The TESOL scene in Singapore

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I haven’t been posting because I’ve been pretty busy the past few weeks. I was looking for a job more intensively. And I’ve also been busy completing an essay for one of my Master of Education (TESOL) modules.

I left my previous English teaching job in April after fulfilling my commitments there. Then I started my Masters and worked part-time at one of my previous jobs. This was also an English teaching job but to 1-3 students at a time. Also, the students were already quite good at English. Though English was their Second Language (they were mainly Koreans who have come to study in Singapore schools), they were very young and thus caught up very fast – a case for the Critical Period Hypothesis that states that if people below a certain age learn another language, they’d do so much more easily than if the person started their learning past that critical period. Teaching to these students was thus quite boring for me and not very challenging. Firstly, it was not the kind of students I wanted to teach. I want to teach young adults who truly have difficulty learning English. And I want to teach in a classroom setting. The dynamics are very different when teaching in a classroom. It’s much more challenging and different skills are involved. This is what I want to do in future and thus while working part-time there, I was also searching for another job.

I wrote about the reasons why I left my previous English teaching job here. The major reason was because it didn’t really care about the students, but only about making money. More specifically, three things really made me leave. Firstly, I was made to use their coursebooks which they created by themselves. To say the least, it was pathetic and not fit to be used as a text. Secondly, they didn’t grade their students properly. Their students only had two levels to go to! Most language schools would have about 6 levels – Beginner, Elementary, Lower-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper-Intermediate and Advanced. The implication of having two levels only was that in my class, there were students of varying levels. Of course, that always happens in a language classroom because no two students would have the exact level of language competence. But having only two levels meant that the difference in language ability within each class is even greater than it should be. And you can’t teach well like that. Thirdly, they had an absolutely ridiculous number of students in each class. For example, there were classes with over 40 (nearly 50) students in the register. So I brought up these points to my boss many times but she didn’t understand.

I feel strongly about all this because I know no language school in Australia (and I would probably say also America, Canada, UK and New Zealand, except for the fact that I don’t have any experience there) who would allow what I experienced to occur in their school. They are just too professional to allow all that. It’s about being professional in one’s job. It’s about going along with best practices and measuring up to international benchmarks. Singapore is a country which has always been pretty advanced and modern (except in their human rights and politics) in what they do. But in this area, it’s so far behind that it’s laughable. I do believe we are one of the best in our mainstream education system. I don’t agree with a lot of things, but if you’re talking about the system and the orthodoxy of the system, you can’t complain. It’s up there with the best. But when it comes to their English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching, we are just so far behind.

I say the above not just based on my experience of my previous school. But I’ve also been to many job interviews over the past few weeks. I know there are language schools that are trying to do the best that they can with what they have. These are schools with ESL departments led by experienced professionals and they know what they’re doing. But I’ve also come across many schools where it’s only about the money they make.

A lot of schools have no clue what ESL teaching is. People don’t know that the ESL/EFL industry is huge and there’s been decades and decades of research and practical experience to draw from. In Australia (and other English-speaking countries too I’m sure), eventhough you’re a teacher who’s qualified to teach English in a mainstream school, you’ll never be able to teach ESL. You need a TESOL/TEFL/TESL certificate because they know that ESL teaching is totally different from normal English teaching. The methodology is unique. But in Singapore, many schools think that just because you have experience in teaching English in a mainstream school means you’re qualified to teach ESL. I know many schools which advertise that they’ll consider those who have a Bachelor of English or Mass Communications or Arts. What?? Having studied English (let alone the others) in University would definitely not prepare you to teach ESL simply because the way one teaches ESL students requires a set of skills that studying English in University will not give you. I’d go so far as to say that through my experiences in teaching in other areas, I think teaching ESL is probably one of the most, if not the most, difficult kind of teaching there is. If you teach other subjects, the major requirement is to have expert knowledge in that subject area. For teaching ESL, one needs to have both expert knowledge (i.e. of the English language), but it also requires a set of teaching skills that is unique. This is because you aren’t just teaching the content of the English language. That’s just a small part of ESL teaching. You’re also teaching language skills and you yourself have got to possess the skill of using the English language to facilitate English learning. I know of qualified mainstream teachers in Australia who’ve said that they’ve benefited and learned more from their TESOL certificate than from their Postgraduate Diploma of Education. I’ve gone through my TESOL/CELTA certification – all 120 hours of input and 6 hours of meticulously evaluated teaching practice – and till now I still feel so inadequate because there’s so much more to learn.

