Struggle to take medical leave, demanding parents among bugbears for pre-school teachers

SINGAPORE – One of the biggest problems pre-school teacher Nicole Chin has faced in the last 1½ years is that it is a struggle for her to go on medical leave when she is unwell.

She said the lack of relief teachers who can take over the class if she is sick makes her feel guilty about taking time off.

Ms Chin, 21, who works for a private pre-school, said: “Taking leave causes stress for other teachers as we usually have only just enough teachers for each class. There are no extra teachers around to do relief work.”

This is one of the pain points Ms Chin and seven other pre-school teachers talked about amid an ongoing review of the pre-school sector.

On Oct 29, Social and Family Development Minister Masagos Zulkifli said the Government is making changes aimed at improving the well-being and working conditions of early childhood educators.

These include reviewing the need for centres to open on Saturdays – an issue linked directly to the work-life balance of pre-school teachers.

Another aspect under review is whether taking leave can be made easier for teachers by growing a pool of relief teachers.

Mr Masagos also said that early childhood educators in government-supported pre-schools can expect a 10 per cent to 30 per cent salary increase over the next two years.

This means pre-school teachers can earn monthly salaries of between $2,900 and $6,600 by 2024, depending on their experience, skills and work performance.

One pre-school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said she often has to work on weekends and prepare lessons because there is not enough time set aside for such tasks during the work week.

She has even heard of teachers being chided for taking medical leave, she added.

And if she wants to use her annual leave, she has to write in six months in advance, she told The Straits Times.


“A lot of teachers are leaving the early-childhood sector despite them starting out with a lot of passion,” she said.

In October, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) said the annual attrition rate in the sector has been between 10 per cent and 15 per cent over the last few years, in a workforce of about 23,000 people.

One teacher, who asked to be known as Jane, said she is planning to leave the industry after 10 years as she has seen little progression in terms of salary while having to deal with demanding parents and the daily pressures of the job.

She quoted an instance when she did not get back to a parent who had texted her over a long weekend. The parent was infuriated and sent her messages calling her inadequate.

Jane, who works for a private operator, said she is sceptical about her employer raising salaries. Even if her pay goes up, the increase may not be enough to offset the rising cost of living, she added.

“I can’t see myself staying in this role for another five years,” she said.

Attracting more teachers, especially mid-careerists

Aside from retaining teachers, the sector will also need to attract new ones.

Mr Masagos said the sector will need another 3,500 teachers by 2025. ECDA expects three-quarters of this growth to come from mid-career entrants.  

In response to queries, ECDA said the early childhood sector had an average of about 2,500 mid-career job seekers per year enrolling in certification courses over the past five years.

This is an increase of 20 per cent in enrolment since 2017, it said, adding that the majority of those who completed the courses joined the sector.

It said: “ECDA encourages interested mid-career job seekers to apply for the Early Childhood Career Conversion Programme (ECCCP) offered by the National Institute of Early Childhood Development (NIEC) or KLC International Institute (KLCII), which will help match them with pre-school operators.”

Apart from the ECCCP, mid-career job seekers can enrol in early childhood certification courses offered by NIEC and private training agencies to become early childhood educators.

One teacher who made the switch to the pre-school sector is Mr Reuben Cheng, 48, a former public servant who changed careers seven years ago.

Mr Cheng, whose old job involved connecting businesses with infrastructure, said he went into early childhood education to follow his passion for helping children with special needs, which he discovered while volunteering at church.

Mr Cheng, who is married but does not have children of his own, specialises in early intervention for children with special needs, and transitioned into the sector by getting a diploma at a polytechnic.

He now works in the Fei Yue Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children, and he credits the centre’s robust training and support with helping him to adapt to the new role.

He said: “We work in the team with various kinds of therapists as well as the teachers.

“I am also able to use my previous work experience when it comes to communicating with and helping to educate parents about their children… I find it really rewarding to see the children making little improvements as time passes.”

For his efforts, Mr Cheng was given the Outstanding Early Intervention Professional Award at the Early Childhood Celebrations on Oct 29.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.


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