Posted by: Principal/Editor | October 2, 2012

Good Teachers and the Zero-Sum Game

Cai He Middle School is an urban school in Hangzhou city, China, with a niche or sorts in Science education and in having a quality staff enrolment. It is a renowned school in Hangzhou as evidenced by the escalated property prices in its vicinity. When the Principal was asked how the school became successful in its fairly short (approximately) fifteen-year history, he recounted how Cai He chose to (1) focus intensely on making one particular domain excellent first – Science education in this case – before moving on to improve other aspects of school life, and (2) recruiting only the best teachers to their fraternity. True enough, those policies in the school’s infancy stages still ring true today. Not only is the school’s science program still their niche, many of their teachers have won accolades in teaching excellence – the latter a fact especially highlighted in the school’s corporate video shown to us in our school visit.

At this stage in my leadership development, I am convinced that having a strong teaching team is a key determinant of school success. I say this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they have the most direct impact on students for they are at the execution interface of all education policies large and small. Having a good team who can understand well the rationale for implementation and implement policy with efficacy and congruence is a tremendous asset to the system. This is an important concern for school leaders. Secondly, good teachers make good classroom teaching happen. Though good teaching could by definition be classified under the policy umbrella previously mentioned, it is where students benefit most directly, regularly and frequently. Having good teachers is an important concern for students. Thirdly, having good teachers is an alluring selling point of a school to prospective parents. A quality teaching force ranks high on a parent’s criteria in selecting a school for their child. Schools which possess teachers who have won teaching awards and/or have excellent academic credentials get higher demand and hence harvest first crop. Having good teachers is an important concern for parents. It makes good sense that Cai He’s HR policy translated into superior school outcomes.

Perhaps, then, I should do the same if and when I am Principal? I do not think so, not entirely at least. For one, recruiting good teachers generally implies that they we are removing them from some other school within the same education system. If this is indeed the case, then we stand to gain nothing as a system with this zero-sum game. What point, then, is there to this apart from fulfilling one’s self-centred goal of improving his own school? This is much like the wrong perception some educators have of wanting to improve their school’s student intake (i.e. taking better students from the PSLE or from the O-levels) year on year, so that their school will be a ‘top school’ over time – leaving the lower-performing students to some other schools – another zero-sum exercise for sure. On the one hand, I empathise with Principals who simply want to improve their school’s outcomes, but I cannot further extend my sympathy when the policy decision is parochial and is at the expense of others in the same education ecosystem. We must as co-dependents in the system be most mindful of anything that does not produce overall benefit in the wider scheme of things.

That being said, it has also crossed my mind that we are now operating in a (semi)decentralized education system in Singapore. Much like how dog-eat-dog capitalism triumphed over centrally-organized communism in the spheres of economics and governance, perhaps schools need to be more like corporate organizations which at all times aim to take the biggest bite out of the economic pie. After all, the free economy proved to bring about more benefit to human society; free schools, then, could perhaps do much more than schools which choose to look out for one another, but they in actual fact paradoxically chain one another down to slower progress. Could I be wrong in thinking that we should always keep an eye out for the greater good, and also wrong in narrowing myself to thinking that it is the only path to long-term systemic educational success? I wish I had the answer to this, but I believe that the answer is neither within my reach nor within anybody else’s in our current day and age. But as time reveals the answer as all nations progress chart their own paths in history, I will function as an individual who will do my part and care for the greater good in my own small little ways.

Posted by  Jaron Pow



  1. I agree with you that in most cases, teacher capacity and engagement levels are the critical factors in the effectiveness of student outcomes. Assuming that schools and teachers are the main domains where student outcomes are most impacted.

    Thus it is very important for school leaders and the organization to embrace teacher empowerment, renewal, development and training. Only when teachers are given the power, resources and space to explore, research, consult and hone their craft can we sustain and maintain our educational excellence. We may have reached a point where centralization is giving us diminishing returns as base levels have reached a sufficient level. To break the new threshold level, maybe greater teacher development plans, structures should be implemented and is being implemented in many small ways in schools, clusters and zones etc.

    Issue is we have to allow time for productive failure, experimentation and mistakes. This culture change needs time and space to germinate especially for the Singaporean teachers and leaders. As school leaders we will need to learn how to manage expectations and accountability to higher powers and stakeholders as we journey through this period of flux and change.

    Hang in there everyone!

