A Look Into The Lives of Our “Unsung Heroes”: The EJ-RI Perspective

This was written in collaboration with EJC Press as part of Issue 3 of Cross Island Impressions, an inter-JC Press collaboration. You can read Issue 3 here.

By Faith Ho (22A01A; RI), Eliora Tan (21-E5; EJC), Jolina Nair (21-E5; EJC), and Richard Tiew (21-I2; EJC)

Have you ever thought about who cleans our school toilets? Or who ensures safety on our school campuses? And who prepares the food in our canteens? 

These are the day-to-day responsibilities of the “unsung heroes” in our school. Without their contributions, our schools would not be operational. This op-ed examines the experiences of the non-teaching staff we see everyday: our school custodians (cleaners, gardeners and estate staff), security guards and canteen hawkers, who form the backbone of our schools. 

However, we are frequently preoccupied with other matters in our daily lives, so their work often slips under our radar and they remain invisible and unacknowledged. 

Are these non-teaching staff really seen as part of our school? What are the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis? And can we truly call them both “unsung” and “heroes”? 

Not “just a job”

We invariably bump into some of these non-teaching staff in school, whether it be upon entering the school gates, at the canteen, or simply walking around the school. However, these encounters rarely go beyond a simple greeting, and begs the question—how much do we really know about them?

To find out exactly how students perceive our “unsung heroes”, we conducted a survey amongst the two schools. When asked to rate the importance of these non-teaching staff on a scale of 1 to 5, the vast majority voted 5 (62.5%) and 4 (35.4%), or “very important”. 

Forms response chart. Question title: How important do you think these non-teaching staff are to the school?. Number of responses: 48 responses.
The overwhelming majority of students agree on the huge importance of our school’s non-teaching staff.

Through conducting interviews, we were fortunate to be able to gain insight into their day-to-day work. Many of these non-teaching staff were friendly and it was really fascinating to learn about their different roles in the school. 

One surprising (or perhaps not) fact is that the majority of our school custodians are of a higher age bracket, part of the “Merdeka Generation” (as proudly declared by Mr Chen (RI), a dishwasher) or even older. Mr Lim (RI), a gardener, is 81 years old! The other gardeners joked that the students “couldn’t even be considered his grandchildren’s age”, because his own were in their thirties. 

Mr Lim, a gardener at RI who is 81-years old—that’s more than 4.5x our age!

When the thought of several flights of stairs greeting you every morning already invokes fatigue, these uncles and aunties’ ability to shoulder intense physical labour every single day is both admirable and startling. 

The gardeners Mr Lee and Mr Terry shared how a small team managed the plants in the entire RI (Y1-6). One does not have to count the number of plants in school to know the size of that undertaking! They unanimously agreed that “the sun and the heat are the worst parts [of their job]”. 

Almost as an afterthought, Mr Terry added, “We sometimes see snakes and bee hives.” Amused at the horror on our faces, he quickly reassured us, “the snakes are small and not dangerous, we can handle them.”

Mr Mohammad Salim (EJC), a security guard, also brought up Singapore’s unforgiving climate. Having previously been employed at Changi Airport, the warm weather was something he had to acclimatise to. However, he continues to be assiduous in his job and reminded us, “Be careful and take care whenever you cross the road, especially when picking up food.”

Mr Mohammad Salim, a security guard, with the EJC students.

Besides Singapore’s heat, students’ lack of consideration also creates challenges for them. A cleaning auntie from EJC (who wished to remain anonymous) admitted to “feel[ing] stressed” sometimes. She is in charge of cleaning 16 toilets spread across the school, not a mean undertaking. She recounted finding one of the males’ toilets frequently dirty last year as some did not flush after use, and occasionally seeing used sanitary napkins outside the bin in the girls’ toilets, a problem that could literally have been averted at the press of a button.

Reading this probably evokes a churning stomach and a passing shudder, but for our school custodians, it is their day-to-day reality. “[There is] no choice, [I] still have to do my job,” she said, adding: “If this was your job, would you want to do it?”

The uncertain nature of their jobs as well as low pay are also difficulties they face. Most of their jobs are on a contractual basis, which means that they are temporarily employed for 2 years, after which the school would decide whether they could continue. Potential exploitation by their companies is also a concern. One custodian from RI shared that his company asked him to do tasks beyond his job scope as a dishwasher, such as washing the toilets, without any extra pay. 

For some, COVID-19 also exacerbated the challenges they faced. Auntie Karen Tan (EJC), a duck rice stall hawker, had to temporarily close her store with the mandatory implementation of home-based learning, which resulted in uncertainty of her earnings.

Auntie Karen Tan, a hawker, with the EJC students.

In light of the growing concerns of the working conditions of the school custodians (i.e. cleaners, gardeners and estate staff), a group of Y5 and Y6 Rafflesians founded Project Biscuit (@projbiscuit). After conducting interviews with 18 school custodians, they identified some key issues. 

One major problem was the inadequacy of resting spaces. The designated resting rooms were cramped, badly ventilated and often too far, while spaces closer to their work were unsuitable for rest, or often occupied by students. In fact, some of them opted to rest in the toilet instead, taking naps in the cloistered and poorly ventilated space. 

