The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Don't become a teacher, in Singapore.

Teachers are, supposedly, a respected profession but, in speaking to expats, here, in Singapore who have taught, respect is not always what they receive.

Two different people have had very similar experiences, here. One of them had done many senior and interesting jobs in the US before coming to Singapore: he had covered a variety of types of work and responsibility, after all he had been working for over twenty years before he got here. His CV was, therefore, full and interesting.

In Singapore, he had no contacts and thought that teaching would be a straightforward job to get given that he could offer native English. So, he began to teach English. He was good at it, and the years passed and he secured quite good teaching jobs, ones that might be termed "sought after" (by teachers, at least), however, he began to grow bored, describing every day as "the same". Thus, he decided to send out his CV to potential employers. Surprisingly, very few got back to him. For the few who did, the conversations tended to go a little like this: "But you are a TEACHER...what makes you think you can work for us?"

He tried to direct their attention to his vast prior experience of relevant work obtained in the US...but it was all to no avail. They could not see his experienced past. All they could see was his most recent work as a teacher. The way they used the word "teacher", you'd swear they were saying "handicapped". It was clear that they had no respect for, or understanding of the skills that a teacher is adept in - particularly the communication skills which were directly relevant to the recruitment manager position he was applying for. They couldn't see any of that: all they saw was some stuffy guy in a classroom.

This dismissive experience of his, with employer after employer, eventually made him give up trying to seek other types of work in Singapore. He continues to be a teacher but is presently making plans to return to the US. He is an expat leaving precisely because he cannot find a congenial position, here, in Singapore, despite having a lot of experience to offer.

Another expat I am aware of had a similar problem. He was dismissed with the words: "What do you have to offer besides teaching?" by someone with whom he was to work. Again, all they could see was the most recent work as a teacher - somehow being unable to read the fifteen years of relevant experience on his CV. It is notable that, again, the word "teaching" was used as if it were some kind of defect.

Now, that two expats of my acquaintance should have had the exact same experience in Singapore suggests either one or both of two things. Firstly, it could be that employers, in Singapore, only see the relevance of one's most recent job and are unable to realize that any job that has been done before, could be done again - or any related job, for that matter, or one that used similar skills. If this is the case, then Singaporean employers lack imagination (but then, that wouldn't be a surprise, would it, in a nation that lacks imagination?) Secondly, it could be that there is genuine prejudice against teachers and former teachers in the Singaporean marketplace. It is possible that there may be the erroneous impression that teachers can't do anything else. They forget that Socrates was a teacher, that Aristotle was a teacher, that Richard P. Feynman was a teacher. Sometimes, teachers are among the best of people...not the worst, as some local Singaporeans seem to think. Perhaps they had bad experiences in school and are taking it out on job candidates.

Whatever is the case, it would seem to point to certain difficulties in the Singaporean job market. Foreigners coming here to work would be well advised to be careful what kind of work they chose, lest that box them in. It may be that local employers will not be able to see you doing any other kind of work after a few years.

This raises one thought in my mind. It may be that local Singaporeans generally are only able to do one kind of work and that they may be projecting this characteristic onto foreigners for whom doing many kinds of work is normal. There could be a lack of cross-cultural understanding going on.

So, stride carefully in the Singaporean marketplace - and, just to be on the safe side, don't ever become a teacher here - for it may be the last job they allow you to do.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:45 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this. Actually this predicament does not only affect the expatriates working as a teacher prior to looking for a job after.
This social/corporate "stigma" is dogging many local Singaporean ex-teachers who are looking for work after getting weary of the teaching "career".

8:46 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Could you give any details of experiences of this stigma? Why does it exist? Surely teachers have good people skills and communication skills? Surely that is of use in management? I would have thought that many good teachers would make excellent workers in many types of company.

What is wrong with the Singaporean corporate world?

9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was rejected twice after sitting two interviews for teaching. Glad I was rejected.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You had a lucky escape. In a Singaporean context, teaching seems to close doors for its practitioners, even as it supposedly opens doors for its students: how ironic.

I hope you found a brighter career, instead.

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cawley,

I think it is easier to move from the corporate sector to teaching than vice versa, and I think this is true for most of the world and not just of Singapore.

Why? Because School (whether at the high-school level or institutions of higher learning) isn't considered part of the 'real world'. I know for a fact that mid-career teachers in Singapore get remunerated for their previous job experience; I don't think a teacher can expect the same should he or she move into the corporate world after leaving the service.

1:27 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

I am a teacher in Korea. Yes, it's not considered something glamourous here.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Are there any fulfilling careers in Singapore?

I want to do something meaningful! :-(

2:23 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Teaching is meaningful, in its own way...but teachers are treated somewhat MEANLY by Singaporean society. Whether it is worth doing depends on whether you think it is worth restricting your options in life to teaching, teaching, teaching,by embarking on a career in it.

