Saturday, 20 July 2013

SGTeach Part 1: Why should you be a teacher in Singapore?

Ex-Singaporean blogger Limpehft recently posed a question on his blog "Why don't you want to teach in Singapore?" and questioned if the Singapore education system has put young Singaporeans off a teaching career. Glancing through that post and having spoken to a couple of teacher-wannabes recently, I have decided to pen down some objective thoughts on why one should or should not pursue a teaching career in Singapore. In order to do this topic justice, I have decided to split it into 2 parts - one post on why you should consider a teaching career and another on why you should not

A little background on the professional history of your humble writer: I joined the teaching service in 2009 after I graduated from NIE. For the last 4 years, I have played all of the following roles in school: classroom (subject) teacher, form teacher, CCA teacher, project mentor, coach, NIE CT, School Staff Developer (for about 6 months when my school was in need), Human Resource manager (for about 2 years) as well as served numerous school committees as either a member or chairperson. I have handled a very large range of school operations on several levels, ranging all the way from taking attendance of students at morning assembly to crafting policies/representing the school at networking conferences / participating in international school trips. As the one in charge of staff recruitment, I have interviewed dozens of teaching candidates interested to join the school/teaching fraternity. I also work very closely with my school's HODs, VPs, P as well as MOE HR for HR related matters. This self-description is by no means to blow my own trumpet, but to provide credibility in the discussion points I am about to raise in my subsequent posts.

On to the main question for this post: Why should you consider a teaching career in Singapore? 

#1. For the students who will make a difference in your life because you have made a difference in theirs.

As cliche as it may sound, most of us who join the teaching profession do so in the first place because we want to make a difference in the lives of our charges. For those (albeit few, at times) students whom you have impacted deeply and postively, some in turn make a big impact on you as well. I'm not simply referring to Teachers' Day cards, or gifts from students ranging from red pens to stuffed toys to (inedible) baked goods (though these do give us a warm fuzzy feeling especially when we least expect them) - I'm referring to the overwhelming sense of pride when you witness your student receiving an award from the President / Education Minister, the tears of joy as you read the words from your graduating class/previously failing student, as well as the laughter as you watch your students perform goofily on stage. 

Being a teacher is a life-changing experience. No simple description can fully articulate the emotions of a teacher when you know you have made a genuine difference to a young person's life. If you are a caring educator, your students (or future students) are the only reason you need to motivate you to pursue a teaching career and to persevere year after year.

#2. The PGDE (Postgraduate Diploma in Education) from NIE is recognized internationally.

There's little doubt that Singapore's education system is recognized as one of the world's best, especially in producing top-notch academic results. In the Global Education Survey held in 2012, our education system has been ranked 5th in the world, behind Finland, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. You can find out more details here.

A large majority of teachers in Singapore hold the PGDE or equivalent, as MOE requires its full-time teaching staff to be trained. The PGDE course conducted by NIE is benchmarked with international teaching standards, so it is generally recognized by most educational institutions across the globe as a valid teaching diploma. Using Australia as an example, I had no problems at all getting my teaching skills recognized by Australia's assessing authority, AITSL. Personally, I also know of Singaporean teachers who landed teaching jobs in the US, UK and New Zealand.

#3. Job Stability

Jobs in the Civil Service are colloquially described as  铁饭碗 "iron-rice-bowl" for a good reason - they are very stable. Given that education is an industry that is will continue to thrive and teachers will always be in general demand regardless of the economy, teachers should generally have little or no fear of being fired or retrenched. 

#4. Time-based Promotions and Merit Increments

By and large, promotion within the civil service is time-based. Having said that, some may argue that there are many individuals in the service who are accelerated in their promotion based on performance. There are also some who believe scholars / individuals who take on several portfolios or projects are promoted ahead of others.

A clarification: I didn't say promotion is fair, I said it is largely time-based. As long as you meet the basic expectations and do not step on too many toes, you can expect yourself to be promoted in due time even if you do not outperform your peers, simply because the appraisal system in the civil service is structured as such. An annual salary increment known as the merit increment is also granted to all teachers each year (typically every April), so even a mediocre teacher can expect their salary to increase slightly each year. 

From what I understand, promotion and salary increments are much more uncertain (possibly due to the economy) and highly performance-based in the private sector. Retrenchment can also be relatively high in certain private industries. Therefore, if job security is VERY high on your priority list, consider a job in the civil service (especially MOE, as education officers constitute more than half of the civil service).

#5. Professional Development Opportunities

Generally, the Ministry of Education is interested in developing teachers professionally. In fact, each teacher is encouraged to attend 100 hours of training every year. To facilitate this, the Ministry provides free teaching resources, a teachers' library, an individual learning development fund (known as LDS) as well as a large variety of courses for teachers to attend for free / a nominal fee. 

Teachers who have served for more than 3 years can also apply for sponsorship from the Ministry if they choose to further their studies. Those who have served for many years (typically at least 6 years) can apply for paid Professional Development Leave to pursue external work-related interests while they take a sabbatical from teaching. While I am not certain if any MNCs offer an equivalent type of leave in Singapore, I must say (based on my interactions with other HR personnel) that any form of paid sabbatical leave is very rare in the private sector.

