Home Front

Making time for teachers to hone their craft

The juggling of different duties wears them out. If they could focus on teaching, and on the crafting of lesson plans, they might be less inclined to quit.

A peek at the two-page curriculum vitae of a young teacher shows he has a wide range of work experience, from administrator to first aider, event organiser, child-care provider, even cheerleader.

That is on top of his teaching load, of course, which requires him to draw up lesson plans, deliver them to a class of 30 pupils and grade their work.

The primary school teacher, who has been in the service for four years, is expected to juggle all these different duties and keep the balls in the air.

He is not alone in doing so, and that is why some teachers compare their job to being in a circus act - with no end in sight.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The workload of teachers is a matter of public interest, as seen in the response to a recent Straits Times article about 5,000 teachers having quit the service over the last five years. The report published last week had 3,000 shares on Facebook and garnered some 400 comments.

 

Some teachers took to social media to air their grievances. Others wrote in to The Straits Times, including one who set out in detail a typical work day that starts at 7am. He teaches

 

until 1pm, then spends the afternoon on matters related to co-curricular activities (CCAs) and meetings, gets home at 8pm and starts grading assignments and fielding parents' queries. He usually goes to bed at 1am, after preparing the next day's lessons.

Other teachers expressed disappointment that colleagues who moved up the ranks and now work at the Ministry of Education (MOE) headquarters have forgotten what it is like on the ground.

The figure of 5,000 resignations over five years may not be excessive, given that there are 33,000 school teachers in all.

One pressing concern though is how many more are planning their exits?

The other question to ask is what can be done to retain teachers, including those with experience, and help them stay in a job they love?

BURNOUT

About a third of teachers here have under five years of experience. That is based on 2014 data, which also shows that less than half have been in service for 10 or more years. That suggests teacher retention is a challenge.

A long-standing complaint of teachers is that they have to shoulder mundane administrative tasks that include organising school events, and budgeting and planning for CCAs that they are in charge of. Some help has come in the form of allied educators which MOE hires to help teachers with administrative work and to manage students' concerns.

Yet, the feedback from teachers is that the amount of time-consuming paperwork has grown rather than fallen in recent years. One example cited was the requirement for teachers to fill in a detailed form when organising an activity that takes students out of school. They then have to get clearance from at least two levels above them, says an ex-teacher.

What adds to their burden are enthusiastic principals who introduce new ideas which teachers are expected to implement, and parents with unreasonable expectations, including some who expect teachers to be at their beck and call.

These factors combine to cause burnout not just among young teachers but among veterans with over 20 years of experience. These skilled professionals are walking away from what was once a lifelong career.

MOE on its part is not overly worried by the current rate of attrition.

In a reply to The Straits Times, it said that the annual resignation rate has "remained low at around 3 per cent" in the last five years.

A check by this paper found though that the resignation rate has actually crept up from 2 per cent, or 400 to 500 resignations a year, a figure disclosed by MOE in 2000 when the force numbered around 24,000.

That has now grown to 33,000 teachers, and MOE said the size of that teaching force "remains stable". But for how long?

HELPING TEACHERS STAY IN SERVICE

The ministry has cut back on the hiring of teachers. In the past three years, it has hired about 1,000 teachers a year. At its peak in 2009, MOE recruited 3,000 teachers a year.

That rate of hiring grew the teaching force significantly. Now MOE has switched gear and is focused on replacing teachers who have called it quits and recruiting teachers in specific subject areas, such as art and music. So numerically, it works out fine - incoming teachers replace outgoing ones and the size of the teaching force has, as the MOE said, remained stable.

But surely this is not and cannot be just about the numbers.

The worry is that the education service is losing trained and talented professionals, and their wealth of experience. Teaching is a complex craft that requires time and effort to perfect. Experienced teachers cannot be replaced overnight by new ones.

That's because while it takes a decent teacher to deliver content, it requires a great one to break it down in a way that helps students learn. That is a skill honed over time.

MOE has tried to support teachers by hiring administrative staff and allied educators to take over some of their work. It has also hiked salaries.

In August last year, MOE said up to 30,000 teachers will get 4 per cent to 9 per cent increases in their monthly wages to keep pace with market increases. In a Facebook post then, former Education Minister Heng Swee Keat acknowledged the growing demands on teachers.

But such efforts may not suffice. That is because teachers are for the most part not motivated by money. They did not join the force to get rich but to enrich their students' lives.

What they seek most is assurance that they will be given more time to hone their craft, and to carry out the research and crafting of lesson plans that will enable them to teach their charges more effectively.

The irony is that good teachers are quitting the service to enter the lucrative tuition business because it allows them to focus on teaching and getting better at it. Some former teachers turned tutors say they get a sense of satisfaction from being able to teach so effectively they can guarantee their students a string of As.

As Singapore moves to overhaul its pressure-cooker education system and shift it away from an excessive focus on examination grades, it would do well also to take a closer look at how to boost teacher morale and welfare.

As a start, MOE can consider setting out clearly defined roles for teachers and delegating tasks that have nothing to do with teaching, like events organisation and managing CCAs, to allied educators or external facilitators. CCA duties, which many teachers consider distractions, can be outsourced.

There is also a need to educate parents on the role of teachers and the line between reasonable and unreasonable requests of a teacher's time.

Teaching is a noble profession, but it need not be a thankless one.

SEE FORUM

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline 'Making time for teachers to hone their craft'. Print Edition | Subscribe