By Alvin Ung
One afternoon, as we sat in the library, I asked Omardani Mohd Noor, the principal of Sekolah Kebangsaan Lemoi, to play a game with me. “Assume that in 30 minutes, you will stop being headmaster. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be headmaster.”
The first time I asked him this question in a video interview, I caught him off-guard. He had a lot of trouble accepting that I, not he, would become the next principal of SK Lemoi. The next time, he was prepared. Omardani looked me in the eye and began his coaching session for the new principal: me.
“From the principal to the lowest worker, you’ve got to build that family relationship. We are not like outside schools where teachers can go home after school. Here, during the weekdays, the school is home, and the home is school. So if any of your teachers face personal challenges, you become a counselor,” he said. “You’ve got to say to the teacher, “Tell me what’s going on. How can I help you?’ You cannot compartmentalize professional from personal. Because we are a family,” Omardani said.
Omardani’s advice made sense. It’s a given that all teachers, especially those who come from Penang, Kuala Lumpur or Melaka, will face an adjustment period at SK Lemoi. Perhaps it’s homesickness. Or the hardship. In some rural schools, teachers who can’t take it anymore end up taking it out on their students – with excessive discipline, verbal abuse or hostility. Teachers have even fought one another.
“Never allow a virus to spread,” Omardani told me as we sat on a hillock and watched the male teachers play a rowdy game of futsal. He told me about a teacher who sat on a rock everyday muttering to himself, week after week, deploring his plight being posted there as a teacher. “Once in a while, you’ll end up with a new teacher who has no ‘feel’ as a teacher. Mentor him. But if you’re not making headway, you must transfer him out. You cannot keep non-performers in a rural setting. They will become a virus that infects other people. Be vigilant.”
He also told me to organize staff vacations, around five or six times a year. (They recently went to Sarawak and Penang.) Half of the teachers in the school are married. Omardani’s wife and kids live in Tanah Rata; the other teachers’ families live in Ringlet. “Organize family days so that the teachers’ families can join in. You must not allow the gap with the teachers to grow large. Or else the teachers will just do their duty instead of going that extra mile,” Omardani said.
“Always have the best intentions for them. If you care for the teachers one hundred percent, they will watch out for you and they will care for the students.”
Then he told me to keep the main thing the main thing.
“What’s the main thing?” I asked.
“In a school, the teacher teaches, and the student learns,” he said.
I gave him a look that said: duh. Isn’t that obvious?
“You’re the principal. You must create administrative team that makes sure that the process of teaching and learning is going on all the time,” Omardani said. He told me to be on the alert for signs of teacher tardiness: being late for class, coming to class unprepared, or a teacher who appears to be merely going through the motions rather than teaching with passion. “Your deputies must monitor this process especially when you’re not around.”
Later, I realized the import of Omardani’s words. As principal of a rural school, from time to time, Omardani would be absent from school for workshops, conferences or briefings with the ministry. There are many overnight stays because it’s too dangerous to travel the road by night. So when the cat’s away, the mice might come out to play. In other words, it’s tempting for the teachers to slacken the pace. This becomes a big issue in a rural school where school inspectors struggle to get in, or where parents in an Orang Asli community have no recourse to air any grievances or concerns about their children’s education.
“So your biggest challenge,” Omardani said, as he looked me in the eye, “is to build a common bridge with the community, because there is a cultural and religious gap.” He pointed out that all the teachers in SK Lemoi are ethnic Malay; all the children are Semai. “You need them as must as they need you. Find ways to engage the community through PIBG meetings and annual sports.
The progress of the school needs – absolutely needs – the support from the local community. If you marginalize them, and if you don’t seek their cooperation, this school won’t go far. We need their ideas, energy and support. You cannot move forward alone.”
The cultural gap should not be underestimated. I’ve been told by teachers and district supervisors that many teachers still believe it’s justified to mete out corporal punishment for most children. This upsets Orang Asli parents. “In their culture, they do not cane children,” Omardani said. A district supervisor in Cameron Highlands acknowledged that a few teachers who used excessive forms of punishment have been transferred out of the four Orang Asli schools in the district. I even heard of a villager who wanted to use a blow-pipe shoot a teacher who apparently whacked a student until the child bled.
At the same time, I’ve also heard some teachers, district supervisors and education policy officers make disparaging remarks about Orang Asli children. Common remarks include: “They’re slow learners.” “Whatever you teach them, they forget easily.” Orang Asli parents are also dismissed as people who don’t see the value of education. That certainly wasn’t true in my interactions with the Semai children. Physically, they’re far more agile and tough (some SK Lemoi teachers told me that a seven-year-old girl can walk two hours in deep jungle, and at a faster clip too). Mentally I saw no difference. Once the ice is broken, they’re as curious and inquisitive as any city kid. Perhaps more so, since most city kids are too busy flicking and stabbing away at iPads and smart phones.
“If your relationship with the community is poor, any small issue can blow out of proportion,” Omardani warned me, his successor. “But if the relationship is good, we can weather the issues together.” Omardani confessed that he found it difficult to engage the taciturn Orang Asli parents during the annual parent-teacher meetings (PIBG). What’s more effective are direct relationships built through the adult evening classes where up to 25 parents of the Orang Asli children show up to learn how to study, read and write. “The impact is big. It’s powerful when the children see their parents also studying,” Omardani said.
Shortly after my coaching session with Omardani, I met Mohd Nordin Jamari, an inspector of Cameron Highlands’ four Orang Asli schools, who rode to SK Lemoi by bike for a routine check. “I’d give SK Lemoi an A-plus.The teachers here are committed, dedicated and gutsy. They teach at night. And I really respect the women,” Nordin said.
In a separate interview, Zakaria Abdullah, a senior official in Cameron Highlands’ District Education Office in Tanah Rata told me: “The rise and fall of a school is entirely dependent on the quality of the principal. Omardani has the high commitment and ambition to make the school better. His focus on academics and community engagement, as well as enrichment classes for students, have made a difference in vastly improving the school.”
So these were the leadership lessons Omardani and his bosses at Cameron Highlands PPD shared with me. To become a successful principal at SK Lemoi, you’ve got to: Build a family among the teachers. Be vigilant. Never allow a virus to spread. Develop a process of teaching and learning – and keep it going even when you’re not around. And never ever underestimate the critical importance of community engagement – a key principle emphasized by Omardani’s bosses.
Besides all that, I’d like to add three more essential skills. In a rural school, you’ve got to enjoy washing your own clothes, cook well enough so that your colleagues will eat what you cook, and at SK Lemoi, you need to be able to repair the motorcycles of your female teachers.
That’s everything you need to know to become principal of SK Lemoi. Any takers, anyone?