TL;DR – Teachers are more stressed than you know.
The last school term has just started. For many teachers, this is a time to engage their students in a broader range of activities beyond the set curriculum. For others, this is the most stressful time of the year. It’s when they have to get their students ready for the mega-exams (i.e. PSLE, O-Levels, A-Levels). But it’s ok, right? After all, teachers get a long holiday at the end of the term.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
Even when students go on holidays, teachers still have tonnes of meetings to attend. They need to plan for the year ahead. Some of them will have to organise and execute activities for the students. A few may even have to chaperone students on overseas trips.
So that does away with myth that teachers get long holidays at the end of the year. And so what if they do? They can’t take leave. Oh wait. They can. But only if something bad happens in the family. Like… their kids fall ill. Or if one of their immediate family members passes away.
And don’t think that teachers work only half a day. They start work earlier. And they often work till late at night. Huh? Students don’t stay in school till late at night, right? True.
But they also have to help with activities after school. Then they have to mark papers and assignments. And plan for lessons. And deal with a whole host of issues to ensure that their students develop holistically.
As if teaching isn’t tough enough
It’s a tough job. Often made tougher by parents and technology. Now you have parents writing in to MOE complaining about teachers. Do this also wrong, do that also cannot. Some times, you even have parents suing teachers and schools!
It’s no wonder that teachers feel stressed. To the extent that some quit. Eh? But MOE said that teachers don’t quit due to workload. Of course teachers won’t say that to MOE. They might want to rejoin the teacher service one day. Or even if they don’t, they won’t want their next employer to ever hear that they left a job because they can’t take the stress, right?
So who can help?
For a start, there’s the Singapore Teachers’ Union (STU). The STU has a Teachers’ Wellness Programme to help teachers.
Teachers who are union members can speak to trained counsellors. MOE won’t know that the teachers have spoken to these counsellors. So teachers won’t have to worry that they would be “marked” or “blacklisted” by MOE if they seek help from those counsellors.
That is one of the more things that STU does for its members. It does more in the background.
STU’s General Secretary Mike Thiruman shares what the union does
We had a chance to speak with STU veteran Mike Thiruman, who has been recently elected as the new general secretary after serving as its president for 13 years. He walked us through how teaching as a profession has changed over the years, and how the stress level these days can be so overwhelmingly bad that the industry faces challenges attracting and retaining talent.
Mike shared that the Teachers’ Wellness Programme is one of the newest initiatives by STU, and it’s a direct response to the teachers’ needs. The union aims to aggressively reach out to schools and teachers and hope to line up wellness talks for the teachers all the way till next year.
Other than the Teachers’ Wellness Programme, the union also represents its members in various issues. For instance, STU was there for the affected teachers during the episode of the JC merger.
Other ways STU can help is in facilitating transfers. Mike acknowledges that sometimes a particular school environment or leadership may not fit the teachers and they need a change in their environment. Yes, teachers can appeal on their own. But, as Mr Thiruman points out, when the union represents them, things get facilitated.
Mike wants to do more. He has been a union leader at STU representing the teachers since 2003. In that time, he has seen the evolution of what teachers have to do. He has also seen the changing demands on teachers.
He has observed that students some times film teachers with their mobile phones. That’s something he doesn’t agree with. He said:
“But from a parent’s perspective, you have only one child to handle, but as a teacher, I have 30 kids to handle. All their different emotions, I need to manage. And sometimes, do I say one or two things wrongly? Yes. Do I lose my cool? Maybe. But if I’m caught in that situation and you say, that’s me, that’s the whole of me. Then it’s not true.”
Given the changing nature of teachers’ work, Mike wants to build a system where teachers are protected. He said:
“If there’re complaints, you don’t necessarily have to take the side of the teachers. But please, investigate in a manner so that the teacher is innocent until proven guilty… So the first line (of defense) must be the school leaders, second line would be the overall policies. Not to cocoon the teachers, but to have enough safety mechanism so that the teachers have a safe and conducive working environment.”
Helping teachers prepare for the future
But that’s not the only welfare that Mike wants for teachers. He also wants to enable teachers to better prepare students for the future. For instance, he’s especially concerned that some teachers may not be aware of how much the world is changing, that economic cycles are shorter and sharper and disruption is happening everywhere. That’s why the STU organised the Edu Symposium, in conjunction with the Future Leaders event earlier this year.
And, as the world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace, Mike is aware that STU must also change. Or, as he says,
“We must disrupt ourselves.”
That’s indeed quite forward looking. Given the important role that teachers play, we certainly hope that Mike and his team in STU can find new ways to support teachers. That will benefit teachers, thus benefitting our next generation.