When teachers lack empathy

Academics should understand that there are certain structural factors beyond the control of poor students and their families

Many students are unable to afford laptops

A video clip posted recently on social media depicting a Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) professor berating her student for being poor has understandably gone viral.

The student’s ‘mistake’ was that he could not afford to have a laptop that was required for meaningful participation in an online class.

Many fumed after witnessing the lecturer scold the student for only being equipped with a mobile phone for the lessons of the past five semesters.

Furthermore, upon learning that the student’s father was jobless and his mother had died, the professor told the student to tell his sister to sell her gold bracelet, if she had one, to buy him a laptop. Otherwise, she warned, he would become a dropout.

In an angry tone, she said she had five articles of clothing to wear because she placed priority on a computer for education. Such a comparison required quite a leap of imagination.

The academic, who works for the university on a contractual basis, also took a swipe at people in the low-income category, whom she considered were more interested in buying things than investing in an education.

That is obviously a case of tarring lot of people with the same brush, some of whom are struggling to put food – much less laptops – on the table on a daily basis.

It is, however, comforting to learn that the university’s top management has swung into action to help the student after the incident became public.

We also understand that the student and the academic concerned had reached an ‘amicable’ settlement and that, as a result, the university may consider not taking any action against the academic for having hurt the dignity of the student as well as low-income folk.

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At the time of writing, the university is awaiting further instruction from the Ministry of Higher Education on the next course of action, as if the former is incapable of making a decision on its own.

Letting the academic off the hook should not overshadow the need to address the insensitivity of certain educators towards students’ socioeconomic hardship, especially amid a pandemic and the consequent economic downturn.

This could lead some to believe that students who drop out of university are lazy or stupid and, thus, do not need academic, financial and institutional support.

Academics should take cognisance of the fact that there are certain structural factors beyond the control of poor students and their families. For example, learning from home, particularly in a small flat housing a large family, may not be conducive to a student’s concentration.

Poor internet connectivity, which poses a problem for online learning, may be due to poor infrastructure in rural and other marginalised sectors owing to inadequate public funding. Money that is meant to provide public facilities and convenience might not have reached these places partly because it has gone into the pockets of the corrupt.

While it may be difficult to ascertain conditions on the ground for certain cases of students, academics may want to alert their respective universities and the ministry concerned to possible complications faced by students so that they can take it from there.

Educators are supposed to inspire their charges – not to make them give up their studies.

Arrogance that accompanied the frustration expressed in this incident could reinforce a misplaced contention perpetuated in larger society that poor students are lazy and unmotivated. It is the argument often made by those born with a silver spoon in their mouth, some of whom would not be able to appreciate the big challenges these poor students have to face in their desire to compete and excel.

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It is unfortunate that education is made all the poorer by a lack of empathy and compassion. – The Malaysian Insight



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