The perennial paradox of teachers shortage

The shortage could potentially impact and disrupt nation-building 


A PARADOX by definition is a statement or situation that is seemingly self-contradictory or opposed to common sense and experience, and yet has the possibility of being true (in reality). 

This is where two propositions ostensibly reflecting two inter-related and interconnected situations actually contradict each other — so much so that both are held up to the point of being contrary to one’s expectation, assumption and presupposition. 

Hence, the paradox which cannot be resolved or dissolved into a coherent, unified “synthesis” where the fusion or amalgamation carries within itself consistency and the quality of non-contradiction as embodied by Aristotelian logic. 

Then again, experience runs deeper than logic, as the saying goes. 

Less is more and highly skilled but low paid jobs are some examples of real-world paradoxes. The latter of which rings true for teachers in Malaysia. 

Teachers should indeed be regarded as highly skilled since they possess specialised knowledge in their respective areas, especially in relation to the fields and disciplines of the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and etc) — all of which entail higher-order thinking or thought processes and sophisticated coordination or synchronisation between intellection or abstraction or conceptualisation and sensory-motor action as the physical and tangible medium of expression and transmission of knowledge which definitively encompasses the “whiteboard”, science and non-science laboratories and multimedia, among others. 

The capacity and ability to impart and transmit knowledge also requires techniques and methods — considered as skills and aptitude in their own right. 

This is why teachers are the critical mass in our quest to be a highly-developed nation and leading a knowledge economy — riding on the back of digitalisation. They are the frontliners in the education system — training and development — of our human resources in the formative years that will be the foundations for a highly-skilled workforce in the future. 

A teaching crisis resulting from a supply shortage would potentially impact and disrupt the nation-building process in this regard. 

In June 2021, Education Minister Datuk Dr Mohd Radzi Md Jidin announced that the Education Ministry (MoE) will be hiring 18,702 grade DG41 teachers through a special “one-off recruitment drive”. 

Fast forward to a year later, the programme managed to hire approximately 14,000 new achers to fill in the gaps arising from the nationwide shortage. 

Notwithstanding, the programme would still amount to a stopgap measure as it does not address the actual crux of the problem — why is there a shortage of teachers in the first place? 

Teaching is often held up as being one of the “noble” professions in life. 

Educating and shaping young minds to become well-functioning members of society is no small feat. 

Low Base Salary and Meagre Increment

However, it is no secret that government teachers are not paid as well as they should. 

The basic starting salary for government teachers ranked DG41 is around RM2,200 with a RM225 increment per year. The base salary for starting teachers is RM700 more than the new minimum wage rate. 

The entry-level or starting salary for a DG44 teacher (the next rank after DG41) is around RM3,600. 

While teachers also receive allowances based on certain criteria such as locality, the amount received compared to the actual job scope of teachers is heavily imbalanced and disproportionate. A meagre increase considering the workload teachers have to bear. 

For a DG41 teacher to rise to the next rank of DG44, they need to have been working for at least eight years to be considered. 

Within these eight years (as DG41 teacher), the basic salary would only cumulatively increase by RM1,800 over the period (RM225 x 8 years). 

The problem arises when teachers are expected to take on a slew of add-on responsibilities (in addition to teaching and related activities such as preparation for exams and marking, etc) with only that basic salary as the compensation. 

Teachers are not eligible for overtime payments as stipulated in their contracts. With government teachers oftentimes having to do administrative work as well as added school duties such as doing extra-curricular activities and planning for school events in tandem with their teaching duties, they could end up working up to 11 hours per day. 

The working hours would be more when considering some boarding school teachers who also acted as the school wardens. 

Lack Of Attractive Remuneration is a Deterrent

As confirmed by Teach for Malaysia co-founder Dzameer Dzulkifli, a reason for this lies in the grossly underpaid nature of the teaching profession. 

It is possible, however, that there are other barriers other than the unattractive salary prospects of the profession that disincentivises the taking up of the teaching profession. 

The standard route to becoming a teacher takes around four to five years depending on the programmes. 

The usual pathway is to enrol in one of the institutes of teacher education (IPG) found in several states in Malaysia. Alternatives such as the teaching English as a second language courses are also offered in several public universities. 

In addition, there are also the education degrees offered at universities such as Bachelor of Education. 

As a requirement for graduation and accreditation, there is a need for some form of practical training. The teaching practicum requires trainee teachers to be attached to a government school and assume the role of a teacher for three months. The practice is similar to internships. 

The teaching practicum is unpaid. The trainee teachers are given responsibilities as full-fledged teachers without salaries. 

Like normal teachers, the trainee teachers would be required to cover transportation, teaching materials and other costs at their own expense. 

Their placements are also determined by the IPG or university. Meaning that for students attached to schools in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, they would have higher living costs compared to other states. 

Furthermore, the shortage of teachers is also attributed to the fact that many quit before the end of their career, such as opting for early retirement. 

According to the National Union of the Teaching Profession secretary-general Wang Heng Suan, it is estimated that more than 10,000 teachers have been submitting their papers annually for early retirement over the last few years. 

Hence, to mitigate the problems mentioned, EMIR Research proposes several policy recommendations for the government to consider: 

1) Provide for salary increments based on regional cost of living differentiation. The concept would similarly also apply in the case of a teacher’s salary wherein the base increment of RM225 should be adjusted according to the locality of the schools. After all, cost of living allowance is already provided according to the location. 

2) MoE should allocate funds to every school in the country for teachers to claim back their expenses for teaching materials and other ad hoc expenses. 

3) Extending the scope of the compulsory minimum allowance of RM900 for internships for government ministries and agencies to cover teaching practicum — but where it is further topped up with RM200, for example. 

4) Introduction of incentive packages to retain and attract teachers in difficult-to-personnel positions especially in rural areas. A retention “bonus” of RM2,000 can be offered to teachers in rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak where there is less supply for teachers. They would be eligible for the “bonus” up to five years. 

To reiterate, the future of a country heavily relies on the ability of the country to educate its citizens. The responsibility of the said monumental — but often under-recognised — task falls onto the shoulders of teachers and educators. 

In short, higher salaries and financial incentives go beyond attracting, retaining and inducing good performance. 

It is because teachers deserve to be recognised as such — with a financial package that aptly commensurate with their responsibilities and sacrifices. 

Jason Loh Seong Wei & Rosihan Addin EMIR Research researchers 

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.