#6. CONNECT Plan

This is basically a loyalty payout plan that encourages teachers to remain in service. The Ministry deposits a fixed quantum (around S$6.3k) every year into every Education Officer's connect plan account, and the officer is allowed to withdraw a fixed lump sum from their connect plan after a pre-determined period of time. Details can be found here. This sum of money granted is on top of other annual bonuses and the long service awards. This plan serves as a loyalty bonus and was probably introduced to replace the pension scheme offered to teachers in the 1980s. 

I have listed some other common reasons below (based on my interactions with educators for the past 4 years). The reasons below are not as 'universal' as those listed above though - so take them with a pinch of salt, as some may not apply to you.

#7. Leave during School Holidays (?)

Mention this as a possible 'benefit' to a teaching career and immediately you will face much skepticism from existing teachers. Objectively, your 'entitled' duration of leave during school holidays depends largely on your school's holiday policy which can vary across different schools, as well as your holiday duties. Generally, schools do try to provide a 'protected' period of at least 1-2 weeks during the June Holidays and 2-3 weeks during the Nov/Dec period for teachers to go overseas for personal holidays.

School Holidays = Long break for Teachers? That's a myth.

If you are considering a teaching career in Singapore, do speak with existing teachers to find out what a realistic holiday schedule is like and how much 'holiday' you can expect. The assumption that the general public have of teachers having a long break during school holidays is largely a myth, since holidays typically coincide with additional 'supplementary' lessons, additional CCA training, school camps and student overseas trips.

Personally, the longest period of holiday leave I have taken thus far is 10 consecutive days. I do know of individuals taking up to 4 consecutive weeks of overseas leave though. 

#8. Overseas Opportunities and Work Attachment Platforms (?)

Unknown to many current teachers, MOE also provides Work Attachment opportunities for teachers to broaden and enrich their learning. This can include attachment to other schools, private organisations as well as institutions of higher learning.

With the increased awareness that learning should take place outside the classroom in the past decade, more schools are also organising educational school trips overseas, and these typically require teacher chaperones/facilitators. In my 4 odd years in service, I have travelled for work-related purposes to Malaysia (Malacca), Thailand (Bangkok), Indonesia (Bali) and the UK. 

I spent 2 weeks in the UK with my students in 2011... will never forget that wonderful experience.

I will acknowledge, however, that such opportunities are not unique to the teaching service nor to the civil service. Furthermore, depending on the resources available in the various schools, not all teachers will be granted the opportunity for work attachment or to go overseas.

#9. Becoming a Jack-of-all-trades (?)

Typically, when someone is hired for a salaried job, the employer is obliged to provide a list of duties to the worker as part of the contract. This list is known as the JD (Job Description) and it details the scope of work for the individual employee.

Teachers in Singapore, however, are not provided with a JD when we sign our contract. There is an implicit understanding that the role of an educator is so complex, it cannot be confined to a simple list. On top of delivering the curriculum, teachers also play the following roles (varies for different individuals of course):
  • Coach/Trainer or equivalent
  • General Administrator aka Form teacher
  • Event Organizer / Camp Commandant
  • Logistics Officer
  • First Aider
  • Driver 
  • Chaperone 
  • Mentor/ big brother/big sister/friend / 'cher'
  • Volunteer for school events
  • Salesperson 
  • Public Speaker 
  • Disciplinarian (from reprimanding students for long fingernails to handling truancy)
  • Janitorial Supervisor (for classroom cleanliness)
  • and many more besides.. you get the picture
Invariably, a good teacher becomes a jack-of-all-trades. This sounds good if you are a multi-tasker or thrive on an all-rounded job. The downside of a jack-of-all-trades is of course, that you are generally considered a master of none (except your primary teaching function).

Used to have students who called me 'Ms Octopus'. Wonder why.

Current teachers, what do you think? Feel free to share. And for those who feel I am too one-sided in my post, please be reminded that this is only the first part of a 2-part series. Stay tuned!

- A


  1. I was a teacher in Singapore for 3 years it was the best time of my life! I miss Singapore i'm back in Australia now

    1. hi.
      since u say that u enjoy teaching in Singapore, i just thought of talking to you. :)
      did you undergo the PGDE program and a bond of 3 year teaching in Singapore or just taught for 3 years? do you think Australians too accept the teaching qualifications in Singapore?
      plzzz reply

  2. Hi
    I really enjoyed reading your article. I'm going through a pretty difficult time presently as a teacher. I'm new to the service. About 6 months since I joined. Would love to hear your input and advice on some matters. Is there any way to get in touch with you guys?

  3. You leave your email and name in a comment, with a note to us not to publish it. In any case we screen through comments before they appear and we won't publish personal information or details for our commentors' sakes.


  4. Hi , do u mind sharing with me how do i apply to be a teacher after my poly diploma ? I read abt it on the MOE website but im dont really understand. I am thinking of being a PE teacher . Any advise to share ??

  5. hi. may i ask if u are teaching in pri or sec school? I am graduating from uni soon and I'm considering to take up PGDE but at the same time, i am still worried about stuff like if i'm able to control the students, will i get bullied etc.. would like to seek your advice, can i get in touch with u guys?