UPSR’s cancellation : How it made me a better teacher

Teachers all over Malaysia waited with bated breath upon the Ministry’s decision on 2020’s yearly national standardized exams for Year 6 (UPSR), Form 3 (PT3) and Form 5 (SPM).

The controversial decision to cancel UPSR, announced on the 15th of April 2020, was greeted with a sigh of relief for some, and a cry of frustration for others. To many, exams are the only reliable tool to measure a child’s progress and potential. Years upon years of making good exam results the pinnacle of school success, where we have mostly neglected other aspects of education worth appreciating.

Despite the ministry’s many efforts to try and steer Malaysia’s education away from the exam-oriented mentality, the glorification of good grades still holds a firm grasp on many Malaysians today; educators included. In fact, maybe even educators, especially.

I still remember the outcry of dissatisfaction, back in 2017, when Dr. Amin Senin (then Education director-general) announced that there were to be no special ceremony for students who have attained straight A’s in the national exams. Many teachers seemed to think such measures were punitive to hard-working students; and likened it to not giving out the medals and trophies in a sporting event. They failed to see that the very act of comparing it to a competition indicates how they see education; a pressure-thriven race.  

Samples of this obsession with grades can be seen in many instances; everything from the absolute fixation of schools’ GPS rankings (Gred Purata Sekolah) to the constant drilling of test papers for any grade that will face a national exam that year. Most teachers, if not all, who have felt relief upon the cancellation will have felt so because of either two reasons; 

  1. The pandemic has caused schools to shut hence preparation for exams had to be put on hold. Some teachers are overly anxious about not prepping their students enough and the time taken away would have heightened that anxiety. Teachers are often pressured and worse, questioned mercilessly, on the outcome of their students. 
  1. No matter your view on this “obsession”, almost all schools will adopt the same old approach that no teacher can escape from; the extra classes, extra examinations and extra courses (especially ones on  Teknik Menjawab Soalan). If you’re a teacher who disagrees with such a system, the cancellation would have meant an end to that too. Being a part of a cultural system that is against your very own beliefs would have been torture or the very least, demotivating. 

So what kind of teacher was I?
The overly-anxious or the silent rebel of the system?
I would say I was a bit of both.
As someone who had a taste of UK’s education for almost 5 years as a child, I know for a fact on how glorious education would be if only we don’t pressure kids for exams as we do now.

But even I succumbed to the pressure of wanting things to look pretty on paper. Even I, once the kid who knew how much it hurt when teachers failed to see beyond what I can offer on paper, developed a tendency to see my students as percentages, and not for the many aspects of themselves that can never be proven on a piece of flimsy  cellulose fibres derived from wood (if you’re confused, I mean paper). 

After the cancellation announcement and the reopening of schools, I made a new resolve to change my perspective and approaches. I am fairly certain that speaking activities and assessments (in English) were never made a priority for many teachers because it is not tested in the UPSR (this is also a contributing factor as to why many school leavers fail to speak even basic English) despite it being very important for their daily life uses. So I upped the frequency of speaking activities in class. I made class presentations the highlight of each week. I assigned my students with tasks like creating PowerPoint slides about themselves and allowed them to come and see me after school hours so they could do them on my laptop. 

And this simple, very small change in approach (merely giving them more opportunities to verbally express themselves), pleasantly surprised me. 

I have this one student who only scored one digit on his past Ujian Bulanan held back in March this year. He left many parts of the test empty. He cried when I returned his papers to him. And I know he has so much potential; he was always the one with the most questions, always the one to say “teacher, tak faham” after I exhaust my voice explaining tasks, always eager for my approval and boy, was he a hardworking child!

And he proved it again, with my recent speaking assignment. Not only did he meet me after school almost every single day to work on his presentation, he was also the first one to present! He also amazed me with his IT skills and sentence construction (something that he somehow was unable to prove in exams). The sheer will of that kid inspires me in more ways than one! How silly of me to see him as the “kid who scored one digit” instead of a child brimming with potential. 

This is not a petition to ostracize exams all together. In many ways, it is still necessary.  In fact, receiving education in the UK taught me exactly that (as we still had exams when I schooled there).

The issue is, how much of an importance we allow exams to be.
The issue is, putting exams over learning as the end-goal of education.
The issue is, eliminating the possibilities of education because of the over-emphasis on what a child can flaunt on paper.

Let this be a reminder, to myself and other teachers out there, of the wondrous creatures we are entrusted to educate and mold. A reminder of their amazing potential and how we owe it to them to help shape their identity, in becoming the best version of themselves.

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