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The Big Read in short: A teacher's job just keeps getting tougher — no thanks to parents

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we examine the growing demands and expectations of teachers, many of whom are feeling overworked and burnt out. This is a shortened version of the full feature.

The Ministry of Education said that it has taken steps to help lighten teachers' workloads, such as technology to streamline administrative processes and providing additional funding for schools to hire additional staff for administrative duties.

The Ministry of Education said that it has taken steps to help lighten teachers' workloads, such as technology to streamline administrative processes and providing additional funding for schools to hire additional staff for administrative duties.

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Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we examine the growing demands and expectations of teachers, many of whom are feeling overworked and burnt out. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • Teachers feeling overworked and burnt out is a perennial issue in Singapore, where there are high public expectations of the role that schools and teachers play in a child's life
  • Over the years, the MOE has launched a slew of initiatives to better support teachers
  • Apart from the overall workload, other challenges commonly cited by the teachers interviewed included how they are assessed by their superiors
  • But the biggest bugbear was dealing with parents — be it in terms of disciplining their child, intervening with how the teachers carry out their lessons, or expecting teachers to be "surrogate parents" or "babysitters" who know the whereabouts of their child and what they are up to after school

SINGAPORE — Every week, Sandra (not her real name) lugs a small-sized suitcase from her workplace back home. She’s neither a flight attendant nor a fashion designer — but a teacher bringing back her students’ papers for the weekend.

“We joke that we’re like air stewardesses, bringing our luggage back home after a long flight,” said the primary school mother tongue teacher.

“Because there’s so much to do in school that isn’t part of the classroom curriculum that my students’ homework has to be marked on the weekend. It’s easier to lug their exercise books than hand carry since there's up to 120 books.”

Like the other teachers who spoke to TODAY, Sandra had joined the profession as they see teaching as a noble job, allowing her to shape a future generation.

However, having to spend hours clearing administrative work, planning for co-curricular activities (CCA) and handling parents have tired these teachers out.

All the teachers interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorised to speak to the media. 

“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,” said Sandra, who has been teaching for four years.

Beyond the heavy workload, secondary school teacher Mandy also struggles to draw the line when it comes to her working hours.

“Sometimes, there are children who need someone to speak to, and it can be a life or death situation. We’ll chat into the early hours of the morning, and while draining, I’m glad I can make a difference,” said the teacher with 20 years of experience.

“But other times, 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.”

Teachers feeling overworked and facing burn-out is a perennial issue in Singapore, where there are high public expectations of the role that schools and teachers play in a child's life. 

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.

As educators in Singapore marked Teachers’ Day on Friday (Sept 2), the perennial issues that teachers face on a daily basis have also come under the spotlight after the Ministry of Education (MOE) recently announced that it would be giving its teachers, allied educators and MOE kindergarten educators a pay increase of between 5 and 10 per cent as part of efforts to “continue to attract and retain good educators”.

Barely a week later, the problems teachers face in disciplining students these days also became a talking point after a St Andrew’s Secondary School student was caught on video arguing and threatening his teacher with violence. The video first surfaced on Aug 23.

Over the years, the MOE has launched a slew of initiatives to better support teachers — most recently via a teacher-focused version of mental health online portal, Mindline. Still, the educators interviewed believe that more could be done to address the key issue of heavy workload.

Teachers feeling overworked and facing burn-out is a perennial issue in Singapore, where there are high public expectations of the role that schools and teachers play in a child's life. 

One way to do this is to relieve them of some administrative duties and CCAs, so that they can, as Sandra put it, “get back to the core purpose of what a teacher is supposed to do, teach”.

In response to TODAY’s queries, MOE said that it has taken steps to help lighten teachers' workloads, such as technology to streamline administrative processes and providing additional funding for schools to hire additional staff for administrative duties.

It also has put in place measures to support staff well-being, such as in-house professional counselling services and a "whole-of-government 24/7 counselling hotline" for public officers.

Separately, the Singapore Teachers’ Union (STU) also provides a suite of career coaching services, as well as counselling services, to help its members "identify and overcome workplace challenges", said its secretary-general Mike Thiruman,

In all, MOE employs slightly over 32,000 teachers. In response to TODAY's queries on the annual resignation rate over the past five years, the ministry would only say that it has remained "relatively low and stable" at between 2 and 3 per cent "over the last few years". 

Apart from the overall workload, other challenges commonly cited by the teachers interviewed included how they are assessed by their superiors.

