Tuesday, 23 July 2013

SG Teach Part 2: The downsides of teaching in Singapore

This is the second part of a 2-part series. If you have missed the first part, click here.

Have you wondered what contributes to the high turnover rate of teachers in Singapore? Have a chat with educators who have left the service (or those still in service willing to speak the truth) and some of the following reasons come to mind.

#1. Long working hours and heavy workload.

A few years ago, a forum letter to the Straits Times from the wife of a Primary School Teacher went viral online. The lady who wrote the letter, Ms Quek, chronicles her husband's typical work day and questions the non-existence of work-life balance in a teaching job.

Fast forward 3 years... and very little has changed. Work-life balance for teachers is by and large still not a priority and therefore virtually non-existent. Granted, working in Singapore is stressful regardless of the occupation. However, no other job besides the teaching profession requires one individual to play as many roles (refer to my earlier posts here and here).

My friends can attest that I am very efficient when it comes to work. Therefore I can say without shame, that despite my best efforts to optimize and manage my time without compromising on work quality, I work an average of 60 to 70 hours per week during school term (including weekends) as an ordinary school teacher. This number does not take into consideration staying overnight for camps or going overseas for school trips. Each ordinary teacher typically has a marking loading equivalent to 4 full classes, which works out to between 120 to 150 scripts to be marked for each assignment given. On top of that, teachers are required to attend school meetings (aka contact time), department meetings, level meetings, committee meetings and parent-teacher meetings. In addition to timetabled lessons, we also conduct CCA, remedial, one-on-one student consultations and supplementary lessons in the holidays. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

One of the greatest challenges in modern life is to find the middle path.

No wonder 'No Work Life Balance' is an option that a resigning teacher can check on the MOE resignation form. I kid you not. So they know.

#2. PARENTS. 'Nuff said?

I can't think of any other occupation that needs to deal with such a unique group of stakeholders and their expectations. Parents are neither 'clients' (technically our clients are the students) nor part of the school nor experts in the teaching profession - but just speak to any teacher who has been in service long enough and almost every single one of them has a story to tell about insufferable or unrealistic parents.

In every line, one has to deal with unreasonable customers - those who will threaten to send complaint letters to your boss, question your professional judgement (and in a teachers' case, undermine your authority over the child) and never, ever admit errors made on their own end. Teaching is no different in this aspect. Yahoo News has described a typical modern Singaporean parent as 'pushy, unreasonable and self-entitled' - so to all new teachers or teacher-wannabes, be very, very careful when you handle parents.

If only people came with labels like these. Life would be so much easier.

#3. A Teaching career in Singapore - A 'Consolation Prize'?

How is a teaching career regarded in Singapore? Refer to the Jan 2013 speech from the Singapore Prime Minister on meritocracy here. Let me quote the interesting bits for you.

Spelling out how it (meritocracy) works, PM Lee said that all would get a chance to compete fairly, and the best man would get the most difficult job and be rewarded accordingly, but there must also be consolation prizes for the rest.

Later on, he added 'Within Singapore, we can say... you're a school teacher, you may not be a top lawyer, but I make sure you're also paid properly.'

Why is a teaching career the number one choice of Finland’s best and brightest students?

Pay is not the answer.  Teacher pay in Finland is reasonably competitive but no more attractive than in many other European countries. In fact, the range of salaries among professionals in Finland is very small, compared to most other advanced industrial countries, which means that differences in compensation in Finland generally have less of an influence on career choice than in other countries.

The answer certainly has something to do with the age-old respect for teachers in Finland, but much more to do with the selection process, the work itself and the working conditions.  Because Finland has very high standards that must be met to enter teacher preparation programs, getting in confers prestige on the successful applicant.  The fact that  Finland has moved teacher education into the universities also confers prestige on young people who go into teaching, because they are getting professional training in the same institutions providing training to the highest prestige professions.

I rest my case and leave you to draw your own conclusions.

#4. Workplace abuse in schools

I did a complete post on workplace bullying in schools, here. Suffice to say, the school may not be as nurturing an environment (for teachers) as you think. After all, most employees leave their managers, not their jobs. A teaching career is not any different. Encounter a really mean boss (ie P, VP or HOD) and you may pack your bags sooner than you think.

