Teacher absenteeism is the least acknowledged issue within the governmental school system, yet most probably has the most profound negative effects upon students.
A recent court case in Kota Kinabalu is highlighting the issue of teacher truancy in government schools across the country. This landmark case, which involved three students and their former teacher Jainal Jamran, who was assigned to teach English for three hours a week but had been absent from class for seven months. is indicative that many students are not obtaining the necessary face-to-face class time with their teachers to progress through their education.
This problem is more widespread than most believe, and where records are difficult to obtain, so the real extent of this problem can’t be measured.
Teacher absenteeism cases in Malaysia have not been reported for over 14 years, according to Sabah NGO Tiada Guru. An OECD report from 2009 indicated that 19.5 percent of school principals had reported teacher absenteeism.
Much of the inability to expose the extent of this problem is the result of deliberate cover-ups among staff, the falsification of records, and nepotism.
There is a culture of fear that prevents school students from reporting teacher absenteeism due to the massively unequal power distance between students and teachers in Malaysia.
Perhaps the most telling statistic is that between 2010 and 2017, 55.4 percent of disciplinary cases heard by the ministry of education involved teacher absence from duty.
Teacher absenteeism is just as much a problem in schools as curriculum, pedagogy, and class size issues. This puts students who must perform well in exams to gain a tertiary qualification at a great disadvantage. This tends to keep families trapped in the low-income social strata of society. A diploma holder earns 1.4 times more than someone with only SPM, while a degree holder earns 2.3 times more.
This prevents students from learning English in a systematic manner, which is a compulsory subject to get to university level.
Tiada Guru argues that this is directly related to the self-esteem and self-confidence of students, an important characteristic that employees look for in employing potential staff. Consequently, teacher absenteeism can have a decades-long impact on children’s ability to reach full potential during their respective careers.
According to Tiada Guru, teacher absenteeism can lead to mental health issues, loss of trust in adults, and a loss of hope for the future. Teacher absenteeism can lead to truancy on the part of students who have given up hope, often leading to drug abuse, petty crime, and unwanted pregnancies.
From a national perspective, this leads to a grave degrading in the quality of workforce in the coming generation.
Teacher absenteeism is a symptom of dissatisfaction within elements of the teaching profession. Many have low motivation levels. Others are just not suited for the profession. Some others use the time dishonestly to undertake other income-earning activities.
Teacher motivation is an issue the MOE must look closely at.
Teacher absenteeism has been kept a secret at school level, away from the MOE to protect reputation.
The school management culture is to engage in cover-ups, with staff problems kept “in-house” outside the ministry’s disciplinary system. Unfortunately, much more than teacher absenteeism is also covered up. This includes theft, rape, and molestation.
Shamshun Jamil, former deputy chief commissioner (prevention) of Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), was reported as saying only 0.01% of the nation’s civil servants are brave enough to report corrupt practices to the authorities. Having heard the stories of intimidation revealed in the Kota Kinabalu sessions court, this is very understandable.
Teacher absenteeism is a major impediment on education standards. Disciplinary rules are not being enforced to prevent this. The solution is there but not utilized.
This issue deeply affects the standard of school education in Malaysia, and must be tackled head-on. One absent teacher affects up to 50 students! It must be solved before any other reforms are even thought about.
(Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 40 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic and researcher. He was an associate professor at Universiti Malaysia Perlis.)