It’s certainly grew from a molehill into a mountain. MOE is reviewing whether it should charge teachers to park in schools. This issue came about because of “the Auditor-General’s (AG) disapproval last year of some educational institutions allowing their staff to park for free or charging fees below the market rate. Such practices “are tantamount to providing hidden subsidies for vehicle parking”, the AG had said in an annual report of financial lapses at public sector bodies.”
Economist from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Donald Low, explained why it is right that MOE should charge teachers to park in schools. Daniel Yap of The Middle Ground also gave reasons to support the move. Not surprisingly, many teachers disapprove of the move. They see this as the government being too petty, and as an example of how teachers aren’t being recognised for their hard work.
Policy makers in MOE can argue that we need to be rational about this. Look at it dispassionately. To conflate free parking with recognition of teachers’ hard work is hardly the right approach. Because it means we are only recognising the work of the teachers who drive, regardless of whether they are truly the “good” teachers (I’m sure there are some teachers who drive but aren’t “good” teachers). What about the great teachers who don’t drive (and since it’s likely that most teachers don’t drive, there are probably more good teachers who don’t drive than there are good teachers who do)? How is free parking a recognition for them?
Another way to look at it is this: if MOE had all along been charging for parking in schools and now declared to make it free, would teachers in Singapore be as vocal in applauding the move as they are now? Would teachers see it as a worthy recognition of their hard work? Unlikely. More likely that the teachers would snigger derisively at MOE for thinking that such a cheap move as free parking can be adequate recognition for their hard work.
So why is it that there is this intense upset over MOE for even considering to charge for parking? Because of emotions. And how humans are wired. Human beings have strong tendency for loss aversion. We feel the pain of losing something we had more than appreciating it when we had it. While the unhappiness will soon disappear (when teachers get used to the idea of having to pay for parking, which probably would take no more than a year), the unhappiness is very real now. If MOE really wanted to start charging for parking, it needs to do so while addressing some of the other very real issues that teachers face in the course of their work. These are the issues that many have cited as reasons why MOE should continue to let teachers park for free, though free parking isn’t the best way to address these issues and they should be addressed more directly. These issues include the following.
Teachers spending money of their own in the course of service. We have heard anecdotes of how teachers spend a lot of their own money in order to be good teachers. From the simplest and most banal example of how teachers have to spend money to buy red pens to the more heartwarming stories of how teachers use their own money to buy food for students from disadvantaged families. Teachers also spend money in other ways to do their jobs well. These include paying for the talk time to call parents, buying treats for students, buying resources for teaching, etc. Almost countless. More often than not, teachers do not get those money back. Either because MOE doesn’t recognise that those expenses are valid for claims or the process to claim the money is just too troublesome (read: death by bureaucracy). But good teachers would spend the money anyway because they know, in their heart of hearts, that that money spent will definitely benefit students. So people feel that if teachers are willing to absorb those expenses, then why should MOE be so petty and nitpick the few dollars of parking fees?
The long working hours of teachers. Some teachers work ridiculous hours. And that’s not because they are teaching tuition by the side. There are teachers who get to school at 7am and don’t leave till 11pm consistently. And in that time that they are in school, they are working. When they leave school (it’s usually because the security guard chases them away), they would have brought work home. And work is usually in the form of thick stacks of books to mark. For these teachers, having a car becomes less of a luxury and more of a valued tool for work. And that’s why parking fees become an issue, because these teachers feel that they are made to pay (again) for a tool which they feel they need to use in the course of their work.
The hectic schedule of teachers. Along with the long hours, there are some teachers who have to put up with hectic schedule. The sort of schedule which sees the teacher having breakfast at 6:30am and then only have time for a quick bite at 1:30pm. It happens. You think that there are breaks in classes? No. Those would likely be taken up with a million other things – counselling students, talking to parents, department meetings, informal discussions with colleagues about work, marking, lesson preparation. A million things. Is it a case of bad time management by teachers? In some instances, perhaps. But in many cases, no. It’s just the nature of the work. Do all teachers have to deal with hectic schedules? Not all teachers, and certainly not on all days. But most teacher would have to deal with having one or two (or in some cases, more) “hell” days a week. Every week. So for teachers who have hectic schedules, the last thing they want to do at the end of the day is to face a long trip home on public transport. So driving, again, becomes almost like a productivity tool for teachers.
Teachers who stay far from the school they teach in. As if having long working hours and hectic schedules aren’t enough, some teachers may take up to two hours by public transport to travel from home to the school they teach in. How many of such teachers are there in the system? Probably not many. But it’s cold comfort for these teachers to know that most teachers in the system stay relatively near the schools they teach in (say within half an hour by public transport). For teachers who get this triple whammy of long hours, hectic schedules AND stay far from the schools they teach in, driving becomes a necessity. I can understand why they would be quite pissed of with having to pay to park in schools.
