Monday, April 09, 2007

freedom writers and stressed teachers

i have been reading this post by stressed teacher (on the movie "freedom writers"), and the exchange between GomuGomu and yanjie on the comments thread. i have a few fragmented thoughts to share after thinking about what was said:

stressed teacher compared the job of teacher to that of ministers (in view of the recent salary raise; not the first time). i feel ambivalent about such a comparison. i believe that teachers are probably underpaid and under-appreciated. i was told that 40% of the teachers leave after their initial 3 year bond is up, i believe HR related issues was what prompted a raise in teacher's salaries and a revamp of the promotional structure of teachers in recent years. although perhaps lacking evidence, is this not the same cited reason why they want to raise ministerial salaries?

stressed teacher states that good teachers don't get any monetary compensation for their sacrifice. meanwhile ministers are demanding more pay for theirs. the implicit conclusion that that the ministers are being unreasonable. but that is not the only possible conclusion. the other possible conclusion is that good teachers should be rewarded for their sacrifices. similarly, stressed teacher says, look teachers got teacher appreciation days and awards but politicians don't - they opt for cold hard cash instead. perhaps the implication here is that politicians and ministers are materialistic. but another possible conclusion you can draw from the same comparison is we should have politician appreciation awards and days, or we should just scrap teacher appreciation awards and days, and give them cold hard cash too.

where the analogy between teachers and ministers break down is, rather unfortunately, the fact that ministers are harder to replace than teachers. teachers leave the service because they are underpaid? nevermind, there are some more willing to take their place. does this result in a shortage of quality teachers? without a doubt. but the overall loss of replacing good teachers with mediocre teachers pales in comparison to the overall loss of replacing a good minister with a mediocre minister. perhaps the first loss is not dire enough to take a slice of the pie away from defense, workfare (or what have you; to increase teachers' salaries), but the second loss may very well be.

but what i really want to talk about has got nothing to do with ministerial pay. stressed teacher writes that the main character of the movie, Mrs G, sacrificed her time, family (and in real life, her health), all for the sake of her students. stressed teacher thinks this is not worth it. or at least, he wouldn't be willing to sacrifice that much. Gomugomu (a teacher)
goes a step further and chastises such sacrificial teachers for "giving the entire teaching populace a bad image" and "perpetuating an unrealistic ideal". i really like yanjie's reply to that. reminded me about what KTM said some time ago (a bit buay paiseh ah, it was about me):

But sometimes the young punks do have insightful things to say and the old farts should still sit up and listen.

just because person A does not think it is worth it, does not mean that person B must also agree it is not worth it. what is or is not worth it to you, is a question of what is of value to you. there is no way to answer this question than from the subjective individual perspective. it is hence, very silly to compare yourself (if you are a teacher) to Mrs G, and try to justify who is the better teacher, who is the better person. what matters to you, is probably very different from what matters to Mrs G. you base your actions on what matters to you. Mrs G bases her actions on what matters to her.

but this is not what Gomugomu is really unhappy with. in an ideal world, we can just say "to each his own". but this is not an ideal world, and in real life, teachers like Mrs G, "spoil market" for other (more normal) teachers who just want to have a life on their own. this is why Gomugomu (and maybe stressed teacher) is unhappy. they might say: look Mrs G, you want to give up your life and your health and your marraige for your students, it is your perogative. but why do people demand that i do the same just because you do such things?

but does the Mrs Gs spoil market for the sake of spoiling market? do they do so as part of an elaborate political plan for further self gain? do they do so with the intension of causing great discomfort to their colleagues? i believe, most of the time, the Mrs Gs don't do so. it is quite well known that sacrificial teachers are not well rewarded. they do this out of sheer selflessness, perhaps to a fault. and on top of that, you still want to accuse them of being market spoilers? do you not realize how self-centered that is?

do parents demand you to be as sacrificial because Mrs G is so sacrificial? then shame on the parents. do the students label you a poor teacher because you just can't put in as much time as Mrs G? then shame on the students. do the middle management mark you down, deny you your promotion and your bonus because you want to have a life of your own? then shame on the middle managment. why do you blame Mrs G? is she really the one at fault here?

problematic expectations of parents, students and the middle/higher management are real issues that need to addressed. so do issues of teachers being overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated. and someone should address them. but nevertheless, just as a Mrs G has no business criticizing another teacher (such as stressed teacher) of "lack of passion" if he chooses to have a life of his own, such a teacher similarly has no business criticizing Mrs G for choosing to give up everything, including incurring the wrath of her colleagues for spoiling market, to help her students. who may very well be your children.

to conclude, i am reminded by something i read over here, about a panel discussion about "pursuing your passions". it is worthy to encourage others to pursue one's own passion, especially when the pursuit of such passion is "against the odds" and thus feels like an even more romantic notion. but sometimes when that is contrasted against something even more important, such as the lives of your loved ones, the pursuit of such passion appears to be selfish. to each his own; let no man judge another.

i've thought and contemplated before about what i want to pursue in life. i have come to realize that it is quite possible to lead a meaningful life without having to struggle and chase that one special dream or passion. one can just as well have a meaningful life, by living for the sake of other people. perhaps this is incomprehensible to some, and to the cynics it seems impossible. yet the Mrs Gs prove to us that some people will still try nevertheless. we think it is romantic to shed blood, sweat and tears to achieve a dream, but is it any less romantic to shed a dream because you choose to love somebody more than yourself?


yanjie said...

