Speeches

Opening Address by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, at the 5th Teachers' Conference 2010 on 6 September 2010 at 9.30am at the Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre, Suntec City

Mr S Iswaran
Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, and Education

Mr Masagos Zulkifli
Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Home Affairs

Ms Yeoh Chee Yan
Second Permanent Secretary

Ms Ho Peng
Director-General of Education

Distinguished guests

Principals, Teachers

Colleagues

Good morning.

It gives me great pleasure to be with you this morning at the 5th Teachers’ Conference. The theme for this year’s Teachers’ Conference—Deepening Professional Practice: Teachers as Learners, Teachers as Leaders—articulates succinctly the aspirations of our teaching fraternity.

Teachers at the Heart of Education

The teaching profession has indeed come a long way. Internationally, being a teacher in Singapore’s public school system means something. The profession commands respect and teachers in other countries take note when you share your experiences. They want to learn the reasons, even the secrets of our ability to deliver high quality education, achieve high averages and produce outstanding students year after year. They are particularly impressed by our ability to engage students across academic abilities—high or low—towards effective learning outcomes.

Success breeds success and over the past decade, we have been able to attract good graduates including mid-career entrants into the teaching profession. Our recruitment policy is to hire teachers from the top one-third of every cohort of students. We have been able to do this, as our university graduates are drawn to teaching as a meaningful career and also because many, as students, had felt the positive impact of their teachers’ influence.

These observations are not to flatter you but to remind you how much you have achieved as a professional community. However, it is also true that with greater capabilities, comes rising expectations. It’s a fact of life that past achievements are no guarantee for continuing success. Let me outline three key challenges that the teaching fraternity in Singapore will face in the coming decades. These challenges are good ones but for which you must still respond to adequately if you are to maintain your professional standing in the community here and internationally.

3 Key Challenges

First, teachers will face a better-educated population, both of parents and their children in primary school. Twenty years ago, only about 9% of parents of a Primary 1 student would have degree, diploma or pre-university qualifications. Today, that figure has gone up to 54%. New immigrants, and those who become PRs and new citizens, have higher educational qualifications too. Last year, 2 in 3 new citizens came with post secondary educational qualifications. The trend for PRs is similar—nearly 8 in ten new PRs have post secondary qualifications. Rising educational qualifications will alter the nature of interactions between teacher, student and parent. This change is already occurring as many senior teachers tell me during my school visits. More teachers have requests from parents to customize lessons for their children. Parents are able to discern specific areas of learning difficulties and often are eager to receive regular updates on their child’s progress. This challenge can be turned into an advantage, even as we move towards more holistic assessments. Some schools have indeed tapped on parents as an added resource. Ngee Ann Secondary organises monthly dialogues with the Parent Support Group to gather views on its programs. For the parents of their Sec 1 students, the school even holds breakfast talks to enable parents and teachers to discuss the students’ learning outcomes. Parent volunteers are also roped in to share on their profession during the school’s Career Seminar Day.

Second, a focus on every child in our educational system. This is cited as a working aspiration for all school systems but rarely achieved in reality. However in Singapore, there are cogent reasons why we have to deliver on this promise. For Singaporeans, there is a great premium on quality education—it determines their livelihood and ability to participate as active and productive citizens. To increase productivity, our industries will undergo transformation so that most if not all good jobs will require high level of skills and education. As a result, the price of failed education will rise and be translated into social drop-outs and marginalised citizens. The teaching fraternity will be challenged into thinking of new ways to help learners across all academic ability achieve their full potential as well as to become life long learners.

The third challenge emanates from yourselves, as the teaching workforce has more capable and qualified teachers. This is an asset but also poses new demands. By 2020, almost all our teachers will be graduates, and an expected one-fifth with postgraduate qualifications. As a P, VP, HOD or Principal Master Teacher, how will you lead such a team? If you do not harness their expanded capabilities, you risk under-utilising them and retaining them. Will interactions between peers and subordinates change compared to today? I suspect so—management styles will also need to evolve in this new setting.

The three challenges that I have chosen to highlight relate only to people—your peers, your students, their parents and the larger community. But there are also other shifting currents beneath us all. Technological change and ongoing trends in globalisation will pose new challenges for the way children learn, what they have to know, how they process information and acquire know-how. Taken together, all these challenges point towards a more complex school environment with greater expectations on educational outcomes for individual students. The way forward will be demanding on teachers, albeit an exciting one too.

To bring home this message on how differing elements add up to a new complex environment that will greatly impact us all, let me illustrate through another profession—the army, specifically Basic Military Training. One would think that the first three months to induct new recruits into the military would have discrete learning outcomes that do not lend themselves readily to changing teaching methods to achieve these goals. After all, getting recruits from a civilian life to be fit, march in unison, and learn rudimentary soldiering skills appear to actually limit the options in teaching these skills. But parents who visit the BMT repeatedly tell us how today’s environment has been totally transformed compared to their own experiences. It’s not just in the buildings which of course are better designed and constructed. They note that the thickness of mattresses has tripled and that even recreational facilities are provided to recruits. The point I am making is that the outward forms and processes have been radically altered by an internal paradigm shift in thinking amongst the commanders or “teachers” who recognise that the recruits and indeed the commanders themselves are different from previous generations.