#5. Communicating with HQ

Communicating with HQ is a pain. When the organization is so huge, the middle management is so thick and the turnover rate of the ground level staff at HQ is so high, communication will invariably break down at some point. Of course, since what I have stated above is not the "right news", you will not find such politically incorrect information in the MSM (even if it is true). Internally, the Ministry conducts an organization-wide survey known as the School Climate Survey every 2 years - and I'm not surprised that they score poorly when it comes to communication with the ground and with schools. Before the Internet Brigade begin their rampage at this point, let me clarify that I do not expect the organization to be perfect, but I do draw the line when I hear the Ministry calling themselves 'world class'. Give me a break.

My personal encounters with HQ have yielded the following observations - the average waiting time to speak to a Customer Service Officer from the MOE hotline is 20 minutes, an email enquiry sent to the generic email address never gets a reply unless it is sent through the P/VP and the MOE HR staff who worked directly with me has changed 3 times in 2 years. A good friend of mine who has been in service for more than 20 years spent 4 years of that time in a HQ posting - She described her HQ posting as the darkest years of her life. Of course, to each his own and I don't deny that all of my personal bad encounters could be mere coincidences.

#6. A Culture of Mediocrity (?)

Every teacher's Current Estimated Potential (CEP) is assessed by her Principal from his/her first year in service. For teachers who do not wish to take up leadership positions but remain in the teaching track, you will reach your CEP in 15 to 20 years - what this means is that you will not be promoted further beyond that. Couple this with the following realities of teaching in Singapore: (1) promotion is slow but sure, (2) good work is rewarded with more work, (3) young/unmarried teachers or teachers without children are given more work and Voila! What you have is a class of mediocre, relatively senior teachers sailing along, doing the bare minimum and avoiding duties like a plague. I once encountered a teacher who refused to be involved in any school activities that fell on a Saturday - when queried, she retorted that 'surely there were younger teachers who could do it' and 'she had kids so she should be exempted'. What kind of logic is that? The most infuriating fact was not her statement but that her HOD agreed and assigned a younger, unmarried colleague for all subsequent Saturday duties instead. Seriously??

Most teachers in their late twenties/early thirties (across several schools of different levels) whom I have spoken to agree that schools generally condone mediocrity in their senior staff and school leaders assess them using a different yardstick. In our observations, this practice is especially prevalent in the civil service. Of course, this point is admittedly very subjective and open for debate. I'm sure such a situation is not unique to the teaching profession. (I welcome constructive comments and personal stories, and would not mind being proven wrong.)

#7.  Under the Media Limelight

This point does not require much elaboration, given how educators in general have come under heavy scrutiny and criticism from MSM and social media in the last couple of years. Noteworthy examples include:
The implication is clear. If you want to be a teacher, exercise extreme caution when handling students, parents and the media. Take a good look at your personal motives and reassess your suitability to become a teacher. Guard your personal life and keep your skeletons in the closet (if any) well hidden.

At the end of the day... 

Go into your teaching job (or any job for that matter) with both your eyes open. Be prepared to take the bitter with the better. The Ministry and its recruitment officers will only sell you the merits of the profession, often with touching stories and catchy phrases (eg "Teachers make a difference. What do you make?"). It takes an actual practitioner to cut through the propaganda and present the true merits and downsides of the profession. 

 A touching advertisement brought to you by MOE.

What are my reasons for writing this, you ask? Especially since I am no longer in the profession? The reason is simple: The teaching profession, which is key to nation building and sustainability, is often misunderstood. I have encountered too many Singaporeans of the following types:
  • current students vehemently against the profession without good reason
  • students who want to be teachers in the future because they are inspired by their teachers but do not have clear idea on what the job truly entails / only see the 'fun' side of the job
  • teaching scholars who have broken their bond with MOE / thinking of breaking their bond to MOE even before they begin the profession... why??
  • beginning teachers burnt out/resigning after teaching for less than a year due to incompatibility of the job with personal expectations
  • a general group of ignorant public who think that teachers have a fantastic deal in their jobs, especially with regards to school holidays
  • another group of ignorant public who think that teachers are essentially fools /'winners of consolation prizes' for choosing to teach
  • Parents/social media/students being reactive and quick to criticize teachers 
Studies in the UK have shown that the teaching profession remains the most unpopular profession among young people. I'm not sure whether this is the case in Singapore, though I have personally observed signs of teacher shortages in schools, as well as a notable increase in the number of teaching scholarships/bursaries offered by MOE. 

