‘My mental health is at an all-time low’: Teachers talk of burnout, MOE aware that ‘gaps’ need plugging
As they struggle with a heavier workload due to the pandemic, teachers open up about inadequate support from school leadership and why their mental health seems an ‘afterthought’.
- Home-based learning, safe management measures and uncertainty of appraisal process have meant some teachers are taking on more work than they can bear.
- Students made more “highly strung” by COVID-19 restrictions are affecting teachers too.
- MOE says engagement survey shows that 70 per cent of teachers “can cope” with work stress, but “acknowledges” struggles of the rest.
- Teachers share their problems seeking help from school leadership, amid prevailing stigma attached to mental health issues.
* Denotes name changed to protect the person’s identity.
SINGAPORE: As Betty* lay curled into a ball on the floor — in tears, hyperventilating, heart beating rapidly — the secondary school teacher hoped the panic attack would fade soon. Because she knew she could not afford to spend time away from work.
“I have to get over it, I have to go and mark (papers) and do my work,” she thought.
Her panic attacks typically happen once a fortnight. A heavy workload, dealing with parents’ expectations and large class sizes are perennial stressors, for her and some other teachers.
It was worse for Betty when Singapore moved to full home-based learning in April last year amid concerns over escalating COVID-19 infections. The frequency of her panic attacks increased to twice a week.
“We suddenly had to pivot to online learning … in a very short couple of days, push out and create resources from scratch, record ourselves doing online lectures, design online quizzes,” she said.
“That was extremely stressful. We still needed to give feedback to our students and continue giving them work and continue preparing more resources. It was like the work never stops. I was really, really burnt out — very, very depleted.”
Apart from the workload, some teachers feel that their mental health has been overlooked or not prioritised.
After the River Valley High School (RVHS) incident took place, Susan*, who is from another school, was on the alert for students on “suicide watch”. But also running through her mind was whether she could finally raise the issue of teachers’ mental health.
So when she was giving her principal a routine update on her at-risk students, she decided to “boldly ask” about that.
“I was rather saddened to hear her say, ‘the mental health of teachers? It depends on all of you. You guys are adults. You need to take care of each other and watch out for one another,’” she recounted.
While it sounded “noble”, it felt “quite invalidating”, Susan said. “It’s a failure to recognise that you need to take care of the caregiver.”
Betty and Susan are among the 100-plus teachers who responded to CNA Insider’s call on Instagram for teachers to share how they were coping mentally.
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One teacher wrote: “It’s terrible being a teacher in the past two years. I know my mental health is at an all-time low.”
Another said: “These two years have been especially rough because … the workload has increased drastically, and it’s taking a physical and emotional toll on us. We’re in a pandemic and no concession for teachers has been made.”
A primary school teacher who’s been teaching for four years shared: “When we expressed our stress and mental exhaustion, we were simply told, ‘Teachers should learn how to manage their own stress.’ I contemplated quitting every week for my well-being.”
In an interview with CNA Insider, Mrs Chua-Lim Yen Ching, the deputy director-general of education (professional development) from the Ministry of Education (MOE) said the ministry “can’t deny that COVID-19 has affected us”.
She disclosed that in an MOE engagement survey conducted in June among 460 teachers, seven in 10 respondents said “they can cope” with work stress.
“But having said that, we still need to help the three out of 10. (It) doesn’t mean that because seven out of 10 said that they were good, then we say okay,” she said.
Questions about teachers’ well-being were added to the survey for the first time last year. “We realised that the staff’s wellbeing was very important, and we wanted to have representative data,” she noted.
“All of us will have stress, (but) the most important (thing) is that we must be able to cope. It’s only when you’re stressed and you can’t cope, we get worried.”
So why do some teachers struggle to keep their heads above water and, like some of their students, fall through the cracks?
TEACHERS’ PANDEMIC WOES
Asked about the stressors affecting them lately, most teachers CNA Insider spoke to pointed to the rapid switch to home-based learning during last year’s circuit breaker.
They cited the need to create online lesson materials quickly, pick up skills to deliver engaging lessons and make sure that students attend classes.
That period “played with (her) mind”, said Susan, a secondary school teacher of 15 years. She was frustrated when “half the time” she had to ask students to switch on their camera and “every morning” she had to call students who did not sign in.
“I was very frustrated such that I had to go and run every day,” she added.
While full home-based learning was already a challenge for younger, more tech-savvy teachers, Melissa* said some older colleagues were “left out”.
