Remember that fateful day in April 2020 when PM Lee announced the shift to full home-based learning for students in all schools and institutes of higher learning? A home-based working mum’s nightmare. Now, imagine you were a teacher, working from home, managing e-learning with young children of your own. Shudders.
Almost overnight, teachers have had to scramble to find the quickest and most effective way to roll out cyber lessons amidst the pandemic. Well, I even heard of a teacher who had to miss some of her own children’s online lessons because it clashed with her students’ lessons! On top of remote teaching, the number of Zoom sessions with parents, the amount of admin work, the reporting, the follow-ups and chasing of parents… You get the drift. All these in a bid to keep the delicate system going during an unprecedented pandemic. Well, there was chaos, and there was laughter as teachers, parents and kids got creative and scrambled to cope.
Teachers Are a Giving Lot
Now that almost half a year has passed, I struggle to recall if it was really so hectic for teachers? Curious, I reached out to Mike Thiruman, General Secretary of the Singapore Teachers’ Union (STU). Mike has been a union leader at STU representing teachers since 2003. “Workload has basically tripled for many of these teachers during that period!” Mike laughed.
“So did the number of teachers seeking help from the Union spike? It must have, right?” I pursued.
“You see, the thing about teachers is that they always put themselves last. The profession is a very giving one, the school and children almost always come first. During the home-based learning period, teachers could only keep going and going. The spillover effects have not faded till now. We do wish more teachers will reach out to STU before they burn out,” Kai, Assistant Director from the STU said.
With a decade of service, Kai shared that he had met teachers and parents break down at the same table before. The profession is a stressful one because it is one where there is little room for failure, and there are too many things teachers and schools are expected to achieve.
Yet, many teachers see their work as a calling – one that they are willing to give their heart and soul to. But at the end of the day, teachers’ well-being matters too because teachers’ well-being equates to students’ well-being. This came up several time during our chat with Mike. He has been a union leader at STU representing the teachers for 17 years now, and this passionate unionist is not done yet.
A parent to three sons himself, Mike said, “As a father, I want my children’s teacher to be well-taken care of. If the teacher standing in front of the classroom teaching my kids is happy and mentally healthy, this will only mean better learning and support for my children.”
New Generation, New Stresses for Teachers
Unfortunately, with the new stresses adding up for schoolteachers, the state of teachers’ mental health has taken a huge hit.
In recent years, there has been an emphasis on more inclusive schools where children with special needs are incorporated into the regular system. This is definitely great, but it also means that teachers, with their limited resources need more support. Unfortunately, there is some way to go before we can get to that level of support.
With a much more “enlightened” outlook in this generation of parents, many feel that teachers should not punish or lecture their children. Now, teachers deal with almost 40 students daily. They are only human. How would you expect them to handle the disruptive, defiant, uncooperative students during very limited curriculum time? (Now, remember the times you lost control at your ONE child?)
What options remain for a teacher to rein in these disruptive students? Perhaps, the alternative is to ignore the behaviour of that particular student? I can’t see how that would benefit them though.
When The School Leadership Creates An Additional Source of Stress
“Teacher stress, teacher burnout, is not merely about workload; it’s about being demoralised, right? Once you have a demoralised teacher, no matter what you do, you are not going to get the kind of student achievement we want,” Mike shared.
At the end of the day, teachers aren’t going to escape from dealing with stress from parents and students. This, they are prepared for. But the school leadership, oftentimes a big stressor, can and should be supportive. If the school leadership is not a supportive one, you are going to lose good people. The best teachers with a real passion to nurture and teach.
Now, I do recall the times when my teacher friends griped and moaned about their school principals and the evaluation system that ranks teachers relative to their peers… The evaluation system has indeed been a big source of stress for many teachers in service.
Like any other organisations, when you have incompetent or unreasonable leaders, the culture will be a toxic one. On the contrary, when the leadership is strong and supportive, the sense of camaraderie and positivity cascades down. This can only mean good things for students!
Frustrations Faced by Union Leaders from the STU
Veteran unionist, Cherry, previously shared in an interview, “Some principals do not see the value of having union members. They seem to believe that union members are disruptive and see us as adversaries that they need to protect themselves against. What they don’t see is that we work very hard to make schools more productive, more proactive and more effective in reaching out to the pupils. That’s our number one target. We want learning and teaching to be a meaningful experience. That is an issue we’ve been fighting to overcome.”
In representing teachers, Mike expressed his frustrations that he felt “muted” at times.
After all, teachers in public service have the advantage of a stable job. In these uncertain times, that is something to be grateful for indeed. But that doesn’t mean being a teacher is a bed of roses. They are facing real issues, and the ensuing stresses can chip away at their mental health in the long run. This is dangerous and he wants to do more to help.
STU Efforts in Supporting Teachers over the Years
In a recent Delegates’ Dialogue with Education Minister, Mr Lawrence Wong, STU delegates raised many pertinent concerns including the impact of the new normal on teacher well-being, workload, performance appraisal, career opportunities, work-life harmony, and the career needs of older workers.
As Cherry said, “Teachers should join the Union, and they should join early. If a teacher is accused unfairly, most teachers have no recourse. But if they are a union member, and if the STU is convinced of their rightness, they will do what they can to protect them.”
STU has counsellors to support teachers on their mental health journey. Sadly, the feedback is that there is still a lot of stigmas especially from schoolteachers to seek help. They are afraid of backlash from the school leadership. This is unfortunate, and one issue the Union is trying to overcome.
Now, 2020 has been rough. This year, more than ever, the unionists hope teachers can have more rest to recover. Come the year-end holidays, that is unlikely to happen. We have already heard that teachers are stressing over next year’s teaching plan – converting teaching resources and curating next year’s lessons. All these will take more time with new processes and expectations under the New Normal. So no, teachers don’t have the luxury of chilling at home or stalking the malls for the entire 6 weeks of school holidays.
“More time to rest and recover from 2020, and more support from the school leadership.” We are with Mike and his team of unionists because prioritising teachers’ well-being can only mean good things for our children, our future generation.
In a bid to support teachers, the STU also conducts webinars, health and wellness virtual talks for members, and the take-up rate has been positive. Share this if you know a teacher who needs more support!