But the biggest bugbear was dealing with parents — be it in terms of disciplining their child, intervening with how the teachers carry out their lessons, or expecting teachers to be "surrogate parents" or "babysitters" who know the whereabouts of their child and what they are up to after school.  

Indeed, MOE stressed that its efforts to help teachers must be matched by parents as well.

"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," the ministry said. 

It added: "Parents and the public can also work closely with teachers to establish positive partnerships and set appropriate expectations on the teachers’ responsibilities for our children’s development."

TEACHERS BEMOAN PARENTS' INTERFERENCE, 'LACK OF RESPECT'

For Mandy, the work continues long after official school hours, with her phone notifications constantly going off, as students and parents send messages into the wee hours of the night.

“It started during the Covid-19 pandemic, when we had to keep in contact with our students while isolated in our homes. The only way to do so is by having class group chats, and that means giving out my phone number to (all the students).”

She recalled how she would have to call her students when they did not turn up for online lessons, and how some parents would not take responsibility to ensure their children attended classes online even though they were all at home together. 

And with MOE encouraging more blended learning post-pandemic — where students learn through a mix of online and offline activities held in school and at home — STU's Mr Thiruman said parental support would “become even more critical for students to benefit from it”.

“Blended learning poses challenges on multiple fronts. It requires more and in-depth preparation and post-lesson monitoring, in addition to requiring new pedagogical approaches,” said Mr Thiruman.

Mandy also noted that it's harder to discipline students now, as parents often refuse to take the teacher’s side. 

She recalled how she once called up the parents of a student two weeks after he did not hand in his homework. "Instead of chiding their child, they asked why I didn’t push (the student) to give his homework and inform them earlier,” she said.

She added: “Parents are very permissive and will insist that their child is right over other professional adults in the school, who may be all saying the same thing. It’s always the teachers or school’s fault... This makes it hard to discipline the students because they don’t receive the consequences at home.”

Some of the teachers interviewed also observed that parents’ respect for teachers has diminished over the years and this has also influenced students’ attitudes towards them.

A secondary school teacher, who wanted to be known only as Germaine, has been teaching for almost five decades. She lamented how "discipline has dropped tremendously in school" over the years. "It was much easier to discipline the kids in the earlier years," she said. 

Some of the teachers interviewed also observed that parents’ respect for teachers has diminished over the years and this has also influenced students’ attitudes towards them.

A primary school teacher of 15 years, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ng, said: “When I first started working, there were no parent WhatsApp-group chats where parents can talk about their grievances and make troll remarks. 

“Now, these chat groups, where parents used to share information about their children’s academics, are also used to share comments about bad teacher experiences, which parents (then go on to) share with their children, diluting both their respect towards teachers.”

WHEN TEACHERS ARE EXPECTED TO 'BABYSIT' CHILDREN, COUNSEL PARENTS 

Ironically, even as respect for teachers appears to be declining on the part of parents, their expectations have increased. They want teachers to act as their children’s "babysitters", or adopt customised teaching approaches for each child — which translates to even more work for the educators.

A former English and English Literature junior college (JC) teacher, who wished to be known as Ms V Loh, recalled how parents would treat her like a “surrogate parent”, asking questions about their children’s private lives.

“During a teacher-parent meeting, one parent came up to me and asked if their child was having sex, which shocked me,” said the 53-year-old, who quit teaching in 2018 after 25 years due to her health and as her JC was set to be merged. She is now a private tutor.

“How would I know what their child does outside of the classroom? It’s crazy,” she said. 

Some requests which teachers have received from parents include reporting to them when their child leaves school, creating special curriculum to cater to their child, and demanding one-on-one tuition for their child after work hours.

For primary school teacher Mabel, her job scope has even extended to becoming a counsellor for parents.

“Teaching has changed so much since I started in 1996, but mainly because of parents. When MOE started placing more emphasis on parent engagements, we had to deal with some who may carry their own emotional baggage that can stress us out,” she said. 

THE END RESULT? PARENTS AS 'CUSTOMERS', RISK-AVERSE TEACHERS

When it comes to their children’s education needs, parents often get whatever they demand — simply because teachers don’t find it worth their while to risk their reputation by doing otherwise, those interviewed told TODAY.

Likening teachers to service staff, Sandra said: “Parents are like our customers. If we don’t make them happy, they’ll complain until we have no choice but to do it.”

As her school did not offer a subject to students at certain levels, a parent had sent a letter of complaint — forcing teachers in her school to create a year’s curriculum for a single child.

