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Beyond Glorified Nannies And Babysitters: Preschool Educators Speak Up

Enter any preschool in Malaysia, and you will be greeted with murals of cartoon characters and repetitive, catchy earworms – most parents bobble their heads at. In these classes, we are giants trodding among diminutive furniture.

For many of us, the preschool days are long behind. However, in the crevices of our minds, there must be a faint memory of sitting at a preschool table trying to hold a crayon with our grubby fingers. Here’s a question for you: do you remember your favourite preschool teacher?

Source: Unsplash

Some may not, however; but teachers, no matter where, have helped chart our pathways. Without our preschool teachers who ensured us to hold the pencil just right, to cut stencils following the gridded line or to recognize our ABCs, it is rather unlikely that we could advance to the Big Boys or Big Girls books, or even write our own names.

One of the stereotypes of preschool is that it is a place where children are tended to and entertained by songs and dance – but it is more than that.

Early childhood education plays a crucial role in cognitive development, and most linguistic skills are acquired at this developmental window. We spoke to two early childhood educators in Malaysia about their experience as preschool teacher and the challenges preschools educators face.

Breaking The Stereotypes Of Childhood Educators

Despite the significance of their work, childhood educators often battle pervasive stereotypes that undermine their importance and undervalue their contributions. Years ago, it was less of a career choice but something done by mothers, those who are adept with children in their spare time.

Maybe 10 years ago, being skilled at caring for children was enough – like our ibu-ibu (mothers), aunties, they can also be our preschool teachers. They were trained to follow the curriculum prepared for them. – Shu Fen

However, as our respondents, Shu Fen, 26 and Haslina, 26 prove, those days are long over. Although the initial motivation for venturing into childhood education stemmed from the incomparable delight of working with children, today, preschool educators need more than just compassion.

Shu Fen pursued a degree in counselling psychology and, as part of her role, educated preschool staff about child development milestones.

I am also involved with internal training for the teacher. So the teacher can be more aware of the child’s social developmental stage and also how to deal with parents’ inquiries. At the same time, learning some of the signs of a child having learning difficulties or neurodivergent disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will help parents get intervention for their children as soon as possible. – Shu Fen

On the contrary, Haslina was determined to embark on early childhood education right from the beginning.

I have been involved in the education field since I started my Diploma in Early Childhood Education at Methodist College KL. I continued with Early Childhood Studies BA (Hons.) from the University of Gloucestershire. Then, I proceeded with my Masters in Education – Educational Management from Wawasan Open University. In this program, I studied human resources management and how to run a school professionally . – Haslina

These educators are highly trained individuals with a deep understanding of child development milestones. They have the ability to tailor their lessons which requires innovative teaching techniques, especially with the short attention span most children have investing hours in professional development to enhance these children’s knowledge and skills.

Although both Shu Fen and Haslina are exceptional preschool educators, with solid qualifications, The reality is that not all preschool teachers have their skills and expertise. According to a World Bank report on preschool in Malaysia, teacher quality has consistently been identified as the weakest dimension of preschool quality[1].

Source: Unsplash

Private preschools often scored amongst the lowest, as observed in the Education Performance and  Delivery Unit (PADU) 2019 report[2]. One of the reasons for this low score is that many teachers in this sector do not meet the minimum requirement of holding a Diploma in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). Additionally, opportunities for attending professional development workshops and courses are limited, as Shu Fen noticed in the sector. 

A few of the teachers have worked with the kindergarten since it was established. Yes, some of them might not have a high education background, but have a lot of experience. So our team comes from different backgrounds and with different levels of experience. – Shu Fen

However, for those wanting to be preschool teachers from the younger generation, the pathways start with taking up smaller positions. Preschools encourage further qualifications and certifications. 

 But if this was a teacher from the younger generation, we would require them to at least have a diploma in early childhood education. If they are only SPM graduates or STPM graduates, they can start with a teacher assistant position. But we will always encourage them to get the Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia (SKM) certification or degree in early childhood education. – Shu Fen

Part of the reason is that preschool educators are on the frontline and should be quick to identify possible learning disorders among children, ensuring that the necessary assistance is provided to the children without delay.

 In terms of children’s development, they are always the frontrunners. If the teachers themselves aren’t aware of the changes in a child, how could parents identify that their child needs extra support from a therapist or doctor? – Shu Fen

Running A Machine With Few Gears

A preschool isn’t a quick machine to print money with, especially with the increasing demand for children to grow in all aspects. Running a preschool is both a labour of love in seeing the next generation assume the mantle of nation-building. It is also a delicate balancing act for preschool administration.

Source: Shopee

Shu Fen believes a preschool should have a well-structured system in place to create an effective and nurturing learning environment. In her experience as a preschool teacher, there are a few challenges that have cropped up over the years.

One of the highlighted issues is the imbalance in the student-to-teacher ratio. The reason behind the lack of new blood and the high staff turnover is the stressful nature of the job. Being a teacher also requires communication with parents.

One of the challenges for teachers is that they feel that they need to immerse themselves fully in their jobs. Sometimes parents reach out after work hours, but teachers have to cater to their personal and family lives too. – Shu Fen

Staff retention in preschools is essential so as to not disrupt children’s stability and consistency. However, teachers are finding it increasingly challenging to stay, especially in recent years due to the increasing standard of living and also a higher expectation for teachers to perform from different stakeholders; parents, and preschool management.

