SINGAPORE: She was working at a pre-school while studying for her diploma in early childhood education. But with a year to go, she called it quits. The stress from parents and their expectations got to Ms Syairah Zahira Azhari.
“Some of them are very particular about what exactly has happened to their children,” said the 34-year-old. “Even like a small scratch – sometimes we didn’t how that had happened. But they’d question (us) – What happened? Why weren’t you … attentive?”
She even had nightmares, not to mention back problems worsened by bending a lot while taking care of the children, like when she had to shower them.
“It took a toll on my back … It was (so) painful that I couldn’t even get out of bed,” she said.
“So I decided to leave. I do love kids, but taking care of them is another thing. Taking care of 13 or more is a totally different thing.”
The reasons for not staying in the job may vary, but the effect is the same: A pre-school teacher crunch. And now, the clock is ticking.
By 2020, owing to the demand from parents for places in pre-schools, 3,000 more teachers are needed to be in place. That is an 18 per cent increase in the current number of 17,000 teachers.
Despite recruitment drives for the sector, and steps to make the profession more attractive, it is still hard to recruit and retain pre-school teachers. The programme Talking Point finds out why and what it might take to change that. (Watch the episode here.)
A one-week stint as a teacher’s assistant in two pre-schools gave Talking Point host Diana Ser insights into the trials – and joys – of being an early childhood educator, provided by the practitioners themselves.
And one of the main takeaways is that the job is not as easy as it may look. Some people may have had a “wrong perspective” before they joined the sector, said EtonHouse International Education Group senior teacher Shirlee Lim.
They may have thought “it’s really fun”, but there are stresses, and it can get “mentally tiring” to “keep thinking about what you want to say (and) making decisions every single moment”.
“Like weighing what’s important, what (to) attend to first and being comfortable with myself,” she added.
“The most challenging part is knowing that I can always do more, but I only have these hours in a day, and then respecting that and being contented with it in a way, but knowing that I’m always trying to be the best I can be.”
While early childhood education is her passion, she only made the switch mid-career “because of family expectations” at first. “My family would rather that I be an accountant,” she admitted.
“Mum would say a preschool teacher isn’t a job that people would see as something that you’d want to do.”
It is a sign of how people’s notions of the job can also be a challenge in terms of attracting talent.
My First Skool deputy centre lead Eunice Tay said: “People would just think that ‘oh, you’re just a nanny’ and you have to … take care of the children. Some people would like to work in the office and dress nicely.
“As pre-school teachers, we do get to dress nicely, but at times, we dirty ourselves.”
That may not seem “glamorous”, but Ms Tay hopes that people realise pre-school teachers are far from being nannies.
“We’re professional teachers who know how to deal with children and … plan lessons based on the different needs of the children and their learning styles,” she said.
“We’re preparing them for future learning when they go to Primary One and also preparing them for learning for life.”
That means spending time not only planning the lessons, but also setting up the classroom environment. And that, to Ms Tay, is the hard part of the job because it may eat into family time.
Family, including the desire to start one, is one of the key reasons teachers leave, agreed Ms Evelyn Tay, the group human resource director of EtonHouse International Education Group.
Another reason is the desire for new experiences or career advancement, which she said the company tries to offer. For a big player like EtonHouse, the problem is not about finding teachers but retaining them, she told Ms Ser.
Asked what the turnover rate was, she said: “Our attrition is healthy. We have about 25 per cent of our teachers (and) staff who’ve been with us for more than five years.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE
The last time the industry’s attrition rate was reported was in 2013, when it was 15 to 20 per cent. Since then, the early childhood sector has evolved quickly.
WATCH: Diana Ser tries being a teacher's assistant (4:03)
The manpower crunch remains, however, given that the number of full-day places in pre-schools has risen by almost 60,000 over the past seven years.
Nonetheless, that expansion has come with enhancements in professional development, as Mr Eugene Leong, the chief executive of the Early Childhood Development Agency, noted.
“We’ve improved the entry pathways for people to join the sector. So for example, for new students, whether from the polytechnics or the Institute of Technical Education, we have training awards, much better internships and mentors,” he said.
“Then for (those in) mid-career, we have place-and-train programmes and professional conversion programs that allow the prospective teacher to enter the sector, earn a salary and receive training at the same time.”
The National Institute of Early Childhood Development has also been set up to consolidate the fragmented early childhood training ecosystem and to enhance the quality of pre-school teachers. It will welcome its first trainees next year.
But can more be done, for example, by thinking outside the box to attract talent? “Most certainly,” said early childhood education specialist Peggy Zee, who has been a consultant in the industry for nearly four decades.
She believes the sector can provide a mid-career change for those who “may lose their jobs because of artificial intelligence in the next five years”.
“The other group might be the foreigners. Maybe allow for more foreigners to come in, at least to stamp out difficulties in the next four, five years as we’re building the industry,” she suggested.
She also wants more to be done to recruit men “to come in and be role models for our children”, as they make up less than 1 per cent of pre-school educators today.
But it may not be easy to attract more, as they might think “entering this industry is like a legal minefield” because of restrictions they may face, said MindChamps PreSchool reading and enrichment teacher Jonathan Kum.
The idea that men must be their family’s main breadwinner may also hold them back, he added, agreeing with Ms Ser that a higher pay could be a starting point for enticing more men.
“But, ultimately, it’s passion that holds everyone,” he said.
Last year’s Polytechnic Graduate Employment Survey found that full-time educators fresh out of school with an early childhood diploma could earn S$2,300 as a starting salary. This is up from S$1,900 in 2012.
Salary is “always a factor” for anybody joining any sector, acknowledged Mr Leong.
And over the last three years, the salary increase in early childhood education has been 15 per cent, compared with a “general market of 7 to 8 per cent”, he noted.
Striking an optimistic note, he added: “Because of the growing demand for early childhood services and the growing demand for skilled professionals, we do see that the salaries will continue to rise quite strongly in future as well.”
Asked about the 2020 target of 20,000 teachers, he said: “We’re closely monitoring the figures, quietly confident that we’re on the right track.”
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes on Channel 5 every Thursday night.