- Education & Catastrophe
- Teachers In Singapore Are Burnt Out, And Parents Are Largely To Blame
Teachers In Singapore Are Burnt Out, And Parents Are Largely To Blame
Education & Catastrophe 75
Image credit: Anam Musta’ein for Today Online
Hey y’all! This is John.
This newsletter is about human flourishing. Ostensibly it’s about better parenting and fixing education, but ultimately what I really care about is helping young people flourish.
Earlier this week, one of my colleagues at Doyobi sent me a Today article titled The Big Read: What can make our teachers happier and less overworked? Here's looking at you, parents. The article was published in September 2022. One year on, I wonder how much has changed. Covered in this issue:
Teaching as a profession
The unreasonableness of parents
Getting rid of distractions so teachers can focus on what matters - helping kids learn
Let’s dive in!
When I started out as a teacher, I thought it was my job to inspire. I wanted to teach my students about the real economy and real businesses. I wanted to prepare them for the world by telling them about it and interesting them in it.
Lucy Kellaway was a journalist at the Financial Times for 30 years before starting the non-profit Now Teach to recruit experienced, successful people to change careers into teaching. She went into the classroom herself after leaving the FT, becoming a math teacher in a “challenging” secondary school in London before switching to teaching business studies.
I offer this quote from Lucy Kellaway to remind you, dear readers, that teaching is a noble profession. “I got into teaching for the money,” said no one ever. Most teachers went from college lecture hall back to the school classroom because they felt a calling to enrich young lives. The best teachers understand that their role is more than knowledge transfer. They are in the classroom to inspire, and to help their students acquire the skills and mindset to make their way in the world.
Unfortunately, teaching as a profession today is far removed from the ideals that led teachers to make the career choice they made. Multiple factors led to this sorry state of affairs, but in the Singapore context, parents have to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
By the time the day ends and I’m done with meetings, I’ll have barely started on marking homework or might be in the midst of preparing for the next class.
Parents are contacting me over menial things like homework past my work hours, and expect me to respond almost instantly. It does take a toll because the line between my work and my life is blurred, I can’t just shut off.
Just last year, a letter to The Straits Times' forum page penned by a husband of a teacher went viral when he called for teachers' workloads to be relooked so his wife could have more time with their family.
“How can we stop teachers from being exhausted and burnt out? They are already entering the school before sunrise and leaving only after sunset. The marking and calls to be answered continue at home," he said.
Both Sandra and the husband of a teacher who wrote in to The Straits Times highlighted two areas that are causing teachers to feel overworked and burnt out. Let’s talk about the curriculum load, arguably the easier problem to fix. I’ve long argued that the current education system, with its emphasis on standardised tests and the curriculum content that comes along with it, does very little to prepare young people for the future of work. In a world where information is one google search away, and new content can be generated instantaneously using generative AI, the most important skills of the future (and present) are human skills like a distinct personal voice, creativity, empathy, situational awareness, etc. A heavy curriculum load with a large amount of content to be covered and assignments to get done gets in the way of developing these human skills because there isn’t enough time for teachers to work with students.
Overbearing and overdemanding parents, on the other hand, is a much more difficult problem to solve. Overbearing and overdemanding is a nice way of putting it. More plainly, it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be at your beck and call. I don’t know how it came to be that parents think it is ok to message teachers after school hours and expect an instant reply. Perhaps some parents forget that teachers are mums, dads, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons too. They, too, have their own family to care for, their own interests to pursue, and their own lives to lead.
Parents play a key role in supporting teachers’ well-being, by respecting the personal time and space of our teachers and minimising non-critical communication with their children’s teachers outside office hours
What is even more damning is parents’ lack of respect for teachers.
When I first started working, there were no parent WhatsApp-group chats where parents can talk about their grievances and make troll remarks.
When teachers start feeling that parents treat them like service staff, there’s something fundamentally wrong. It takes a village to raise a child. Parents need to understand that teachers are professionals who play an active role in helping their children learn. They spent years training to teach young people. Teachers are not simply caregivers hired by the state to keep an eye on kids while parents are at work.
Here are some recommended changes that will allow teachers to do their best work.
25 children or less in every primary school classroom.
A world-class education cannot be provided to every child when there are 35-40 of them in one classroom. The average primary school class size in other developed countries is about 20.
Establish a ‘through train*’ from each primary school to a partner secondary school (PSLE optional).
PSLE, a compulsory high-stakes one-off national exam at the young age of 12, is NOT an evidence-informed (science-based) way of checking children’s learning or potential. There are much better ways of checking their learning at this age, as we explain in our main paper (e.g. computerised adaptive testing, more regular bite-sized assessments in multiple formats including projects and presentations).
Provide our students and teachers the professional support they need in schools.
We can’t have a world class education system without sufficient AND properly trained counsellors, therapists, psychologists, and learning support professionals, to support mental health and learning needs in schools. Other developed countries provide such support in their schools.
The three recommendations above are from EveryChild.SG, an advocacy group I volunteer with that advocates for a future-ready education system for every child.
In addition to the three recommendations above, here are a few more from me
Cut the admin crap teachers have to deal with. One teacher interviewed by Today shared that for an event in school, she spent a whole week out of school getting quotes from vendors once classes ended.
Redesign the grading system for teachers so they don’t feel like they are held hostage by parents demanding this that or the other
Reduce the curriculum load so teachers have more time to work with students on projects that develop important 21st century skills
Pay teachers better to get more talented people to consider teaching as a profession, and also to help with teacher retention.
For too long, the adage ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’ has stuck. It’s time to change it to ‘Those who can, do. Those who inspire, teach.’