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“Apa Khabar Cikgu?”: The Untold Stories of Teachers’ Mental Health

The pandemic is as much a risk to physical health as it is to mental health. While there have been commendable efforts to normalise the conversation on students’ mental health across the period of online study, there could be another group of people suffering in silence too. 

The shift from traditional teaching to online teaching methods is a bitter pill for teachers to swallow. Though some welcome it as an opportunity to upgrade, most find it stressful and challenging to conduct lessons in a black screen rather than a lively classroom.

Source: Pexels

Harder than Ever

Teachers who are less trained in e-learning methods will experience a higher level of mental stress as compared to their tech-savvy colleagues. The overnight adoption of online teaching systems subdued Malaysian university lecturers to unprecedented mental stress and panic[1]. Once familiar facets of teaching (assessment, tutorials, assignment marking) suddenly become strange and distant.

The same resonates with a secondary school teacher, Sue, with 24 years of teaching experience.

It’s hard to feel good about teaching right now. Preparing for this new year was physically and mentally exhausting. We find ourselves having to learn how to create and manage virtual classrooms, and make the Form Five students feel as safe and normal as possible back at school at the same time. It’s just really draining. – Sue, secondary school teacher in Subang Jaya[2].

As students crave interaction, teachers too rely on interaction to connect with students. The virtual barrier from online classes makes it difficult for teachers to be reciprocated.

In the world of Zoom and Google Classrooms, all you see are blank backgrounds with names. I can’t observe body language or see what they’re doing. I don’t even know if they are listening or able to absorb the information most of the time. It’s like I can’t help my students anymore. Like I’m not the lecturer I worked so hard to be. – Amir, university lecturer[2].

A community-wide study revealed 62.1% of Malaysians experienced moderate to high levels of psychological distress during the pandemic[3]. Financial difficulties and uncertainty in livelihood as a result of lockdown orders may have exacerbated anxiety levels in fellow Malaysians, including teachers.

It is a sad truth to admit that the case of underpaying our teachers is not news to this nation[4]. Any financial setback due to unexpected medical expenses during the course of the pandemic will only add oil to the already flaming mental distress.

Work-Life Imbalance

Teachers’ private life also adds to their overall mental well-being. When the hour-long Zoom class is over, teachers switch back to their household role as a parent, spouse, child to ageing parents, caretaker and breadwinner. Having to juggle between work and family duties is not new to teachers, but it is made more difficult with the border between professional and parental responsibilities seemingly blurred by working-from-home.

I have 4 classes to teach a week. There are times where the lesson preparation takes too much time. I have to resort to ordering take-out instead of cooking for my family. – Chew, secondary school teacher in Selangor.

Online teaching does not seem to relieve teachers from the bulk of administrative work, like updating attendance and joining meetings. On the contrary, it becomes more burdensome at the expense of their personal life.

When there are inspections from the district education office (PPD), it is extra stressful as teachers are required to prepare PowerPoint presentations to document our teaching progress. We used to have meetings and discussions well into the night just for the preparation. – Chew, secondary school teacher in Selangor.

Isolation is an inevitable effect of working-from-home. According to a longitudinal study in Poland, the lack of general social and emotional support as a result of prolonged distancing measures act as predictors of depressive symptoms in teachers[5]. Forced isolation in the form of pandemic lockdowns have had many negative impacts on individuals and we are still seeing the repercussions of it.

Source: Pexels

Fueling Misunderstanding

While retrenchment may not be an immediate worry for teachers as compared to those in the private sector, their job security may still be at risk. With alternating policies from the government also comes varying expectations from parents.

Nurunnawal Yem, a primary school teacher in Malaysia, told The South China Morning Post that some of her colleagues have had their contracts terminated due to complaints from parents[6]. Allegations that teachers are getting paid for not doing anything further fuels the misunderstanding between public views and teachers’ struggle[7].

On the contrary, 85% of teachers in Malaysia reported spending 1 to 4 hours daily conducting classes while the remaining time was spent on redesigning lesson plans to suit virtual delivery, sometimes ending up with long working hours. 

Source: The Straits Times

This sentiment is shared by neighbouring Singapore where teachers are reported to clock in more than 45 hours of working hours per week. Prolonged working hours also took a toll on physical health with 62% of teachers reporting increased irritability, insomnia, and headache[8].

Grand Re-Opening

With most Malaysian states marching into Phase 3 of the National Recovery Plan in October, schools have been instructed to re-open at 50% capacity[9]. Students will be split into batches and take turns attending face-to-face classes. The alternating schedule also means teachers are expected to switch between two modes of delivery while dealing with the coordination and occasional parent inquiries, not to mention the extra hours needed to tailor their lesson plans.

Source: Malay Mail

In line with school re-opening, Education Minister Radzi Jidin reported 94% of teachers nationwide are fully vaccinated[10]. As parents breathe a sigh of relief when dropping off their children at the school gate, there is still the underlying concern that an infection cluster might emerge from the schoolyard. Teachers being the presumed caretaker of school children will undoubtedly bear the brunt of this worry.

Support System

While it is hopeful to know that Malaysians with family members who can support and help with other responsibilities are reported to have higher levels of coping capacity[11], one cannot help but wonder how much they can bear. Are our teachers equipped with the right tools and support system to weather them from a mental breakdown?

The answer to these questions may be hard to come by. Teachers’ mental well-being remains an understudied topic in the realm of social surveys in Malaysia. In addition, coping resources for teachers are limited to ad hoc counselling services provided by the district education office. We have yet to hear any comprehensive plan in addressing the mental fatigue plaguing teachers currently.

Mental health in teachers can be multifaceted and most often intertwined with challenges uniquely present in a teacher’s working environment. To address mental health, one must first make it visible. If you are or know any teachers struggling in silence, please reach out for professional help as no one is immune to mental health.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. Sia, J.K.M. & Adamu Abbas Adamu. (2020). Facing the unknown: pandemic and higher education in Malaysia. Emerald Insight. Link
  2. Raj, MR. (2021). Covid-19: Some Malaysian educators face burnout due to demands of teaching during pandemic. Malay Mail. Link
  3. Ahmed Suparno Bahar Moni et al. (2021). Psychological distress, fear and coping among Malaysians during the COVID-19 pandemic. PLOS ONE. Link
  4. Ravi, I. (2021). COVID-19 Aftermath: Should We Pay Teachers More? Taylor’s University. Link
  5. Jakubowski, TD & Sitko-Dominik, MM. (2021). Teachers’ mental health during the first two waves of the COVID-19 pandemic in Poland. PLOS ONE. Link.
  6. Dhillon, A. (2021). From Singapore and Malaysia to the Philippines, teachers say online learning left them struggling with mental health: ‘I dread going to school’. South China Morning Post. Link
  7. The Star. (2021). ‘Paid salaries for not doing anything’ allegation too heavy an accusation against teachers, says survey. The Star. Link.
  8. Ang Qing. (2021). More than 80% of S’pore teachers say Covid-19 pandemic has hurt their mental health: Survey. The Straits Times. Link.
  9. Nadirah H. Rodzi. (2021). Schools in several Malaysian states to reopen on Oct 3 at 50% capacity. The Straits Times. Link
  10. Sulhi Khalid. (2021). 94% of teachers have been fully vaccinated as of Oct 4 — education ministry. The Edge Markets. Link
  11. Ahmed Suparno Bahar Moni et al. (2021). Psychological distress, fear and coping among Malaysians during the COVID-19 pandemic. PLOS ONE. Link.

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