  2. i do feel that teachers are important but systems can make or break teachers. you can have the best teachers but bad systems and structures that end up killing a teachers passion and creativity. Also i feel that who is to define best teachers? again a leader needs to be clear of what they want to achieve for their students. If you want all round development then teachers also would need more then just content knowledge but character, values etc. How can we measure that? If schools were just about content knowledge maybe we can find “the best”. But also the smartest teachers might not be the best teachers as they might not be good at presenting the information or engaging the students.

    hence i feel though important, having good teachers (in the leaders definition of good) i also feel that the teachers need structures and processes that help guide the teachers, keep them up to date and also help them be flexible to change.

  3. Dear Jairon,
    Your point about keeping an eye on the greater good is laudable, and something that all educators in Singapore should always keep in mind. I’m not sure though, that moving teachers from one school to another necessarily works against the greater good. The APEX works to protect both schools and teachers from chaotic movements in ‘centralizing’ the regular ‘exchange’ of teachers and I have seen many schools and teachers benefit from the movement. In schools with strong staff capacity, good teachers may not always be able to do more than shine in the classroom because the school is already top-heavy with strong leadership. When these teachers have the opportunity to move out, they bring a wealth of experience and in some cases, real hope to schools who may be running below strength or have not quite the capacity. I know of individuals who have benefitted this way because in the new posting they could do much more than the already top-heavy staff strength in their previous school allowed for. One is a HoD now where she would not likely to have had a chance in her previous school.
    At the school level, I also know of principals who would work out with each other to decide when the best time is to release an officer so as to strike a kind of equilibrium for both schools. Furthermore, with the latest changes in policy regarding the removal of banding and encouraging schools to find their niche area, I suspect that more movement will take place as teachers take advantage of the opportunities opening up to them. If these teachers are able to locate schools that will allow them to best develop their talent and benefit the school and students at the same time, I think we might end up with small wins for many parties. The system needs its parts to be running, but they do not always have to run maximally, as long as they’re all running towards the same goal. If better placement and choice of placement allow for happier teachers who are more willing to commit to the work, I think we need not worry that we are playing a zero-sum game.

  4. I agree with Chaman in considering the question of who or what determines a ‘good teacher’. Some parties would view good teachers as those who bring in exemplary results, other parties may view good teachers as having the innate ability to reach out to stakeholders and yet some other parties may consider good teachers to be the ones who may not necessarily ‘churn out’ academic results but instead ‘turn around’ a ‘beyond help’ child.

    I would say that good teachers can be found everywhere and they are determined in terms of a right fit between the teacher and the school. But then again, are good teachers just good from the start, ie. BT days or can good teachers be ‘made’ just as good leaders can be ‘made’?

    This brings me to Ivan’s point about the importance of building teacher capacity and increasing teacher engagement levels. Before a teacher can contribute effectively to his or her school, he or she has to be at a certain competency level. If that is not the case, then Professional Development (PD) for the teacher is of utmost importance. But why is PD not embraced fully as the way to go to transform a teacher from mediocre, to good, to great? Instead, it is looked upon, in some cases, as something separate, an extra burden to all the other burdens that are already bearing down on a teacher’s shoulders.

    It is an irony that most competent teachers view PD as important to them and yet less competent teachers respond to it negatively. It makes one ponder whether the idea of a ‘good teacher’ resides more in the psyche of the individual, rather than on how others view him or her.

    At the end of the day, the best judges on whether we are good teachers or not are our students, and not so much that of any other party. I am wondering whether Cai He Middle School had considered them to begin with.

  5. Good school needs good teachers. But the reality is that as a school per se, we do not have control over the teachers we receive, as teachers are centrally recruited and posted to schools. Beside the quality, we also cannot know if the teachers’ enthusiam can last the long journey given the challenges of education. So unlike the private sector where the management can hire and fire inept professionals, we can only do our best to coach and develop underperforming teachers to reach the acceptable standards. This takes time and requires effort from the supervisor and supervisee, especially the latter. But given the right attitude, I believe teachers can ultimately become good teachers, as teaching experience will be gained over time. When that happens, these teachers will eventually make their schools good.

  6. Hi Jaron. I could not agree more with your view that the cannibalisation of ‘good’ teachers from other schools is essentially a zero-sum game for the whole system. But Regina had also rightly pointed out that sometimes when a teacher switch schools, it could be beneficial for both schools. The term ‘good’ is rather subjective. The qualities of a teacher that are appreciated by a school may not be of value to other schools. It is all a matter of school context and job fit. For instance, putting a teacher with a strong aptitude and interest for arts in a school that has a niche in Science and Math may not be appropriate. That is something that I experienced when I visited a school in Vietnam.