Anyway, feel free to drop your comments!

- A


  1. I shared these with all the ex-teachers I know in Perth and they told me you are pretty much spot on. That is the same scenario that the teacher couple who dropped by my house during their holidays painted.

  2. I like the way you've analysed the education system in Singapore and your frank comments. Indeed, who will know all these 'insights' till one has truly gotten into the system. Many who are being lured into teaching are either the young and innocent fresh graduates who are so full of aspiration to 'change' the world or the mid-career switch job-seekers who are tired of fighting in the corporate world and thought of teaching as a more 'innocent' place to be in. Little did these two groups of people know that teaching entailed not just the attractive paid or 'long' holidays that they will get but the heaps of works that have already been mentioned in your blog and many more! I hope those non-teacher group of people will understand that teaching is not simply just to teach the content knowledge and will only look forward to receiving high paid and bonuses.
    Not to burst the bubble, but the hard truth is that teaching is not just imparting knowledge but to deal with many individual students where they can have diverse learning styles, behaviours, and also each with their own set of problem at home which will also be brought in to school. So a teacher is not just a teacher but a counsellor, a care-giver and sometimes even a detective (just use your imagination for this last job title!) What a truly dedicated teacher has to give is much more than anyone could imagine unless you are a teacher too!

  3. Hi there. Really interesting blog, thank you. I was just wondering - you say at the beginning that there is a high turnover rate of teachers in Singapore, and yet the official figures say it is only at 2%, which seems small to me (coming from the UK). Am I missing something? Are the figures misleading, or do you think 2% is a high turnover? Thank you!

    1. Hi Lurocre,

      Interesting you mentioned 'official figures'. Not sure where you got your official 2% from, but generally Singaporeans know that "official figures" and truth may not necessarily be the same thing. Have a look at the official figures for frequencies of MRT breakdowns, PSI readings, suicide rates in Singapore and frequencies of flooding/ponding. The list goes on. If you are from UK and intending to teach in SG, think twice. I kid you not.

      Anyway, don't take my word for it. You should always do some homework and indeoendent research. Talk to some real teachers in Singapore, especially those below 30 years of age. Ask them how many they know have broken their bonds or left the service after their 3 year bond or left the service after they withdrew part of their CONNECT plan.


  4. Hi A,

    Thank you for this post. I'm a teacher myself and I must say you have given a very objective picture of the situation!

    Just some questions here: From your other posts, I understand that you are no longer a teacher. Any reasons why? I'm also thinking of moving to Australia, but am slightly concerned what job I can do there. Did you have such concerns as well? I'm a Chinese Language teacher. Would that put me at a disadvantage compared to say Maths teachers?

    Many thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Laurence,

      Thanks for your comment. I'm going to answer the easy qn here first - will you be disadvantaged as a CL teacher? For the purposes of migrating under skilled independent subclass189, not at all. Australia want qualified teachers of all levels. For skills assessments (as of 2013, not sure any changes since), there is no difference in the subject you teach, unless it's special education or vocational. These more 'special' teachers will have a slightly different set of assessment criteria.

      However, if you are applying for state nomination subclass 190, then the subject you offer makes a difference. For example, Victoria state will only nominate experienced teachers who offer one of the following specializations:

      - Mathematics or Physics
      - Technology (Food, Metal, Wood or Auto)
      - Languages
      - General science
      - Special education
      - Information technology

      So if you are looking for State Nomination from any state in particular, you need to check out the specific details accordingly.

      As for the more difficult questions on why I am no longer a teacher in Oz and concerns about what job you can do in Oz- I have decided to answer it in a proper post along with some other FAQs that have surfaced recently after my missing link post. Stay tuned!