I did a little bit of research on Australia’s high standards of ESL education. Australia has an ELT (English Language Teaching) accreditation scheme called The National ELT Accreditation Scheme (NEAS). The aim of NEAS Australia is to “establish and uphold high standards of service provision in English Language Teaching in Australia”. Not all English language schools in Australia are accredited by NEAS and of course that just means it hasn’t reached such standards. But many schools are (check it out under the “approved elt centres” link). Looking through the criteria for being accredited, I would posit a guess that probably less than 5% or 3% of language schools in Singapore (or other private schools that have an ESL department) would be able to attain the standards needed for accreditation. I would not be surprised if no school/department here would be able to.

Here are some important standards that I know many language schools/departments would not be able to meet (you can view their Standards and Criteria for ELT Accreditation here):

1) Under the Academic management section, it states that the centre has to appoint “a suitably qualified and experienced person responsible for the academic management” and beyond having a recognized degree, this person has to have “five years experience in managing and/or teaching on ELT programs” and also a “TESOL qualification at postgraduate diploma level or about”.

I have come across many schools/departments headed by people who would not even come near to such qualifications or experience. I’ve been to many interviews and I don’t recall a single person who’s interviewed me with such qualifications or experience. In fact, most have not taught ESL for many years and most do not even have a TESOL certification. I think I’ve only come across two or three interviewers who I would say have a good knowledge of what teaching ESL is about and who have good qualifications.

2) Under the Teachers section, all teachers need to have not just a degree but also some sort of TESOL qualification. A teaching qualification would not do. That means, as I’ve already said, that a person can be qualified to teach in mainstream schools with some sort of Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE), but still not be able to teach in the ELT centre. Why? Because teaching ESL is a totally different ballgame.

As I mentioned above, I know many teachers teaching ESL in Singapore who would not be able to qualify as ESL teachers in Australia.

3) Under Teacher professional development, it’s stated that the ELT centre needs to facilitate “ongoing professional development of teaching staff, to ensure teachers are kept up-to-date with current theory, knowledge and practice in the field”. Also, “newly qualified staff are provided with mentoring and support during their first year of employment”.

Again, I know no English school/department in Singapore that does this. And I think this is very important because the new staff need guidance and all the teaching staff need to receive ongoing professional development. Why? Because I think that a TESOL certificate is really the bare minimum that an ESL teacher ought to have. It hardly makes a person a good teacher and there’s still so much more to learn. A school that really cares for its students and its teachers would think about how they can provide teacher development.

4) Under Program delivery, “the student:teacher ratio for classroom based instruction does not exceed 18 students per teacher per class.”

As mentioned above, my first school had about 40 students on average on the class register. I’ve heard of at least 2 classes there just hitting under 50 students!! My previous boss told me the school went by the Ministry of Education’s standards of 40 students per class. I argued back that such standards are not appropriate for ESL teaching.

I’m glad to know, however, that I know no other schools that accept that number of students per class. The most elsewhere I know would be 25 to 30, which is still too high. Many schools I know have between 10 and 20 students, but probably only because they can’t get more per class. If they could get more, I have no doubts that a lot of them would just squeeze them all into one class because it makes good business sense.

Just a note here regarding certification. A certificate or a degree is a just a paper. One can be certified and qualified, and yet be a bad teacher. And one can lack paper qualifications and yet be a great teacher. One owner of a school who interviewed me didn’t care whether its teachers were certified or not. I was quite shocked, not because I think certification is the be all and end all of ESL teaching, but because I think it shows a lack of awareness of TESOL being a very specialized field that requires a unique set of skills to be good at it. Of course, such skills can be learned on the job. It could be learned internally in the school. But schools here don’t train their teachers. Many just think that if you’re experienced in teaching before or if you’re good at teaching in general, you’d make a good ESL teacher as there isn’t much difference between teaching in general and ESL teaching in particular.