Similarly, when we conducted interviews in EJC, we spotted cleaners resting on toilet benches, outside these toilets or at the canteen tables—the lack of proper resting spaces is evidently a cause for concern across both schools.

Project Biscuit talked to the school administration, which was open to potential improvements in line with SMMs. Currently, members from Year 5 and 6 H2 Art, also part of Project Biscuit, are working closely with Estate to completely revamp the preexisting resting rooms by replacing the furniture and repainting the walls. 

Their experiences evidently point to a need to improve their working conditions. We can’t change the sweltering weather, but we can better appreciate their work, raise concerns of the issues they face to the relevant persons, or simply be more considerate in using school facilities. 

“[The] safety of the students is the most important. That’s why we [do our jobs],” Mr Salim avowed. Mr Lee echoed his sentiments, saying with a tinge of pride while gesturing to the flowering shrubs, “Taking care of these plants is my job.” What is equally admirable as their perseverance through the difficulties they face on a daily basis is their matter-of-fact dedication and unceasing commitment to their work. They truly are our heroes.

Beyond “hi” and “bye”

However, the importance of our school custodians’ work seems to be at odds with the 56.3% of students claiming to only greet them occasionally, and 10.4% never greeting them all. Why is that so? 

Some admitted to feeling uncomfortable or even afraid of having their greetings fall on deaf ears when addressing these non-teaching stuff. Unfortunately, our fears and discomfort have only done them a disservice as it perpetuates the divide between them and us, and also means that we fail to afford them the basic respect they deserve. 

Forms response chart. Question title: Do you normally greet them when you see them in school?. Number of responses: 48 responses.
It seems that while most students greet these non-teaching staff, it also happens somewhat sporadically.

From the perspective of the “unsung heroes”, their interactions with the student body differs from role to role. Most of the school custodians are prohibited from engaging in conversations with the students as part of the schools’ regulations. 

One gardener from RI commented on the lack of common topics and said that they couldn’t just “randomly approach a student and ask them how school is”. However, he also shared that there was a Y6 student who frequently sought them out for conversation. Most of them only interact with students if students come up to them to ask questions, and are quite happy to answer. 

Thus, interactions are typically superficial and minimal; some school custodians shared that they were glad that most students greeted them, as it made them feel respected—of course, there were also instances when students were not polite or outright rude. However, they also felt a clear divide from the student body, which was often manifested through unspoken rules, such as occupying separate spaces and having limited interactions. 

Interactions are both limited in length and frequency.

On the other hand, other roles require frequent interaction with the student population. Auntie Karen Tan (EJC) often talks to the students when preparing their orders, and even claimed that she “treats students as though they were her children”.

Some students have also shared memorable interactions with the non-teaching staff. A surveyee wrote, “I was observing [fish in the] fish pond when one of the [security] guards walked by and approached me [to ask] if I liked fishes. Then, we talked about aquaculture for a bit and he shared that he once owned a fish production factory and how his business turned out”. 

Despite what some may assume about the lack of common conversation topics, this interaction shows that our students and non-teaching staff do share similar interests, and one might even get the chance to learn more new things from such conversations! 

Another surveyee shared that they had once helped a cleaner to the sick bay. These actions may seem trivial, but they show that the divide between the student population and our “unsung heroes” can be reconciled, and such interactions are truly key to bridging that gap.

Paying it back

However, with limited interactions and understanding of their work, do we acknowledge our unsung heroes enough? A staggering 97.9% of surveyees do not think so, pointing out that they usually work silently behind the scenes, yet their hard work is often taken for granted. 

There is also a clear divide between students and the non-teaching staff. Some non-teaching staff commented on feeling ostracised from the school population, like “second class citizens”. One student commented, “The fundamental power structure at work between a student and the non-teaching staff who are perhaps looked down upon … is something that has to be addressed”. 

The overwhelming majority say “No”.

But how? We can diminish this hierarchy and toxic mentality by increasing our interactions with our “unsung heroes”, getting to know them on a deeper and more personal level. Instead of holding certain assumptions and accepting the fact that “it is their job”, we should seek to understand their experiences. We can also stage school events that celebrate these non-teaching staff and their contributions, such as appreciation concerts, and take the time to say “thank you”. 

A school is more than just its teachers and students. Our non-teaching staff put in a lot of effort to keep the school running, and it imperative to respect them and their work. While many students mentioned being afraid of reaching out to them, a handful shared meaningful interactions with our “unsung heroes”. This reminds us that this gap is easily bridged—it just takes a first step. 

Final thoughts

To end off, we would like to share some words that our “unsung heroes” wanted to say to the students. Many of them expressed a sincere hope that students today will cherish their educational opportunities, be diligent and consistent in their academics, and prepare for the future. 

Some also expressed their wish that students can be more understanding and courteous towards them and their work. 

Likewise, many students responded to our survey with words of heartfelt gratitude that many found difficult to express in person. Our challenge to them, and all of you, is to take that step to reach out to them.

Thank you to all our unsung heroes for your service to our schools!

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