The bureaucracy and politicking that distract teachers from educating their students. MOE likes to pretend that these don’t exist. But often, teachers become tools for certain people to justify their performance grades and promotions. Many teachers would have encountered such reporting officers before. You know the type who constantly has this in mind: “What should go into this report so that I can get promoted? Hmm… looks like we need to do this project to showcase certain things to my boss so that I can get a better performance grade, be deemed to have a higher CEP and get promoted. Ok. Let’s arrow this teacher and that teacher to do this project and write that report for me”. And then the teachers involved look at the project and the report and for the life of them can’t see how those add any value to the education of students. But they have to suck thumb and do. All these unnecessarily add to the work load of teachers, making their hours longer and schedules more hectic, thus strengthening the case for driving.
Parents, principals and MOE don’t respect, appreciate and recognise teachers enough. We’ve all heard of teachers relating stories of parents from hell. Parents who have such a strong sense of entitlement and think that they are the “customers” of the school and the “customer” is always right. Parents who spoil their children rotten and then blame the teachers when the child turns out to be ill-disciplined. And to rub salt on injury, these parents then berate the teachers when the teachers try to instil some discipline in the child. What’s worse, there are times when principals and MOE side with the parents instead of standing up for the teacher, so that the teacher can do what’s right for the student. All these add up to the frustration of teachers, making teachers feel that they are unappreciated for what they do. So when MOE wants to charge for parking, teachers (and some segments of the public) feel that doing so is another example of how MOE isn’t standing on the side of teachers, and can’t even bother with giving free parking as a small token of appreciation for teachers.
So. While there are very good reasons to charge teachers for parking (e.g. more equitable and efficient use of resources , accountability so as to ensure that no resource is being abused or wasted), MOE needs to do this in a way that assuages the unhappiness that teachers would have from this move. MOE should fold the review of charging for parking in schools under thorough review of measures to improve the wellbeing and welfare of teachers.
As part of this review, MOE should consider increasing the Special EO Payment (SEP) significantly. Currently, teachers get this SEP, which ranges from $500 to $700, paid out to them every September. I think this should be increased by at least one and a half times, i.e. the amount that each teacher gets should be from $1250 to $2050. This would defray the cost of having to pay for parking as well as recognise the fact that teachers do spend considerable money from their own pockets in the course of their service (which they don’t claim back).
Of course, money alone isn’t enough. It’s not the most currency that would get teachers motivated to do give more to educating their students. MOE needs to put in measures to reduce the work load of teachers so that teachers need not work such ridiculously long hours. A lot of the hours that a teacher works go unreported and thus MOE can’t quite account for it (MOE does annual surveys that ask teachers how much time they spend on various tasks… of course teachers are going to say that they work less hours than what they actually do…). But MOE should have the wisdom to know that teachers work longer hours than what they say they do. So MOE should take, as a starting point, that teachers probably work 1.5 times more hours than what is reported. And plan such that a teacher’s time appears to be under-utilised. Because we know that there will always be enough bullshit stuff that will come up to fill the seemingly “free” time that teachers have.
But wouldn’t that mean that we need more teachers? Yes. Certainly. Recruit more teachers in schools so that each teacher has less classes to teach and less students (and parents) to manage. Also get more allied staff to help teachers with bureaucratic work. Let teachers focus on the core of their work – educate.
Simplify the performance review of teachers. Get with the times. Ditch forced ranking. The corporate world has recognised that forced rankings do more harm than good. Companies like Microsoft and GE have dropped forced rankings. Pay your teachers really well to begin with. But don’t treat your teachers like donkeys who need carrots and sticks to be motivated to do what’s right for students. Trust that they are intrinsically motivated. Replace monetary rewards with giving teachers time, space, and resources to unleash their passion in realising the true purpose of why they are in teaching (i.e. to educate), give teachers the autonomy in their core area of work and help them develop mastery (no… not by “nominating” them for courses you want them to go for so that you can put things into your report to justify your promotion… but by letting teachers come up with their own road map towards mastery in education).
And always stand by your teachers. Trust that the vast majority of your teachers have the heart for their students and are well-trained in doing what’s best for students. Trust that the vast majority of your teachers know better than parents when it comes to educating the child. Be the shield that fends off the bullshit from parents and members of public so that instead of having to handle “customer” relationships, teachers can do what they are passionate in doing – educating.
There are a whole lot more things that MOE really needs to look at as part of a thorough review of how to enhance the welfare and wellbeing of teachers. What I have suggested are but a few things that MOE should consider. But I strongly believe that if MOE wants to correct the anomaly of teachers not having to pay for parking in schools now, then MOE really has to do more to overcome the loss aversion so that the move becomes palatable to teachers.