    Every school leader wants good teachers who have the drive and are competent in teaching. And I admit that it will not realistic to expect to find a large number of such teachers within a system of 33,000 teachers. It boils down to the kind of mindset that a school leader possesses and the context of the school. A results-driven principal would certainly prefer to ‘poach’ (pardon my language) good teachers from other schools. Similarly, a principal who has just inherited a poor-performing school with a toxic staff culture might want a substantial change in staff makeup so as to turn the school around. On the other hand, a principal with a ‘growth’ mindset would be comfortable with a brood of teachers with mixed capabilities and would try to give time and create a conducive environment for them to grow

  7. Hi all,

    I agree with Jaron’s notion of recruitment of good teachers from other schools may ultimately lead to a zero sum game in the education ecosystem. This may made worst if a newly appointed Principal deliberately brought his own team of Key Personnels or “Good” teachers from his former school to the new school. Imagine the message that the Principal will be sending to his existing staff in the school. In such cases, the staff morale will be low and this will impact on the teachers’ performance in the class.

    I do share the same view with Daphne that good teachers can be found everywhere. Instead of “poaching” good teachers from other schools to attain the school’s outcomes, it is the onus and responsibility for Principals to develop their own staff into better teachers that can bring the school to greater heights. This will then be a good indicator to measure the effectiveness of School Leadership in the school.

    As every school is now a good school, it will also mean every school has good teachers. Instead of always looking outside for good teachers, the school leaders should look within the school and develop the teachers to the fullest potential so as they can contribute effectively to the school. The issue is are schools doing enough to develop their staff professionally? Perhaps the deeper issue is do our current results oriented system or our appraisal system allow our school leaders the space, time and autonomy to measure the effectiveness of schools?

  8. I agree with Jimmy that attitude of the teacher makes or breaks a good teacher. Someone once said, “your attitude determines your altitude”. I still hang on to this belief. Teacher competency can be developed over time with experience and appropriate forms of professional development. However, the hardest thing to do is to transform a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. It takes something special that touches the very core of one’s being to activate that mindset change process and for human beings, it is highly unpredictable and probably not easily reproduced. How then do we determine ‘good’ attitude?

    As someone also told me, “in the multitude of counsellors, there is safety.” What I am implying here is that peer assessment in this case could be a more balanced measure. Just like how we are trying to measure 21st century competencies using a combination of teacher, peer and self-assessment strategies, it is perhaps possible to identify good teachers in the same manner.

  9. It’s definitely true that good teachers are paramount in getting good results. There are many studies out there which points to having good teachers as the key factor in raising students’ grades. Yet I feel that we would be very parochial if we think that just by having good teachers, students’ grades will improve. There are many other factors such as school culture, facilities, marketing, school leadership and resource planning that determines a student’s grade. I believe that as Middle Managers, we should do our best to train our teachers even though they may leave for other schools. A macro view of this would be that these good teachers would also bring about benefits to the entire education system when they teach other students from other schools. Indeed it is true that it is a dog-eat-dog world out there. We win some we lose some; it’s the same out there in the working world. What we must aim to do is to continually hone our teaching craft and as middle managers, hone our staff’s teaching craft so that at the end of it all, the whole education system will benefit. If we are going to have a selfish mindset, then students in general will be the ones suffering.

  10. I am taking a somewhat radical view of this. I agree that good teachers are very hard to find. And even when you find one, the teacher who is good in another school may not be good in your school’s context. I also see Regina’s point that the current system functions to a moderate degree of satisfaction of our personnel needs, and that there is much negotiation and satisficing among school leaders in resolving issues of deployment.

    However i would like to suggest a new way of looking at teacher recruitment. This involves a degree of autonomy to individual schools.

    Schools could be given the autonomy to recruit a percentage of their staff population off the street. i.e. non-teachers with no NIE training.

    These teachers would be put on a contract scheme, with review every 6 months. This would allow the teachers who do not make the cut to be released from the system before considerable harm is done by them.

    During their contract service, these teachers will be mentored by senior staff members and provided OJT.

    After two years of contract service, assuming their performance is satisfactory, they will be enrolled in a truncated PGDE course (assumption being that they would already have gained teaching practice and context in the two years attached to schools). They would be posted back to their former schools after NIE, and awarded tenure.

    What would this do?
    1. It would allow schools to hire teachers contextualized to their specific needs.
    3. There would be a greater likelihood of fit between such teachers and the schools that hire them
    2. Prior teaching exposure would provide greater resonance for trainee teachers when they undergo lessons at NIE.
    4. Schools need not always recruit at the expense of other schools (at least in terms of taking someone else’s teacher)
    5. PGDE is a heavy investment, this provides a gate keeping mechanism that ensures that recipients of such funding are worthy
    6. Teachers so recruited who perform badly or decide that teaching is not for them need not be unnecessarily bonded for three years where they can do considerable harm in the classroom.

