New KL education department chief Zainal Abas pays tribute to teachers

He sat on the sofa in his office in his usual calm and collected manner. The clock showed 30 minutes past 5pm, but for Zainal Abas, the day was far from over.

“During my first week or so, I stayed back till about 10pm. These days it depends, around seven-ish or so but no later than 9pm lah,” said Zainal.

Zainal is adjusting to life as the Kuala Lumpur Education Department director – a seat he occupied barely three weeks ago.

Zainal, who turned 54 on Jan 27, is a former newscaster, a national athletics coach and served as the Education Ministry’s Sports, Curriculum and Arts Unit head prior to his new appointment.

And right after occupying his new office on the second floor of the building block opposite the Tun Razak Hockey Stadium, Zainal rolled up his sleeves and turun padang.

“I went to this particular school and a teacher there messaged, asking me what time I’d be arriving. I didn’t think too much of it and replied,” said Zainal.

“When I arrived at the school, there was a welcoming committee at the front gate. From then on, I don’t tell anyone when I’m coming over,” he added in jest.

Zainal is responsible for Kuala Lumpur’s 294 schools (190 primary; 104 secondary), 17,156 teachers and 222,051 students.

Teachers informed Twentytwo13 that Zainal has been coming to school alone, minus the pomp and fare. He would quietly walk around the school and observe its surroundings as fifth formers prepared for their SPM while other teachers were getting the classrooms ready for the 2021 academic session that started in batches on March 1.

When told about this, Zainal smiled.

“There was a school I visited. The SPM examination was going on. I went to all the classrooms. The principal only realised I was around when I was on my way out.

“When you announce, you will only be taken to places where they want you to see. When you go on your own, you get to see many things.”

He paid tribute to teachers who go the extra mile in ensuring their students study in a comfortable yet safe environment.

“There was another school I visited and there was this Standard 5 teacher who was accompanied by his wife and their two children, one a pre-schooler and the other who is in Standard One. The teacher was painting the classroom. He told me that since the parents had already contributed to buy the paint and he didn’t want to tax them further by spending more money hiring a painter, he did it himself.

“I was at Convent Bukit Nanas (last week) and saw teachers busy decorating their classrooms, eager to give their students a warm welcome after a year of missed classes due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

He paid tribute to the teachers and principals, adding parents realised, during the Movement Control Order, that it was difficult being a teacher.

“Some of the parents can’t answer questions posed by their children. And we’re talking about school work. I believe the MCO has generated a sense of appreciation towards our teachers.”

He admitted there were concerns raised by parents as the battle against Covid-19 continues.

“The Fire Department has helped us sanitise our schools. I admit sanitising alone will not help end the problem but it helps to give people confidence.

“Basically, what is important is for parents to realise schools are the safest place. We practise 1m physical distancing at all times. There is restriction of movement … students eat in their classrooms. It’s under a controlled environment.”

Zainal has also been keeping a close eye on the dispersal system at schools. He said schools have a schedule and students leave class by class to minimise the number of parents or guardians waiting at the front gate.

“Most parent-teacher associations in Kuala Lumpur have been helpful. Some have hired Rela personnel to help manage the foot traffic while some parents volunteered to assist when school starts and ends. We encourage them to be part of the ecosystem to assist.

“Don’t worry, come to school,” he added.

While being kept busy with a rather hectic schedule, Zainal has his better half to thank as he stressed that adapting is key to progress.

“My wife (Najmiah Abas) is our house manager and I have her to thank. She has done extremely well in managing our four children (aged 13 to 25), since my coaching days,” he added.

“As for me, I’ve managed to adapt to the different phases of my life by learning. In fact, teachers have been doing all that too throughout their careers. When teachers are appointed to a school, they need to know how many periods they teach in a week. They are then given a sports house and be in charge of uniformed bodies and clubs.

“So similar to that, you have to adapt, perform and do your task well. That has kept me motivated throughout the years.”