Hello FO,

thank you very much for your kind comments, on my rubbishy-ramblings.


Piper said...

hi FO,

Whenever I see teachers like Ms G, whether true or not, I feel this urge to go off and attempt to be like her. Of course, I don't think I would ever be like her and I am in awe of teachers who do sacrifice a lot for their students.

Personally, I think I might be too selfish to give so much to my students. Does that make me a bad teacher? I don't know. Maybe.

Still, we are overworked and underpaid and I agree that this isn't the fault of teachers who go beyond their call of duty. But sometimes, it's so easy to blame them.

As a side note, the teachers I do know don't seem very bitter about such teachers who "spoil market". Usually, we are just all in awe - how do they manage?

yanjie said...

Hi Piper,

the teachers who I have came acrossed during my days in public schools (sorry, I don't consider NUS to be a public school. :P), and whom I'm grateful for did not go the distance that Ms G did. But why were they still great teachers to me?

1) They cared. I'm not just a stakeholder to them, I'm a living human being with a name to them. They cared about how I am, how I'm progressing in my school work. I'm not talking about interviews, or house visits. It was a simple question, a display of concern, that was more than enough.

2) They wanted the best for us. They tried, whatever that is within their means, to give their best to us. My Maths teacher would ensure that all of us are well taught before going on maternity when we were sec 4, and ensured that there are sufficient work for us and we know who to turn to while she's away. My JC tutor came back every day from his reservist at the camp next door to give us consultation before our A levels. They are willing to slow down when we don't understand, instead of calling us stupid.

The beauty of being is this service, is that somethings you didn't think that mattered, actually mattered to us the students.

I was unable to get a subject during JC, due to timetable clashes. If the school was to give me the subject, it would mean that I would have to skip 1 hour of tutorial every week. Yet, my tutor volunteered to spend an hour with me every week to make up for the tutorial.

To him, it wasn't something worth mentioning. Till today, he's surprised whenever I mention about that to him. Yet, it mattered a lot ot me. Getting that subject brought me to what I'm doing today in NUS, and helped determined my teaching subject. It was a simple act to him, yet it meant a lot to me.

Try looking at the cards your students gave you. What did they thank you for? Did you even notice that it mattered to them, when you didn't think that it was worth mentioning?

For you to worry about your students even while you are miles away, as you have mentioned in your blog, I've already saluted you to be such a committed teacher.

kwayteowman said...

Fearfully Opinionated,

Well said (as usual). :-)

People should just do what they think is right according to their good conscience. Singaporeans seem to care too much about what other people think.

yanjie said...


"People should just do what they think is right according to their good conscience. Singaporeans seem to care too much about what other people think."

In defence of some of the teachers out there(possibly in Stressed Teacher and GomuGomu's defence as well), if only they weren't ranked against their collegues which ultimately determines their bonus, it would be easier. That bonus could very well help alleviate some financial burden.

Fearfully Opinionated said...


let's think about this somemore. When a teacher like Mrs G puts in more than 100% effort, the students gain right? But if she puts in say, 200% effort, she spoils market, and fellow teachers suffer, maybe even struggle financially. So maybe she should only put in 150%? 120%? 180%? What is the right balance btn helping her students WHO NEED HELP, and not spoiling market TOO MUCH?

I such teachers certainly have reasons to be bitter, but the question is how justified are those reasons? True, Mrs Gs are indirectly responsible for the suffering of other teachers, should we not blame (and try to rectify) the SYSTEM, instead of the Mrs Gs?

Piper said...

I've only taught at one school so perhaps I have been lucky enough to avoid teachers who are bitter at teachers like Mrs G. So my experience may be somewhat narrow.

As I mentioned before, the teachers I know have never expressed any negative feelings towards teachers like Mrs G. A lot of the time we simply wonder how they do it. And we are happy that the Mrs Gs get the recognition and the money.

If the teacher is bitter, the bitterness is often generated towards the system or MOE (since they created the system)or our leadership.

What makes us bitter are teachers who don't do much but make it seem like they do - and subsequently get the financial rewards.

yanjie said...

Hello FO,

I agree with you on that matter, and in fact, that was my stand on the matter in Stressed Teacher's Blog.

But I'm responding to KTM's thought about Singaporeans shouldn't think so much about what other people think. It's not so much of a case of justifying any bitterness, but rather, a case of justifying the act of "thinking what other people think of them" in a general sense.

To contextualise it further, what I meant is that if there weren't (out of touch with reality in my opinion) systems like EPMS, where one teacher is ranked against another, it would be much easier for one not to think about what other people think about them.

Sorry that I wasn't clear enough in my comments. :P

yanjie said...


Likewise, most of the collegues whom I have encountered during my limited time as a RT are in awe rather than bitter.

However, I'm extremely bitter against those who get financial awards by boosting their profile wiht things that has no relationship to developing the students. The worst case is sacrificing or even jepordising the development of the students so as to boost their profile.

I wonder how these people have the conscious to do such things. You could say that you need the money, but to me, it is more moral to rob a bank than to do that.

But can I really blame them? Or is the ranking system that place emphasis on all these stuff in grading should be the source of blame instead?