When education becomes a business

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Allow me to rant a bit here. Allow me to be ultra-critical – a change from recent posts. I’ll never want to be ultra-critical to Churches and Christian leaders on this blog because I don’t think that builds up the body of Christ. I do take care in who I criticize but for me businesses are not OB (out of bounds). Actually, I love to criticize them. I’m not anti-capitalistic. Maybe I was once. And maybe there’s still a bit of that spirit in me. But I think capitalism has aided humanity in many ways – while also harming it in many ways. Whether one is for it or not, it’s inevitable. The idea is to accept that and focus on restraining how much harm it does while at the same time guiding it to do as much good as possible for humanity.

In today’s Straits Times Forum page, one writer wrote:

It appears to me that, increasingly, Singapore schools are being managed more like businesses than as institutions of learning. (Don’t run schools like a business, Mar 3).

How timely. I wrote recently about my new TESOL teaching job in a private school and how I’d never want to join a mainstream MOE school. And about how education has become more about preparing people to make money than about what education should be about. By the way, for an excellent book on what the purpose (end) of education ought to be, read Neil Postman’s The End of Education. In fact, read everything by Postman. He rocks. He writes beautifully and with much wisdom. I read almost all his books about 10 years ago. My favorite one and his most famous is the popular classic Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I write a bit about here. And I’ve browsed a bit of his Teaching as a Subversive Activity and have been wanting to get a new copy for myself for a long time because I think it would be an excellent book. The only problem is that it’s not really in print. But the title says it all and I believe his view of teaching is something I would strongly hold to.

Anyway, ever since my first full day teaching last week, I’ve been feeling extremely angry, I’ll admit. I’ve ranted to a lot of friends and so it’s time to rant on this blog :) I’ve realized how the private business school I’m working in is… wow, where do I start?

Let’s just say, I have no love for this school. I can’t stand businesses like the one I’m working for. I hate what it stands for because it stands for making money, not education. Education is big money nowadays, and that’s why businesses are going into the education business. It’s worrying when a business only cares about making money. It’s a hundred times more worrying when that business is an education business. We cannot afford to leave education into the hands of business people who don’t care about education but only care about making money.

As I said, I can tolerate the capitalistic spirit. I don’t normally bitch much about businesses which make a lot of money because that’s a reality in this world. Just make sure you don’t exist merely for maximizing profits. OK, maybe I’m naive because most businesses do that – unless you’re a social enterprise. But I think even if profits are on your mind always, it shouldn’t be to the extent that you neglect your employees or customers. But that’s what it is in my private school. I won’t mention the name simply because I’m not out to shame it. Actually, I’d love to do that. I’d love to see students stop attending that school until it gets its act together and starts realizing that education is ultimately about your students, not about making money off them.

Today, I had a good talk with my boss. I was very honest and we thrashed out a lot of things. I’m in the TESOL department and I can only speak for this department in my school. And I can tell you it’s professionally inept. In what way and why do I say that? I compare the way it’s run to what good TESOL departments or schools are run throughout the world – or at least throughout the developed world as I consider Singapore as part of the developed world. I’m familiar with how language schools are run in Singapore and in Australia. I know the professional benchmarks for how things are done in this industry (e.g. the coursebooks used, the teaching methodology used, the number of people in each classroom and how students are graded and put in different levels), and yet I’m super amazed at the way my department is run. Mainstream MOE schools at least implement best practices in their industry. This department is nothing but full of the worst practices I’ve known from a language school. All to the detriment of the students’ learning.

I’m angry because the biggest losers of all are the students. And these are foreign students who have paid good money to come here to study. To me, it’s a matter of principle and justice. It’s how you treat your students. The school is not poor. I know how much money they charge the students and how much money they make from them. The best they can do is give them a decent education – a kind of education they would get in any other language school in Singapore or Australia or in the developed world. But they are not getting such an education.

