The Opposite of Success is Not Failure, it’s the Fear of It

It has been a long week. I’ve had rehearsals, assignments due, and assignments that I’ve fared badly in, coming in all at once. Responsibility doesn’t always get to you, but when it does, it happens all at once; multiple deadlines and test dates falling upon you simultaneously. The education system here has prepared us all for this, I am no stranger.

It has been a long day. I was scheduled to consult one of my professors after lessons, and I planned to talk to her about how my assignment went wrong. Though I sort of knew why it went wrong; I chose the creative option for the essay assignment, and attempted to rewrite some of my readings in a different voice. I thought it was ok, and it felt right as I was writing, but apparently it wasn’t what she was looking for. I scored abysmally, and to say the least I was discouraged. Perhaps I should have stuck with the conventional options.

I walked into her office and sat down to talk to her about this. I started off with the usual excuses; I may have read the question wrongly, didn’t understand what the question really wanted from me, was confused as to what I was supposed to do.

She listened to my concerns, patiently, and when I was done she said something along these lines:

If you’re only concerned about getting good grades all the time, you wouldn’t dare to try anything new. This is why I included the creative option in the first place. One of my teachers in the past would always tell me, that if you’re going to expect to do well all the time you wouldn’t be writing. Because this entire process of writing is about trying new things and learning from your mistakes. So I’m glad you didn’t score well, and in fact I’d rather you didn’t score well. Because it shows me that you tried, that you didn’t play it safe. I wouldn’t be so worried about this if I were you.

I remember these words clearly because I don’t think I’ve heard this from many teachers in my life, for it takes tremendous courage for a teacher to say something like this to a student. Most of my teachers I’ve had wouldn’t encourage too much creativity; there was always a safer option, a more straightforward, albeit more rigorous way of memorising, structuring and conceptualising everything that can make sentences look like math equations. It takes tremendous courage for a teacher to tell a student that it is ok to be creative, that it is ok to embrace failure and learn from it amidst a system that cruelly denies those that do.

In writing, as I believe is similar in the other arts, we all go through cycles of failure and discovery, where we explore our voices and fine tune the way we express ourselves. Sentence structures, rhetorical questions and management of emotions all go into the way our words turn out, and it is a nuanced act, not one that should be girdled by the fear of failure, or the imposition of structures. I think I’ve reiterated this before in another post.

More than that, it traps beauty. In math and science subjects, we are told that only a limited set of solutions exist for a single problem, and concepts exist within a fixed paradigm and this makes success or failure a straightforward affair. Arguably, math and science possesses beauty and is inextricably linked with philosophy as well, but our education system has made this point of compromise something very difficult and in fact almost impossible to see, solidifying these otherwise fluid ideas into concrete concepts. In a world where clear, concise curriculums have to be cooked up, this is not entirely surprising.

I believe that the arts is our last frontier for creative expression, and I hope more than being tolerant to failure, that teachers can actively encourage the chance of it. Encourage their students to attempt new styles, to delve out of their comfort zones and to find a true voice within cluttered minds pounded numb by a system only concerned with results.

Within government doctrines, “education” is but a passing down of knowledge from one generation to another, and whose effectiveness is fuelled by numbers and percentages. To me it means something much more. It is the interaction of one human and another, the passing down of essential values and our guide to finding our role in this world. A latent fear of failure should never be the backdrop in the way we approach this world.

And so I thank my professor for telling me it was ok to fare badly. I thank her for encouraging creativity, and I thank her for showing me that it was ok to keep trying in a world where trying seems so inconsequential. We need more teachers like that, for only then will education be a journey and not a destination.

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Teaching, Part III: 3 Things I’ve Learnt

Why do all good things come to an end? Back in 2007, Nelly Furtado posed this question in her hit single, and back in 2007 I was supposed to be a secondary one kid in St. Andrew’s Secondary School (SASS). I was in Perth, Western Australia for the whole of 07’ and I came back in 2008 as a Sec 2 kid to the open arms of SASS. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful journey that led me back to where I started. And so it was, that on January 2nd, 2015, I returned as a relief teacher to the very same school that raised me. Two and a half months passed, and on a warm Friday morning I stepped into St Andrew’s Secondary School as a teacher for the last time.

Before I start going full sentimental with the goodbyes, I’d just like to keep composed, and touch on three key takeaways from my experience as a relief teacher.

