SINGAPORE - Mrs Alice Gay was quite the legend in my primary school, known for her acerbic wit, impossible maths homework, and for flinging exercise books out of the window more than occasionally.
If we were lucky, our books would land on a little red bridge that spanned our school pond. Most of the time, we weren't.
My mother, a teacher herself, was quite happy for my exercise books - red-marked and corrections undone - to get a little soggy. As far as she was concerned, it was well-deserved humiliation for being careless and lazy.
I don't think Mrs Gay would get away with all that in today's age of hyper-involved parents. As my son's principal puts it, it is now harder than ever to be a teacher.
Mobile phones and e-mail have made it a cinch to contact teachers outside school hours. Text messages are the go-to avenue for complaints and incessant questions. A teacher friend lamented that a parent has even haggled for extra marks on her child's tests and exams.
That's just managing us adults. After that, teachers have to go back to their real job - teaching our children.
At the kindergarten where my two-year-old attends pre-nursery, teachers teach two three-hour sessions back to back.They impart basic literacy and numeracy through an array of creative activities, with materials that are mostly handmade. Throughout the school day, they engage the children in energetic "motherese" - that high-pitched, cooing voice adults use to talk to toddlers - and shower them with love and affection, even when the children aren't on their best behaviour.
That is on top of making sure the children are fed and hydrated, and dealing with the odd vomit- stained uniform, soiled diaper or bloody knee.
All this, for a very modest reward - the 2011 Ministry of Manpower Labour Report states that the median pay for pre-school teachers is $1,840 and, startlingly, that 75 per cent of them earn $2,040 or less. How ironic, given that we entrust them daily with the little ones we hold dearest to us.
So lest we begin to regard teachers as glorified child-minders, let us remember that for a few hours each day, teachers are the extensions of parents, with the responsibility of educating, caring for and nurturing our young. You can't put a price tag on that.
While it is difficult to quantify the value of a good teacher, the influence of one is hardly in doubt. A research study last year by Harvard and Columbia economists posits that the difference between a strong and weak teacher lasts a lifetime.
The study suggests that a good fourth-grade teacher makes a child 1.25 per cent more likely to go to college, and 1.25 per cent less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. As an adult, each pupil will, on average, earn US$25,000 (S$32,000) more over a lifetime. That's a gain of hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings for each year's batch.
More importantly though, good teachers shape the minds and nourish the souls of our young, through the passion they have for the subjects they teach.
Mrs Gay did that for my class through her one-of-a-kind art and maths lessons. While other classes had cookie-cutter painting and drawing assignments, we did decoupage and made beautiful 3D greeting cards with our NT cutters.
While others ploughed through maths questions from other schools' exam papers, Mrs Gay scoured maths activity books for brain teasers to challenge us. She succumbed to cancer when I was in Secondary 2, but my memories of her will always be vivid, especially today, on Teachers' Day.
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