Anyway, on to some specific encounters during my search for a job. I’ve talked to at least two people whose experience have further confirmed to me how education is becoming more of a business than about the learning of students. One person was part of a group that came together to start a school because they got so sick of their past experiences in the education industry and how the people there only wanted to make money. Another person talked about being cheated by a partner.

I also had a good talk with a HR personnel who interviewed me. This person honestly shared with me that the White teachers in the school were given a higher starting salary and didn’t have to do as much administrative work as local teachers. This (along with other repulsive company practices) made me sick and this person shared that she didn’t agree with it, but it was the owner’s policy. We got along well during our talk and so I asked why he continued in his job if he didn’t agree with such practices. I got a good enough answer from him.

In a way, I don’t blame the school for such policies. The students want white teachers, so the school has to provide for them if it wants their business. But it just shows how ignorant the students are and how much of an unprincipled money-grabbing fool the owner is. The owner is a typical Singaporean with a hangover colonial mentality. Compare him and his school with another school owned by a British. I had one of my first interviews (for an ESL teaching job) in Singapore with him. He offered me a job which I didn’t take for some reasons. But I asked him honestly whether it’s hard for a non-White to get an ESL teaching job in Singapore. He said he had no problems hiring a non-White as long as the person is qualified and able to teach well. Skin color didn’t make a difference to him. And he went on to say that if his students came to him to ask for a White teacher, he’d tell the student to either accept the teacher he has or leave. What can I say? Either a very lousy businessman, or one with principles.

I wrote to the Ministry of Education here and asked whether there are any standards for ESL schools and teaching here in Singapore – just like NEAS in Australia. And I’m looking forward to hearing from them if they bother to reply me. While being critical of the many ESL schools here, I do understand that a lot of unprofessionalism comes from a general desire to make money and also ignorance of what ESL is all about. The latter is understandable because we don’t have that long a history of being into ESL like other places like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada. These countries have much better standards of professionalism because they’ve been doing this for ages. The ESL industry is only starting to come alive due to more intense globalization. More and more foreign students are coming to Singapore – especially from China, but also from Southeast Asia – and the numbers are only going to increase further as the Singapore government pushes hard to reach its goal of attracting 150,000 foreign students by 2015. All this only means more money and bigger business for many private education organisations. It remains to be seen how the ESL industry in Singapore will develop.

One thing I’ve realized is that there doesn’t seem to be any incentive to provide good education for foreign students. From what I know (which may be wrong), students who come to further their studies in private education organisations here do not really know much about the schools here. That’s because there are just so many around. Sure, there are some of better reputation. But then there are so many other small ones offering education programs. Students overseas mostly go through agencies in their home countries. By the time they reach Singapore, most would already have chosen which school to go to. And agencies over there don’t care whether the school is good or not, but only how much commission they get from the school. So the agencies would probably recommend a school that pays them more per student.

Therefore, a good language school which puts the students’ language learning above making money and which thus invests in good teachers and good facilities and makes sure that the classroom size is small, etc., may not make as much business as a school which puts money first and doesn’t care so much about the students’ learning, but which has more money to pay agents overseas. There’s thus very little monetary incentive to be a good language school.

Of course, Singapore does have accreditation schemes for private education organisations, but I don’t think they have any yet in regards to ESL teaching. I hope one day they will come up with one like NEAS in Australia, although I think it’s still a long way away.

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  1. Hi. Here in the states there is a Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) that is widely used as a basis for professional development of classroom teachers with a significant population of second language kids.

    Does such a set of ‘best practices/techniques’ exist there? Or in AU?

    I’ve written a software program that gathers objective data on teacher/student classroom behaviors, and am working on the SIOP set. I take the language in their standard/indicator and try to develop tools to track whatever is indicated (use of visuals, student talk time, etc. You can look at the software here: eCOVE Software or read about my approach here: Data-Based Classroom Observation. It’s used for lots more than ESL, and (if properly done) empowers teachers to become self-directed professionals. Peace, John

  2. Its OK i found the accrediting body in Singapore. On another matter. I found your article interesting cos i am at present working on accreditation with NEAS in Australia and know the standards you mention in your writings.
    I am very interested in the professional development of ELT teachers and though internal support and mentoring is a healthy standard to maintain. There does not seem to be much in the way of professional development options for an academic manager to draw on to be able to support and mentor ELT staff. have a leadership development certificate program that offers two strands. Strand 1 leadership in professional organisations and strand 2. leadership development for professional growth. You are given two years to complete the program and the workshops that you attend are posted all around the world. This seems costly for an ELT centre to send their staff to and impractical from the viewpoint that the ELT centre would need to bring in someone temporarily as a teacher.
    So there seems to be very little out there and i wonder why that is?

