Why are our English teaching standards so low?

SEPT 16 — Recently we heard that out of 60,000 English teachers nationwide, about 70 per cent of them did poorly when sitting for the English Language Cambridge Placement Test.

Last Monday, Education Minister II Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh said these English language teachers, classified as “unfit” to teach the subject, had been sent to courses to improve their command of English.

“The ministry will also consider sending them overseas for exchange programmes to take up TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language) courses,” a news report quoted him as saying, while adding that a good portion of these teachers had enrolled in local English courses.

Well, now talk last year of Malaysia possibly importing English teachers from India is put in a different perspective. But the core of the problem is also brought to light — what’s up with our teacher recruitment process?

While I am all for continuous self-improvement whatever your job title is, these “unfit” teachers have no business teaching English in the first place. If they are unfit to teach English to our kids and have to be trained further to be good enough, how is it that they became English teachers in the first place?

The fact that such a large proportion of our English teachers are so poor at what they are supposed to teach speaks poorly of the entire teacher selection process. One wonders how low the bar for entry is if more than two thirds of those selected by the process are then found incapable of teaching the language.

While the issues surrounding the teaching of English in Malaysia is not limited to the proficiency of the teachers — they cover, among others, the average Malaysian’s  negative mentality towards English as well as our misguided teaching approach — proficiency and competency nevertheless remains a core issue.

In a complex equation where every variable needs to be up to par in order to produce good results, getting teachers who know their English well is relatively basic compared to, say, revamping the teaching approach in the classroom or tailoring our education syllabus to cater to different competency levels of students from different backgrounds.

Forget last year’s silly talk of importing English teachers from India. If our recruitment standards at home for local English teachers remain as low as they apparently are, how do we move forward from here?

How do we progress in tackling declining English standards among our students and graduates if such a simple aspect — teacher proficiency and competency — is neglected?

Therefore there must be measures to tighten up the recruitment process and raise the bar for entry into the English teaching profession. Let us hope this is on the minister’s agenda.

In addition, if so many of our teachers are not up to mark, is it worth all that money to send all of them to courses and exchange programmes overseas?

Courses and exchange programmes, which I presume would involve government funds, would be costly. These teachers would still be on the payroll while they study.

If they were not qualified to teach English in the first place, why bother training them further? Will they even come close to a desirable proficiency level after these training programmes when mastering English takes years for most people?

Would it not be more cost-effective to slowly cut away the deadweight and instead use the ministry’s resources to hire better, more competent people who do not require extensive, expensive training just to be able to do their jobs properly?

Continuing with “retraining” for so many teachers who weren’t meant to be hired as English teachers in the first place is like throwing good money after bad. And money is not unlimited, especially given the economic climate and fiscal issues we are facing.

I for one hope that the Education Ministry marshalls its resources better, because our students’ futures — and by extension ours and the nation’s — are at stake here. We need better English teachers today, not tomorrow or whenever these teachers have been to more courses.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.