A former HOD who teaches English and GP is looking for a few students. (Full disclosure: she’s my cousin.) She lives in the west side of Singapore, and is competing directly with me for students. Time for me to up my game! Here she is in her own words:
As I move into a new phase of life, pursuing my PhD in Special Education, I would still like to remain connected to the teacherly side of myself. Tuition, to me, cannot simply be cramming information into a poor student’s head for the sake of A’s; it has to be good quality teaching, though on a much more personal scale as compared to the classroom. Attached below is an account of my journey thus far. Come create new stories with me!
“Ms Wang, is teaching us the lowest point in your career?” A student asked me a few weeks ago. I burst out laughing. “Why would you think that?”
“Because it must be so difficult. We must be so difficult to teach,” the student sighed. I had just joined the school and been teaching the class for about 7 weeks. It was a writing class and most had a weak foundation and knew it, but I assured them we would get better at it together.
“Do you like teaching us?” the student continued, “Have you always wanted to teach?”
In fact, I had always wanted to teach, and almost applied for a teaching scholarship after my A-levels. I remember spending many hours of my early childhood at school with my father, who was a senior teacher, watching him interact with his students. He also entertained us with many stories of his sing-a-long sessions with his classes and the funny things that happened during the school day when he returned home from work. We often encountered his students on family outings and they would approach us to greet and chat with him. I listened to these stories and observed the conversations with much awe and wanted to be just like my father when I grew up.
My father knew I wanted to be a teacher too but felt it was not a vocation meant for everyone and could wait till when I was in a better position to make the decision. “Teaching is not quite the same as it was when Papa started on it years ago,” he told me, and moving from school straight back into school did not necessarily make for a better teacher. “Gather some bit of experience outside of the school environment first,” he suggested after I had graduated. So that was what I did. Years later, I was to see how my experiences outside of teaching helped to shape my competence as a teacher and mentor to my students, and after three years “out there” with the Ministry of Defence and social service sector, I joined the Singapore Education Service in 2001.
In the early years of my teaching career, I had in my mind the image of a teacher that was conceptualised through the advice of many senior colleagues at my first school. “Always be stern when you meet a class for the first time,” was one such piece of advice. “It’s a good thing to teach in a neighbourhood where you do not live,” was another. The reasoning was that students needed to fear you, not fancy you; physical distancing helped you keep the “right” perspective of this relationship. Knowing them too well could only serve to disappoint because it was not uncommon for disciplinary cases to become criminal cases at this school. Besides, there was always this sense that chasing relationships with students was akin to running for a popularity contest which mature and serious teachers just did not do.
Consequently, I constructed an image of myself as a friendly but firm teacher whose decisions must not be questioned. I was also assigned to be an officer and teacher-in-charge of an all boys uniformed group, which worked very well in cementing that image. My voice could be heard from one end of the parade square to the other and I demanded absolute discipline from my boys. Students caught smoking were not simply brought to the general office but dragged by the collar to receive discipline. In my mind, I had to be tougher than the parang-wielding kids in my school.
Then, in my final year at school before I was to leave for a posting at MOE Headquarters, a student in my class came to me after lessons one day and asked to speak in private. What he chose to confide in me became a criminal case involving the police. I spent many after-school hours thereafter escorting the student to hospital to meet with the medical social worker and ensuring that the student was handed over to his parent after each session.
Invariably, I started to learn more about the student and his family, as well as his daily routines and social activities outside of school. I began to understand more of his inner life, the very real anxieties of his parent, and how these affected his development as a student and a person. Through this I came to value that every student has a story that cannot be casually disregarded in a proper student-teacher relationship. I started to think that perhaps if I had spent more time knowing my students as individuals rather than as products of a conveyor belt system for grades and paper qualifications, they might not find themselves in as much trouble or pain as they did. A teacher is one part of a community of students, families, and educators. Teaching is a community activity.
In 2004, I accepted a transfer to the Policy Wing of the MOE and spent 2½ years staffing the ministers, writing cabinet papers and attending parliamentary meetings as a notetaker for political leaders. I took up the position in a bid to determine for myself if the classroom was indeed where I wanted to be, or if I had prematurely dismissed a desk-bound job. Maintaining relationships with students in an attempt to mentor them was tiring and I understood why senior colleagues advised distancing. Teaching students required stamina and passion.
During that time at MOEHQ, I heard about a new Specialised Independent School (SIS) to be set up with a new mandate – to be different within the confines of National policies and other such agendas, different with regard to the type of students it admitted and the criteria it used for admission, different with regard to the taught curriculum and delivery of it. The prospect of joining a school with as blank a slate as this offered was an exciting notion, and the timing seemed perfect – I was halfway through my HQ posting and it was time to think about where I wanted to be at next, so I applied for a position there. And got it.
