salle Secondary School, five minutes from the airport, eight minutes to the city and nary a buffalo in sight.  But even then, there are people who are unsure of just how 'city' the school is.   I remember walking to the staffroom after one of my classes, to find suitcases and various boxes at the entrance.  I knew five teachers were expected.  But when I saw a table fan (!) with the MAS cargo label still hanging from it, I couldn't help but ask the teacher why she carried it all the way.  She told me that her mother was worried there would be no electricity in Sabah.  But then, I asked gently, what use would the table fan be if there were no electricity in Sabah?  Hmmm.

So I haven't experienced any privations in the course of my work as a teacher.  The most terrible experiences I have had involved walking to schools, laptop slung over my left shoulder and blazer over my right shoulder while trying to make sure I didn't step too close to the edge of the cliff or hill.  There was some mud involved and slight heart palpitation... but it was a temporary thing as I was only visiting the schools in the course of my work as an ICT officer.

Yet another time during my years with La Salle, I saw a teacher lug in a bag of rice with the suitcases.  I didn't bother to ask why.  Perhaps family members were worried there would be nothing to eat in Sabah.  Or perhaps it may be a DIFFERENT alien type of rice... oh, horrors!

And there was one instance when I noticed a teacher looking at the currency in my hands.  I could only suppose that she was trying to see if we used the same.  I feel that this is a reasonable assumption as my own mother has been asked where she changed her currency (she was attending a course in Penang.)

I always LOVED mentioning supermarkets to the newly-arrived... if only to see the abject relief on their faces.

And as recently as 2002, an ex-student of mine now working as an English teacher reported having to slog through knee-deep mud when her car broke down on the way to town.  She had been posted to the Kalabakan area.  She also said that she and her housemates bought generator electricity, which came and went as capriciously as a flibbertigibbet's mind.  Well, at least she had a road.  And a generator.

To be fair, I'd noticed how documentaries and stories about Sabah tended to focus on orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, verdant rainforest, marine wildlife, dive sites and the such.  Can hardly blame people for thinking that that was all one would be able to find in Sabah.  One West Malaysian teacher defended himself by saying that when he looked for information about Sabah (before departing for Kota Kinabalu), all he could find were nature coffee table books and history opuses that had great descriptions of headhunters.  Armed with such knowledge, he probably fortified himself with a bagful of prayers and running shoes.  Ha ha... just joking.  Don't get mad, X... you know who you are.

But on the whole, the teachers who were sent to the interior of Sabah have been quite open-minded and right-thinking about their travails.  Susan used to tell me that on the last leg of her journey to her school, she'd begin with a white tee and blue jeans and ended up all red in colour (including her hair and skin!), thanks to the red clay dust of the logging track.  Susan's lot in life has improved considerably... now she only needs to board a boat for a 15-minute ride to SMK Pulau Gaya, just off the Kota Kinabalu harbour.  She no longer 'changes colour'... unless you count her bright yellow life jacket.

However, the tales I am telling belong to the early nineties.  I think things are much better now, thanks to the Internet.  There are enough pictures of Sabah's supermarkets and roads to gladden the most fearful heart. 

But then again... just five years ago, my dad did give a lift to a UMS freshie and her father (they had just arrived from West Malaysia).  When my dad drove into the parking lot of a supermarket, he noted the looks of relief on their faces.  It seems that a supermarket is proof positive of an acceptable level of civilisation.

That said, it is also very common for people to fall in love with Sabah and they never leave...  even after their tenure is over...:)

Maybe I should post a few pictures of Kota Kinabalu City here... as I do get a few visits from people who search for 'teacher sabah work'.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Friends That Last The Mile

I have friends who have been with me from schooldays or campus days.... we've been through happy times, stressful moments... even anger and long silences.

But when I think of them, I feel a warmth deep inside my heart for they have lasted the mile.  After all these years, they still want to be my friends :) 

I told a friend once that when you put your trust in a friend, you are giving that person a knife, which he can choose to put away and never use.  Or stab you in the back.  But I didn't tell that friend that it is possible to survive stabs in the back and still remain friends with the other.  It takes time for the wound to stop bleeding and the heart to forgive, but it is possible.


There's X, who shared many adventures with me, even though there were points of friction between the two of us.  But I would like to think that deep inside, both of us see beyond those points of conflict.  I appreciate her for being willing to share many enterprises (haha...) with me.  There were some she actively opposed but I respected her right to have an opinion and just went my way.  She's far away now, off on her own adventure but we still keep in touch.

