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Life In Primary One: An Ex-Teacher’s Perspective

Is Singapore’s school life an easy ride for parents who are familiar with the system, such as teachers? Not necessarily. We spoke with a mother of two and former Ministry of Education (MOE) teacher, who declined to be named, but revealed that her son’s first two months in Primary One have left her disillusioned and frustrated. Read on for our conversation.

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You’re homeschooling your eldest son, who’s nine. What made you decide to send your seven-year-old son to primary school this year? 

Both my husband and I decided to let my younger son have a go at primary school because he has a very different personality from his older brother. He is much more extroverted, and so we thought he might be able to manage the constant company of others in school.

Did you take steps to prepare him for primary school?

No, we didn’t do anything apart from sending him to an MOE kindergarten for his K2 year. 

Did you have any concerns before he started Primary One?

I did worry that he might find it hard to cope with the P1 academic expectations because he is still not reading independently. I discussed these concerns at length with his kindergarten teachers, but they all assured me that he was more than ready for primary school life.

Now that he’s been in school for two months, how is he coping?

He has gone very quickly from being enthusiastic about school to waging daily whining battles and being reluctant to attend school. He finds the hours long and the lessons boring. His chief reason for disliking school is that his teachers often put lessons on hold to “shout and scold,” and this disrupts the learning process.

Are there specific challenges that he’s facing?

There are two key areas of concern for us pertaining to his holistic development in school. The first is his disposition towards school and learning, which to us is even more important than his ability to cope with schoolwork. If he detests going to school, then his ability to learn will be affected.

The second area of concern is academic learning. In terms of the academic programme, I have realised that I need to take on an active role in terms of helping him access the learning material. I’ve also realised that I need to share pertinent professional knowledge to help some of his teachers better understand his learning needs.

As an ex-MOE teacher, are you surprised by the local school system?

I harboured few rose-tinted hopes of school being much different from when I was teaching in the mainstream, because of what I have heard from my teacher friends still in the service, as well as my parent friends. However, I must say I was not prepared for the school culture, or the lack of professionalism on the part of the teachers. When I was a teacher at the MOE in the last decade, my colleagues and I would never have dared to tell any parent point blank that we had “no time” to finish teaching or render personal attention to a child. It was also unthinkable for me to tell parents that I am not good at art, so I need help from them to decorate the classroom. I was teaching a class of 40 lower primary kids then, compared to the maximum of 30 now, and we would work to get our classrooms ready to welcome the children to school.

However, in the two months that my son has been in school, I am stunned to have heard from at least three different teachers that they face time constraints, and are unable to do certain things that I believe to be basic duties of a teacher. Last week, my son’s teacher sent home a chapter’s worth of activity book exercises. This consisted of eight pages containing questions for at least four different topics within the chapter. When I asked the teacher why work for an entire chapter was assigned, she responded that she had planned to cover half of this work in class, but ran out of time.

The response I had, which of course I kept to myself, was that this reflects poor time and task management on the part of the teacher, and young learners should not have to bear the consequences. Shouldn’t such activities be used as a reinforcement of learning, and done as and when each topic is taught?

Speaking to a specialist teacher helping my son with reading, I was equally taken aback by some of her responses to my queries, where she cited the large class size as well as time constraints to justify her actions. I was also disturbed that she seemed to lack a basic understanding of how literacy skills are developed, and of the programme she was implementing in her reading class—her priority was not to the learning child, but to follow the lesson plans given by the MOE headquarters.

Have there been any positives in your son’s school experience?

The first positive is that it reassures my husband and me that we made a wise decision not to send our older child to mainstream school! Another positive is that I have gained a greater understanding of the current school system and education climate. In pushing for more conversation between us and my son’s teachers, I believe that both parties will work towards changing things in the system to make it more equitable and supportive of those with different abilities and learning needs. I speak not just as a parent, but as an educator as well.

Are you tapping into the parent support network, or is that another source of stress?

We have a class WhatsApp chat group, which is a convenient way for me to check out homework and other administrative details. But that is it. I think such networks are helpful to some, and not to others. For me, I cannot afford to participate actively in parent support group activities that require my physical presence, but I volunteer in other ways such as helping to purchase supplies or preparing materials at home.

What changes do you hope to see in the local school system?

I hope to see that our education system will provide more time and space for children of diverse abilities and learning needs to fulfil their individual potential, rather than putting the premium on ensuring they meet an external benchmark and a predetermined trajectory of growth. And that time and space be given to teachers to breathe, think, and grow too.

Are you considering homeschooling your second son too?

Yes, just as mainstream schooling remains an option for my older homeschooling child. It is a matter of assessing which mode is most suitable and conducive for nurturing each child. Of course, our own abilities to manage come into play as well.

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