Singapore, in general, has a reduced range of career options and many of them are too focussed on purely economic ends to have much meaning attached. It is unfortunate...perhaps you should look at the wider world!

Best of luck.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. teaching in Korea: does it have glamour anywhere? It is hard work and pay is moderate or low in most countries. Even in Universities, Professors get much less than a similarly able professional would get in ANY other profession. Society really doesn't value those who build the future of those societies. It seems strange to me.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous monkeysee said...

The common axiom "Those who can't, teach" perhaps distracts from the actual capabilities of the individual. However, the conclusion drawn that teachers, by virtue of their profession, would possess useful skill sets in the corporate world is tenuous at best. In the rote-learning, the teacher is always right style of education that Singapore imposes, even at times at University levels, does not guarantee that teachers have any better problem solving or management skills than the other average joe. Nor does it necessary even guarantee good presentation or selling skills. In the end, it up to the individual to impress the potential employer, not just rely solely on the CV or resume he submits.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You have obviously never taught. On a daily basis teachers get practise in presentation of information, public speaking, communication. They also get daily practise in understanding other people's points of view, creating rapport and understanding. They should also be effective leaders (depending on subject and teaching style).

The skills a GOOD teacher builds would be of use to any company. What you speak of, are bad teachers who don't build good skills in these areas - but that being said, a teacher, in all likelihood is going to be better at presentation/selling than a non-teacher because they will have more experience of the situation.

It strikes me that a good teacher might make a good political leader, for instance: they would be good at rallies, speeches and in understanding others. These are all very important skills in such a situation.

Clearly, you don't value teachers so much. That axiom is frankly stupid since to be a good teacher you have to be able to do the thing you are teaching - otherwise you couldn't teach it very well.

Could Socrates and Aristotle - who taught philosophy - not DO philosophy? They were the best of their time at it. Could Richard Feynman who taught Physics not DO physics - he was one of the best physicists of the twentieth century.

That axiom is foolish.

8:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who has gone through the education system here, i must say that i have met many wonderful teachers.

Teachers DEFINITELY do have the skills necessary for any organization, and it is for the employer to decide how to make best use of his/her skills.

Alas, in Singapore, teaching, as a career is seen by MANY as an iron rice bowl- A job to fall back on when the other lucrative jobs vanishes. It is precisely because of this view that influence many employers to equate teachers as people who are not as skilled.
And it doesnt help that there are some black sheep among the teachers that reinforce this mentality with their attitudes and pathetic commitment.

Teaching has to come from the heart. It should be a passion that (mostly) drives a teacher. Not the money

9:35 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

It is odd that employers should think teachers are not as skilled. A typical teacher has a lot of different types of work to do, beyond their teaching. The admin load alone makes them either able administrators - or people who resign.

Teachers have far too much to do...those who can do it, well, are able enough.

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of which: Teachers should be free of the admin burden and instead use the extra time to TEACH the students.

All too often i have witness teachers try to balance the teaching aspect of their job and the admin role.

2:15 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I agree. Schools are just USING the teachers to squeeze as much work out of them as possible. They should hire dedicated administrators.

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Wang said...


There is a reason why the axiom exists, the basic issue, is that althougn there would be many teachers who would be excellent leaders however there are just as many teachers who are horrible dealing with different professional or non-professionals.
Although, the more proper axiom maybe those who can play will turn professional while those who are unable to,coach.
I respect teachers utmost and would be willing to consider but more ikely to consider those who teach at the polytechnic or university level due to ingrained Asian deference.


5:59 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Wang, the reason the axiom exists is because someone, sometime, said it or wrote it and others liked it and repeated it: there need be no more substance to it than that. Too often, thoughts enter our heads that got there by simple unthinking repetition by others, alone.

I know of many very capable people who, among their other activities, also teach. It is called "putting something back". They are very much "doers" - but also teachers.

I will give you one example, but I could give you a hundred, quite easily: Maya Angelou. She is most famous for her writing but she is a poet, historian, author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director. Few people are as diversely competent as she is. However, more to the point she is also a teacher. In fact, teaching is her day job. She is the Reynolds professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Would you say she is "coaching" because she can't "play professional"? Often, a person teaches because their true activities don't generate enough funds. For instance, James Joyce, one of the greatest writers of any century, spent quite some time teaching English. Did that mean he was not competent in English and able to "play professional"? No. It meant that he needed to make some money to give himself the time to write a book. That is all. I have a friend, lesser known, but no less a writer, called Charles Palliser. He taught English in Universities in England, although he is an American. Now, while he taught he also wrote. He wrote for many years. This became the book "Quincunx" which is an international literary bestseller. Would you consider him to be someone who taught because he can't "play professional"? Maybe you have a distorted impression of what teachers are, often, in other countries, because of what they can be in Singapore. Maybe in Singapore a few years in NIE (National Institute of Education) ensures that they are not up to much, by the end of it. However, I assure you that, around the world there are many leader thinkers, writers and creators, who also teach. In fact, that is usually what Western thinkers, writers and creators do. There are many artists who also teach, for instance. This is common.