      - A

  5. Thank you for the insightful views on both sides of the coin. I'm a professional in late 40s holding 2 degrees including a Masters and was contemplating the so call "giving back to where I received". My motive is just to nurture and teach the younger generation and contribute to SG my country. Never thought there are so many unknowns and politics behind this noble and highly respectable profession (at least it is to me because of 3 teachers that I'm grateful to till today). I applied for the position and was surprised that MOE called me for an interview because I would be 50 by the time I finished NIE. I have not attended due to my regional schedules. So contemplating...

  6. This is my seventh year and I have been thinking of resigning. Most of the points that you brought up are true. Nothing but the truth.

    1. Don't wake too long like me. By my 13th year, I went to a state I couldn't recognise. It was a zombie state that comes after post burnt-out. MOE has bad school leaders but they are not ready to admit to that.

  7. I am a teacher for 5 years. I am contemplating to resign because the more I work the more work I am given. To finish marking and doing the admin work, I only get to sleep for 5 hours on a week day. When I ask not to take up some leadership roles given to me as I do not want to be on leadership track, I am 'marked' for not putting school needs first. The reasons that are holding me back are my pupils, their parents (very supportive) and some of my loving colleagues. Work loads are not equally distributed. There is a lot of politicking by the school management level. Teachers who only want to teach and do not want to suck up to the school management are always at a loosing end. Sigh...

    1. Schools needs is a game that management use because with that excuse, specific details are not communicated and they hide behind a cloak of intransparency to request that you forgo your needs so that some management can shine on the back of your extended or overextended effort. I have a friend. She got the Outstanding Youth in Education award. But what the media didn't mention was that she was burnt out; was surprised that other teachers were still positive; her boyfriend since JC years broke up with her and yeah...all these were not mentioned by the media. It's sad and it will continue. How many teachers are single and not married in MOE? In fact, with schools needs first, these female teachers are thus married to their jobs. I knew of a primary school teacher who went to a secondary school to teach and then did UNISIM degree to teach english and after 3 years, she resigned because of the system. It was not a case that the teacher could not fit into their system, it was the maddening workflow to begin with. After she left, she was happily married and working in NUS.

  8. I can't wait for my teaching bond to end. Many of my NIE classmates have same thoughts.

    1. A teacher in my school has been teaching for 25 years. When he came to collect his long service award, and was hoping to meet his cohort, he only met 1 in his cohort. The rest left the service. I was stumped when I heard he told me that.

  9. is there a hot line that i can call to check if i have completed serving my teaching bond?

    1. Call 68796879 for MOE HR Matters. They can tell you the specific date. It's 3 years from your official posting to the school. If you're bonded because of scholarship or teaching award, add 4-5 years from that date. Don't be tempted to stay another year for the Connect Plan. This is because you the Connect Plan may look decent for the 4th year but what they don't tell you is that they will take a portion out from your Connect Plan for your CPF and you pay income tax 4 months later as Connect Plan payout is included as part of income tax and it actually spike your income for that year to above the next higher taxable bracket and you end up paying a more in income tax.

  10. Hi its good to note different kinds of opinions coming up. However do note that every profession has its own set of problems. Work load.. politics.. ur own impression management are challenges in all professions not just teaching. Unreasonable customere exist everywhere too.. i work in a client support role at a leading mnc and can tell u knowing how to deal with clients and ur bosses is almost the only thing that determines how fast u climb up the ladder. I have worked with 10 different bosses in my 9 years at this mnc! Same story always..its easy to complain abt things. Sporeans under 30 are very quick to complain and see the negative side of things.. unlike ppl from chinr or india who face greater hardships in everydat life and unlike the older generation in sgp that has patience and wisdom to wait it out. So yes go ahead and talk to sporeans under 30 in any profession about anything in sg - the complaint list is big. The things to be happy about seem not to be reflected upon.. which is very sad. Its with great difficulty that sgp has come to where it is.. so its important to see the reasons behind every govt establishment and machineries and work towards improving things rather than grumble and runaway.

