Work that makes a difference

So there was a recent announcement about how the ministry of education in Singapore is raising Teacher’s pay by up to 10%. Across the board. Well not exactly a proper across-the-board raising because they are going to raise at varying percentages – perhaps based on level of seniority. Then there were genuine voices of concern about work-life balance. I’ve so many friends and family who are teachers and they echo the same thing. The fact that the work load issue is not arising for the first time already reflects that it has not been solved.

So many times, when people are talking about increasing Teacher-student ratio in the classroom, our leadership would talk about how there had been academic studies that teacher-student ratio does not improve academic performance reliably or that it correlates poorly. Yet that should not be the only metric we care about. We don’t want burnt out teachers; it is a caring profession and people need to have that emotional time and space to take care of themselves before they can care for others.

Now if teaching is so challenging, why do we still have so many teachers? It’s because there are so many people in our society and world who are not just interested to make a living; they want to make a difference. And they want to be able to know their work matters. In Singapore, while the system is not perfect as a social leveller, the education system is in many ways the main channel for people to move up the social ladder. Teachers are uniquely empowered to take on this role and give encouragement that really matters.

So policymakers have to know this and be clear in their minds about what the teachers really are there for. Because the more red tape, the more silly structures that prevent teachers from making a genuine difference with their work, the more discouraging it is. The pay raise will help to a certain extent. Giving more time, especially making sure protected leave period during holidays are genuinely protected; and making sure teachers are not over-working. And finally, putting less obstacles in their way of making a difference in the lives of students. Maximise time with students, minimise time with papers, marking, invigilation, reporting or administrative stuff. You’ll probably see the system being less organised from a top-down perspective – but you might see a better outcome.