One thing I have to acknowledge. My boss is nice and she accepted and in fact agreed with most of my criticisms. I think she was probably nearly as horrified and outraged as I was/am when she arrived to take over the department. And she’s hoping to change it. And yet, I believe the problem is bigger than she thinks. She can change some things, but not everything. She asked me to stay on to help her change the way the department does things. And in a way, I’d like to. But in another way, I know that she faces a lot of constrains. Why? Because she’s just the head of the department and not the head of the whole school. And guess what? No matter how much one wants to change things for the better, I think the core problems will still remain because it’s ultimately about money. The owners and shareholders of the school only care about making as much money as possible. They don’t really care about whether the students receive a good education.

One of my biggest criticism is the textbook the school is using, which it has created. I told my boss straight to her face that it’s crap. And my boss pretty much agrees with me on this. It’s a big joke. She’s trying to revise and update it. And yet I know that no matter how much they do so, it’s still going to be pretty much a big joke. My school insists on using their own textbooks and has created a textbook that any ESL/EFL teacher in the know will tell you does not meet the standards of what an ESL/EFL textbook should be. It’s not even based on good ESL/EFL methodology and research. And it isn’t as if there aren’t good ESL/EFL textbooks out there. There are TONS of them. So many good ones created by professional teachers with years of experience that are published by the biggest educational book publishing companies in the world. That is, good stuff. Tried and tested stuff. Stuff that most every good schools in the world would use. I’m serious about this. Most ESL/EFL schools do NOT create their own textbooks. Simply because there are so many good ones available that they can pick and choose which one they want to use. These textbooks may not be perfect and that’s why teachers around the world are free to adapt them to their context. But the fact is that most schools and teachers throughout the world, as far as I know, use these well-known coursebooks. But somehow my school works differently…

Because of the poor textbook, I feel so sorry for my students. They are being taught crappy stuff. They are bored stiff with the textbook – as I am. And they aren’t learning what they should be learning. I feel sorry for them because these students have come here all the way to study English and they aren’t learning much with the textbook. I’ve had to spend a lot of time photocopying extra materials from books I’ve bought personally for my teaching to supplement the use of the textbook. And today my boss told me that I am not allowed to use outside materials. What? You want me to feed my students the crap that’s been created by the school? You yourself agreed that the book is bad. But I understand that her hands are tied too – by the way the school works. And she kinda threatened to sack me if I continued to use additional materials. And so I’m faced with the choice of being in complicity with my school in short-changing my students or getting sacked for wanting to help my students improve their English. Touch choice aye?

Actually, I’m not afraid of being sacked. I know I’m being a difficult employee. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s me. I would do anything to stand up for people I think I should stand up for. It’s about principles and justice and one’s values. It’s about the right thing to do. I cannot stand seeing businesses making huge profits while short-changing their customers. And education should never be about making money. But throughout the world, it has become so.

Have no doubt, I understand my boss’ situation. I understand her position. In many ways, there are lots of constraints for her too. Her hands are tied by the people above her. So I’m sympathetic to her situation. But have no doubt too that the people I ought to be most concerned about are the students.

I’m passionate about education. I’m passionate about teaching. And I love my students and want more than anything for them to improve their English. That’s why I feel so strongly about all this. I’m not paid much. But it’s not about me or the teachers. A school ought to exist for its students and ultimately education ought to be about the students and their learning, not about anything else or anyone else.

That’s my rant.

Update: On Tuesday, my boss gave me a 20% raise. I’m not sure why she did that (but of course I’ll accept it!) because I never complained about my wages. My talk with her was never about my wages. I did say that I feel the school doesn’t take care of the teachers and the students. I argued my point well and I continue to hold to that fact. But I don’t think I ever mentioned my pay (which is low by industry standards).

Besides a terrible textbook, my second biggest complain was the size of (i.e. number of students in) the classroom. Typical ESL classrooms are not meant to be big at all. You get big classrooms (up to 40 students) in mainstream schools. But in the ESL industry (in the developed world), it’s different. I’ve never come across any ESL classrooms in language schools with that many students. That’s just not the standard for the ESL industry. Most classrooms have at most 25 students. Most of the time, it’s between 10 and 20. The reason is very simple. Teachers can pay more attention to students and the quality of teaching would be much better.

But each class in my school has 40 ESL students per class. The result is that the students’ learning and the teachers’ teaching suffer because it’s harder to control that big a class and you can’t pay much attention to each student. But of course the school only wants to make as much money as possible so they enroll 40 students in each class.