“Older teachers were like, ‘How to log in here, how to log in there?’ There was a lot of stress put on them,” said the secondary school teacher.
Indeed, *Lisa, who is in her 50s and has been teaching at a primary school for 20 years, felt “shitty” when home-based learning came into force, as the “learning curve” to pick up new technologies was “very steep”.
“Compared to my time (when I started teaching), I wanted to learn so much from teachers who’d been teaching (for a long time). But now, newer teachers look at me like I have nothing much to (contribute),” she said.
Today, these teaching and administrative worries have only taken a new shape as physical lessons resume on a “blended learning model” where home-based learning occurs once a fortnight.
Whenever there is a spike in COVID-19 cases, David* must also “stand by” with online lesson packages in the event that schools revert to full home-based learning.
The secondary school mathematics teacher recalled a time when “almost every single day”, he had to prepare extra material; “most” of it did not end up being used.
On top of the extra teaching workload, teachers now have a host of “nightmarish” COVID-related administrative duties, like keeping track of students’ and fellow teachers’ quarantine orders and COVID-19 test results, said secondary school geography teacher Sally*.
“The Ministry of Health was constantly coming up with new directives on how long to keep them at home, whether the school will go on home-based learning, when approved absence starts (and) ends, the swab tests.
“It was a lot to deal with,” she added.
All this additional work has put teachers in a state of “heightened alert”, said Singapore Teachers’ Union (STU) general secretary Mike Thiruman.
“They (still) have to do everything that they’d been doing before COVID-19 … There’s a lot of nervous energy, and they have to be on guard all the time.
“There’s a limit to how long you can be in this heightened alert state. (At some point) it just wears you out.”
In response to teachers’ sentiments of feeling overwhelmed, Mrs Chua-Lim said the MOE has branch meetings to “manage our teachers’ workload”. And it was found that “during this period, our teachers’ workload is very high … because of all these safe management measures”.
“So we managed our professional development courses. We pace (them) out. Things that aren’t so critical … we don’t need to do this year.”
There are now “a lot” of resources in the Student Learning Space system for teachers to conduct online lessons, she added.
“There’s this feature in the SLS: It’s called the community gallery. And those resources are developed by the master teacher together with the teachers.”
STUDENTS’ MENTAL HEALTH AFFECTS TEACHERS TOO
Teachers have also noticed students getting more anxious about their subjects owing to less time spent in school with home-based learning and blended learning in place — especially so for graduating students with upcoming major examinations, said secondary school teacher Melissa.
“My (four) graduating classes … are very affected by it, so they keep asking, ‘Teacher, can we have consultations?’ But for consultations, now I can’t have a big group: Just five in a group,” she added.
This translates into more time spent catering for all students. Furthermore, Melissa has received “a lot” of after-hours texts this year from students asking for help with their schoolwork.
“Some of them would message me in the middle of the night. A part of me does want to help them, but (they) need to respect my time,” she said. “I have two young kids at home. I can’t possibly be messaging you and studying beside you, right?”
Anne*, a teacher at an institute of higher learning, agreed that the boundaries between work and rest are increasingly blurred. Given that students are more anxious, there is “an expectation” of teachers replying “immediately”, she wrote in an Instagram message.
For Melissa’s part, she learnt to take matters into her own hands. “(When they text me) to ask me questions … or in the middle of the night ... the next day they’d get it from me,” she said.
Some teachers notice that students are more “volatile” and “highly strung” with tighter Safe Management Measures at school, such as the suspension of in-person co-curricular activities and group activities in physical education classes.
“A lot of the essential things that make school bearable or fun for them have been removed. So suddenly, the students have nothing else to do but study,” said secondary school teacher Sally.
They’ve become a lot more short-tempered, and it’s partially because they have nowhere to vent their energy … It’s harder to motivate them, so it spills over into (our teaching).”
Primary school teacher Lisa said this is often made worse by large class sizes, which reduce teachers’ ability to look out for every child. “You have to reduce the number of kids so that we can really take care of ... their mental (health),” she said.
A smaller class size has made it easier for secondary school teacher Claire* to “build student rapport” and, in turn, take care of the students’ needs.
Her Secondary 1 class has fewer than 20 students owing to falling enrolments, compared to “the normal 40 students per class” in the past.
“With a smaller class … you become less of a dictator where it’s like, everyone just keeps quiet and listens to me,” she said. She can get to know her students now and can better understand why students “misbehave” as well.