I would invite you to actually look into the biographies of writers, thinkers, artists and creators from all history. So many of them spent time as a teacher. Many of them taught all their life long. But, of course, you would try to dismiss them as people who "can't play professional". Nonsense.

Teaching is an avenue for those with something to say. Often these are people who will say things in other ways, too - whether as a scientist, a writer, a thinker, an artist. It is remarkably short-sighted to dismiss a whole class of people simply because they communicate thought to their fellow man. Ironically, that is a thoughtless thing to do...

Yes. There are bad teachers...but there are many who have a lot to offer. If Singapore doesn't see that, it stands to lose the contributions of many people.

Thanks for your comment.

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there, I stumbled upon your post when I tried to google "What can ex-teachers do in the job market in Singapore".

I am a teacher and I have been teaching for more than 10 years. It is a job I love and it has been my childhood ambition to be a teacher.

Thank you for all your affirmations and vote of confidence to us teachers. Indeed, you have hit the right spot when you mention that teachers have communication, presentation and public speaking skills, among others. Teachers in Singapore juggle a great deal. Not only do we teach, we also have to handle a great deal of administrative work. Every school event has teachers working behind them. We also have to deal with errant students and obnoxious parents. Disciplining a child is not a one-off issue. it requires alot of time and guidance, as well as follow-ups with the parents.

Oh I could go on and on....

I used to tell myself that as a teacher, my balancing scales have 2 items on them. On one side is "teaching". The other side is "Admin work". I have managed to stay alive in this profession because my love for teaching always helps to balance up the mountain of admin work that I have. I tell all my friends that once this scale loses its balance (admin work outweighs teaching), I will leave. That will be the point where I will tell myself enough is enough.

I am at that point now.

Which is why I googled and found your post.

It is very likely that I will find my way back into teaching eventually. But right now, I just need a break from it all. A good break.

Just sharing... =)

1:29 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for confirming my view of the teacher's life. It would help, I think, if there were actually admin workers to do the admin, instead of heaping it on the teachers. Then the focus could always be on the kids...but oh well, that would mean making education the priority - and since when has that been the true aim of the "system"?

Best of luck on your new life.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Leia said...

Actually, I want to become a teacher. Though, I may seem young and inexperienced of the ways which society can bring me down, but pardon me, I feel that you are wrong. You may say that teachers do not gain the respect that they deserve from the public, but I beg to differ. Maybe, I might not understand because I am only just a child. But yet, you are wrong. Teachers do gain respect, from their students. I have seen many of my teachers smile and they never once regretted becoming a teacher. When a teacher realise that we, students, understand and appreciate their hard work, they are motivated. The hard work of teachers do NOT and let me emphasize this again, they do NOT go unnoticed. Because, there are others who truly appreciate and respect them.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Leia, some students respect their teachers but others don't. Some students are thankful of their teacher's efforts, others are not. However, what should not be forgotten is that teachers are often not too appreciated by modern can see this in their generally low salaries.

I wish you luck in your teaching career if you decide to pursue it.

2:20 PM  
Blogger argel masanda said...

I had a great tym reading this blog and all the comments posted. It got me pondering. I am an expat here in SG from the Philippines working now under retail industry. I used to work in my country before as a counsellor, psychometrician, and college instructor (yep, i joggled all those 3 jobs) but practically leave it (though it's my passion) coz the monetary opportunities here is a lot more better, comparatively. In the Philippines however, being a "teacher" is a prestigious profession, especially if u r working in a private (mostly but not limited to catholic school/institution) and u get respect and admiration from most people around you -i know it very well, i got a lit of special discounts and treatment from those who recognize me but i won't take advantage of it of course. But i must agree that it's truly one of the most, if not the most underpaid profession in the philippines.
Now, personally, i am aiming to eventually land in counselling and/or teaching profession here in sg -provided that i will get hired, coz from what i heard the salary is a lot more better compare to retail, needless to say that it is my passion; and i am still hoping for it. But i must admit that this blog caught me enough to contemplate more to and reexamine my dream here in this country

12:13 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Argel,

I don't wish to put you off your dream...but you should be aware of the realities and pitfalls in Singapore, as it is. If you love teaching and don't mind doing it for the remainder of your time in Singapore...then by all means become a teacher. If you harbour other ambitions, you might be wise to reflect carefully, however, before stepping forward into teaching.

Good luck with your decision.

1:14 AM  

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