Teaching in a Singaporean public school: More than just moulding the future

teaching in Singaporean public school doodle

Author's note: 

Teaching is a sacred job; it's important and deeply impactful. I have much respect for teachers, and have been one myself for four years. But it is also possibly one of the most misunderstood jobs. What I write here is based on my limited experience and observations in a secondary school. It is not meant to be a call to action or a critique; others are better qualified. It is simply a humble sharing for those considering teaching as a career here in Singapore.

To better understand my views, I believe it would be helpful to note that I am deeply influenced by the works of Sir Ken Robinson, John Taylor Gatto, Seth Godin, and believe that there is no meaningful separation between the arts and sciences.

A typical day as a public school teacher in Singapore

Starting the day

A teacher's day starts early because of morning assembly, so one is expected to be there about 7 am. Roll call typically happens so if anyone is missing, now is a good time to check. After assembly, lessons start for the students but not for every teacher. 

Depending on your timetable, you might have zero lessons or upwards of seven periods, which is then dependent on the length of a lesson period to determine your actual teaching hours. 

Let's talk about classroom time first. 

Classroom time

In class you are expected to deliver the lesson in accordance to the scheme of work (SOW) developed by your department, which is based on the syllabus by the ministry. How you want to deliver the lesson is entirely up to you, but to be within the expectations of your bosses. While that is a straightforward idea, execution is anything but. Remember all the weird, angelic, notorious, intelligent (and more) classmates you had? You will have them too except that now you are responsible for them, their behavior and results. Depending on the situation, sometimes outside of school even. 

Outside of the class

When you are not in the class, the main time-suckers will be marking, meetings, co-curricular activities (CCA)  and committee work . Depending on your proficiency and availability of resources, lesson planning can be relatively fast. What is not, are the four listed above. Marking is always slow because of the sheer amount of students and work to be given - every teacher has an average of 100-200 students. Regarding meetings, there's Contact Time where everyone gathers, department meetings and parent meetings, just to name a few. CCA is self-evident and then there's committee work. Every teacher is expected to be in at least one committee, and depending on the nature of the committee, workload varies. 

Expected hours

How many hours do teachers work in school (not counting after school work) a week? It varies from 40 hours to upwards of 65, depending on your school culture, CCA(s), committee(s) and proficiency. One additional factor is the students you have: graduating students typically mean longer days as they would have afternoon supplementary lessons. 

Other points of note

Bosses will be different from you

As with all other work, your bosses play a large part in your experience. It would be wise to bear in mind that it takes a while for anyone to reach the level of a Head Of Department (manager equivalent) or beyond, and that may result in a difference of ideologies between new teachers (especially) and their bosses. 

Social aptitude is important

Teaching is a highly social job, relying on interactions with your students (obviously), parents, colleagues and bosses; there is no such thing as I-just-want-to-teach-and-not-bother-about-any-one-else. Why? For starters, you can't do everything yourself, and you would need help with resources. In class, interaction with students is a necessity especially in today's age of short attention. To find out more about a student or their parents, you will need to talk to them more or seek input from your colleagues. Committee work is common meaning that working with people is expected. In short, the better you are at communication, the greater your effectiveness as a teacher. 

Challenges of being a public school teacher

Work-life balance

Work-life balance is always a sore point for many teachers, and even with intervention, it won't get any better. The reason is simple: one does not stop being a teacher after school hours. Marking usually extends beyond school hours because there simply isn't enough time to finish. Then there's stuff like meeting up with your students out of the classroom for non-academic related problems, meeting parents, event management, bringing students out for competitions etc. But that's not the biggest challenge, for it's arguable that most jobs don't have work-life balance. 

The daily grind and emotional burnout

The biggest challenge of teaching today is really the daily grind. As a teacher, one would repeat the same lesson multiple times to different classes, repeat the same marking for multiple classes, and because students are evergreen, one can be expected to repeat the same stuff yearly. Of course change can happen but so does repetition. Then there's the daily grind of classroom management. 

As if the grind isn't enough, there's emotional struggles to content with. One part of the struggles come because it's easy to get attached to one's students, and they will break your heart. Multiple times. The other part comes from imperfect bosses and colleagues who hinder your desire to give your best to your students. Or maybe you are the one stumbling another.

In work where profit is the only thing that matters, it's easy to draw the line and call it business. But in teaching, things get deeply personal. We are after all, working with and for people. 

Why consider teaching then?

Because there is no job like it. Putting renumeration aside, few jobs yield satisfaction like teaching can. Here, words fail me and the best I can think of is to direct you to Taylor Mali's poem, What Teachers Make. Link in footnote. 

Final words of advice for those considering teaching in a public school

  1. Go in with your eyes wide open, and complete a contract teaching stint for at least a couple of months. We all have our own ideals and fairy tale dreams; it's good to get a taste of real life before taking the plunge. 
  2. Know your stand with regards to public school education, and make sure that it's at least somewhat aligned with the current system. We all have ideas of what education should be and can be, and it's all good because everyone is entitled to their opinions. However, if there is a irreconcilable clash of ideals between you and the system, the one to be miserable is you. It's almost as miserable as a vegetarian having to eat meat because there's nothing else to eat. Almost. 
  3. Talk to teachers and learn their motivations for staying. See if any one of them resonates with you, and cling on to it in the darkest moments.
  4. Don't go in for the money. It will never be enough. 
  5. Don't go in expecting to change the world. You can't. But you can change the world of one kid, and that's already awesome. 

Concluding thoughts

Teaching is a deeply impactful and sacred work, and in some sense, everyone of us can and should teach in various areas of our lives. However, not all of us are suited to a bureaucratic system of formalised teaching methods and standardised testing. Be clear about your calling, and if you should consider teaching, do it proudly and make the difference only you can.