A Tale of 7 Teacher’s Days (IV)

Part 7: 2010 and 2011

I count 2010 and 2011 as two half-Teachers Days because both years – I am not really a teacher anymore. Once an educator, always an educator – a colleague of mine once said. And its true, a lot of my colleagues who have left – find some way to come back to the service, although not necessarily through the system. They teach tuition, run teacher training seminars, go to independent schools, do missionary work by teaching English overseas etc. And you still get sms messages from former students wishing you well – a lovely note of remembrance, all the more encouraging if it came from someone who is now happy, graduated and doing well.

Very few leave the education field completely.

And I am not one of the few because this path I am on will lead to some teaching, though not in the same shape and form as the past few years.

During my year off to pursue my masters, I find myself automatically evaluating my professors’ teaching styles. I kept visualizing my practicum teaching observation forms in my mind. Warmth and clarity, visibility of class materials, clear handwriting on the whiteboard, scaffolding, guiding questions etc. You notice and put a label on questioning techniques they employ – finally, effective Socratic questioning at work! ; you evaluate the wait-time they give for responses, you scrutinize handouts to see if they are effective scaffolds or what could be done better. Sometimes, I am really, really impressed and make mental notes to try that in my own class.

It was a bad habit. I am still trying to get rid of it and focus more on the content of the lessons.

Teachers Day in 2010 fell on a Wednesday. I had scheduled a meeting with Dr. D about my ISM and had a class with Dr. HH later that night. For the lack of any better ideas, I gave Dr. D. a fish-shaped paper clipper. I don’t think he was enamoured of it but he did say some profs had wondered if anyone would remember them on Teachers’ Day.

I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t been a teacher myself. Professors don’t have the same rapport with students, I think. Maybe its the age, maybe its the intellectual distance, maybe its the fact that half/all your mind is on your own research .. I don’t know, but when I came back to teaching in January 2011, I didn’t find the same instant connection with my students. I no longer find it easy to sit down with them in the canteen and just hang out, think harder in sustaining a conversation along the corridor, no longer instinctive to know what is going on in their lives.

Not that I didn’t enjoy teaching in my newly posted school. A lot of people say things like “you can’t get any more neighbourhood than that” when they find out where I am teaching – and tell me, in various ways, that I will miss the stimulating interaction with brighter students because students in the bottom tier JCs don’t really have that bright spark and need a lot of repetition. But I have studied in a top JC, taught for five and half years in a middle ranked one and I honestly didn’t think there would be much of a difference.

But now that I reflect on it, there was a difference. NOT in intellectual capacity. (though perhaps in articulateness). The biggest difference I find in a “bottom” JC is that the students are much, much less confident. I find students mumbling questions to their friends rather than speaking up directly in class; I find students who say they won’t aim for a certain area of study that they are interested in because they face too much competition and they are sure they won’t make it;  I find that I had to drag students to consult me instead of having them accost me at the corridors; I find a lot of people apologizing for their questions as if they are wasting my time. I get presents for dong the simplest things like helping them in PW when some people who get As back in my previous school, boast of their achievements without acknowledging any slavish teacher support.

And I think – its my job! and your entitlement as students!

It is very strange when you think about it. Only about 2 or 3 L1R5 points separate the middle from the bottom but that translates to miles of self-belief.

I think I appreciate – in a way that I have never appreciated before – how much the education system in Singapore puts people into castes. The difference in self-belief that I was observing in just between the top 25% of the students in Singapore who make it to JC and yet, it was already so stark. Imagine the difference between a Normal Tech student and a JC student. The Singapore system had succeeded amazingly in giving someone a place in a society – if you are not good academically, you go for a technical education, if you are a hands-on person, you go to a polytechnic, if you are a sports person, you try for the sports school. And if you are brilliant, they tell the top 5% who did well, at 12 in the PSLE – you can pretty much be anything you want to be.

