Let teachers do what they do best

Andrew Loh

“Teaching is not an act of kindness. It is a calling – an act of love,” Ms Esther Koh* told The Online Citizen (TOC). “A teacher seldom does things to get appreciation. They do it because they love their students, their job or the subject they teach.”

Ms Koh, who has 10 years of teaching experience in the junior colleges (JC) and secondary schools, was asked for her views on recent press reports of the Singapore Kindness Movement’s (SKM) “Graciousness Index” research results. 1,000 Singaporeans were surveyed in January to rate Singaporeans’ behavior in 51 areas. One of these areas was in education, which threw up the following findings:

-       Teachers appreciating their students had dropped by 13 per cent (from 70 to 57 percent)

-       Parents respecting teachers had dipped by 12 per cent (from 72 to 60 per cent)

-       Students willing to help their fellow classmates was down by 11 per cent (from 64 to 53 per cent)

-       Students appreciating their teachers stood at 61 per cent

While, according to the SKM, the survey may indicate “perception of graciousness rather than actual behaviours,” is there a cause for concern nonetheless, given that the slide in numbers is quite significant, even if it’s just an indication of perceived behavior?

Teachers TOC spoke to seem to think so – and the culprit is that old bugbear: workload. “Many teachers are being worked to the bone,” said Ms Tan Lay Joo*, who has been a JC teacher for five years. “I think it all boils down to the stress of the system. Everyone is so stressed and busy and tired. How are you supposed to ‘appreciate’ each other?” she asked. Ms Koh agrees. “The school days are longer,” she says, “and often after a long day of lessons, [teachers] have courses and meetings to attend, students to counsel, admin work to do, matches to chaperone, field trips to conduct, books to mark.”

In short, administrative and extra-curricula work take up the better part of a teacher’s time, and teachers are deprived of what they love to do best – spending time with students in the classroom. Ms Koh would agree. When she first joined the profession before 2000, she had the opportunity to sit with her students after school and speak to them as individuals, out of the classroom context. “I appreciate these times and was very much energised and was more motivated and driven [because of] my encounters with my students.” After 2000 however, the situation changed. “[There were] more national initiatives, trainings, workshops, seminars and cluster meetings, sharing sessions, presentations, educational conferences, teachers have less time for their students,” she says.

Ms Koh’s views are not new however. It was a sentiment echoed by teacher “Choenix” in an article for The Online Citizen (TOC) in 2006. “When I first became a high school teacher, I remember spending time with my students in the school tuckshop to talk about their dreams and aspirations. A few years into the teaching profession, I was still talking to them about their ambitions and plans for the future - after they have made an appointment one week in advance so that the discussion of their future will not clash with the data entry deadlines, accreditation report-writing and upgrading courses.”

Ms Aisha Quek’s letter to the Straits Times on 15 May, in which she detailed her husband’s “punishing workload” in a typical day as a primary school teacher, relates what some teachers have similarly described to TOC. Ms Quek asked in her letter: “As I am writing this letter at 10am, my husband has developed a fever. But he is unable to seek medical attention as there is an oral examination in the afternoon.

I understand there is a need to be accountable to students’ parents. But in this case, who is answerable to a teacher’s family if anything happens to the teacher?”

Some teachers are fighting back, it seems. “I am starting to put my foot down,” said “Flora” in a comment posted on the Yahoo website under the article, “No respite in sight for overworked teachers”. The article has, so far, attracted more than 3,000 comments, including some  apparently from teachers.

“Recently, I told a HOD that I have stopped bringing home my marking,” Flora continues. “If I can’t finish today, it just means I continue marking tomorrow in school. She looked at me, and I looked at her back in the eye. Later on, I repeated this same sentence to my own RO. I need to start to fight back for my own life.”

TOC emailed the Ministry of Education for its views on the results of the survey by the SKM on 25 April 2010.

We have yet to receive a response.

In his speech (click here) to the International Confederation of Principals in 2009, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the problem of the high rate of attrition among teachers. “Too few young people wanted to become teachers and too many teachers were leaving the service,” the Prime Minister said.  “[If] you calculate the numbers who were coming in every year, if you calculate the numbers who were going out every year, and if you calculate how long they stayed on average and you projected the trends, which we did, we knew we had a problem.”

The government’s response was to first increase remuneration for teachers by as much as 18 per cent. “We did what was the obvious thing but not a very easy thing to do and that was to raise the pay,” the PM said. In addition, the government also implemented “performance appraisal systems” in schools for teachers, among other measures.

In his 2009 speech, the PM said Singapore had 20,000 teachers. In a Channelnewsasia report in 2008, it reported that “[the] education sector in Singapore currently employs some 29,400 teachers.”

Did the teaching profession lose more than 9,000 teachers in a single year despite all the new measures introduced? The attrition rate seems to be a very closely-guarded secret by the MOE and has never been disclosed.

What was the result of the MOE’s recruitment drive, launched in December 2008, to add 7,500 more teachers to the pool?

But is recruiting more teachers and introducing enhanced monetary incentives the solutions to help teachers deal with the “assault of relentless administrative workload”, as Choenix called it and which seems to be the nub of teachers’ complaints?

