Commentary: Teachers love their jobs and feel valued but face immense challenges
Teachers passionate about their work derive intrinsic joy from intangible rewards but many new challenges remain on the horizon, says NIE’s Jason Tan.
SINGAPORE: Teachers in Singapore, as elsewhere, play an indispensable role in educating students, not only in terms of academic content but also in terms of values and attitudes.
They are also responsible for guiding students through various education pathways and preparing them for adulthood.
Teachers passionate about their work derive intrinsic joy from intangible rewards, such as when learners suddenly understand a concept, or when former students thank them for their guidance.
These rewards do not detract from the reality that teaching is often tough work and involves its own particular set of stressors.
STRESS, BULLYING AND EXCESSIVE WORKLOADS
A recent CNA commentary reported that 80 per cent of Australian teachers surveyed in a research study had experienced verbal or physical bullying and harassment from students or parents.
About 83 per cent of respondents revealed a desire to leave the profession due to teacher-targeted student and parental bullying.
READ: Most teachers have been bullied by students or their parents and it's taking a toll, a commentary
Another recent survey, this time conducted in the United Kingdom by the charity Education Support Partnership, examined the mental health and wellbeing of teachers, senior teachers, school leaders and lecturers in the further, adult and vocational education sectors, as well as other non-teaching staff like school business managers.
Respondents said they loved their work primarily because they wanted to work with children and make a difference in their lives, and they had a very strong passion for a job they found rewarding. Many also enjoyed working with like-minded individuals.
However, 64 per cent of teachers reported feeling stressed at work, with 29 per cent working an average of more than 51 hours per week.
Excessive workload, inadequate work-life balance and dealing with poor student behaviour in class contributed to poor mental health.
These two research studies raise questions about the situation facing Singapore teachers, their working conditions and the challenges they face.
MOVES TO BOOST TEACHING SECTOR IN SINGAPORE
The number of teachers in Singapore has increased over the past two decades, from over 22,200 to just over 33,100 in 1998 and 2017 respectively.
Over the same time period, the percentage of teachers with university degrees has almost doubled from 45 per cent to 89 per cent.
As a result of large-scale recruitment beginning in 1996, only about half of teachers today have fewer than 10 years of teaching experience.
The Ministry of Education has introduced measures to keep salaries competitive.
At the same time, the Ministry has tried to professionalise teaching. Within the past decade, it introduced an Ethos of the Teaching Profession and a Code of Professional Conduct for Educators that outline key roles and responsibilities.
It has also put in place comprehensive professional development schemes and diversified career tracks.
There is also a Teachers’ Work Attachment programme to enable teachers to take part in short-term attachments at external organisations in order to broaden their perspectives.
HOW DO TEACHERS FEEL?
Little is known about Singapore teachers’ work conditions except through the findings of two cross-national surveys.
The OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey 2013 published its findings in 2014. Singapore had the youngest teaching force across the countries surveyed.
Almost 90 per cent of teachers said they were satisfied with their job, with 82 per cent reporting they would still choose to be a teacher if they could decide again. About 7 in 10 believed the teaching profession was valued in Singapore.
Teachers claimed to work an average of 56 hours per week, which indicated a lot of work was done after official school hours.
Besides spending most of their working time on teaching, planning and marking, teachers also said they had to engage in administrative work, teamwork with colleagues, student counselling, extracurricular activities and manage parents.
READ: What an effective parent-teacher meeting looks like, a commentary
Another survey, the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Status Index 2018, revealed that teachers worked 52 hours per week, more than the 45.33 hours that the general public estimated teachers’ working hours to be.
Just 31 per cent of Singapore parents would probably or definitely encourage their children to become teachers.
Neither of these two surveys dealt with the main stresses and challenges facing Singapore teachers. Although the Ministry of Education conducts regular staff climate surveys in schools, these findings are not made publicly available.
KEEPING UP WITH SLEW OF REFORMS
One of the major challenges teachers face is keeping pace with the slew of education reforms introduced during the past two decades.