Source: Unsplash

Sometimes the ratio of the teacher to the children isn’t balanced because not everyone wants to get into the early childhood field due to pay. It is also quite stressful. Not everyone enjoys dealing with parents instead of children. The stakes are higher now than the past. Not many are willing to stay because of many factors, such as parents’ expectations, even higher living costs. – Shu Fen

Some of these expectations involve fostering the holistic development of students, focusing not only on their academic progress. As the Head of the Preschool Department, Haslina bears the responsibility of prioritising individualised needs when crafting lessons for each student.

 Some students might be excellent in the academic but need assistance with their behaviour and some might be good at behaviour but are still blooming academically, so the difficult part is when you try to create lessons that would benefit both while enhancing the parts both need help in within one period and making sure they are completing the subject’s task all at once. – Haslina

In spite of the tough challenges they face, Shu Fen and Haslina agree that a supportive and conducive workplace environment makes their job better.

The supportive environment around me makes my job better. Like I know I can go and talk to any of my colleagues without complaining about it, and they will even offer comforting words and solutions. – Haslina

The Lack Of Value Preschool Educators Are Placed With

These dedicated professionals are the architects of early development, laying the foundations and building bricks for a child’s lifelong learning journey. However, the disheartening reality is that there is a lack of value placed upon their contributions by society. One of the most glaring issues is the inadequate compensation provided to preschool educators. The lack of competitive wages diminishes the value of their work but makes it difficult to retain and attract new talents to the sector.

Shu Fen recalled that preschool teachers in public preschools (S29, N29 and N19) were ranked lower than public school teachers at DG 29. The preschools are Taman Bimbingan Kanak-Kanak (TABIKA), run by KEMAS, and Taman Didikan Kanak-Kanak (TADIKA), supervised by the State Department of Education and preschool administrative assistant (N19).

For preschool teachers in TABIKA (S29) and TADIKA (N29), their monthly earning starts from RM 1,493 to a maximum earning of RM 5,670.00. Those in grade N19 minimum wage is at RM 1,352.00 up to
RM 4,003.00.

Comparatively a primary school teacher (D29) starts with a salary of RM1,698 and a yearly increment of RM 145[3]. For DG 32, the starting salary is RM2,848 with a yearly increment of RM155[3]. The argument however would be the lower qualification required by preschool teachers.

In order to work in a government preschool, a diploma or SPM is sufficient to start working in Children’s Nursery (TASKA) or preschool (TABIKA KEMAS). – Shu Fen

In the private sector, the salary may depend on the preschool’s stature. For Shu Fen, the pay ranges between RM1,500 – RM2,500. Haslina, who works at an international school, shares that her colleagues earn between RM2,300 and RM3,000 per month.

Source: Unsplash

There are instances where having a higher educational level isn’t directly linked to higher pay in this sector – rather, experience is the more valuable currency.

In this field, even if you are a Master’s holder, it won’t guarantee better pay than those with a degree or diploma qualification. Experience matters more. Even then, despite more than 20 years, some teachers are paid below RM2,500. – Shu Fen

Shu Fen pointed out that parents’ capacity and willingness to pay higher fees in the private sector have a direct impact on the remuneration of teachers.

 It might be possible for teachers to get better pay if parents are willing to pay a high rate for their children’s school fees. Unfortunately, this is a difficult task, since parents do not only pay kindergarten fees. – Shu Fen

The perception that their job is a “lesser profession” resulted in stagnant pay rates. This belittles the complexity and expertise required in their field. Haslina wholeheartedly believes that preschool teachers should be compensated more owing to the more strenuous nature of their work.

Preschool teachers deserve to be paid more for all the hard work they put in. Not to compare but other teachers mainly use their mental strength when teaching but preschool teachers have to use both their physical and mental strength to make lessons entertaining and to maximise the learning. – Haslina

Heroes In Their Own Right

It is easy to name primary and secondary school teachers that have been awarded teacher’s awards every year for their contribution to their students and schools. However, it is harder to find preschool teachers, as Tokoh Guru or role models, rewarded for their dedication or innovative work.

Source: The Star

Our preschool teachers are among the unsung heroes of our society. With that in mind, we asked two budding preschool educators what it takes to become one. Shu Fen aptly said; a high self-awareness when meeting children’s individual needs.

Instead of saying things like passion, empathy and all the qualities we can always find online – I think preschool teachers need to be self-aware or constantly reflecting. It is necessary to ask these questions – am I doing it correctly? Am I helping the child? – Shu Fen

The two young teachers agreed that it is a job that requires a young heart:

Preschool teachers need to always be ready to adjust to changes and be silly as they never know what to do when entertaining those little ones. – Haslina

For far too long we have banished preschool education and its educators to the backburner, when in truth, their heroism and superpowers in the ability to paint the canvas of each child, one at a time is a remarkable feat. We may not remember their names today, but when you pick up the pen and write your name mindlessly, acknowledge the indelible mark they have made on our lives.

Explore our sources: 

  1. World Bank Group (2023). Shaping First Steps: A Comprehensive Review of Preschool Education in Malaysia. Link
  2. The Education Performance and  Delivery Unit (PADU) (2019). Annual Report 2019. Link 

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