The old paradigm was to put constant pressure on the recruits all the time. You would have surprise turnouts to stretch, even break them, and then re-mould them into soldiers. But this would have never worked with today’s better-educated generation. Instead, the emphasis is to engage their hearts and minds and shape them though positive experiences. During training, they train hard, but in between, they have rest periods to rejuvenate personally and bond with each other and their commanders. Commanders take more time to explain the “hows” and “whys”. They have realised that they have to get the processes right in order to achieve effective learning outcomes.

If such changes can occur in what is supposed to be a highly disciplined, rigidly-structured environment where learning outcomes are certainly more predictable than in educational settings, then we can expect schools to be impacted even more with a new generation of students, parents and teachers. How then can we prepare for this new wave? For the teaching fraternity, I believe that the answer must be to increase professionalism. You will need new engines to achieve this because we are flying at a much higher altitude than before. Let me explain.

Why We Have Succeeded Thus Far

Over the last three decades, we have been able to place good-calibre teachers and ensure quality teaching across the school system because of our centralised approach in teacher recruitment, pre-service teacher education and deployment.

An important partner of the MOE, the National Institute of Education (NIE) has played a crucial role in building the teaching profession through its pre-service teacher education and in-service professional development programmes. In its 60 years as a teacher training institution, NIE has nurtured generations of teachers with strong foundational knowledge, competencies and pedagogical skills for effective teaching. NIE will continue to play a critical role in the preparation of our beginning teachers and in the professional development landscape of the teaching profession. NIE’s role will also continue to expand, as we project the need to recruit and train more than 2,000 teachers each year for the next decade and likely beyond.

But both MOE HQ and NIE will need to beef up its capabilities to meet new demands of the future educational landscape. I envisage that we will need even more T-shaped strengths, i.e. specialists who have broad exposure to pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment as well as deep expertise in subjects across all domains—in the arts, science, maths, languages, etc. This must mean that we will need more officers with relevant Masters and PhD-training and just as importantly, exposure in areas of leadership beyond the running of schools. MOE is currently reviewing our talent development pathways to meet these goals. But even as we do so, these strengths of strong central support from HQ and NIE, which must be retained, will not be sufficient for the teaching fraternity to climb to a higher trajectory.

Rationale for Establishing the Academy

With a more complex and demanding school environment, that organic unit within each school and cluster must have the inherent capacity to be responsive to the needs of its students. The general directions of education will not change, but each school must have the wherewithal to tailor the best educational path for each student, make professional assessments with sound judgement, and produce effective learning outcomes. I saw an example of this on a recent visit to a primary school in Finland. In that school, the form teacher stays with the same class of students from Primary 1 to 6, and teaches all subjects except foreign language, art and music. I am not suggesting that this is the best approach, because even in Finland, this is not the norm for most schools. My point is that it takes great professional competence to be able to do this. This particular class that I saw was Primary 6 and after six years with that same class, I could also see that the teacher knew each student very well—their habits and dispositions; as well as how to motivate or discipline them. He told me he was looking forward to the following year, when he would start with a Primary 1 class to repeat the cycle. I thought to myself, that this indeed was a competent and confident teacher.

This thinking on deepening capabilities across the board to produce strong competent individuals who can act independently and strengthen the profession collectively led MOE to agree to your proposal to establish the Academy of Singapore Teachers, the Physical Education and Sports Teacher Academy (PESTA), the Singapore Teachers’ Academy for the aRts (STAR), and the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS). I am delighted to be able to launch the Academy today. But while MOE can initiate this and support it constantly, we have to leave it entirely to your professional community to set the path and trajectory for the Academy. This is your baby. As a community of 30,000 teaching professionals, there is an immense wealth of tacit knowledge and professional experience nesting in the service. I can well imagine the richness of learning that can take place when teachers teach and lead other teachers.

I saw an example of how uplifting it can be when teachers lead teachers. Three months ago, we visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Board. Because Tokyo has many teacher colleges, the Tokyo Metropolitan Board has an equivalent of the Academy—which is charged with the responsibility of preparing fresh teacher graduates to work effectively in schools or to become VPs and Ps. It’s a great honour to be asked by the Board to lecture there because it’s obviously a recognition of your professional standing among your peers. I saw a young teacher who looked like he was in his thirties, with probably ten years of teaching experience under his belt. But he was tasked to prepare about 200 new teachers. He was sharing his experiences on classroom management enthusiastically but in a methodical and systematic way. His audience was engaged and annotating his lecture notes. I saw another class, smaller, about thirty in number comprising older teachers. I was told that they were senior leadership in schools and were being prepared to become future vice-principals. A senior principal was conducting the seminar and this leadership course was run that way—Teachers leading teachers. This is a powerful concept and can lead to many excellent outcomes.