Mandy* wished teachers had received psychological first-aid training while at the National Institute of Education (NIE) before entering the service.
She also felt there was “inadequate” training for the “emotional labour” of the job, such as how to manage one’s emotions when handling students — a view echoed by several of her peers.
The secondary school humanities teacher, who started teaching last year, encountered a student who “felt very alienated, very lonely” and committed self-harm during home-based learning. It was one of six cases of self-harm she has handled over the past year.
She experienced feelings of helplessness from struggling to find the right things to say to the students, she shared. “I didn’t know how to push (all the right buttons) and how much to push in order to find out what was stressing them, or to give them an adequate solution.”
According to Mrs Chua-Lim, there are “self-management and mental health development” courses in the NIE, such as the Meranti Project, which “helps the teachers to think of ways to develop their resilience”. These are core modules everyone must take.
“NIE also runs workshops for self-care for all our student teachers before they become qualified teachers,” she noted.
Mandy said the Meranti Project was a two-day weekend course in her first year at the NIE, where her facilitator addressed the “importance of unpacking (your) own trauma and mental health before trying to help (your) own students”.
But she could not recall learning “any actual strategies” she could implement for herself or her students.
UNDUE STRESS FROM RANKING, PERFORMANCE APPRAISAL
The performance appraisal and ranking system also came up in the messages teachers sent to CNA Insider about what affected their mental health. One teacher said it created a “suffocating culture of fear (and) self-doubt”.
The performance of teachers is determined through the Enhanced Performance Management System, which subsequently has an impact on their remuneration and career development.
The MOE said last year in a parliamentary reply that a “broad middle” 60 per cent of teachers are given C-plus and C grades, while the top third can be awarded A and B grades.
In a perception survey on ranking that the STU conducted this year among 1,265 teachers, findings show that more than half of the respondents disagreed that teachers “understand the process of ranking”, while 80 per cent of teachers disagreed that the ranking process has been made transparent.
For Timothy*, who was a secondary school teacher for four years, the anxiety stemmed from not knowing what exactly he needed to do to perform better or “maintain” his grade.
“I’d keep doing more to try to fill that gap, and then the disappointment is when (even though) I keep doing more ... I’m not performing (better) than another teacher in another school,” he said.
“They’re getting a B; I’m getting a C-plus. But I’m doing more than them, and they always tell me that I’m doing way more than them. So how is this fair?”
Mrs Chua-Lim said the grades that teachers get “shouldn’t be a surprise”. Work review sessions should happen “two times a year at least”, so that teachers can improve after the first review if need be.
But hearing the differing experiences shared by teachers, she acknowledged that “somehow when it comes to the actual implementation, there are gaps”. “Now that we know there are gaps, we’ll then make sure that we plug the gaps,” she said.
That means the MOE “(needs) to work with the reporting officers”. For example, in their training, there is a workshop called “managing difficult conversations”, on how to say what they have to say.
“So that at the end of the day, I may give you a grade, you may not be happy, but you can accept it,” said Mrs Chua-Lim.
Several teachers, like Paul*, said there are expectations that they “demonstrably show” that they can deliver beyond their basic teaching duties in order to get better grades.
“This is where people are pressured to stage projects and events that have little relevance to teaching and learning,” said the secondary school teacher.
“This points to a larger systemic issue: That a lot of the pointless stuff we do, like planning sports day ... should be outsourced to either event vendors or specialty officers whose job is to do this stuff.”
Stradling multiple roles, said many teachers, is “overwhelming”.
To fulfil her other co-curricular activity and committee roles, Lisa said she is sometimes so busy she has to stop or delay her marking and her lessons preparations.
“Everything becomes very messy (in class) because I didn’t finish marking, then I can’t give immediate feedback to my kids, and it frustrates me to be short-changing the children,” she said.
“I truly hate it each time when it comes to the ranking, and (school leaders) start saying that, okay, look, you haven’t done this … and you’re going to get this grade.
“It makes you feel like your worth is attached to (the grade) and as if you’re not doing (well) enough.”
A STRUGGLE TO ASK FOR AND GET HELP
While the stressor and struggles are manifold, sometimes the starting point is whether teachers have asked, or been able to ask, for help.
“Most people get into teaching because there’s a pastoral side to them,” said Chong Pao-er, a counsellor from Shan You Counselling Centre and a former teacher. “There’s that caring side to them, and interestingly, I find it’s that group of teachers who get especially burnt out.