However, in my opinion, it had failed tremendously at encouraging mobility between the social classes created by the education system. It puts a student in a box and never let him go with the sheer confidence that it has pegged everyone correctly. Eg. You come from a polytechnic – there must be less space for you in university. You were from a Normal (Tech) stream – good luck to you if you are a late bloomer – you won’t get a chance to move into the other more academic streams. You want to be a writer? Your publishing opportunities are so much brighter if you had joined programmes open to “gifted” students like the Creative Arts Programme offered in top secondary schools.

Which is why I have yet to meet a teacher who was from the Normal (Tech) stream and most Singaporean literary works I had read focus on the experience of the top few in the population who go to a good JC, then university (often Oxbridge and Ivy League), get a great job and then ruminate about why they feel so trapped on this small island. (Note: I refer particularly to the late 1990s and early 200s. A lot of literary avenues change with the Internet.)

On a personal note, I must say, I have benefited. I was not a particularly confident person – in fact, in my primary school and secondary school, I was extraordinarily diffident and quiet – but having made it to the top schools since I was 12 helped me a lot. My abilities had been externally validated – and with that, the sky’s the limit. (Until I discovered my own limitations of course, such as the fact that I am just bad at financial math.) I even got a local teaching scholarship and offered entry into the popular Law faculty in NUS although my A-level grades were not stellar. I have always believed that this should be partially attributed to having come from a brand name JC.

This obsession with categorizing, with ranking, with creating a taxonomy goes extends beyond which JC you come from and is more subtle than often recognized. I have often heard people talk derisively of “scholars” who rise up through the ranks of public service very fast but have no clue about what happens on the ground, lumping them together as one elite group. However, this is not strictly speaking true. There are many some tiers within the scholarships ; overseas is generally better than local; open better than tied awards; and MOE teaching awards are the lowest of the lot. Moreover, if you came from a bottom ranked JC, didn’t get an undergrad scholarship but got first class honours – and move on to a government job/ teaching, your promotion prospects are solid gold, probably, on par with the “scholars”.

[Note: if you are really good at office politics, schmoozing with whoever is on top, you would probably get very far too, no matter where you are.]

I honestly didn’t question it too much when I was younger. It seemed to be appropriate that people who had put in effort into getting the first class degree in whatever prestigious university get compensated and recognized for their effort. The thing is, I have come to realize that this practice is not quite right because it depends on your past paper records not your current work performance. And their “good work performance” is often not related to their abilities but the opportunities given. For example, a typical overseas teaching scholar/first class honours graduate will be posted to headquarters and get to do some policy work after two years in a school. And in their two years in the school, principal and HODs will put them in plum, visible committees so that their portfolios are built up nicely. Its kind of a self-fulfilling PR exercise – people with potential are spotted, they are the ones trained – then using the given training as justification, you promote them.

[Again, I exclude people good at office politics and rise up because of that.]

Good luck to the rest of the teaching riff raff if they want to make their voices heard at policy making level. I can think of many earnest, hardworking, well loved classroom teachers with more than 10 years of experience who are still in school and ignored when policies are formulated by scholars/first class grads who have less than 5 years of experience. If you are not one of the anointed few, your chances of getting an MOE postgrad scholarship, MOE postings, memberships to exclusive MOE working committees etc decreases dramatically. My brother in law met a former  primary school teacher who made it to a PhD programme in education in Oxford. She asked for MOE funding. She didn’t get it. The people reading her application probably thought – You are a primary school teacher. Why don’t you just stay there?

When I say this, I do not mean to denigrate the ability of scholars who rise up in the system. I have worked with many scholars/first class honours grads and most are dedicated, wonderful, intelligent people. I have no doubt many will go one to contribute immensely to the education system. What I am trying to show -through the MOE model that I know best – is that the Singapore system puts people in boxes and makes sure they stay there. This hasn’t changed, despite the calls to more flexibility in the last decade that led to the building of sports schools and arts schools. And what is being done, I feel, is that they are creating more boxes for people to fill up. But the biggest problem is not the number of boxes or even the variety of boxes. Its the fact you can’t get out.

And what bothers me about that is that after a while, you start believing that you are where you are meant to be. That your abilities only go so far. That your ideas are less important, your views are less valuable. I will use my experience to illustrate. I was a teaching scholar but  I wasn’t very good at math and I realized that by my third year. The scholarship didn’t allow me to switch subject concentrations even though I was offered honours in both English language and Mathematics.

