Teachers are mentors, not vendors

And students are not mere MOE 'customers', but the future of our nation. Parents should support educators, not criticise them.

So a well-intentioned Forum letter ("Working after school hours part of 'service'", Oct 8) provoked a backlash against the writer and against "the system".

Well-intentioned, because in a follow-up letter ("Teachers' overtime work driven by parents' expectations", Oct 13), the writer, Ms Lee Wei Yin, clarified that she actually agreed with the detractors, and called for all stakeholders to find workable solutions, particularly to help teachers manage their working hours. 

Let's backtrack. Ms Lee, a parent, wrote to highlight how she feels a school could improve - by providing an added service, among other concerns.

On taking up my current role as general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement six years ago, I was surprised that students and parents were considered by the Ministry of Education (MOE) as "customers". I expressed my surprise and concern in discussion with my friends in the MOE management team.

What we call a thing has a big impact on how people perceive the thing itself. Would it really affect our treatment of teachers and the education system if we called our students and their parents "customers", I wondered. 

The word "customer" is based on a commercial concept. It is by definition, a transaction with which parties buy and sell among each other. And in sales and service, an often-used cliche is that the customer is always right. Hence, the customer is more likely the one in the stronger bargaining position.

Parents and teachers should work together as partners to educate students. Parents should also set a good example for their children by being more supportive of teachers.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

This thorny problem was anticipated by a 2012 publication, Case Studies In Public Governance: Building Institutions In Singapore, edited by June Gwee. It was already recognised that "education and learning were not for profit-making, and the commercial notion of 'delighting customers' threatened to be a misnomer and a source of tension".

What then would be the implications on our education system? Should we pull through with this customer-centric service?

For one, instead of the MOE and educational institutions having control over our education system, this terminology shifts the balance of power to the students and parents. This does not bode well for the education sector of modern Singapore, which already has a worrying number of able teachers leaving the profession. 

For example, discipline, already a difficult area by many anecdotal accounts, would become even more difficult to enforce. It is not common or easy for vendors to discipline their customers. 

In addition, when there is a "problem" in the food chain, be it homework or other schoolwork, which party is to be held responsible? In the marketplace, the "service provider" will have to shoulder the blame and correct his mistakes. Hence, if the student has a problem completing her homework, it need not be the student's fault.

National education cannot be treated as a mere commercial transaction. Teaching is a very noble calling, and our teachers are the best providers, not of a service, but of education itself, an indispensable block for nation-building. It should not be trivialised by commercialising it.

Effective teachers do not just teach: They mentor, they listen and help with the student's problems (be it academic or personal) and they walk the journey with the students in their personal growth. 

So how do we make the education landscape right for everyone? 


First, let us get rid of the old, misplaced idea that students and parents are customers that the MOE, educational institutions, principals and teachers absolutely have to please.


Education itself is the institutionalised dissemination of information, knowledge and skills to a future generation. The overall objective is certainly not for a commercial benefit nor to service a customer base. The intent, according to the MOE's website, is to help our students discover their own talents, to make the best of these talents and realise their full potential, and to develop a passion for learning that lasts through life.

Teachers are not transactional vendors, but transformational mentors. They are educators, whose duties include guiding students and helping them develop skills and acquire a variety of knowledge. Their work is transformational, not transactional, and they must be empowered to do so. If they had to please their "customers", their work is immediately reduced to the transactional level.

Next, we should always give credit where it is due. I do not believe we can thank our educators enough for nurturing the future of our nation. Rather than critiquing how they should work their hours, we, as parents and grandparents, should support them and motivate them to continue nurturing the desire in our young to learn.

In any society, it takes a whole village to educate a child. All the more so in modern society. Today, the need for both parents to be at work makes the role of educators even more critically important in the lives of our children. We require more than just the parents to raise a child. We need able educators and a supportive workforce to understand one another, and to educate the child together as partners.

Finally, shouldn't we remember that we, as parents and extended family, have the prime responsibility of bringing up our children? Including, yes, educating them - perhaps less so in formal education, but certainly in general knowledge and most importantly, values.

On the latter, more important than any words uttered, our personal conduct and role-modelling do far more in educating our young.

If we mistreat, or are otherwise excessively demanding of, and unreasonable with, our children's teachers, how do we think our children will regard them?

At the end of the day, in our relationship with our children's teachers, both we and they need to remember that kindness is, after all, up to each one of us.

And then perhaps, in modelling this thought, despite all the other influences now readily available, we may yet succeed in making kindness and graciousness intrinsic values in the next generation and in our nation.

  • The writer is general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2016, with the headline 'Teachers are mentors, not vendors'. Print Edition | Subscribe