“There’s absolutely no limit to what (the teachers) can do in that sense.”
In Susan’s staffroom, frustrations are often put on the back burner. “The moment someone says, ‘let’s do it for the kids’, we go,” said the upper-secondary teacher. “We tell ourselves, stop complaining, let’s revamp this, design that, find resources.”
According to Paul, the “prevailing social attitude” that teachers are self-sacrificial means seeking help can be met with disapproval.
“When we complain that admin and organisational matters distract us from having to teach kids, we’re gaslighted into thinking that we ‘lack passion’ and ‘have to do it for the kids’,” he said. “It invalidates the very natural … feeling (of getting) frustrated.”
But “doing it for the kids” is becoming a difficult motivator when a heavy workload remains the key issue, as evidenced by the responses CNA Insider received on Instagram
“Kids are what drives us to go on each day, but the endless amount of work takes the life out of you,” one teacher said. “You want to be a teacher and love and teach children. But you’re so tired.”
Another said the rhetoric on doing one’s best for students “feels like teachers are being exploited for their passion”. “Many good-hearted individuals who care deeply for our students leave the service after burning out ... What does this say about the longevity of this career?”
Mrs Chua-Lim said it is “very good” that teachers feel strongly about their mission because “that means their minds are on the kids”.
Asked about the guilt teachers face when that motivation runs dry, she replied: “If we can’t have teachers first, we can’t have students first … At times, it’s important to have some degree of professional detachment.
“There are always coping strategies to help you, and you just need to practice some of these.”
Even if teachers do not wish to go it alone, many may struggle to find an alternative means of coping, depending on their school leadership and culture.
Former schoolteacher Timothy, for example, recalled feeling that his struggles were invalidated after he made an offhand remark one day about having many things to do.
He was asked to see his reporting officer, who told him that he was “not supposed to tell people how busy you are or how you can’t cope with your work in the office itself”, recounted Timothy.
“That was the first incident that made me realise I couldn’t just say out loud that I was struggling, or I had a lot of things to do. I couldn’t tell people or seek help.”
He taught English and geography, was second-in-charge of his co-curricular activity and oversaw two committees.
Things took a “180-degree” turn for the better only with his third reporting officer, who assured him that “there was a safe space” to share his struggles. “He was very supportive. He actually listened and talked to me,” said Timothy.
“He’d say, ‘I understand where you’re coming from, this is what you should do. At my end, I’ll see what I can do for you.’ And he really did something.”
Mrs Chua-Lim noted that it is “very important” for school leaders to set the right tone. “That’s when it’s important for us to be transparent, to increase psychological safety, so that people can tell us how they feel,” she said.
When reporting officers have not been pleasant, teachers do have “a lot of internal channels”, she added.
“They can share (their experience) with their school leaders because the principal is above the reporting officer. They can share (it) with the superintendent. You can also share (it) with MOE, because HR has a platform for teachers to share.”
IS THERE MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT?
Among the teachers CNA Insider spoke to, some are aware that the school counsellor can also see teachers, but they would not exercise that option, knowing the counsellors are already busy managing student caseloads.
Few teachers know of the services dedicated to them, such as counselling at the Singapore Teachers’ Union.
For one thing, publicity for these services is usually buried. “Teachers may not look at it because it’s not important, right? They have a thousand and one things to do other than to read your electronic direct mailer,” said Mr Thiruman.
“More often than not, they’d say, ‘Do I need to go for this talk? I’d rather not. I can finish (marking) 10 scripts in that time.’”
At the MOE’s Academy of Singapore Teachers, two counsellors are available and generally see 30 to 40 teachers, said Mrs Chua-Lim. There is also a whole-of-government counselling hotline — rolled out in March — should teachers want to speak to someone outside of the MOE, she added.
This year, the academy’s counsellors have seen the number of cases increase to 80 to 90. Over at the STU, there has been a tenfold increase in sign-ups for its mental wellness talk on depression and burnout. In the past, there were only 10 to 20 sign-ups, said Mr Thiruman.
CNA Insider reached out to 10 counselling centres, both private and government-subsidised. Three of them said there has been a rise in the number of teachers seeking help. It is unclear whether it is also a result of a concurrent rise in the number of people seeking mental health help.
ImPossible Psychological Services founder Muhammad Haikal Jamil said the number of teachers seeking help has more than doubled in the past two years.
“Most of them seek help during the school holiday period. However, they tend to drop out of therapy when the school term begins again due to difficulties fitting therapy into their busy schedule,” he added.
