Teachers’ desperate call – from 2006 to 2016

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By: Andrew Loh

On 3 October 2016, the Straits Times had this headline in one of its reports:

“5,000 teachers leave service over five years” [“About 5,000 teachers have left the teaching force over the last five years…”]

Listen to what two teachers said, as reported by the newspaper:

“I decided to leave as I wasn’t able to focus fully on what I love to do, which is to teach.”
Mr Bernard Lim, 59, who has about 20 years of experience teaching in schools, said the “paperwork increased many-fold over time”. It took a toll on him, resulting in two bouts of depression in 2003 and 2005. “When I was close to recovery, I reasoned the illness would recur if I stayed on, so I resigned,” said Mr Lim, who left the profession at the end of 2005 and is now a tutor.

In 2006, the education service also faced the same problem, and I wrote about it then, interviewing some teachers who, incidentally, complained of the same thing – that they were inundated with administrative work which prevented them from having enough time to do what they love most – to interact with and teach students in the classroom.

Is the ministry listening? Will it?

10 years later, we are again facing the same problems – burned-out teachers and a system which does not allow them to do what they are most passionate about.

Here is the 2006 article I wrote:

“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.”

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 where they do best.


Republished with permission from Andrew Loh’s blog.