Restoring the Prestige of Being Teachers

“I don’t mean money. I mean the satisfaction of helping a young person develop. There’s nothing to beat that.”

Teaching has traditionally been regarded as a highly respected calling in East Asian countries, due in large part to the enduring impact of the Confucian reverence for learning. Yet despite this, there was a time in recent years, when it was a profession regarded by many Singaporean job seekers as a soft option, if not one of last resort. They tended to give it a low preference because the financial payback was far less attractive compared to that for other professionals like engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, company executives or senior civil servants, who were also perceived to command a higher social standing. Prospect for upward mobility too was seen to be quite limited. Allied to the above factors, teaching demanded relentless dedication and a long-term commitment to helping the young develop their minds and to become responsible and caring citizens. This required of its members a sustained interest in their professional responsibilities and a disciplined mind and temperament, attributes which proved too daunting for many faint-hearted would-be recruits.

It was common knowledge that a good number of serving teachers were discontented and became frustrated with their jobs, and this over time had led to low morale and lack of the esprit de corps among the less committed in their midst. I know as a fact and from personal experiences that whenever any private sector executive vacancies occurred, there would be many teacher applicants who were firmly resolved to quit the teaching profession for greener pastures. I had personally interviewed several teachers of both sexes and heard their grouses and other complaints about  their present jobs and they were resolved to get out of it at all costs, whenever a suitable opportunity to do so arises.

Fortunately, all this is now water under the bridge. At the critical juncture at that time, the Singapore Government realised that drastic reforms of the teaching profession must be carried out urgently, which would include the upward revision of teachers’ pay, their promotion avenues and their enhanced social standing at all levels in order to retain and to attract high quality and committed candidates into the education service for the good of the students and the nation. Since the 1990s, these reforms had been introduced and successfully implemented. By the beginning of the 2000 era, the previous high attrition rate had been arrested and many better qualified students, who would otherwise have given teaching a miss, had been attracted into its ranks. A 2003 media report highlighted that some 15,000 applicants were vying for 2650 places for trainee teachers at the National Institute of Education. They included a good number of high calibre candidates like company executives and other professionals, some of whom were switching careers at midstream. These applications had more than doubled what the Ministry of Education received during the preceding recruitment cycle.

How did this significant change in public perception of teachers come about? In my view, credit must go to the Government for this coup. Not even its severest critics should begrudge it for this accolade. As a first step towards uplifting the public image of teachers, Government rightly decided that, as they play an important role in shaping the mind and character of students, their terms and conditions of service should  be improved substantially in order to retain good teachers and to attract more high-calibre candidates into the education service. To place them on par with Government’s professional and administrative services, their salaries and career advancement were enhanced. Simultaneously, their job scope and responsibilities were  also widened, aimed at making them intellectually more challenging and satisfying. In addition, other remedial measures were also taken from time to time which would add to the prestige of teaching as a career. These included more opportunities for professional training, through periodic paid study leave, attending conferences and awarding scholarships for higher qualifications, as necessary incentives for outstanding services. The annual Teacher’s  Day is marked as a national school holiday. Students of different ages and races will pay moving tributes to their mentors for painstakingly preparing them for their future role as good citizens of Singapore. With the strong support of the media, the teaching profession assumed a high public profile, with the President and the ministers extolling the virtues of teachers and their contributions to society whenever the need arises.

To further boost their esprit de corps and public standing, the appointment, promotion or retirement of a senior education officer, such as a principal, is often given special prominence in the media, sometimes exceeding the publicity for similar milestones accorded the most exalted public officers like High Court judges and Permanent Secretaries. By so doing, this has given the teachers a greater sense of pride of their contributions to the community and spur them on in the discharge of their professional duties of moulding the students to become fine citizens of tomorrow which will benefit this island nation where its people are its principal assets.

With the surge in popularity among Singaporeans to opt for teaching as a career choice, and the increasing number of well qualified candidates from other professions wishing to switch to it even though in many instances they would suffer a reduction in their monthly pay cheque, they have definitely strengthened Singapore’s education service with their different working experiences gained in their previous jobs. This in turn, would have a beneficial impact on the student’s outlook in life and widen their knowledge of the various aspects of working life in this country when they enter the employment market.

The past long-standing lower pay and lower social standing of teachers compared with other graduates is by no means peculiar to Singapore. It also prevails in the wealthy industrialised nations in the OECD countries then and even today. As a comparison, both the starting pay and the maximum salary of teachers with degrees in Singapore are a fair bit higher than their counterparts in the US and the average of the other OECD countries, where they are earning at least 20% less than other workers with degrees. In its 2012 educational report, the OECD urged its member states to emulate Finland and Singapore for having the most successful  modern education systems. It adds that modern learning needs teachers who are high-level knowledge workers-able to support the learning of children in a digital age. These two countries have also succeeded in attracting the top one-third of students into their teaching professions because of competitive pay and other terms of service.

Does the success of these Singapore Government measures mean that teaching is now fast becoming one of the top career choices among Singaporean youth alongside the traditionally more coveted professions? I believe it is too early for such a  conclusion. Certainly, the gaps have been considerably narrowed compared with the situations prevailing before the start of the year 2000. My premise is that, given a choice, most younger Singaporeans would still prefer to be lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers or architects, because they are still seen as more glamorous and lucrative.

However, one thing is beyond doubt. One tremendous satisfaction of being a teacher, which few other professions can ever hope to match, is the enduring respect accorded a good teacher by a former pupil, no matter how prominent the latter might have attained later in life. Another concrete reward is articulated succinctly by Mr Lee Huan Leng, 35, who is an engineer-turned-teacher: “I don’t mean money. I mean the satisfaction of helping a young person develop. There’s nothing to beat that.”

Like true love, the path of a teacher is never smooth and a bed of roses. In fact, it has become very stressful and demanding for teachers in Singapore, compared with before the Government’s educational reforms mentioned earlier were introduced. They must continually upgrade their teaching skills and professional expertise in order to meet the more exacting demands of an increasingly more sophisticated community and the parental expectations. It is therefore not uncommon nowadays for many Singapore teachers to do a full day’s work in schools, well beyond the official class room hours. Furthermore, many would also voluntarily offer to tutor intellectually weaker students and those preparing for crucial national examinations on their own time without financial gains in order to help them improve on their grades and to enhance the academic distinctions of their own schools. They also take a personal interest of the pupil’s health and personal well-being. When one of my grandchildren was hospitalised for a few days for a stomach flu, his form-teacher came to visit him in the hospital and gave him a box of biscuits, purchased out of her own pocket. I was deeply touched by that spontaneous and caring gesture.

I shall always watch the future development of Singapore’s teaching profession with more than common interest as it has a significant impact on the continuing well-being of this nation.

Lam Pin Foo

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