By Dawn Chia
STRAIGHT out of secondary school, she got a chance to become a teacher.
While studying for a diploma in education, she would also get paid $1,500 a month by the Government in her final year.
But what if she was not cut out to be a teacher?
Only a few flunk badly and failed students have to repay a sum - as much as $76,700, as one trainee learnt.
Miss Siti Suhana Saat has been asked to return this sum to the Ministry of Education (MOE) for failing her teaching course.
As soon as she completed her O levels, she had applied to the National Institute of Education (NIE) to become a government primary school teacher.
She was accepted for the four-year programme but she failed her final practical examination - twice.
As a result, MOE terminated her appointment, in accordance with the Teacher Training Agreement which she had signed.
Her four-year bond was deemed broken, and she had to pay MOE just over $76,700.
Miss Siti told The New Paper: 'I want to teach'.
But she just didn't make the cut.
In a recent letter to The Straits Times Forum, MOE said the agreement is explained to each applicant. But Miss Siti claimed she it never occurred to her that failing would be equivalent to breaking the bond.
She scored mostly Cs and Ds in the first three years of her course. The real blow came in her final semester last year.
She failed her practicum - the teaching practice module where trainee teachers are assigned to teach at schools for a two-month period - and two related modules.
Miss Siti recalled: 'I was stunned - I'm not a straight As student, but I felt I did all right for my practicum. I couldn't believe that I failed the last exam.'
She argued that assessment for the practicum was subjective - a view echoed by her former employer Mrs Ann Tee Chye Hoon, whose letter was published in The Straits Times on 12 Feb.
When The New Paper asked about Miss Siti's case, and whether she had been told specifically that failing would be deemed as breaking her bond, MOE referred us to its response in The Straits Times, published on 25 Feb.
In a joint reply to Mrs Tee, MOE and NIE said the terms and conditions of the agreement are explained to each applicant before they sign, weak students are given counselling and coaching and those who fail the teaching practice module are given a second chance. Miss Siti took a re-examination at another primary school in July. When she got her results in December, it was still bad news.
'I stared at the computer screen for a very long time - the letter 'F' kept flashing across my mind.
'After a while, I dashed around my room to look for any documents which might help me, but it was useless,' she said.
Miss Siti showed The New Paper a copy of numerous assessments done on her repeat practicum last July. She had scored some C (average) grades.
There was an overall B (good) grade for one of her practical assessments by her co-operating teacher.
In it, an experienced teacher, assigned to give the trainee guidance and support, commented that Miss Siti had planned the day's lesson well, managed the class well, and that she had gone to every student who needed extra attention.
But this was just one assessment.
When she was failed the practicum, Miss Siti was crushed.
'One teacher may think that I'm a good teacher, but another may not,' she said.
'Grading is after all done based on each individual's standards.'
NIE and MOE did not respond to our queries on the grading.
But she clung on to hope, and wrote a letter to NIE on 23 Dec, begging for another go at her practicum.
She said: 'I went for the same interviews, sat for the same exams and attended the same classes as my course mates.
'If I didn't acquire the necessary skills, how could I have stayed on the course for almost four years?'
NIE rejected her appeal, listing 'weaknesses' like poor classroom and time management, and late submissions of lesson plans.
DEVIATING FROM LESSON PLANS
She admitted deviating from the lesson plans occasionally because she felt the need to spend more time on areas which students didn't understand.
'Teachers have to be flexible and adapt to the students' needs, and not follow the lesson plans so rigidly just because we planned them,' she said.
'That's what what teaching is all about - to make sure the students understand.'
She has begun repaying the $76,706.32 that she owes MOE.
An MOE officer told her the amount covered salary earned, tuition fees and interest.
She made her first payment of $7,700 - a loan from her grandmother - to MOE on 15 Feb. And she is proposing to pay $200 every month annually.
MOE has apparently agreed to this being a long-term repayment plan provided she makes regular payments in her first year.
'I think it'll take me at least 40 years to repay the entire amount, with a yearly interest of 6 per cent,' she said.
She recently found a job as a teacher at a childcare centre, where she receives $750 a month. To supplement her income, she works as a private tutor, making about another $100.
Her father, a taxi-driver, makes just enough for the family's expenses, and doesn't have savings to help her pay off her bond.
Indeed, despite the bond repayment, she gives her parents $200 every month.
The eldest of three children said she used to give half the allowance she drew from MOE to her parents for household expenses.
In her final year, she was getting just over $1,500 a month.
Despite her failure, Miss Siti is determined to pursue a career in teaching.
Armed with only an O-level certificate, she admits that she is stumped when interviewers ask about her failed NIE stint.
'It's embarrassing - I spent four years at NIE, but ended up with no diploma and a huge debt.'
She added: 'I still love teaching.'
MOE: Those who fail get more chances to pass
TRAINEE teachers who do not pass the practice teaching module are counselled on the areas for improvement, says MOE.
They are then given another opportunity to repeat the module at a different school with different supervisors.
Those who fail this repeat attempt are refused re-admission by NIE.
When asked, the Ministry did not provide the number of trainees who failed the NIE course. It also did not give the number who were terminated because they failed the practical or theoretical components in exams.
But in its letter to The Straits Times Forum, it said 'only a very small number of trainees are unable to complete their training in NIE after the extended coaching, guidance and support process'.
Trainees who fail modules are given academic warnings by NIE after each semester and may be placed on academic probation. Individual counselling and coaching are given, along with adequate time and opportunity to improve.
If they continue to fail the modules, or exceed the maximum duration allowed to complete the course, they will be refused re-admission by NIE. MOE will then recover the training costs incurred.
The Forum reply said: 'MOE and NIE have an obligation to all students and parents in Singapore to ensure that teachers who have gone through NIE are qualified to teach in the schools.' The New Paper understands that another student from Miss Siti's cohort also failed his final exams, and was terminated by MOE. The 22-year-old passed the practicum, but failed other modules.
The amount of his bond is roughly the same as Miss Siti's. He told The New Paper, despite the agreement he signed, the bond repayment did not fully sink in till MOE terminated his service.
In January 2003, a Ms Siau Li Chao wrote to the now defunct Streats saying she had been terminated by MOE for being 'not proficient enough in the Chinese language'.
She had asked to teach English-medium subjects before she was hired, but was told to teach Chinese as Chinese Studies had been her major at NUS.
Like Miss Siti, she failed her practicum.
Ms Siau also claimed repaying the money when she broke the bond came as a surprise to her, despite the agreement she had signed earlier.