Career Conversations Webinar: Veronica Choi, Teacher, Ministry of Education, Singapore
During this online webinar, on June 15, 2012, Veronica Choi shared her personal story of how her career path took her from graduation to working abroad. Veronica answered questions about her job and provided insight into the types of opportunities available within her field.
About Veronica Choi
General Education Officer, Ministry of Education, Singapore
Alumna: BEd Consecutive Education, York University, 2010
I'm a Canadian-born Chinese from Toronto. As an avid traveller-explorer, I've taught at a summer camp in Guangzhou, China and a winter camp on Jeju Island, South Korea. Other than my 2 teachables (English and Drama), I also enjoy coaching Badminton, choreographing traditional Chinese folk dances and directing plays for the Drama Club. Through teaching, I've encountered new cultures, foods & people and hope to become a better teacher that can bring forth this wealth of knowledge and world-wide mindset into my classroom.
Could you briefly tell us about your role and your key responsibilities within your current organization?
I am currently working under the Ministry of Education in Singapore as a General Education Officer teaching English Language and English Literature to mostly Secondary 3 students (age 15) at a Secondary School. I also participate in a Character Education Committee, teaching students how to be compassionate, caring and service-oriented.
Can you please share an overview of your career story with us? How did your career path take you from graduation to where you are now?
I majored in English and Drama at the undergraduate level. At York, I graduated with my BEd through the Consecutive Education program (Intermediate/Senior). After that, I volunteered at two schools in Toronto for approximately one year. At one point, I had actually submitted volunteer applications to ten schools in my area, and only got one call back for volunteering! That prompted me to explore global employment opportunities for teachers. Through my volunteering, I got invited by one of the teachers to teach at a summer camp in Guangzhou, China. Thanks to that opportunity, I began exploring the idea of travelling and teaching overseas. Since then, I have taught at a Winter Camp on Jeju Island, South Korea and am now teaching in Singapore.
Can you tell us what qualifications are needed to teach in the school system in Singapore?
As long as you have a degree—it doesn’t need to be a Bachelor of Education—and some experience (such as teaching at a camp or Saturday morning classes or even tutoring), they will consider your application. For example, I met a teacher who had only an undergraduate degree but had done some teaching in Japan, and was going to teach in a Junior College (Grades 11 & 12) here in Singapore. There is a huge demand for teachers in Singapore right now. I think by 2015, they want to hire 3500 more teachers. Individuals with a BEd will simply be paid more than those without one.
What advice do you have for students who don’t have but want to gain teaching experience?
I needed to get teaching experience to apply to Teachers College, so my 3 teaching experiences were 1) teaching at a dance camp, 2) Saturday school teaching at Enoch Education Centre in Richmond Hill, and 3) teaching conversational English online for an agency in South Korea. Volunteering is a great way to get experience. I recommend that students ask around and network.
What specifically would you say is the most enjoyable aspect of your work? And the most challenging?
The most enjoyable aspect of being a teacher is sharing your subject of interest to young learners. The most challenging part is finding your students’ passions and relating it into your teaching subject.
What specifically would you say is the most enjoyable aspect of working and living abroad, particularly in Singapore? And the most challenging?
The most enjoyable aspect of working and living abroad is the exploration of new places, experiencing different cultures and foods, and meeting interesting people along the way. The most challenging aspect is the adjustment to a new society and the environment such as managing the different accents and Singlish, and the hot or rainy weather here in Singapore.
Can you walk us through what a typical day looks like for you?