  3. Love your work. As a struggling ESL teacher myself I was very interested in what you have written. I have been teaching in Cambodia for some time and I understand your frustrations. I like you am also at this time trying to find an ESL teaching job in Singapore. I have lived there before and was quite shocked when I first arrive at the extremely poor quality of English being spoken in Singapore and this was by local English teachers. In this respect it is not only the ESL market that needs a standard. PS good luck with MOE I found them generally useless. Anyway good job hunting and I hope to see you there soon. Graeme

  4. Hi, I have found this article interesting to read. I am also looking for a TESOL job in Singapore but have little direct experience in the field. I wondered if you could recommend any useful job hunting sources?

    Thanks, SB.

  5. Hi,
    Your article is very interesting.I’m on the same field too.I don’t have teaching certificates but i acquired 9 yrs in teaching ESL and you are right ESL is not just by teaching its by skills and technique.Now because of the demands,I’m looking for a good school that will provide tesol but must be accredited by other country.
    I’ve been in Singapore too but their English is very poor.I’m looking for a TESOL school there, I dont have a choice coz my brother live in Singapore so to minimize my expenses, I choice Singapore to study TESOL.Can you recommend good school that I can used to seek for a ESL job in other country.

    Thank u

  6. Hi and yes, the standards in some schools are certainly shocking. This has led to a big change in government supervision of the industry in Singapore, including now a harder look at international schools, where standards may be becoming more variable.

    Like you, I often became sadly disillusioned when teaching English in the private school sector and this impression of the industry was fortified when I worked as Director of Studies/Academic Director in several institutions. This drove me to eventually open my own school – not easy but you can do it by sharing with others (or better still sharing rooms with an established school, as I did). My school is running a programme to train TESOL teachers. The course for a Diploma in TESOL includes issues of ethical behaviour and the school-teacher interface, obviously also how schools may behave. We have to prepare our TESOL Diploma holders for reality.

    White versus non-white teachers? Clearly, it should make no difference and in the UK, where I come from, such discrimination would be totally unacceptable. Spoken varieties of English differ widely throughout the world. The students we teach need exposure to a range of spoken English. Whatever your English variety and ethnicity, we each contribute in the classroom with our personal model of spoken English. CDs with good course books provide ‘standard’ English pronunciations and many others besides, to complete the students’ exposure. We need to move the debate on this onwards and treat with contempt the discrimination shown by schools. It is 2010, not the 1950s.

    I value in my school the fact that we have no ‘corporates’. Academic and corporate functions in a typical private institution are often artificially separated, to the detriment of the whole operation. I don’t want business men anywhere near my school, academics can actually manage. We do manage, after all, complex classroom situations and student learning all the time.

    If a good academic job is done by a school, students appreciate it and the necssary healthy financia; ‘bottom line’ of the school as a business will follow.

    1. Dear Dr Richardson,

      I would like to know more about the TESOL jobs in Singapore and whether I would be able to get a job easily. I am a Singaporean but have lived in Australia for about 8 years now. Your honest advice is appreciated:)

      To be honest, I find I struggle with pronunciations now and then and my grammar isn’t that good either. I am still working on it though. What do you look for when you employ ESL teachers?

      thanks so much for your time.
      Kind regards, Lynn

  7. Hi,

    I’m looking for a TESOL course to join. I was wondering if any one here could share their experiences and recommendations please. While I’m after the professional teaching accreditation, at the same time, I want an education experience that will offer me knowledge to take into the classroom. My concern, like yours, is the lack of rigour in these programmes and I don’t want to have to pay for money for courses with people who aren’t in it beyond the cert.

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