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The brutally honest truth about teaching for public schools

Disclaimer: This article is part of our Broke Salaryman series – one of our initiatives to empower our readers through side-hustles. Read more about this here. A teacher wrote the article based on her experiences, and we’ve edited it for style.
All opinions, unless stated, are from the original author. Once again, this is one teacher’s observations, YMMV.

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In 2007, I quit my sales job selling science lab equipment to become a teacher.
It was a career move my younger self could never have predicted. I had done relief-teaching in the past, so I knew teaching could be challenging. I even told myself it was the last thing I’d do.
But three years in the private sector had left me disillusioned. I sought purpose and a meaningful career.
That’s why I took that big pay cut. And also why I humbled myself and went back to NIE to be a student again. Like all teachers, I started out bright-eyed and inspired to make a difference.
Here’s what I wished I knew before taking the plunge.

Turns out, teaching isn’t as easy as people make it out to be


People imagine teaching to be reading off a standard lesson plan to a class. They could not be more wrong. It’s more challenging than you think:

Classroom management. Controlling a child is hard. But try 36-40 of them. When was the last time you stayed fully attentive in a meeting? Children have much less resolve when it comes to staying focused.

‘One-size-fits-all’ doesn’t exist. Teachers have to differentiate their teaching to the diverse learning abilities of students (learning difficulties included). So yes, it is easy to teach children. But learning? It’s a whole different ball-game.

‘Customer service’ to some parents who treat you like a vendor. Even if you get along effortlessly with children, working with their parents can be trying. Now, most parents are quite civil and appreciative. But the rest can make your life unpleasant.
Be prepared to be in WhatsApp chat groups dealing with vocal, over-involved, passive-aggressive/helicopter-style parents who simply know no boundaries.

The myth of teachers having ‘lots of time’

March (5 days):
Teachers only get two or three days.

June/December (4-6 weeks):
Teachers get 2-2.5 weeks (June) and 4 weeks (December).

“But why don’t teachers just give tuition during the free time?”
“A lot of time what, school ends so early”
“Some more got school holidays, so free.”

^ If you’ve said any of the above to a teacher, I’d highly recommend you to stop.

Yes, the school timetable runs from 7am to 1pm, but the work for teachers continues well after that. Work-life balance is a rarity.
First, there are other responsibilities such as Co-Curricular Activities (CCA), enrichment / remedial lessons and meetings. These take up a significant portion of time.

Marking is another huge time sink. During high season, this can be around 70% of the job, particularly if you teach core subjects such as English, Mathematics and Science. On top of that, you need to plan your lesson for the next day. Many teachers start their day before daybreak and leave the school at sunset. Even if you see teachers leaving early, they bring their work home to mark!

Finally, while there are 12 weeks of holiday each year, teachers will still be called up for duty and meetings. Teachers have to plan the curriculum for the next semester or year before they can enjoy the holidays. (So, PLEASE, do not complain that December holidays are too long)

TWS: Primary school teachers do get paid an ok – not high, not low, just ok – salary in Singapore, but if you look at the hours they have to put in – up to 12-13 hours a day, sometimes including weekends – then their hourly rate is far less attractive.
Coupled with the lack of time to pursue side hustles, it’s very possible for a teacher to get the nasty combination of burnout and broke-ness. Especially if they don’t start financial planning early)

If you’re a teacher, here’s what I’d advise you to do

Spend/Invest your bonuses wisely.
While the urge to splurge the bonuses to reward yourself for surviving a treacherous year is understandable, it is important to look beyond enjoyment.
Instead of going on an expensive holiday, invest. Teachers might not have time to monitor the stock market, so you can choose to automate it through a robo-advisor (many these days), a trusted financial advisor, or one of the many regular saving plans offered by the banks out there.
And as for rewards for students? You don’t have to be extravagant – they can be as simple as a handwritten card with words of encouragement. Don’t overspend.

TWS: We make the case that teachers should invest more aggressively instead of holding huge amounts of cash in their bank account, because of the sheer stability of the job (though this might change in the future).
People with unstable income need more emergency funds, and vice versa. A stable job is like a safety net. It gives you holding power. Instead of sitting in the net, use it to leap for bigger finance goals.
Teachers can take advantage of knowing exactly where their next paycheck comes from.