These include applied learning programmes, the Direct Schools Admission scheme, changes to the PSLE scoring system, subject-based banding in secondary schools, just to name a few, not to mention greater mainstreaming of special needs students, the reduction in the number of tests and examinations and the creation of multiple pathways to educational success.
These reforms do not only involve teachers redesigning pedagogies and subject content, but more critically, teachers unlearning some of their own preconceptions of teaching based on their own experiences as students in order to embrace different ways of thinking about education.
READ: The start of subject-based banding - is grouping classes by CCAs the best option? A commentary
Teachers need professional development in order to better acquaint themselves with how to respond to the reforms.
Only then can they be effective frontline ambassadors for these reforms by enacting them and explaining their rationale and their workings to students and parents.
Many parents are feeling bewildered about these reforms and are understandably influenced by their own experiences and conceptions of what learning involve.
Students and parents will judge the efficacy and meaningfulness of these reforms partly through how they perceive teachers, who are key intermediaries of the Education Ministry, to be implementing them.
READ: Streaming out. Subject-based banding in. How are parents reacting? A commentary
A QUESTIONING PUBLIC
Teaching is unlike other professions such as medicine and the law. The general public feels at ease questioning teachers’ professional expertise compared to doctors or lawyers.
Maintaining healthy partnerships with students and parents can be a challenging task.
There are no official statistics on teachers being bullied or harassed by students and parents, though there are occasional press reports of students verbally or physically abusing teachers, or surreptitiously filming them and uploading the videos onto social media.
There are also some parents and students who dispute schools’ disciplinary procedures and even file lawsuits against educators and schools.
One of these cases involved a parent suing his son’s secondary school in 2017 after his son’s smartphone was confiscated for a three-month period as punishment for using it during school hours.
Another case saw a teenager suing her former secondary school for failing to protect her from alleged bullying by her peers.
READ: Public trust in our educators is fragile and can be easily fractured, a commentary
READ: Thanks mum for not being a helicopter parent, a commentary
Such cases show a worrying tendency by parents and students to view their relationships with schools in an unnecessarily adversarial manner.
The task of maintaining teacher and student respect for teachers has been complicated by the growth of the private tutoring industry.
The concept of teacher has now expanded beyond the school to include private tutors and school attendance is no longer necessarily the sole means to attain academic success.
With the ubiquity of social media and smartphones, it is now much easier for parents, students and also school leaders to communicate with teachers. The boundaries between work and personal time have been increasingly blurred.
Teachers are often expected to be selflessly committed to developing and nurturing students. However, they also need to guard against work demands intruding into their enjoyment of a healthy personal and family life.
CHALLENGES TEACHERS FACE ARE WELL RECOGNISED
There are some indicators that the challenge teachers face in working with stakeholders received attention from officials. In 2012 then Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat said that teachers could not be surrogate parents, while urging parents to be supportive of their children’s teachers.
More recently, the Ministry of Education has published guidelines for fostering healthy school-home partnerships.
At the same time, the Singapore Teachers’ Union offers talks for teachers on topics like teachers’ rights and limitations in disciplining their students, teachers’ liabilities to their students vis-à-vis the Tort of Negligence, managing challenging parents, managing students with disruptive behaviours and navigating the social media landscape for student/parent engagement.
The third main challenge teachers face is dealing with the intense human emotions involved in their work. Because of the high-stakes competitive nature of education in Singapore, all major stakeholders – teachers, students and parents – invest not only time and effort but also a great deal of emotional energy into schooling.
Working together while grappling with one’s own, as well as others’, beliefs, attitudes and actions is not always easy.
READ: This Asian obsession with Ivy League schools has got to stop, a commentary
It’s clear Singapore teachers face a few major challenges in their work. These challenges, if not carefully dealt with, may lead to unhealthy levels of stress.
The rapidity of educational reform and the increasing demands of other stakeholders mean that teachers have to work extra hard to live up to the onerous expectations being placed upon them.
Another recent CNA commentary highlighted the danger of work burn-out due to work stress, with approximately two in three employees reporting above average to high levels of stress.
Teachers and other stakeholders therefore need to pay attention to the issue of work stress in order not to impair teachers’ ability to continue being stellar educators.
Jason Tan is associate professor at the National Institute of Education.