And there's W, who can be counted on to offer a solid and rational opinion on whatever topic I care to toss her way :) Besides sharing a love for moist chocolate cake, of course.  We meet infrequently... but it's always over coffee, which always provides the perfect ambience.

Then there's C, who taught me that  love and hate can be two sides of the same coin.  I mean that in the most positive way possible... :) as I like to test proverbs.  Handled well, C is one of my favourite sounding boards.  And if he reads this, he will demand a debate rematch on the topic...LOL...

I have so many other friends, who colour my life in the most vivid shades.... and I cannot imagine my life without them.  Which is why when I meet people who don't have many friends, I have to try hard to understand them... for they seem to be quite happy with a solitary existence.  But if their one True Friend is God, I can relate.  He won't ever let you down, right?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Income Tax Megrims

Income tax returns and I haven't been on good terms for the past ten years.

It all began in 2000 with a letter from the LHDN office in Kuala Lumpur demanding money.  From statements, the letters steadily degenerated into reminders and then thinly-veiled threats.  So, like any dutiful citizen, I trotted off to the LHDN office in Bandaran Berjaya (the old office) and tried to pay. 

Lo and behold, the counter staff refused to accept my money.  They kept insisting that I didn't owe them any money.  I told them that the income tax payments were for my account when I was unmarried.  However they'd deleted that account.  And under my new account, I had no debts.  So I went into a small room where an officer looked at my file and then told me to go home.  Six months later, I got another letter from Kuala Lumpur, telling me that I still hadn't paid (no kidding???) and that I was in danger of losing my limbs.  Hmm, I'm kidding about the latter.  But it was no laughing matter. 

So off I went to the LHDN office again, in a more aggressive mode.  After some letter-waving and gesticulating, I was told to fill in a form and told me to go home (again!) so they could find out what was wrong. 

Later on, I was told that they had misplaced my file and were also in the midst of moving office.  But I went back again and was informed that I had four accounts!   One under my old IC number, another under my new IC number,, the third under some strange series of numbers that the officers themselves didn't understand and the fourth under my husband's account.  By this time, I was reduced to begging them to PLEASE solve my problem.

In the meantime, LHDN Kuala Lumpur kept sending me love letters.  I was beginning to feel very wanted.

By 2007, they had moved into a building of their own and were busy converting everything into bits and bytes.  So I went again.  By this time, they were able to pull up my file from the database and check my account right in front of me.  Lo and behold, I had three accounts now.  Was that an improvement?  One under the same old strange series of numbers and the other two under my husband's account.  That made me sit up and feel a rush of adrenaline.  As far as I knew, when a husband's account is 1234567, his wife's account is 1234567(1) and his SECOND wife's account will be 123467(2)!  Seeing my eyes widen and my face turn red, the officer quickly told me,"Oh but the second account is also under your name!"  And he said something like 'so his second wife also has your name..haha..' 

By this time, I was extremely tired of having multiple accounts.  In one account, they owed me money.  In the other, I owed them.  And the offices in Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu didn't seem to be linked.  Imagine P demanding  payment and Q refusing to accept said payment.  At one point, I asked sarcastically if perhaps I was supposed to go to Kuala Lumpur to pay.  If that would solve my problem, I was fine with it. 

However, by 2008, everything was solved.  Now I have only one income tax account and my husband doesn't have another wife. 

THEN last month, I got a letter from the dears again.  Telling me to pay.  Again. 

This time, I took leave from the office (I was sure it wouldn't be just a lunch break thing).  I carried all my files and dressed official.  Somehow they tend to treat you 'better' if you dress official.  And what a relief... it wasn't an old megrim.  No, they have just started asking the citizens to pay for NEXT YEAR's tax return.  And I hadn't even submitted the current year's tax return. 

What have I learned from all this?

First, I suspect they had courses on How To Intimidate Citizens Into Paying.  I imagine they are told to sprinkle the letters with liberal doses of frightening words.  My least favourite is Without Prejudice.  As far as I'm concerned, this is rubbish.  If they are truly 'without prejudice', then why mention deadlines and further action?

Second, patience doesn't solve your tax problems.  They just pile penalties on top.

Third, technology may make things easier but it also expedites errors.

Fourth, citizens hardly ever win income tax battles.  They will always say that citizens should know their responsibilities.  So pay pay pay!