By Alvin Ung
As a leader, how do you motivate people in your team who don’t seem to care or want to be there? That was the question I recently posed to a group of senior managers at a government ministry.
We’ve all been in situations like that. You might be a manager who inherited a team who did not ask to report to you. You might be the father of a few teenaged daughters who don’t want to obey you. Or you might be a principal of a school whose teachers were posted there against their will – because, honestly, who would want to work in the most remote school in Peninsular Malaysia?
I found a source of wisdom while shooting the breeze with the canteen cook at Sekolah Kebangsaan Lemoi.
Zanariah Mohd Salleh, 42, has worked in twenty schools. Initially bitter about the prospect of being posted to such a godforsaken school, her attitude changed when she realized she was in a special community. “Unlike all the other schools I’ve worked in, the teachers have made us a part of their family. There is no barrier. What they eat, they share with us,” she said, as she offered me a bowl of fish curry prepared by the science teacher. Earlier I had just sampled the sambal belimbing cooked by the wife of Omardani Mohd. Noor, the school principal.
Unwittingly she had told me the secret for surviving and thriving in a rural school: you have to bond as a family. There’s a surprisingly low turnover rate at SK Lemoi. This school is the first posting for all the twelve teachers who have taught here an average of four years. Most are still here despite the hardship. “Very few teachers have asked me for a transfer,” Omardani said. Mohd Shafizul Amri, 33, the assistant principal and Mathematics teacher, holds the longest-serving record: nine years.
One night, as I sat in the canteen and chatted for hours with four teachers, they told me their unspoken mantra for becoming family: you always watch out for one another, and you never travel alone on the road. The women who ride on Honda EX5’s are accompanied by the men who ride on Kawasaki scramblers. The men repair the women’s bikes in times of need. They help one another carry their bikes across fallen trees. “When someone falls into the mud, we laugh and take the person’s photo before we go and help him!” deadpanned a teacher.
“Last Sunday, my bike had a puncture. One of the men helped me repair it,” said Hanisah Mat Hussin, a science teacher, and one of the two female teachers in the school. “All the mechanical problems in our bikes can be fixed by the teachers.”
Forging close bonds among the teachers is a deliberate practice for Omardani. That’s how you motivate teachers who didn’t care or want to be posted to the school initially. “I believe that my greatest strength as a leader is that I care for the teachers. All the teachers have strong relationships with me. I prioritize them; I go all out for them so they will work with wholehearted commitment,” Omardani said.