There are sixteen Master Teachers in Singapore. These are the pinnacle of the teaching profession – the teachers that have become experts in teaching their subjects through their many years of experience, research and training. I was privileged to meet three of them at the Academy of Singapore Teachers (AST).
The AST is housed in an old school building, which has now been entirely given over for the purposes of teacher development. The Master teachers hold many of their workshops here, and some of the teacher networks meet here too. It was established in 2010 to build a teacher-led culture of professional excellence; a mission that it seems to be achieving.
Some teacher networks, I was told, exist without the AST’s knowledge – teachers just get together to discuss particular pedagogical topics and share best practice across schools. Even the networks that are led by the Master teachers are not instigated by them (with the exception of the networks of school principals). Teachers approach them after workshops they have attended and ask them to come and share their expertise, based on their own development needs or the needs of their colleagues. And of all the workshops offered at the AST, none are compulsory, but they are still in demand.
I can hear policy makers in other countries thinking, ‘how the hell do they do that?’ Why aren’t teachers in all countries voluntarily forming networks and seeking out training opportunities? Are Singaporeans innately conscientious? No, the system helps. It removes all barriers to teacher learning, allowing teachers’ intrinsic motivation to drive these positive effects, and is also structured so that it adds a little external nudge for those that need it.
Teachers in Singapore are entitled to undertake 100 hours of professional development a year. They use this allocated time to address their personal development needs, which are identified by the teachers themselves in partnership with their Reporting Officer (like a mentor that also evaluates you). They can go to workshops and courses during the school day, and the schools both organise the necessary cover and pay for it; each school is given a ring fenced ‘Manpower grant’ every year specifically for this purpose. Teachers also have more non-teaching time during the school day than the OECD average, and there is designated timetable time for professional learning and discussion.
The courses and workshops on offer are free, varied and intelligently designed. They aren’t all given by Master teachers at the AST (even in tiny Singapore, 16 people leading all the training would be a stretch); the Institute of Education runs professional courses and degrees, there is a Curriculum Development and Planning department at the MOE that runs training, and the AST is the biggest of seven Academies with varying subject specialisms. The Master teachers told me that they never run one-off workshops – all are part of a series of at least two, allowing for teachers to apply what they learn and feedback. If we had free, high quality CPD courses that we could get cover to go to in England, teachers would be clamouring for it! Wouldn’t it be great!
The extrinsic nudge I mentioned is built into their career structure, which I described in my last post. Even if you want to stay in the classroom, there is a career ladder with several stages, and your pay and status don’t increase much unless you move up it. To move up it, you need to show you are good and developing, so there is incentive there (in case it was lacking) to put time and thought into becoming a better teacher.
There is so much more to the Singaporean teacher development system than this, and I would urge anyone interested to go and visit if possible. A lot of thought has gone into its structure, and all policy changes in this area go through careful consultation processes and lengthy pilots. That’s why it works…