Avoid getting a car
Unless there are good reasons to justify getting a car (family needs), Singapore’s public transport system is still pretty low cost and efficient.
Any car is parked in the school compound till late afternoon is underutilized and a waste of resources.
Not to mention, parking is no longer free for teachers since 2018. Teachers still need to pay season parking (albeit a smaller fee) during the holidays.
If you stay further from school, some teachers who stay in the same area do carpool (take taxis / private hire together) to save on travel time and cost.

Self-care lowers the chances of burn out
Teaching can be emotionally, mentally and physically draining. Often, teachers go the extra mile for their students to help them overcome setbacks and achieve their goals.
Despite falling ill, some teachers still report to work because there are just too many things that need to be completed. Not to mention, inevitably feeling guilty that your colleagues have to relieve your lessons during their free periods.
However, teachers are humans, not machines. It might seem selfish, but it is important to take a day of rest to recuperate faster and fight the battle another day.
Because if you can’t help yourself, you can’t help your students.

Think twice before throwing the letter to embark on contract teaching
I’ve noticed a trend of teachers burning out, resigning and then returning as a contract teacher. These contracts are short term (1 – 1.5 years), and subsequent renewal is subjected to your work performance AND school needs.
My opinion is that this particular career move needs to be considered more carefully. Why?

  • Contract teaching does not mean that workload is less. It is dependent on the school’s needs.
  • While you may get some of the service benefits, promotion and some of the remuneration bonuses do not apply for this position.
  • It also doesn’t progress your teaching career in any way. Should you decide to come back and work after, you’ll just be in the same situation all over again.

My own opinion is that I’d only consider contract/adjunct teaching once I’ve attained financial freedom/stability and still have a passion for teaching.
The more sustainable thing to do? Set professional and personal boundaries when it comes to work. (See the previous point)

Should you decide to leave, have an exit plan
There are several options available to teachers after leaving the profession, including developing a specialisation.
To differentiate yourself from all the other former-teachers out there, consider upgrading yourself with skills that can help students with special needs (i.e dyslexia) so that you have another set of specialised skills apart from just doing contract teaching in school and supplement income with tuition after quitting.

A parting note


If you want riches and wealth, stop right there. You’re joining the wrong profession. A career in teaching – in the public school system, at least – requires patience, time, effort and a genuine love of children.
I’ve found it to be deeply fulfilling, but it’s definitely not a job for everyone, or a career that you start ‘because you didn’t know what else to do’, as many uninformed people tend to say.
That said, if you have prudent financial habits and start early, you can accumulate a sizeable amount of savings by your 30s and 40s.

TWS: And what should you do with those amount of savings? Well, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from running this page, is that money brings opportunities – including the ability to constantly reinvent.
After all, if anyone should be subscribing to lifelong learning – it’s educators themselves.
Stay woke, salarymen (and teachers and teachers to be)

Illustrations by A Good Citizen

Other saving tips by TWS, collected from our teacher friends

School canteen food remains one of the main ways teachers can save money. A friend of ours said that he used to be able to spend no more than $10 a week in school. That’s insane by corporate warrior standards! If you’re serious about saving money, try to cut down on the FoodPandas/Deliveroo/GrabFood.

Sports CCAs can be a great way for you to keep fit, instead of depending on a gym membership. Also, if you know a Physical Education teacher (which you will), they could help you out instead of a personal trainer.

Adding on to that, teachers are a diverse bunch of people with different interests and expertise, often related to the subject they teach! i.e – history/geography teachers know about travel sites to go on holiday. Home Econs teachers can probably recommend something nutritious and easy to cook. Art teachers might have great interior design ideas..etc etc. You get the drift.

If you have children of your own, you obviously get to save on assessment books and maybe get access to more affordable tuition, if that’s needed.

PS: We’ve omitted some shady tips such as ‘kop all the stationary from school’ or ‘make the printing aunty do your wedding props’ – but we’re sure some of these will pop up in the comments section anyway!

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2 replies to “The brutally honest truth about teaching for public schools

  1. Don’t make the printing aunty do your wedding prop or personal stuff. If you do, do pay them reasonably as they are also there to earn a living and ensure that this does not compromise the main work that they are doing.

  2. Teachers are not easy jobs and require significant amount of time. One will need to achieve FI in order to enjoy the fruits and passion of being a teacher.

    WTK

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