Former School Teacher: 2 years since I walked out.......

By Vincent Kwan

On July 31st 2015, I loaded my car with the final box of stuff after I cleared my desk. As I drove out of the school grounds, I felt privileged to have been part of more than a thousand young lives. At the same time, I felt liberated.

What prompted me to write this is a really poignant conversation on WhatsApp with an ex-colleague who is a dedicated teacher. This is a person who gave decades of her life to public service, whose work is always done with pride and excellence. I felt her deep pain, anguish and disappointment as she shared her horrible horrible experiences with the leadership. In her time of need and support, she is treated with contempt. I believe like her, there are many teachers out there who love their jobs and dedicate much of their adult lives to the students they care for deeply. When they are at their most vulnerable, they are treated unfairly and disrespectfully to the point of humiliation. Why? To be honest I have no answers. I only think think she deserved more than this.

This weekend marks 2 years since I quit the service. I remember the days in the classroom, the precious moments seeing my students learn and grow. I cannot deny these are fond memories. I loved my job when I was with my students in class. But those fond memories are insufficient to keep one in a highly demanding job made worse by a cruel system and vicious people who call themselves teachers/leaders. Teaching is a noble profession. The best teachers ought to be those who truly represent the values that they preach but unfortunately, those most competent at hypocrisy are the ones who succeed at reaching the summit.

Those years in service has shown me that education in Singapore is an agricultural sector. The schools are brain farms. Children learn for the purpose of becoming useful workers later in their adult lives. It is not difficult to see this because the ultimate focus is always on numbers. The corridors echo with questions like “what grade did you get?”and “I miss an A1 by x number of marks”. Have you ever heard students asking each other, “What interesting thing did you learn in class today?” The chief purpose of school is to get a certificate with good grades and eventually get a high paying job. You rarely find people who just love learning and growing their skillsets.

Even teacher performance is judged on our classes’ MSG (Mean subject grade). A teacher must get the class to score well, run the CCAs like the best CEO, take on projects and event management like a corporate highflier and infuse ICT/creative activities as well as differentiate learning materials and instruction for students of different abilities. I don’t know about you but that to me is doing 3 very demanding and specialised jobs every day. I felt like a mad person juggling with guilt, exhaustion and trying to make sure all 3 jobs are fulfilled.

That is the very reason why it is difficult to find students who love learning and reading. The focus is on grades. The teacher has to balance between getting a promotion and carving a career to feed his/her family or doing what really matters. In my first years, I struggled between making sure my entire portfolio of stuff are done and creating the best learning materials/environment for my students. Making sure every lesson is fun, engaging, creative and filled with many teachable moments require many hours of preparation. It doesn’t help that I had 8 classes of more than 40 students. That is 320 essays every single time I gave an assignment. You do the math. In typical cold blooded Singaporean style, my bosses told me that my work load was within MOE guidelines. They didn’t give a f*** that a Literature/Language essay requires way more time to mark than assignments from other disciplines. At the end of the day, all they cared for was the performance figures. Good performance meant great awards and awards represented their good performance which also meant promotion.

The nation is morbidly fascinated with numbers and figures. It has achieved top rankings in many aspects. The very figures that really matter have however remained poor through the years. Productivity figures remain pathetic, inventions and products that capture world attention remains scarce and the salaries/quality of life has gone stagnant. Students hate school, don’t like to read and are mostly uninterested to learn. Creativity, innovation and the love for learning cannot thrive in a deterministic environment. It made me realise that this game is not for me, it is way beyond me.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that all is doom and nothing is good. Those years in service has also shown me how many selfless, dedicated and loving teachers we have. These angels on earth are usually not the ones who sit in a special segregated office. These are the ones who live and breathe their work in the classrooms and would refuse a promotion to be with the students. It is sad that many of these wonderful people will eventually leave the service jaded, hurt and disappointed.

When my first-born son was born, it set many things in perspective. Along with the guilt, exhaustion and trying to make sure all 3 jobs are fulfilled, I had to be a good father, husband and son. I knew it wasn’t worth trying to go against my conscience or fight the cruel taskmasters. I knew it was futile trying to achieve the numbers when the rules were clearly against me. I knew I only had 24 hours and I was at most a teacher who did the bare minimum in the eyes of those “leaders”. I did what I could by showing the students I cared. I tried to make them love Literature and reading. I marked their exam scripts with an oxygen mask on in my hospital bed breathless with pneumonia. The last blow was probably being diagnosed with Graves’ Disease. I walked out knowing I did all I could and it was never enough. Even my body was giving up. I am sure many out there will call me incompetent and weak or have already done so.

It doesn't matter because at the end of the day we are a dispensable employee but to our loved ones, we shouldn’t be. Our conscience must be clear and we should live with no regrets. So I asked myself...

What is the point of moulding other people's children and leaving your own child in childcare?

What is the point of getting an award or promotion for being the best teacher but your own family view you as an absent father, mother, wife, husband, son and daughter?

What is the point of exchanging your youth for titles that are fleeting?

What is the point if you gain the whole world and lose your life?

...and I knew it was time to say goodbye.

This first appeared as a post on the Facebook wall of Mr Vincent Kwan on 29 July 2017. Do join in the discussion over there if you have thoughts to share.


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