The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published its 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis) recently which found that teachers in Singapore worked an average of 56 hours per week, compared with the average of 47 hours per week for the Talis average.
In an interview with the Straits Times on 26 June 2014, Deputy Director-General of Education Wong Siew Hoong said that the Ministry of Education "appreciates that Singapore teachers want to do the best for their students" in relation to the longer working hours.
Both the Straits Times and TODAY also reported that 88 per cent of teachers in the Talis survey were satisfied, compared to the Talis average of 91 per cent.
What both papers left out was the following finding that 46 per cent of teachers here, compared to the average of 32 per cent "wonder whether it would have been better to choose another profession, perhaps reflecting the high educational qualifications and wide choices of careers available to teachers in Singapore."
On a brighter note, 82 per cent of teachers report that they would still choose to be a teacher if they could decide again (the Talis average is 78 per cent). Almost 7 in 10 believe that the teaching profession is valued in the Singapore society, more than twice that of the Talis average (31 per cent).
Teachers are spending more time at work not teaching
Teachers here are spending more time at work and less time teaching students as compared to the global average. Is that why Singapore's one of the top-ranking education systems in the world according to PISA and the Economist's Pearson Learning Curve?
Recently, Education Minister made a study trip to Norway and the Netherlands. After the trip, he noted that Singapore's education system must change to keep up with the changing economy.
If you look at the Talis report on Netherlands, you will find that teachers there work an average of 39 hours per week. Of this 39 hours, 17 hours are spent on teaching, which is the same as teachers in Singapore.
Finland, touted as the top education system in Singapore, has teachers working 36-hour weeks where 21 hours are spent on teaching.
You can see from the comparison, Singapore's teachers are spending more time than the others on administrative tasks and, more importantly, keeping order in class.
Could Singapore's teachers be overloaded with things other than teaching? Is the average class size of 36 students in Singapore too big? The Talis average is 24, Finland is 18 and Netherlands is 25.
Is class-size the culprit for the added work hours?
More students, mean more scripts to mark. As it is, Singapore teachers spend nine hours a week on marking. That is more than the Talis average of five hours.
More students also mean more parents to handle, more consent forms to process, more student reports to write.
During the budget debate last year, non-constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong urged MOE to reduce the class size. He opined that if MOE saw it beneficial to have class size of 25 for gifted students, such benefits could also apply to all primary levels.
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat mentioned in this year's Budget Debates that teacher quality is more important than class size. But wouldn't a large class tire a teacher and affect his/her performance?
Should work hours be reduced?
That's the real question here. Are teachers burning out?
The Talis noted that Singapore has the youngest teaching force in all the countries surveyed. The average age of a teacher here is 36 years-old. The Talis average is 43.
Are we hiring more fresh graduates as new teachers? Or is the turnover rate for older teachers high in Singapore?
If it is the latter, could the work hours be a contributing factor? Are we losing precious teaching experience due to this?
This must be a concern for MOE. While our teachers are young and energetic, they are less experienced than their counterparts. Our teachers have an average teaching experience of 10 years while the Talis average is 16 years.
A Catch-22 problem
Until we get more teachers, and have more classrooms, the student-teacher ratio will remain high. Work hours will remain high unless MOE decides to do something about cutting down non-teaching related work.
As the economy evolves, there will be jobs that are more attractive in terms of salary and work-life balance. That would make becoming a teacher a less attractive proposition. Remember what was said above about 46 per cent Singapore teachers wondering if they should have joined a different profession?
Can MOE do more?
The teaching profession is a calling for many teachers. Performing administrative tasks is not.
Kudos to all teachers who are sticking it out for the sake of Singapore's children. They are the real heroes carrying the education systems squarely on their backs at this moment.
Let's hope that the MOE can tweak the "Teach less, Learn More" policy to a "Teach More, Admin Less" mantra for the teachers.
Top photo from Ministry of Education Facebook, graphics taken from Talis.