The question which should be asked perhaps is: Has the number of teachers’ resignation decreased with more incentives given to teachers? If it has, why is this so? Why are teachers resigning?  The number of teachers leaving the profession is not a publicly known figure, often not reported in the press either. This gives a very uneven picture of the equation in education. Ms Koh agrees. “The press constantly reports increase in the number of teacher recruited. [This] gives people the wrong idea that teachers have more help, schools have more teachers. But isn’t it strange that the teacher-student ratios haven’t decreased despite increased recruitment of teachers for so many years?”

Ultimately, the issue is not one of numbers or even salaries, important as the latter may be. Retaining good teachers is something that the MOE needs to work harder on. In the years since 2002, the MOE has introduced a whole slew of incentives but most of them have to do with promotional prospects or professional development and most of them involve monetary incentives.

Money may not be the only factor that retains teachers. Ms Koh explains: “What is the main factor that gets you out of your nice warm bed to dress and feed yourself and make that long journey to your workplace? Your passion for your work! So the ultimate question is how do we retain passionate teachers?

“They are the teachers who are very contented just being in the classroom, who aren’t that concerned about promotional prospects nor the monetary incentives thrown as carrots in their faces, teachers who get energised from their interactions with the students, teachers who just want to effect a change not to their schools or work but to their students alone.

What is MOE doing about this special group of teachers?”

It is time for the ministry to look into the serious problem of teachers being overworked – as have been expressed by an increasing number of teachers themselves.

Let teachers be in the classroom – for that is what they do best.

*All the names of the three teachers interviewed by TOC have been changed for privacy reasons.

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Here are two letters sent to and published by the Straits Times in May 2010:

May 15, 2010

Work-life balance? Here’s one day in the life of a teacher

I AM often told how the Ministry of Education is easing teachers’ workload, but I see little evidence of it.  My husband has been teaching in a neighbourhood school for several years. Despite the mantra of work-life balance, I see little of it in the lives of teachers. Here is a typical weekday routine for my husband:

5am: Wake up and prepare for school.

6am : Leave for school.

7am : Arrive at school and perform morning duty (in a sense, ‘guard duty’).

7.30am to 1pm : Regular teaching duties (including extra games for students who need more exercise during recess, which is part of the Holistic Health Framework that replaced the Trim and Fit scheme).

1 pm to 1.30pm : Prepare for remedial lessons.

1.30pm to 3.30pm : Conduct remedial lessons (my husband’s school believes that to improve students’ results, remedial lessons must be conducted daily).

3.30pm to 5.30pm : Be present for the co-curricular activities he is in charge of.

5.30pm to 6.30pm : Administrative work like keying in remarks on students for the mid-term report book).

6.30pm to 6.45pm : Pack 36 books and piles of worksheets to take home and mark.

6.45pm to 7.45pm : Travel home.

7.45pm to 8.30pm : Eat dinner and rest.

8.30pm to 1am : Continue with administrative work, such as marking books and worksheets, reviewing examination papers, and preparing programmes for the June school camp and Youth Olympic Games activities.

Weekends are hardly restful. I often ask him if the endless work is because he is singled out. That is not so, he tells me. His colleagues face the same punishing workload.

As I am writing this letter at 10am, my husband has developed a fever. But he is unable to seek medical attention as there is an oral examination in the afternoon.

I understand there is a need to be accountable to students’ parents. But in this case, who is answerable to a teacher’s family if anything happens to the teacher?

Aishah Quek (Ms)

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May 17, 2010

Penalised for trying to be a good mum and teacher

I empathise with Ms Aishah Quek’s frustrations over her teacher husband’s life (‘Work-life balance? Here’s one day in the life of a teacher’; last Saturday).

My daughter, a junior college teacher for more than five years, typically works for 80 to 90 hours a week. Weekends are often reserved for marking and events related to co-curricular activity, and the so-called school holidays are filled with remedials, meetings, courses and camps.

Things got worse when she had her first child. Choosing to breastfeed for six months, she decided to take two months of no-pay leave, in addition to the four months of paid maternity leave. But she often had to return to school during this time to perform ad hoc duties assigned to her.

Upon returning to school full time, she fought a losing battle with the school administration to provide her and other mothers-to-be with a place for expressing breast milk. It was suggested to her that she should use either the storeroom or the toilet. In the end, other teachers who took pity on her plight set up a makeshift corner in the staff room, with a shower curtain for privacy. More than five new mothers now use this corner.

My daughter was also given far more responsibilities than the average teacher when she returned to full-time teaching, so much so that it seemed like she was to complete one year’s worth of work in the remaining six months.

But when performance bonuses were given out, she was not only given a pro-rated bonus (which I understand), but also a lower performance grading.

While I am very grateful for the increased maternity benefits a young family now receives, I would like to highlight that there seems to be a contradiction when Singaporeans are encouraged to have more babies, but mothers are penalised when trying to concurrently be both good mums and good workers.

She is now expecting her second child and I won’t be surprised if she leaves the teaching service.

Lim Kim Siang