What makes a good teacher?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 11, 2014

I WAS elated to read the Ministry of Education's (MOE) vision for Singapore's educational system - "when every school is a good school". I was happy because there is now greater hope that my children's children - when they come into this world - will benefit from this vision.

The entire topic of education is, of course, of supreme importance for Singapore - a country whose only real resource is its people. Continuous and rapid change also makes it necessary for us to re-look our education model, like we are doing now.

I read the edited extract of Education Minister Heng Swee Keat's parliamentary speech in The Straits Times last Saturday and found one paragraph, towards the end in the sub-section entitled "Good Teachers Matter", where teachers were mentioned.

The profile of our teachers has changed. Relative to, say, a decade or so ago, we see teachers who are more academically qualified and younger these days.

Increasingly, we read of success stories and what some teachers have done to make a difference to their students' learning journey. Two factors probably contributed to this - a keener passion for the profession (foundation building of tomorrow's leaders) and a more competitive pay structure.

In my opinion, there are three factors that make a good teacher.

First, there is a difference between having the intellectual knowledge and being able to share or teach it so that students are able to benefit from that knowledge. An MOE scholar may have a high intellectual capacity, but he may not necessarily be able to stand in front of a classroom of students and impart that intellectual knowledge effectively.

Second, a good teacher teaches with a heart. This essentially means that the teacher is able to see each student as an individual, and not just one in a class of 40 bodies.

The teacher is also willing to make the extra effort to engage his students, and ensure that almost every student in his class is able to "get it". This may involve additional hours spent after class, over the weekend and so on, to drive home the point to those who might not fully grasp the essence of the lesson the first time around.

Last, but surely not least, is the willingness and the ability of the teacher to introduce innovative and meaningful ways of teaching, other than the traditional "I talk, you listen" approach. Every student learns differently. A good teacher is one who is willing and able to invest time in exploring the answers to "how else can I teach so the students will learn and absorb the knowledge much more effectively", and introduce these teaching methods in class.

Minister Heng mentioned the need to inspire teachers who "lead, care and inspire". This will have a good chance of succeeding only if the infrastructure supports it. Principals must have the vision, wisdom and professional maturity to put in place the right strategies in their respective schools to allow this to have a chance of succeeding.

There must also be channels for teachers to provide feedback to the MOE without fear of repercussions, when principals are not doing the right things. The consequences of such principal-induced "mis-management" can potentially be very detrimental to the MOE's vision.

The "leading and inspiring" part of Mr Heng's three areas of emphasis is partly in-born. But it can also be taught. However, the "caring" has to come from the heart - this cannot be learnt from textbooks nor taught in class.

How do we find and hire teachers who have this caring spirit? This is not so easy. It has to do with individual family upbringing and the kind of teachers they had. Given some of the disturbing behaviours we read about in the media, including road rage and ageing parents being dumped in institutions, I am worried.

There is no magic bullet here. But if Singapore wishes to continue to be successful, in particular to be a more caring and gracious society, we have to do something. The MOE's game plan, in particular the Character and Citizenship Education, might well put Singapore at the beginning of this journey. The emphasis on a well-rounded education, and not one focusing on just academic prowess, is spot on.

Teachers are also human beings who need time to re-charge and be with their families and loved ones.

This is where we will have to look at the other duties of a teacher, including various administrative tasks and the marking of exam papers. Currently, this is not an achievable balance, in my view. We need to make major changes to the system.

On the subject of hiring, the MOE should also place much more emphasis on hiring mid-career professionals.

Some of the corporate leaders I coach seem to have the aptitude and interest to not only do well, but also potentially excel in a teaching career. And they will come to the classroom with useful and important industry knowledge that other teachers simply do not have. These mid-career teachers are likely to be empathetic and better able to relate to their much younger charges, as most have played parental roles.

But please, MOE, do allow these mid-career aspiring teachers to have a say in which subjects they teach - this is of fundamental value and importance to their success as a teacher.

I look forward to the day when every teacher in a Singapore school is a good teacher.

The writer is the founder and managing director of the NeXT Career Consulting Group.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 11, 2014

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