So my boss talked to me on Tuesday and said that after what I had complained about the day before about the big classrooms, she’s decided to raise my pay! I was shocked. Not because I was happy with the pay rise. But because I felt that was so insulting. My concerns were mainly for the students, not for my pay. I told her that it’s a nice gesture to increase my pay but that’s not going to change anything. The students aren’t going to get better teaching because of my pay rise. The students will get better teaching and better attention if the class size is reduced. I’m not interested in my pay rise as much as I’m interested in the school giving the students what they deserve and what they have paid for.

But of course I’ll accept the pay rise and I thank God for that :)

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  1. In the area that you see a need for improvement, could I suggest you pray to Lord Jesus, may He be the one that change the things there. He had done a perfect work on the cross. So, claim the blessing in this area. Just my humble suggestion.

  2. a good rant. get it out of your system. makes you human and transparent..almost naked (genesis)?

    people don’t usually like that quality because…it maybe offensive.

    having said that, i have read some of your thoughts (i won’t dare say most) on grace, faith and your passion in helping the poor (i shall leave more comments on this later).

    myself have done a bit of those, the ‘deeper life’ teachings, too so i know where you are coming from.

    but i have to draw some preliminary conclusion to your approach or ‘peacemaking’ ideas. it appears you are always seeking a ‘balance’ in controversies? basically, and if possible, you don’t want to ruffle any feathers and hope to work towards a peaceful resolution even though it involves ‘sacrifices’ or even at someone’s expense sometimes – particularly religious issues.

    in short, like our government, justifying the means to achieve an end?

    so at the end of the day, if you’re unable to resolve the differences, you will settle or go with the one that makes the most sense to you or could benefit most people – you went with prince on grace.

    i wish the lord was like that. perhaps, he could have avoided the cross?

  3. Dear Stephanie,

    Thanks for your comments. Indeed I am praying and will continue to stay on for the time being and see how God leads.

    Sword, it’s not about not wanting to ruffle any feathers. I’ve ruffled a lot of feathers with my theological and social views in my lifetime. So I have no problem doing that. I don’t like doing it because I’m generally not the confrontational type. But certain things have to be said and done. I will stand up for certain things. I see Jesus (and the OT prophets) ruffled a lot of feathers too and in many cases it’s about important issues like the gospel of grace and social justice issues. At least, that’s the way I see it. You may not agree. But to me, those are the big issues. Have I not ruffled a lot of people when it comes to those issues on this blog? Surely so.

    At least I’ve ruffled your feathers in my view of grace. So I’m not sure what you’re complaining about because I’ve entertained your posts though I’m not sure how long more I’ll do so.

    Ultimately, it’s not about wanting to disagree with people for the sake of disagreeing. There’s no point in that. I am clear about what I believe regarding many things. But I am also clear about the fact that I don’t know many things. And I’m sure not ashamed of the fact that I don’t know everything.

    There are many things regarding prosperity I’ve not talked about. This may give you the impression that I’m avoiding that because it’s controversial. I’m not. As I already said so many times, I will do so in future. I like to take my time!

    Update: Sword, having read your latest comments which I did not approve to be published here, I’ve decided not to publish any more of them. I have been fair by allowing contrary opinions here but you’ve gone just a bit too far this time.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with what you have said. In all honesty, having taught in at private schools in Singapore, these “institutions” are never looking for good teachers. They seem to be looking for cheap ones. The schools that I have worked at are usually very poorly resourced and funding or professional development always seem to be dirty words. Case in point – one of the schools I worked at provided no Internet connection to the teachers for a whole year. Students are taken in as long as they can pay the fees; their levels are not of concern because that would mean a loss of income to management.

    What really makes me sick are how some of the teachers actually give guarantees or claim to have magical formulae to ensure that students pass within a year of doing O Level English or GP! Then there are those who would teach students English in Mandarin.

    I have left that school since. Not really sure if I see any hope in teaching Private schools at all. Frankly, I am not sure if I see a career path at all in this industry. These PEIs seem to start thinking of ways to get rid of you as soon as you start commanding a decent salary.

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