 I only got a second lower – which means my teaching career was stymied right from the beginning. And the strange thing is, for the first time, I started believing that I had failed. I had reached the limits of what I could do. Whenever I had ideas about changing things, I kept them to myself because I don’t think they were worth sharing. I didn’t realize how much I had accepted my own place until one day, while vacationing in Japan with two other friends (who were both scholars but did much better in university), we ended up discussing PW and what we would want to do if we had carte blanche to change anything. I had more ideas because I was in the PW committee and taught the most and they told me, hey, you should surface all these ideas and get them to be put in practice.

And I just instinctively replied – no one is going to listen to me. no one listens to the rank and file. 

So, I don’t know – is that a self-fulfilling prophecy too?

I look at the students I had the privilege to teach this year and note their lack of confidence in stepping forward and I wonder, too, which comes first, the low expectations of them or their own diffidence? I remember bringing some students to a community service fair organized by my top JC alma mater but mostly attended by my bottom JC students. They sat quietly listening to all the presentations and politely clapped for each speaker. That wasn’t enough for one speaker from a voluntary welfare association which shall not be named. She-who-shall-not-named asked for questions, got none and proceeded to loudly berate my students for having nothing to ask, accusing them of being disrespectful to the (top JC) organizers who had put in so much effort and of only being there for CCA points.

She-who-shall-not-be-named was way off base. No one gets CCA credit for attending; it will the student organizers from the top JC who will be trumpeting their achievements in pulling off the event on page 3 of their SGC. Why pick on the quiet people who weren’t even doing anything and attribute the highest motives to the ones from the better JC?

On another occasion, I went on a treasure hunt with my CSLs in Chinese Garden and one rude member of the public commented as we passed by “XJC is a lousy school. Go to poly better.”

I never had such problems in a Raffles shirt, even when I went on work attachments and met top accountants. What is going on here? Why are we so keen to use schools as a barometer for what people are capable of doing and a lens to interpret their behaviour in the way we want to see them? I had wonderful students in bottom XJC – and when I say that, people nod sagely and say, oh right, they are really nice, though not so bright.

So, now that I have left and I am pondering my 2011 Teachers Day, I think of my past 7 Teachers Day and there are so many good memories; so many students I am proud of who succeeded against all odds. But I have failed too – and besides being a lousy disciplinarian – my failure was in being an adapter than a leader. My approach is problems is to get around them, not solve them. If I were an Amazon, I would have cut off my breast if it impeded my bow arm instead of trying to redesign the bow and selling the new bow to other people. You can make a lot of difference if you do the latter. And I suspect, you will probably not burn out as fast if you change your environment rather than draw on your own internal resources to solve everything. Sometimes, I wonder if I am embarking on something different out of internal motivation and love of academia or because I am just tired, burnt out on both ends and had simply given up.

A lot of people congratulate me on the new phase of my life and I don’t know if I deserve it. In the first place, I haven’t done anything yet – the PhD is 6 years off – and secondly, underneath it all is a consciousness that where I am now is a story of failure as much as success. I don’t know what is going to happen in the future. When I bought star-shaped personalized cookies for my students, the baker told me that she had studied overseas too; and trained as an engineer. A combination of difficult family situation and bad economy led her to stay at home and make cookies. I think she didn’t imagine that when she was studying overseas.

So, don’t congratulate me – there is nothing to be happy about yet.

But what I am most proud of – really, is for having spent 7 years teaching when my  teaching practice teacher rudely predicted that I would only last 6 months. I am proud of having known wonderful colleagues who are still within the system, fighting in small ways to make it better. I am proud of having been in a fraternity of people who face classroom failures and are brave enough to get up in the morning and face the class again. I am proud of friends who are still in it, persevere despite many hurtful, discouraging incidents and continue to believe that you only have a real problem when you don’t feel anything for your students anymore. Thanks for being a true source of inspiration.

At least, that is the story I tell myself. Happy final Teachers’ Day.