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Teaching woes

The teaching profession has been thrust into the limelight recently. Letters from former and current teachers, parents and others have been appearing in the Forum pages of The Straits Times. Some letters have criticised the dedication of teachers who have quit the profession. Other letters have jumped to the defence of these quitters.
The Ministry of Education has also made known that aspiring teachers will have to undergo hands-on experience in schools before they start teacher-training lessons. This is to reduce the probability of would-be teachers ditching the teaching profession after being posted to schools upon their graduation - some can make the exam grades but cannot handle a class of boisterous students.
Also, in yesterday's edition of Today newspaper, in reference to the five-day work week for civil servants announced last August,  it was said that "schools appear to have found it impossible to cram all that needs to be done each week into five days". As a result, "most schools have quietly swept the five-day week policy under the rug".
All these seem to suggest being a teacher is not an easy profession to be in. Sure, the pay may be attractive. And the half-day school sessions, together with the long school holiday periods, paint the teaching profession as being full of perks. This may be why, in the first place, many graduates think of this career path straight after university - without considering whether they are cut out for teaching.
Now that the private sector is ailing, working in the public service sector, with its job security and yearly bonus payouts, has suddenly become fashionable. The overwhelming response from graduates for teacher-training positions in the past few years seem to reinforce this trend. A veteran teacher once told me his neighbour, who used to look down at him because he was a civil servant, now envies him because he has a secure job.
Instead of only getting teachers who want to teach into the teaching profession, we are also getting people who just want a way out of the current rut - people who have no qualms about ditching the teaching profession once the economy steams ahead.
To such people, it's only a job they are moving out of. These people forget that in the hands of the teacher rest important responsibilities - that of moulding our young and preparing them for the work of life.
Thankfully, in the past few years, quite a few of such teachers have resigned from the teaching profession after they have been initiated into practical teaching. But, in the process, they have wasted the ministry's time and resources in training them. They have also wrested valuable opportunities from those who were really interested in being teachers but had lost to them during the screening process, perhaps because of academic results. 
Putting wannabe teachers into schools first before letting them go for teacher training is a step in the right direction. This way, those thinking of the teaching profession as being just another job will be ferreted out quickly. Alas, those keen on teaching but can't handle rowdy students will also fall by the wayside. But, it's better that such teachers bow out in the early stages than find out, after graduating from teacher-training school, that they can't stand students. After all, teaching is all about students. Imagine them having to spend a lifetime with students they can't handle!
But, even though I laud this step of getting would-be teachers to undergo a stint in schools before letting them sign up for teacher training, I feel there's a problem area that needs to be addressed. Aspiring teachers may successfully complete their practical training stints and then graduate from teacher training. But they may subsequently still find themselves rethinking the idea of being a teacher for a lifetime.
Teachers who are earmarked to teach Express stream students have no time for such thoughts. It's smooth sailing for them as their future seems to be mapped out for them. It's those who are assigned to teach Normal Academic (NA) or Normal Technical (NT) students that are privy to such thoughts.
Handling a class of boisterous Express stream students is a world apart from handling a class of out-of-focus NA or NT students. Express stream students may be noisy and active, but they need the barest of tuning to keep them in order. Simple veiled measures such as harping on the haircut of students who stray work quickly to put them in line again. On the other hand, NA and NT students, more often than not, come from dysfunctional families. Some students are even impervious to caning.
Teachers who teach NA or NT students undergo a baptism of fire. Those who survive become veterans and are the driving force for keeping in order the NA and NT classes in our schools. Others just put up with their own grievances till they can't take it anymore and that's when they will throw in the towel.
So, to be fair to all our teachers, should we let all of them rotate between teaching Express and the other two streams? That would mean teachers placed on the fast path may become disillusioned and leave the teaching profession and we may end up with less bright minds running our schools. We want nothing less than the best to be in charge of our schools so that would mean we are not prepared to go this route.
Should we farm out discipline to contractors and let them handle our errant students? That would be nice but would bring its own set of problems. With outsiders coming into our schools, our parents would worry about the safety of their children. It's an area we should tread carefully.
Also, no matter how many staff these contractors post to schools, these staff cannot be in every class at every moment. Teachers would still have to face their students. How often can they send their charges for disciplining without undermining their own performance assessment reports at the end of the year? 
A Straits Times reader suggested in the newspaper's Forum page on 12 Apr 2005 that "teachers quit because of the structural deficiencies in the education system". He said "the only way to ensure that our teachers get adequate support is to heed feedback, be it positive or negative". Teacher welfare is important, for in it lies the welfare of our students.
In the same Straits Times edition, another reader wrote "I have taught different types of students, from gang leaders to smart geeks. Each student is unique. What is heartening for me is that after they leave school, they mature and carry the seed sown into their lives in their respective paths".
We must help our teachers so that they can do what they do best - growing our students.



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25 April 2005