I joined the new SIS in June 2006 and spent 8 years there, the longest I had ever been at any job or appointment. They were the most significant years of my adult life to date. It was the time I returned to the classroom and became a mother of 2. I also introduced Social and Cultural Anthropology as a subject in a national school and got acquainted with the field of research in Sign Linguistics as a volunteer. My academic past in Linguistics and Sociology seemed to be converging and the number of social connections I was making started to expand at an intense pace. In the process, I started to renegotiate and reconstruct myself as a teacher.
Part of the work I undertook at the SIS was the development of a new Humanities and Social Science curriculum. Central to the curriculum was the idea of relevance and authenticity. We wanted the students to embrace the discipline and find a personal connection to the issues. The stories they read were stories that were lived, and the students were to learn that through our delivery of the programme. In the course of teaching the classes and thinking through how relevance and authenticity could be understood, I started telling my students stories about myself and my experiences. Every lesson found a connection to a personal event or encounter; every story related invited another story in response from them. In time, my “public” persona as a teacher and my “private” life where I existed as a mother, sister, daughter, wife, sign language researcher, sign language interpreter – all of that – started to collapse into a single person.
My students started to become intimately familiar with who I was outside of the classroom. They knew I liked Hello Kitty and Star Trek. They knew I spent a lot of my free time with the Deaf community. I had chosen for them to study “Deaf in Japan” as part of their coursework and as we went through the ethnography, I would tell them my own stories about the Deaf in Singapore. They knew my life did not revolve around them. I told them often about my two children and always reminded them that they could never be as cute as them. A small group who didn’t stay too far from my place came over for extended lesson consultations – their school schedules kept them there late, but I wanted to go home to my children. We could always meet later near home and have supper together after. Sometimes, they would come over just to play with my children. Once, they brought a kitten over because my daughter had told one of them we were looking to adopt a new cat.
My students shared in my life as much as I shared in theirs, attending their performances and exhibitions, text chatting with them through the day about whatever it was that caught their fancy. No question was out of bounds to ask; every answer was openly clarified. And they weren’t the only ones with questions. I had questions too. That changed the way I understood my relationships with my students, which invariably changed the way I taught. The teacher was no longer at the front of the classroom dictating and prescribing. The teacher became a true member of the community, being advised as much as she was advising.
When I first started teaching, my practicum supervisor told me that I should not be a friend to my students. “That’s not what they want or need. You must be a teacher and keep those lines clear.” I continue to believe that indeed, students need a teacher first and foremost, and that must be the primary role I play in a school. As a reminder to myself, whenever I met a new class for the first time, I would write my name on the board, salutation included, and then draw a line under the name I would like to be addressed by – “Ms [Family Name][Given Name]”. The name by which you are addressed creates a clear boundary of relationship and status. The name by which you ask to be addressed establishes and maintains a certain social structuring, providing an easy set of rules that would govern interactions. In this single act, my students understand the basic relationship I present to them – I am your teacher, you are my student.
Yet the symbolic understandings of what that “teacher” or “student” is needs still to be created, clarified and consolidated in the minds of those within this community. In the process of getting to know my students and them getting to know me, these rules and structures would be taken down and questioned, redefined and then reconstructed. My credibility as a person and the advice I give, whatever it may be, rested very much on my understanding of them as individuals as it did on their knowledge of who it was that was speaking to them. When they complained about having to write that 4,000-word essay, I complained about having to write mine. When they whined about having to read Geertz’s paper on Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, I told them how I always count the pages of bibliography in every article before I start reading. They know what is on my iTunes playlist; I know that G-dragon is their “bias” and who they’re “shipping” at the moment. They ask me if I miss them; I tell them I do. And I ask that they never regard me as a stranger, and always to say hi whenever and wherever.
Three batches have since graduated from the SIS and I continue to be in touch with a number of them even though I too have already left the school. They update me about life during National Service and university. Some still consult me on academic issues. Just last night, one texted to say “one of my biggest regret is not taking notes during your class on Weber’s Social Action Theory.” I remain their teacher.
Some weeks ago, I met up with one of my ex-students from the first batch of students at the SIS. We had kept in touch through his National Service years and he was now preparing to start on his undergraduate studies. As always, we would talk about most anything that currently had our attention – the school, former classmates, what we were up to, television shows we each thought the other absolutely had to watch. He left me with a small gift he bought while he was on a family trip to Japan a while before – a Hello Kitty keyring and bookmark. In the style of social media, I uploaded a picture of the gift onto Facebook with the message, “#Thankful for the gift; #grateful for the #friendship.” A few days later, he texted me. “Just saw the photo on fb. You’re most welcome, Ms Wang. I’m incredibly grateful as well.”