“It was exhausting and not necessary in my opinion to cave in, but we had to anyway. There’s no point fighting parents because of this,” she said, adding that complaints from parents can also impact a teacher's yearly appraisal.

TODAY approached three principals for comments, but they declined to speak as they needed approval from the Ministry to do so.

Germaine, the secondary school teacher, said that when a school receives a complaint, an investigation has to be initiated, despite the possibility that the claim is untrue or inaccurate.

“The way schools interrogate teachers when a complaint is received can be emotionally draining and discouraging for a teacher,” she said.

For some teachers, the presence of mobile phones in the classroom can also be unnerving.

Ms Loh, the former JC teacher, said her students’ phones had made her feel like she was always under surveillance when teaching.

She pointed out: “It’s hard to be innovative when teaching in class and to be my authentic self with these students, who are young adults, when a video or photo could send the wrong image to one or two parents when (viewed) out of context.”

THE LONGSTANDING ISSUE OF TOO MUCH ADMIN WORK 

For Ms Loh, administrative work would take up most of her day even back when she first started teaching in 1993 — not something she had expected to be saddled with when she joined the profession.

“I remember we were organising for some event in school, so I spent a whole week out of school getting quotes from vendors once classes ended, which was just ridiculous,” she said.

“It was taking up time away from my family and myself, so when I had children, I took a six-year childcare break where I just helped with relief teaching before switching to contract teaching.”

Some administrative work that teachers must go through weekly, on top of teaching itself, are:

  • Daily attendance taking, contacting parents when students are absent without reason
  • Giving out and collating documents such as bursary documents and donation envelopes
  • Writing reports when students misbehave
  • Planning for CCA activities, such as sourcing for vendor quotes and preparing CCA materials
  • Planning for school events
  • Weekly department meetings

Teachers interviewed estimated that they spend at least four hours a day on administrative duties outside of the classroom and fixed CCA hours, forcing them to prepare teaching materials or mark books outside of their work hours.

Addressing the teachers' feedback on workload, MOE noted that teachers have to prepare students for the "complex environment" which the world has become. And this means that teachers have to "dedicate time and effort to develop the requisite competencies" in students to prepare them for the workforce in future. 

To that end, the ministry said it has "strengthened measures and enhanced support for schools to manage teachers’ workload, and to support their well-being".

Among other things, it has "calibrated the implementation of initiatives and schools' involvement in headquarter work and pilots".

It added: "Schools have flexibility to pace the implementation of selected initiatives, including deferring implementation if this helps to manage staff workload."

The Ministry of Education said it has "strengthened measures and enhanced support for schools to manage teachers’ workload, and to support their well-being".

MOE has also provided school leaders with guidelines on managing teachers' workload. These cover areas including assigning teachers to CCAs and school committees and having "protected vacation time" for teachers during school holidays to "ensure that teachers have time to rest and recharge". 

To ease the administrative workload, the ministry also provides "strengthened centralised services" such as support for complex procurement and finance issues.

MOE noted that all schools have an administrative team that helps with administrative and operational functions, and schools are also given additional funding to hire more administrative staff when needed. 

The use of technology is also encouraged to streamline administrative processes, the ministry said. For example, teachers can now monitor and track students' attendance using mobile phones, or collect consent forms and disseminate information to parents via Parents' Gateway, a mobile application.

CONCERNS OVER GRADING SYSTEM FOR TEACHERS

For some teachers, the need to pander to parents, avoid student complaints and handle multiple administrative duties stoically is fuelled by the MOE grading system.

The ministry adopts a system of relative ranking, where a teacher’s performance is both assessed by his own supervisor, and cross-ranked with his peers by a ranking panel comprising direct and indirect supervisors.

This is also used by the rest of the Civil Service and allows them to "recognise the good work that (the teachers) have done", said MOE. 

Teachers told TODAY that beyond just their students’ performances, other factors such as their relationship with parents, administrative duties and leadership roles affect their grades.

Nevertheless, there are mixed views about the grading system.  

A secondary school teacher, who asked to be identified as Jamie, said: “There is workplace politics involved, since allocating leadership events are part of the duties of those ranking us.

“If your supervisors dislike you, it’ll be difficult to attain a good grade.”

Other teachers also noted that some CCAs are seen as more prestigious than others, such as those that may gain recognition for the school through competitions.

However, Mr Ng believes that the grading system is necessary.

“We need some way to measure how we’ve contributed to our schools, and if we do away with this system, some teachers may do less than others because there is no incentive," he said, adding that the situation is the same "as with any other job". 

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education teachers MOE

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