Why Do So Many MOE Teachers Quit to Become Private Tutors?

Joanne Poh


On the face of it, MOE teachers seem to have it good. Rookie teachers enjoy a fairly high starting salary, and just last year their salaries rose by 4% to 9% across the board.

Yet everyone has that ex-teacher friend who quit to give tuition full-time. And if you’ve got Facebook friends who teach, it’s likely you’ve heard countless rants about the unreasonable workload and frustrating bureaucracy they face.

And while the authorities are tight-lipped about the attrition rate of teachers and MOE scholarship bond breakers, many in the industry harbour dreams of leaving for good.

We spoke to two current MOE teachers to find out just why so many of their colleagues fantasise about giving up that iron rice bowl.


Poor work-life balance is a major concern

Almost every teacher I’ve spoken with has complained about poor work-life balance and the fact that they’re ridiculously overloaded with administrative tasks. I don’t think I know a single MOE teacher who doesn’t bring work home in the evenings and on weekends.

Teachers are usually at school by 7am, but just because they start earlier than office workers doesn’t mean they end earlier. Most leave no earlier than 5pm (some even stay till 8pm when they have responsibilities like guard duty), and many continue to work late into the night at home, marking homework and tests. Then there are the weekly CCA duties which take place in the afternoons and evenings after school, or even on weekends.

Penelope, a 32-year-old teacher in a government school, sounds disgruntled when she says, “The reason so many MOE teachers are leaving is so obvious that I don’t understand why MOE doesn’t address this once and for all. We are bogged down by so many tasks that we are unable to focus on teaching.”

“I remember a teacher’s wife wrote in to the papers some years back listing her husband’s crazy schedule (re-blogged here if you’re interested). IT IS TRUE. Yet sadly, MOE responded with an insensitive note that we teachers just have to learn to manage our time better,” she adds. “Many of us chalk up 12/13 hours of work every day, and sometimes we work on weekends.”

Taylor, a 32-year-old teacher in a government-aided school, concurs. “I only spend about 40% of my time at work teaching. I think they should ease the admin load to ensure more teachers remain in the profession. Teachers are so tired out from all the admin and miscellaneous duties that it’s hard to enjoy the core of our work.”

Incidentally, both Penelope and Taylor, who are married with kids, took close to a year of no-pay leave to look after their children. Both thought they would not be able to cope with the demands of looking after a newborn and teaching at the same time.


Better money in tuition

While the salaries teachers earn are largely considered to be decent, the general consensus is that they may not be worth the long hours.

Taylor says, “The market rate for tuition is $70 per hour if you’re an MOE teacher. But I’ve friends who are charging $80 to $90 per hour. That’s very, very good money. Some famous teachers conduct group tuition sessions and earn at least $10,000 a month.”

Penelope says, “Some of the advantages of tuition are the flexibility of time, being able to focus on teaching without being bogged down by other duties and tasks, especially class management, and being able to exercise control over which students I want to help. I have a soft spot for the weaker students. And of course, you earn an hourly rate that’s much higher than an MOE teacher’s.”

Even so, there are some downsides to tuition that keep teachers in the profession.

“Tutoring hours are mostly on weekday evenings or weekends. If you have a family, this is when your kids are home, yet you are out teaching,” says Taylor.

Penelope has similar concerns. “As with any other job, there is a downside to being a full-time private tutor. You sacrifice weekday evenings and weekends if you want to maintain a decent income, and you also lack interaction with adults.”


To stay or go?

Penelope has made up her mind to quit her job and become a full-time tutor some time in the next few years. She is merely biding her time.

For someone who became a teacher because she thought it would be a meaningful job, it was a tough decision for her to make.

She says, “I think MOE really has to reconsider our workload. It really is too much. They can keep upping our salary and dishing out bonuses, but when teachers are not happy and healthy, they will leave.”

“It disappoints me that people who work in MOE HQ used to be teachers themselves, but when they get to HQ, they come up with policies which are so demanding and sometimes unachievable. They seem to have forgotten what it is like on the ground,” she adds.

“Those people up there better wake up soon.”

For Taylor, things look a little rosier.

“It sounds cheesy but I think I know that I am making a difference in the lives of my students, not just academically but holistically, and I get opportunities to do so in school where I see the students for the whole day, and even for CCAs, unlike at tuition where I see them only for 2 hours a week and the parent hires me simply to see their grades improve,” she says.

In addition, she admits the stability and perks are a draw. “Unlike tuition where students can cancel on you and your income varies, you get a fixed pay every month. We get bonuses in March, June and December, medical and dental benefits, as well as allowances depending on our appointment in school.”

“At the end of the day, I simply enjoy teaching,” she admits.

“But if I continue with MOE, I will probably take long-term leave again depending on which season of my life I am in, such as during the child-bearing years.”

(Names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents.)

Would you consider teaching at some point in your career? Tell us why or why not in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.