    1. Hi Anon,

      I fully agree with you. People need a wake up call.

      Although I would say that there are better places in the world for SOME sinkies who can appreciate life in those countries. Just like how some 'foreign workers' in sg appreciate the opportunity to work there.

      To each his own. Just be mindful that if you bring your sg mentality with you wholesale, there will be no place in this world which can make you happy.

      In saying that, we were never very singaporean to begin with, and make a conscious effort to adapt. And adapt we did. No turning "back" ever. But we can see clearly what it takes, and we have also witnessed that there are those who will be much better off in sg or wherever it was they came from.


    2. There is no perfect workplace. But MOE has more built-in imperfections that puts in a stark enough a distance away from the median. Just go in and try it for yourself. Don't just stay in MNC; come join MOE.

    3. The difference is, you can still explain yourself to your bosses if your client complains... For MOE teachers, whether we are right or wrong, most of the time we are taken as wrong because we're dealing with children or youth. Anything happens, or anything the child or parent complains, most of the time the teacher is deemed "at fault"... Noisy, disobedient child, or even ganging up with classmates to defy the teacher, then telling their parents a different story, and because all of them say the same thing, it seems like the truth. Then, the teacher is" wrong "for scolding her student or trying to make them obey school rules. No wonder so many teachers give up. U wanna be a teacher with Singaporean kind of parents/the kind of kids they have esp those in certain schools?

  11. I resigned from MOE a couple of weeks ago. It was a hard decision and on the night that I was to make up my final decision, I could fall asleep till 3.30 a.m. and have to be up for school in 2-3 hours. I wanted to hang on for a few months but my HOD for Science was a cunning hypocrite who was overloading me with more continual and semestral exam papers than 1 teacher is supposed to set. I fell sick and it was not possible to set aside work for the kids as I'm sick but the stupid school rule that learning needs to continue even when the teacher is sick, that is to say, sick teacher on MC must call school and assign work for all the lessons. This is a MOE system that has, hand to heart, gone mad. And my reporting officer, a tudung-wearing Malay lady has gotten to rationalise the shit to the extent she says that's being professional.

    So, I decided, reluctantly after 13 years to say tender. There are many unhappy teachers in MOE and they are all rationalising to themselves. But as I left, 4 teachers hinted to me that they were resigning; 3 beginning teachers and another Humanities teacher of 7 years. When I switched schools, even a female scholar from my previous school told me that she can't do this all her life as it's insane. And these people are the good teachers. My observation is that the teachers who are really good at teaching and with students leave. Those who remain are stuck and most don't speak of passion after 2-3 years in service. Why is this happening? The workload pushes the good ones out as they can't teach. No time for lesson preparation. The second reason is the system which the minister refuses to accept nor reform. The appraisal system pushes the passionate teachers out. And the cycle repeat itself. I advise those who are interested to teach to avoid MOE. MOE is not the place for someone who enjoys teaching. At present, they can't hold their teachers. 60% have less than 8 years of teaching and 40% has less than 4 years of teaching. Within 10 years, they all start leaving the system like flies. This include the second career ones and the men. There's a disproportionate lack of male teachers in school and our boys lack male role-model. MOE needs a reform but it won't come for some time. Already the cracks are appearing with student suicides. The stereotype is not inaccurate. They are many teachers who are with IMH for depression or anxiety related issues because of bullying, misappraisals, etc.. MOE targets the gullible undergraduates and graduates by pulling them in with money and seductive MOE advertisements. Whatever there is on their advertisement is a misrepresentation of what's it like when you're in. Thanks for sharing.

    1. "And my reporting officer, a tudung-wearing Malay lady has gotten to rationalise the shit to the extent she says that's being professional."

      Why is there even a need for you to highlight her attire choice?

  12. Anyone has regrets leaving service? Any thoughts/advices on being a full time tuition teacher at a centre?

  13. Wow. Spot on man. I plan to tender after getting my first connect plan end of this year. Having a diploma pay and receiving the same amount of work or sometimes even more than a graduate is really taking a toll on me. Just wondering, is there anywhere I can check how early I can tender after getting the connect plan?