Top image: Ministry of Education
* Names have been changed as teachers are unauthorised to speak to the press
It’s 11.00 PM on a Tuesday, and Pamela* is still marking assignments. When most people are preparing to tuck in for the night, it’s normal for the language teacher to work after school hours.
But life was worse in her previous school. “For more than two years, I cried daily under a supervisor who micromanaged me. No matter how hard I try, it was never enough. I am happier at my current school because I feel valued,” says the primary school teacher of more than 15 years.
More than 15 teachers in her department requested a transfer within a decade, Pamela reveals. “Now you know why so many good teachers quit.”
Pamela, who is in her 30s, says she is lucky to have changed schools, which improved her mental well-being. But not every teacher is in a good state of mental well-being like her, according to a survey we commissioned from online market research firm Milieu Insight.
The survey showed that while 38 per cent of respondents said they have either “somewhat good” or “very good” mental well-being, the remainder (62 per cent) rated themselves as having fair to poor mental well-being, judging the data from 108 teachers working in levels from primary schools to junior colleges with varying years of experience.
Many may be reaching their breaking point, with 74 per cent of respondents experiencing burnout in the past five years.
This investigation follows a Sept 5 CNA story, where teachers opened up about poor mental wellness in the fraternity.
A related survey by the Singapore Counselling Centre released on Sept 22 also threw up similar findings. In that survey of 1,325 teachers, more than 80 per cent said their mental health had been affected by their work amid the pandemic.
The figures from Milieu are grim but unsurprising: Of the teachers who experienced burnout, 90 per cent cited a heavy workload as a reason, while long working hours (75 per cent) and lack of distinction between work and leisure hours (71 per cent) trailed behind.
Besides teaching, teachers are also involved with tasks unrelated to their core job—planning school events, sourcing external vendors for school activities, or dabbling in the numerous staff committees.
Most are in school before 7.00 AM and leave only when the sun begins to set. Even so, work does not end there, as they lug home assignments and continue grading them late into the night.
There’s also preparation for the next day’s lessons and phone calls to field from parents concerned about their child’s progress in school. 12-hour days are not uncommon for teachers, and the school holidays are cold comfort for the unaccounted-for working hours.
Clearer and more uniform guidelines, please
School leaders have a degree of autonomy to determine the expectations of teachers. Without rigid micro-management from the Education Ministry, one would think teachers have greater flexibility to do their jobs the way their principals deem fit.
Ironically, the broad guidelines strain the teachers, says Grace*, a primary school educator in her 20s. The Mother Tongue teacher, who joined the fraternity about two years ago, says while they know the no-go boundaries as educators, things are blurry on their specific roles and responsibilities.
Grace says: “We don’t know the boundaries. There’s a lot of grey area on what to do and what not to do. At the end of it, we go far and beyond to err on the side of caution.”
Schools are accustomed to taking the cue from MOE. Without a clear directive, most schools tend to play it safe and second guess the ministry’s expectations, even if this takes a toll on the mental well-being of teachers.
Some go the extra mile with the things they do to please other stakeholders, such as parents, and in the process, stresses the teachers out.
Take phone calls and messages from parents and students after office hours—there are no clear guidelines by MOE. Still, in Grace’s school, teachers are expected to respond as soon as possible. The school management perpetuates such a work culture, and teachers are at the mercy of it.
Teachers like Grace highlight long working hours and the lack of distinction between work and leisure as issues affecting their mental health when they are expected to fulfill work obligations even after the last school bell has rung for the day.
She calls for the ministry to specify clearly what teachers are supposed to do and draw boundaries to protect them from overworking, instead of leaving it open for the school management to interpret.
Undue stress from performance appraisal
Colloquially referred to as the “ranking system” by teachers, schools use the Enhanced Performance Management System to decide their teachers’ performance. The appraisal would subsequently have an impact on salaries and promotions.
The Education Minister revealed in parliament last year that a “broad middle” 60 per cent of teachers are given C-plus and C grades. At the same time, the top third can be awarded A and B grades.
This ranking system, too, is cited by 39 per cent of our respondents who said unfair performance appraisals contributed to burnout. Similar to how undergraduates are graded relative to their peers in examinations, teachers are assessed in their own schools and ranked among teachers of the same pay scale.
What this means: A teacher who performs well by absolute standards may not get a good grade (A and B grades) if other colleagues in the same payscale perform relatively better.
Also, a teacher who performs well may not get a good grade if they just entered the workforce.
