Focus on fundamentals: teach teachers to teach well

Dear Madam/Sir,

In “MOE reviewing policy allowing teachers to give private tuition” (Oct 5), it is clear that the Ministry of Education (MOE) – as always – has its heart in the right place.

This time round, however, the MOE needs to focus on fixing the core issue of why the tuition industry is thriving despite the internationally-recognised quality of the Singapore education system.

It is not the supply of tutors that creates demand for tutoring; rather, it has always been the demand for quality education that has created a supply of tutors to satiate that desire.

Hence, the issue is not about whether teachers should be allowed to give private tuition. It is more complex than that.

It involves two fundamental questions:

  1. Is the system preparing all teachers it produces to teach well?
  2. Does the reality at each school support the daily execution of good teaching?

By teaching well, I am referring to a teacher’s ability to deliver lessons effectively and efficiently.

This requires a good understanding of learning objectives, educational psychology, content knowledge, educational pedagogy, classroom management and time management.

While everyone is responsible for their own professional growth, the Ministry and schools must acknowledge that leadership and coaching is the main game-changer when it comes to training and developing teachers who can teach well.

The Ministry, the National Institute of Education, Singapore (NIE) and schools alike have developed good policies and strategies for implementing training and development programmes.

On the ground, however, these efforts are sometimes stymied by leaders of schools and subject departments who have everyone’s best interests at heart, but are so caught up in maintaining their “fiefdoms” that they forget about the core objective of making sure their teachers can teach well.

Over at the NIE, there are occurrences where teacher training is misaligned with real-world needs.

An example: the NIE trained many in my cohort to teach English Language and Literature in English at the secondary school level.

However, a minority of us were thrust into junior colleges with minimal training. We were then expected to teach the General Paper, English Literature and Project Work almost from the get-go.

Changing the above-mentioned mindsets and re-aligning training with the teachers’ needs will require a Gordon-Ramsay-like intervention at many levels à la Kitchen Nightmares.

This is a television show in which Ramsay travels to floundering restaurants and provides astute suggestions to modify behaviours – from those of the owners, to the chefs and even the servers – so the core problems of the business can be addressed and bottom-lines, improved.

Ramsay’s ideas work because he provides expert insight in a muddled situation, much like the Chinese proverb (当局者迷,旁观者清 – dang ju zhe mi, pang guan zhe qing), where one who is personally involved is unable to see as clearly as one who is not.

The MOE, the NIE and schools should review the coaching and guidance given to teachers; they can consider employing “Gordon Ramsays” – expert educational consultants to provide much-needed organisational clarity to leaders of schools and subject departments.

Though this move may not halt the demand for private tutoring, it will address the fundamental issue of training and developing teachers to teach well.

Ultimately, this will help resolve the “classroom nightmares” that lead students and parents to look to private tutors as a necessary vehicle for achieving academic gratification.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,
Laremy LEE (Mr)

(Published as “Focus on training teachers to teach well” on 8 Oct 2013 in TODAY.)


Young, thundering herd

So I had just commenced my Literature lesson yesterday when one of the boys (Boy A) abruptly walked into the classroom.

I eyed Boy A irritably, annoyed that he was late but I didn’t make a fuss about it.

Until Boy A went right up to another boy (Boy B), casually handed him a homework assignment that belonged to yet another boy and had a very congenial and drawn-out tête-à-tête with Boy B before returning to his place, all while right in front of me.

By then, I was pointedly glaring at both boys but they didn’t notice anything amiss, until I said in a sharp tone, “Eh, you all don’t even have a sense of propriety, is it?”

Because the point I was going to make was about how they needed to have the courtesy to:

  • Be punctual for the lesson;
  • Greet the teacher when they enter the classroom;
  • Be polite and not disrupt the lesson, etc. – good manners, in other words.

But there was somewhat of a long silence and a bit of uncomfortable squirming in the classroom before Boy A piped up to ask, “Sir – what is ‘propriety’?”


I eventually pointed out to them the need to learn about decorum and etiquette.

Before that, we did a bit of vocabulary: I told them that “propriety” has the same root word as “appropriate”, where both are derived from the Latin word for “proper”.

On a separate note, the class has a class flag on which is inscribed the words “Young, thundering herd” (it’s on the left-hand side of the picture).

It cracks me up; I always break into a grin whenever I see it, because it proves my point about the universality of pigletry.

Stuff you must read today (Sat, 28 Sep 2013) – The Teaching Edition