Work discrimination in teaching service

Letter by a teacher who wish to be anonymous

I am finally writing this – regarding my traumatic experience of work discrimination due to pregnancy.

In 2002, I joined the Ministry of Education (MOE) as a teacher. In 2003, I was overjoyed to be pregnant after just getting married (married by the end of 2002).

Unfortunately, 2003 wasn’t a good year. SARS, with the constant disruption of lessons and school) and my pregnancy that turned out to be difficult. First off, I have hypertension (diagnosed when I was a teenager) and was considered a high-risk pregnancy. KKH got me in for pre-eclampsia, and as the pregnancy progressed, it turned out I had placenta previa that entailed bleeding throughout the three trimesters. My ob-gyn had to prescribe me bed-rest and the bleeding also involved hospitalization.

Of course, the school (a junior college) wasn’t sympathetic to me going in and out of hospital. My head of department, which I should not name, was a man who didn’t seem to understand my situation. To him, I was only a beginning teacher/lecturer who had to oversee the JC1 cohort of History students.

By the end of the year, when I finally gave birth by C-section, the school principal (a lady) suggested I transfer to a secondary school in my vicinity “because it would be easier for me”.

Which turned out to be total bullshit. In the new secondary school I was transferred to, I had to straddle two departments, become a co-form teacher of a Secondary Three and teach basically three levels. Meanwhile, I was going through what I then realized was post partum depression. I was missing the growing up process of my infant. The so-called work-life balance then was total nonsense and non-existent.

Due to all the stress, I didn’t give my best performance and was credited a D in my ranking, which I felt was unfair. The school kept giving me warnings ( the end of my road then was termination). I emailed MOE directly, using the advice provided by the Singapore Teachers’ Union… which got the school panicking.

The school threatened me to terminate me or I resign (so that it sounded better than termination). I was serving the draconian three-year bond then. By that time, I was already worn down by all these ding-donging and unfairness. I decided to resign. My father helped me pay the rest of the bond that cost about 20,000 SGD). I left the service in 2004.

I know that MOE has a dim view of bond breakers, and it is often believed that those who break their bonds are black-listed or “black-marked”. It was only after I resigned that it seemed to get a bit… better. And also when I say “better”, it depended on the school management you are under.

The case I want to make is that surely I am not the only one who suffered such trauma when pregnant as a MOE teacher. I have heard horror stories where new female teachers are told by their principals that if they become pregnant, they might as well transfer to other schools. Stories of teachers who miscarried abound. All in the name of performance and if you don’t, you are a lousy teacher and civil servant.

Another case I want to make is that surely there are many woman teachers who are chronically ill. Are they subjected to the same kind of treatment? Surely, our illnesses are not linked to D-grade performance? Or that being at work all the time means you are hard-working.

I am now serving as an adjunct teacher at a secondary school. As adjunct teachers, we are not given the full benefits of full-time teachers and yet, we still have to behave as if we are still civil servants (without the CSC card) and less pay and the prospects of switching schools (if the current school decides not to continue your service).

I see that MOE has only very recently rolled out “work-life-balance” policies and that some schools are more “pro-family”. Yet the insistence that we still perform above expectations is still there. I feel sorry for the new mothers who are expected to perform as per before their pregnancies and the ones who are on extended maternity leave, because they have to look after their infants. It’s either childcare centres, care under grandparents’ or domestic helpers. If not, they have to look after their children on their own, all under No Pay Leave. When they return, it’s often a rude shock as the school management expects you to regain your feet as soon as possible and produce yet again results.

I hope we can address this issue, or that many government ministries will still brush it under a carpet and pretend such things do not exist. Or that they can push blame and point fingers. Or that say, “If so-and-so teacher can do it, why can’t you?” The common hallmark of an abusive and discriminatory boss or work environment. Such strict standards are toxic and not helpful to the teaching service, as I keep seeing people resign. If the government keeps on insisting that women give birth (pro-family!) and keep birth rates up, such exacting standards have to go.

MOE is one such ministry that has to change its unforgiving work assessment procedure.