In her first year in 2020, Grace was told that she was “not supposed” to have a grade above C-plus solely because she was still in her first year—never mind that she did well for lesson observations by her school and other duties, on top of seamlessly adapting to home-based learning.
Grace is unsure if this is a ministry or school policy or an unwritten rule by her school management. But she says this practice is unfair because it discourages beginning teachers from giving their best.
Office relations are sometimes intertwined with appraisal to complicate matters further since reporting officers have a say in their subordinate’s grades.
Some teachers like Grace have good reporting officers who fight for a better grade if they are deserving. But not so for many others.
Pamela shares the woes she experienced in her previous school. She was unfortunate to have a reporting officer who she felt didn’t like her. There was also nobody else who could fight for her to get a better grade.
“No matter how much I do, she gave me a C-minus. C-minus is almost as good as a D, which means no bonus.”
Three Ds would essentially get a teacher sacked, insiders whom I speak to say.
Pamela claims in her years there, she wasn’t promoted at all. She eventually plucked the courage to leave for another school. “Imagine if I didn’t have that courage—I might not be promoted forever.”
The long-awaited promotion came only in her new school. She got a good grade within a year after her new supervisor asked why she didn’t get promoted even though she consistently did well.
Teachers I speak to accept the appraisal system. They recognise that a performance review is essential, just like in other workplaces. But the system should be reformed so they are assessed by a fixed set of metrics and not pegged to performances relative to their colleagues.
They say the latter is unfair, as it puts unnecessary pressure by penalising teachers whose colleagues outperform them. Ultimately, as long as a teacher can teach students well, an arms race is the last thing they need to worry about.
Lighten workload: Admin duties
“More than just a teacher” is often quoted during Teachers’ Day, but it’s not a compliment where workloads are concerned.
Of the 96 teachers who gave suggestions to alleviate the workload, at least eight mentioned the reduction of administrative tasks that divert their attention from teaching, which is the core of their job.
The list is unending and not in any way exhaustive: chasing kids for their consent forms, collecting payment for field trips, organising annual concerts, being involved in a sub-committee (e.g. publishing the school magazine), taking daily attendances, sourcing vendors for co-curricular activities, and planning of budgets and logistics for learning journeys.
While MOE said that teachers were now spending less time on such tasks, from 5.3 hours a week in 2013 to 3.8 hours in 2018, the hours remain greater than other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.
The OECD average was 2.7 hours per week, based on the latest 2018 data.
Not only do these menial tasks overburden teachers unnecessarily and wear them out, but they also distract teachers who should be devoting more attention to their students.
To alleviate the administrative workload, some schools utilise technology to good effect. For instance, parents give consent for school activities electronically through an app instead of a hardcopy form which requires a teacher to collate. But going by the feedback garnered in the survey, it’s not enough.
Perhaps more human resources should be roped in to assume the administrative workload from teachers, going by suggestions provided by respondents in the survey. Let teachers do what they are called to do: teach.
Such an arrangement isn’t new. At the universities, professors are solely responsible for teaching and researching. Their assistants sort out tasks such as timetabling and handling payment matters.
Lighten workload: More support to handle special needs students
Another source of burnout for teachers is an unlikely one: the move towards inclusiveness in mainstream schools for special needs students.
In recent years, MOE has tried to integrate differently-abled students, such as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or autism, and let them learn alongside other students in mainstream schools.
The ministry has good intentions for students to learn and grow in an inclusive environment and not marginalise those with special needs. But Lucy*, a veteran teacher with more than 30 years of experience, says this initiative is taking a toll on them due to insufficient support.
In this newspaper letter, a MOE spokesperson said that there are specialised personnel in schools, such as teachers trained in special needs and allied educators in learning and behavioural support.
However, the devil is in the details, Lucy says. The lower primary teacher says the special needs training provided by MOE for these teachers is insufficient.
“It’s too short. The course is usually two and a half days, at most three. Learning how to handle kids with special needs is a very specialised skill, and one cannot be an expert within a few days.”
According to Lucy, a teacher undergoing such training will take up four modules—two of which provide an overview while another two are electives. Here, the teacher may choose to delve either into ADHD, behavioural needs, or dyslexia.
Other than insufficient training, Lucy says that a teacher also has to manage other students in the class (as many as 35 to 40 of them) and the student with special needs who often requires more attention. There are also insufficient allied educators to go around to assist the teachers.
“Talk is easy. MOE officials should try for themselves, for two weeks, and experience first-hand how the situation is in a class with special needs students.”