The Academy of Singapore Teachers

At the Teachers’ Mass Lecture last year, DGE spoke on this idea for the fraternity to have a home of its own—a teacher development centre run by teachers, where educators can come together, share and exchange ideas on learning and teaching, engage in research, or simply to meet up with colleagues who share common interests. It was an exciting idea and I asked DGE to flesh out how this centre would be run. Today I am happy to announce that the idea of a teacher development centre has come into fruition. From 1 September, the Academy of Singapore Teachers will be established to facilitate a teacher-led culture of professional excellence. It will champion the ethos and vision of the Education Service to Lead, Care and Inspire. It will also drive pedagogical leadership and act as a focal point for teachers to gather and learn from one another. The Academy will be an added engine to help us strengthen the teaching service. But let me remind all teachers, that this is your professional home. MOE will provide support but will not be the moving spirit. I believe that the Academy has the potential to become an internationally-recognised institution and a global leader in the practice of teaching. I see in my mind’s eye many seated here being invited through the Academy to be speakers at regional and international fora. But for this vision to be realised, the leaders and movers amongst you must step up and be proactive, take charge and energise others.

The Academy will need the support of all 30,000 teachers. Many of you have already given DGE useful suggestions. Mrs Siti Osman from Naval Base Secondary School wanted the Academy to be a resource centre for teachers. Mdm Emelyn Soon from CHIJ (Kellock) saw the Academy as a platform for professional sharing; for her, this would be a writing programme she had successfully implemented in her school. There must be many more suggestions and I hope that the Academy can eventually accommodate all needs. But Mr Devindra Sapai from Seng Kang Primary hit the nail on the head when he said that the Academy must above all be “teacher-led and passion-led”.

I was also glad to hear that the name “Academy of Singapore Teachers” was selected from numerous entries submitted by our teachers, to signal clearly the mission and culture to excel in teaching practice through depth of scholarship and research and the sharing of best practices.

Governance of the Academy

Appropriately, the Academy will be governed by a Teachers’ Council, to be led by DGE. This Council will play a strategic role in setting the direction for professional development and championing the ethos, values and vision of the teaching fraternity. I was glad that a number of you, including teachers from the younger generation, will also serve on this Council.

Sensibly, the Academy builds on and incorporates previous initiatives in professional development including the Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) launched last year. But to help kick start the Academy to reach escape velocity, some initiatives have been planned, which will be led by different professional groups amongst you.

First, the Master Teachers have agreed to help set up Subject Chapters and Professional Focus Groups. For a start, three Subject Chapters (for Geography, Mathematics and Science have been formed. The Geography Chapter will work with the Curriculum Planning and Development Division to send some experienced teachers to UK universities offering geography education courses next year in June. Upon their return, they will be able to share with their colleagues their learning and insights.

Teachers Teaching Teachers

Second, the Academy will start the Skilful Teaching and Mentoring programmes led by experienced teacher-mentors to help mentor beginning teachers and younger colleagues.

Third, the Academy will also be tasked to identify and groom potential Lead and Master Teachers. To date, we have 28 Master Teachers and 4 Principal Master Teachers in our service.

Fourth, to recognise teachers who have made significant contributions to teaching and learning, the Academy will be instituting an Academy Fellowship Programme. Fellows will have a chance to be attached to reputable overseas institutes and schools as part of their on-going programs.

Championing the Ethos of the Profession

Fifth, the Academy will have its core mission to uphold and develop the Singapore ethos of the teaching profession. There are ideals that our teachers must hold fast to—the belief that every child has intrinsic worth, can learn and achieve; the belief that educators nurture the child in a holistic way, caring not just for his academic learning, but also in his total character. I hope over time that the fraternity will develop a Professional Code through the Academy. This will help strengthen the ethos and beliefs of the teaching profession.

Sixth, a Heritage Centre will be set up within the Academy that chronicles the teaching fraternity’s journey towards professional excellence. This centre is due to open next year. I look forward to it.

As I mentioned, these six initiatives are to kick-start the process but over time new initiatives should come from the ground up. MOE will be willing to provide funding to finance such ground-up schemes, if the Academy can flesh out the details.

Professional Development for our Partners in Education

While we aspire to help our teachers grow towards professional excellence, let us not forget the critical support provided by the Executive and Administrative Staff (EAS), and the Allied Educators (AED). Today, we have close to 7,500 EAS and AED officers in the Education Ministry. They too need to continually develop themselves through the upgrading of knowledge and skills. I am therefore pleased that the Academy will be setting up a Professional Development Office each for the EAS staff and Allied Educators. These offices will oversee the professional development of both groups through relevant programmes and upgrading opportunities to help them grow and realise their potential.

Promoting a Culture of Care and Support

The Teachers’ Vision to Lead, Care and Inspire embodies the spirit we would like our teachers to uphold and demonstrate. In keeping with this spirit, the Academy will also have programmes that promote the well-being and camaraderie of all staff in MOE, including the Allied Educators and EAS staff.

Conclusion

In case you missed it during PM’s National Day Rally Speech, here is a picture of the new Goh Keng Swee Centre for Education, which will house the Academy as well as PESTA, STAR and ELIS. I am excited about what the Academy of Teachers can become. I look forward to celebrating achievements and milestones with you in this journey together. Congratulations to all teachers on the launch of your Academy.