My day begins with signing in at 7:15am and preparing for the National Anthem and flag raising at the general meeting area. After the morning announcements, students are to read for 15 minutes. During this time teachers may choose a student to have one-on-one discussions and talk about anything from school to family life etc. After the In-Conversation with Mentor (ICM), depending on my classes that day I may go straight into teaching or have some prep time to do last minute improvements on my lesson plans. The Secondary School classes are usually 35 minutes to 1 hour and 10 minutes long, and students have recess and lunchtime at the school. My classes usually end around 1 to 2 pm and if I was assigned an extra-curricular activity it would occur sometime after lunch or maybe even on the weekends depending on what the club activity is. There are also mornings and after school meetings and they occur once a week to keep all the staff and administration on track. The rest of my time is spent on marking and lesson planning for the following week, and preparing the students for their examinations at the end of their terms. From my conversations with other foreign teachers, I’ve learned that teaching in elementary and secondary schools are more demanding in terms of workload compared to teaching in junior colleges. When you begin teaching with the Ministry of Education in Singapore, they start you off “light”, but compared to the workload for teachers in the Canadian education system, it’s still intense. Last term, I had four classes— three Grade 9 classes and one Grade 7 class. This coming term, I will have double the workload. Most teachers have one committee that they participate in and one club. You are assigned to the club; you don’t get to choose, although you can state your preference. And depending on your committee or club, you may have to work on Saturdays.
Could you take us through the sequence of events and the process you went through in making the move to live/work abroad?
When I worked in China and South Korea, I needed to visit the country’s consulates in Toronto to get my temporary Visa. Transcripts, notarized degrees, reference letters or observation reports, and providing health records are the usual documentations requested from most countries. As my contract with Singapore is 2 years, the Ministry of Manpower helped me apply for a Work Permit instead of a temporary Visa. Through my two camp experiences abroad, I slowly began considering going abroad long term and got better at travelling such as packing more lightly and smartly each time.
What specific advice would you give to students and new graduates about what they can do today to prepare themselves for a career in this field, or more specifically, for teaching in Singapore?
For students who are preparing for a career in teaching abroad, I would advise them to gather as much information as they can regarding the countries of interest to them and the school they will be working in. Research the education system, various teaching opportunities (e.g. compare working for the public school system vs. working for a private tutoring school), salary levels, academic schedule (note: be sure to find out when the school year begins in the countries you are considering), and supports available for orienting new teachers. I don’t recommend that individuals interested in teaching abroad go through an agency. Contact the schools directly. Three valuable resources online are Dave’s ESL Café, Search Associates and a List of International Schools on Wikipedia. For individuals with a B.Ed, teaching at Ontario-approved International schools is a great option. For a list of these schools, visit the Ontario Ministry of Education website. Also, I recommend that individuals bring along teaching resources that they can share with their fellow colleagues, and be open-minded with the different systems and cultures. For the graduates who are preparing to teach in Singapore, travel light and be prepared to handle large amounts of workload if you teach in the Secondary levels.
Looking back now, is there anything you wish you had known when you were getting started in your career abroad that could have really helped you to get to where you are today more quickly and easily?
Looking back now, I wished I had not been too picky with some of the contracts I got from other countries. It took me awhile to focus more on gaining teaching experience than getting the right pay, benefits, and living conditions etc.
In your opinion, what part did networking play in your career journey? Do you have any recommendations on how students can network within this field?
Through volunteering at the schools in Toronto, I got an invitation from a teacher to teach abroad which opened my career globally. The Career Centre at York University also played a huge role when they provided me with information that inspired me to consider the Ministry of Education in Singapore.
What common attributes have you noticed among the people hired into roles similar to yours who have been successful within your organization?
Some common attributes I noticed among the people hired in Singapore would be the willingness to learn and their ability to co-operate with others. The hired teachers should also be passionate in their teaching and show compassion towards the young learners.
What experiences have proved to be most beneficial to you in successfully landing your current role? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Thanks to all the workshops from York University’s Career Centre, they were able to prepare me for the interviews and guide me to the right direction for my job search. It was thanks to their suggestion of considering the Ministry of Education in Singapore that I am where I am today. One thing I would have done differently is to work at more camps before settling down, and to state specifically the level or grade that I wanted to teach during my interview with the Ministry of Education in Singapore.
If you could leave students with one nugget of advice concerning a career in your field and living/working abroad, what would it be?
Don’t give up too easily, even though at times it may be tough there is always a lesson to learn from it.