Lucy isn’t against teaching students with special needs. Still, more support should be given to teachers to lighten their workload and bring mental relief to them. The training provided should be reviewed and made more robust, she says.
More robust feedback and communication channel
Among our respondents, 15 per cent sought professional help from therapists and psychiatrists for burnout, while a larger proportion of 56 per cent took time to exercise or picked up a hobby—like Grace, who does embroidery to destress.
“I do something I enjoy which requires little brainwork,” she says.
However, the most common way to cope with burnout is to confide in someone, as indicated by 69 per cent of our respondents.
But within this group, only seven per cent said they confide in their bosses, such as the principal or head of department. Only 15 per cent is willing to confide in their reporting officer.
Afiq*, who has been teaching since 2001, highlights the problem of stigmatisation in confiding with superiors. While the 53-year-old teacher is glad the door is always open for him to discuss issues with the management, the optics are complicated.
“Some teachers are unlikely to inform their school leaders or middle managers as this might affect their ranking. They might be deemed unable to cope with more demanding responsibilities.”
Ditto for Grace, who once heard a colleague complain to a department head about the heavy workload, only to meet with a discouraging “why sweat over it?” comment.
“If you give others trouble and therefore more work for them, it’s a bad impression, and your eventual grade might not be fantastic.”
In Singapore, where self-reliance and suppressing vulnerabilities are a norm, it’s not easy to eradicate the stigma among teachers to seek help from others—especially from their bosses, who decide their career progression.
A way to plug this gap would be to create a safe space for teachers to share their concerns, such as an anonymous feedback channel, suggests Grace. She says teachers might be more willing to share if judgement is taken out of the equation.
Afiq, too, adds that managers should be more active in monitoring teachers under their wings.
“During level meetings, there could be signs from teachers that they are stressed from the amount of work that needs to be done,” referring to administrative work that teachers in the same level deal with.
“Managers should be trained to identify teachers who are under mental and emotional duress and need help immediately,” he says.
Our teachers need help
The undeniable truth is that teaching is emotionally draining. I can’t help but recall the Running On Empty video my colleague Feline did in August, where former teacher Chew Wei Shan shared about the burnout she faced as a teacher.
Two quotes in the clip resonate with me strongly, as someone who used to teach part-time as an undergraduate:
“Because with teaching, it’s so personal. You get so emotionally involved in the lives of literally hundreds of faces that you teach every year. And you can’t turn away a kid or not worry about them. Or think about what they’re doing.”
“The toughest thing is bringing home all the voices of kids and yourself through the day. All the things children say that you don’t know whether you responded to correctly—you go to bed thinking about them. Sometimes you can’t shake all the micro regrets of every single day.”
The emotional investment in teaching is hard to remove. How do we help passionate and dedicated teachers who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of others to detach themselves from the job emotionally?
Since it’s a tall order to change this trait of a teacher, we can help them in other aspects first.
MOE can start the ball rolling by delineating the responsibilities of teachers more transparently and reviewing the performance appraisal system. Teachers’ workload can be lightened by delegating non-teaching duties away and giving them more support to handle special needs students.
But structural and policy issues are just part of the problem. Teachers tend to possess an innate sense of leadership. They perceive themselves as a role model and a firm guiding hand to students under their wings.
This might also mean a reluctance to admit their shortcomings. It’s seen as shameful to show any imperfections in front of their students.
As such, they put up a strong front in the classroom, which carries through to other aspects of their job. Teachers refuse to share candidly with their bosses about the issues they face at work for fear of being judged adversely, even though it might just be a perception.
But should this be the way forward? Should this reluctance to confide in confidence be a stumbling block to positive mental health? Would it not be more comforting if a manager makes the first move to show concern to the teacher rather than waiting for the teacher to seek help?
Teachers must also actively practise mentally clocking out from their jobs. Their profession should not be the only identity they possess. Perhaps it’s also time for society not to over-romanticise the role of a teacher as someone who has to be there 24/7, every day of the year.
The best way we can thank our teachers is to push for reforms that improve their mental well-being on the job. Doing so also benefits us, as motivated teachers can guide our children better. I’m sure our teachers would appreciate these positive changes more than the roses, mugs, and sob stories they receive every Teachers’ Day.
RICE readers who are teachers can access these hotlines if they are feeling burnt out:
National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8AM – 12AM)
Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444 (24 hours) /1-767 (24 hours)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Silver Ribbon Singapore: 6386-1928
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 and www.tinklefriend.sg
Community Health Assessment Team: 6493-6500/1 and www.chat.mentalhealth.sg