    Wonder what u guys think?

  11. The underlying assumptions behind the statement “recruiting good teachers generally implies that they we are removing them from some other school within the same education system… If this is indeed the case, then we stand to gain nothing as a system with this zero-sum game” are that

    (1) good teachers have only 2 options – stay in school A and continue to contribute to the school as a good teacher or move to some other school “within the same education system”, and

    Actually, there is a third option – to leave the system entirely.
    No, there is a fourth – stay in school A and get demotivated.
    Wait, there’s Option 5 – move to AST and be a resource that schools may tap on.

    (2) the environment has no impact on the quality of the teacher so that in moving the good teacher from School A to School B, the total number of good teachers in the system remain the same.

    As Chapman pointed out “systems can make or break teachers”.

    Systems can break teachers: We see good teachers (and those with the potential to be good teachers) get disenfranchised for various reasons and either get demotivated but continue to stay within the system or leave the system entirely. Many are now happy and making big bucks doing private tuition. If we accept this – that teachers really do have a choice beyond School A and School B – then we may be prepared to see the good that ‘competition’ can potentially bring. Greater competition for a scarce resource will bid up the price of that resource. What does that mean in the market for good teachers? It means that schools have to pay a higher ‘price’ to bid for the good teacher, i.e. negotiate the terms of reference, make the terms of employment attractive enough. This does not always have to be in the form of headship. In fact, there are many good teachers who would rather remain as teachers but remaining as teachers means that they will have to be on the receiving end of many of the work assigned to them. They feel powerless, robbed of autonomy and may eventually choose to leave the system. Yes, there is the Master Teacher track but what about something in-between e.g. offload the teacher in CCA duties so that he may concentrate on T&L and mentoring BTs. To give these good teachers a stronger bargaining power also serves as a strong signal to the other teachers that the system values good teacher. In other words, competition may help to keep the good teachers in the system and keep the other teachers hungry to be good teachers (perhaps not all of the rest but surely some will see this as a goal to work towards).

    Systems can make teachers: As Regina pointed out “In schools with strong staff capacity, good teachers may not always be able to do more than shine in the classroom because the school is already top-heavy with strong leadership. When these teachers have the opportunity to move out, they bring a wealth of experience and in some cases, real hope to schools who may be running below strength or have not quite the capacity.” Considering the large multiplier effect of moving a good teacher to a school with many BTs, the net effect is an increase in the quality of T&L. But it can be just as possible (perhaps even more so) that good teachers move from an under-performing school to a school that is already among the top performers.

  12. I share the same sentiments as you that strong teaching team is a key determinant of school success. To ensure a strong teaching team, there must be a stringent teacher selection process and rigorous teaching training in the system. We need teachers who are strong in their content knowledge and content-pedagogical knowledge as these could give them the confidence to handle complex concepts and tough situations in classes. However, as pointed out by Chien Ming that systems can make or break teachers. Many a times, I observed teachers having to experience this layer of unspoken stress as the appraisal and evaluation is closely linked to their promotion that lead on to many unnecessary competitions that indirectly caused the dog-eat-dog situation among teachers. As a middle manager, rather than recruiting “better” teachers at the expense of other schools, it is crucial to understand and help teachers to grow in terms of knowledge, skills and dispositions such commitment, capacity and resilience. we have to lead a culture in school where there is a strong relationship between school leaders and teachers founded on trust and openness that bring about better quality of conversations and thinking which would gradually create better outcomes in the school.

  13. Education need not be, and I argue, cannot be a zero-sum game.

    It cannot be ‘my school’ versus ‘your school’. That if I have good teachers means your teachers are lousy, etc.

    I argue that in education, we have a bottomless pit, and so we can have a pie that can be enlarged forever. Hence, it is not a zero-sum game.

    No one can proclaim that he or she is the best teacher, with no room for improvement. There is always AFIs, especially when with globalisation, technological advances and changing times, there is always the need to keep up with these things, with all these changes.

    Hence, if every teacher can improve, there isnt a need to ‘snatch or poach’ the so-called good teachers from other schools. You can always groom and develop your own.

    Therefore, the most important quality a teacher must have to become the ‘best’ teacher is to possess the positve attitude to always improve himself or herself in teaching his or her students.

    If the teacher does not possess such an attitude, then it is a ‘minus’, not just to the school but to the whole education system, and so should be counselled, and removed from the system if counselling and numerous opportunities given to improve fail to inculcate such an attitude in the teacher.

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