At Annabelle Psychology, there have also been more teachers seeking support. “On average, I’d estimate that there’s been an average increase of about one teacher per month over the last two years,” said Dr Annabelle Chow.
Similarly, Dr Adrian Wang Psychiatric and Counselling Care sees about one new teacher patient every two to three months. “The recent RVHS incident in fact led to a couple of new referrals,” said its eponymous founder.
When it comes to traumatic incidents like suicide cases, secondary school teacher Geraldine found that there was “insufficient mental health support” for teaching staff.
Some years ago, a student of hers committed suicide. But she said there was no proper follow-up on “what to do for teachers”, whether from the school leadership or the ministry.
She ended up back in class to teach the next day, but she “couldn’t at all” and was crying in her students’ presence. Only when her reporting officer found out was she told to take the week off and advised to see the school counsellor.
In an email reply, the MOE said teachers are supported through “psychological first aid” after a traumatic event, which “helps to stabilise their emotional reactions to the crisis”.
“Teachers also undergo the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing to enable them to process their experiences to aid them in returning to a normal routine. Referrals to counselling or psychological services are also made available for teachers who experience severe emotional reactions,” the ministry added.
Can teachers be open about their mental health?
Much has been said about encouraging conversations on mental health to reduce stigma. But some teachers said they have been told not to speak up for fear of what parents might think.
Richard* shared his journey with depression on Instagram, where his students were followers, “so that the students can know there’s a teacher who’s been through mental illness, and they can find out what to do about their own mental health”.
He received “a lot of support from friends and students alike”, but what “greatly disturbed him” was his vice-principal instructing him to take his post down.
“I was told something along the lines of ‘we don’t want parents to see the post and (question) how our school can have a teacher who’s depressed. Then how would the teacher be able to manage the students?’” he recounted.
Richard felt that his post was an opportunity to educate parents and students about mental illness and to “try to take (away) the stigma”.
Above all, he was saddened that asking about his mental health looked like “an afterthought” for his school leaders. “The issue at the forefront seemed to be the public image of the school or the ministry”, he said.
Another teacher, Sally, said it is “very short-sighted” to say that teachers grappling with mental health issues cannot teach students. She herself went through a bout of depression while doing relief teaching prior to entering the National Institute of Education.
“The most passionate and the most empathetic teachers are the ones who’ve gone through emotional struggles themselves,” she said. “That’s the most valuable thing — having that experience so you can (tell students) with certainty that you’re not a broken student.”
WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE
Mr Chong believes that at least one counselling session should be made “compulsory” for teachers who have gone through trauma at school, “because if you make it compulsory, there’s no shame”.
Agreeing, Mr Thiruman said: “(If) you leave it up to (them) … it’s not critical. Then obviously the take-up rate would be low, and we might miss the people who might really need the help.”
What is in the pipeline is the appointment of two teachers in each school as “wellness ambassadors” in future, said Mrs Chua-Lim and as disclosed in the Education Minister’s Teachers Day Message this week.
“Colleagues play a very important part. If we train a few of those who can play this role right, they can up the capacity to be more observant … and detect (teachers struggling with mental health),” she said.
The MOE added in an email reply that teachers will do “a training session to learn peer support skills”.
The session will cover areas such as “skills required for a first-level responder (for example, active listening), setting of boundaries, as well as self-care techniques”.
Asked if the additional responsibilities as a wellness ambassador will increase the teachers’ workload, Mrs Chua-Lim said that “not everyone has to be a wellness ambassador”.
“It works like peer support, (which) is happening (already). We’ll just make it better … (and) equip you with better skills,” she added.
Ultimately, what is needed is a whole-of-society attitude shift towards mental health, noted Mr Thiruman.
“(Education) is a reflection of what’s going on out there. And because we all go through the education system, it also creates the societal standards and societal atmosphere for issues of mental health for the future,” he said.
“The way we perceive mental wellness has to change … It’s okay to seek help (for your mental health), and it mustn’t be seen as weakness.”
To teachers, Mrs Chua-Lim urged: “We must tell ourselves there’s no problem so big that collectively we can’t overcome. (If) all of us work together, sure we can overcome this.”
Where to get help:
Samaritans of Singapore Hotline: 1800 221 4444
Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline: 6389 2222
Singapore Association for Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019
You can also find a list of international helplines here. If someone you know is at immediate risk, call 24-hour emergency medical services.