  1. Teachers sacrifice a lot

You always hear awesome things about being a teacher; that they end work at 2pm and that civil servant pay is actually pretty decent and they have one month of holiday in June and another month in December and oh my gosh that’s not fair everyone in the corporate world only gets 14 days and it’s just kids how tough can it be? Yeah, you get the sensing, that teaching is quite the “easy” and undervalued job. I believe many people choose not to be teachers because they feel they are “better than that”, that they could probably take on a bigger challenge in life and make a “bigger impact to society”. Well, mud to them, because let me tell you straight out: teaching is tough shit. In the world of teaching, there are a lot of variables that play out in the background that society is blissfully unaware of.

Most of the teachers end their regular timetables at 1:45 PM, but I always observe a bunch of teachers spread out at the wooden tables outside the staffroom after school. They are crowded around by a group of students, giving consults that last till as late as 4. Teachers sacrifice their own time to give these consults, and on paper, they have no obligation to do so. I myself have given some consults, but not nearly as many as the full-timers. Consults are pretty interesting because you actually have a smaller audience so you feel like you’re teaching more effectively. But at the same time, it’s draining to put in this extra effort after the entire morning of slogging it out. But they’d gladly do it, because after all, they still care for their students.

Besides these extra consults, there is at least one after-school staff meeting (if you’re lucky) and two CCA training days per week (again, if you’re lucky. The school Rugby team trains at least 5 times a week, even on weekends). So with all these considerations, ending work early is really an illusion. Most teachers only have one day in the week that they can leave school early, and even then, an avalanche of marking greets them at home.

Holidays aren’t as festive as you might think either. Teachers are at home (or even in school) making long-term lesson plans, goal setting, crafting worksheets and marking the worksheets they created last term. In my opinion, the effort and sacrifice more than justifies this “decent civil servant salary”. Other jobs may be tough, but teaching is certainly no less tough.
 

  1. Teaching is not a one-man show.

 I used to think that teaching was like hosting the Ellen Show, you just step on up, do that cute little dance, crack a few jokes, make the entire world interested, and then step on down. Well, it isn’t. Teaching is an insane balance of everything and anything. What do I mean by that?

Firstly, you have to balance between micro and macro management. One minute you’re giving out general instruction, and the next minute you are scuttling about, answering the specific questions of individual students. It takes tremendous skill to vacillate between both roles so your class knows exactly what you want. And that is assuming you have an attentive class. If you have a noisy class that throws things around and threatens to get into a fight every five minutes, then it’s a whole new ball game.

Which is the second challenge: discipline. To maintain some classroom decorum, you have to bargain with the students and make sense to them throughout the lesson. They will bargain for second chances, ask if they can eat in class, and give a myriad of excuses to get out of line. There is no one minute you can take your eyes off them, no moment in time you can fully turn your back to them. Between the bargaining you have to manage your volume effectively, and more importantly manage the way you punish them. You cannot be too lenient to the point where they crawl over your head, nor can you be too strict to a point were they lose all respect for you. It all hinges upon the right balance of attention and discipline, and from that, you get effective teacher-student communication.

As you can already guess, teaching is nothing like hosting your own stand up comedy. It took quite a few lessons to understand this, and after two months, my classroom management is still an area that is sorely lacking. I wish I could be more versatile and adapt faster, but I don’t blame myself. I believe that most teachers take years of experience to master this, and even then, it is never truly perfect.

  1. Teachers need constant encouragement and support.

Teaching is one hell of a demanding job. Outside lessons, they are juggling a thousand matters to do with admin, marking and parents. During lessons they are juggling forty-odd students. Anything can go wrong at anytime. We have a lot to think about, and when something goes wrong, we often blame ourselves.

We partly blame ourselves for all sorts of things like poor test results, parent complains, and even when our students are late for class. We are expected to have some control over the class, so when there is a slip, we feel bad.

For instance, I once had a class where one student lost his temper and injured another student. This happened in the split second when my back was turned to the class. It was total chaos, and after the lesson, I had to make an incident report and do a bunch of things to ensure that punishment was meted out and that things were settled properly. At the end of it, I felt terrible. I tried very hard to rationalize, that it was too sudden, that things like that just happen, that boys will be boys. But like how water tends to flow to the lowest point, the blame always led back to me.

We will never admit it, but through all this negativity, we desperately need the assurance that we’re not screwing everything up for the kids. It may be that some experienced teachers have seen a lot through the years and so manage to hold their own, but either way, some sort of doubt does creep in. I was fortunate that I got the assurance from my colleagues that this sort of experience is inevitable. There were tough times but we’d talk it out. There were even meetings that targeted problem students and in the aftermath, no one was left alone. They knew I was new to all this, and whenever I helped out with their lessons or marking they’d occasionally place throat remedies and fruit juices on my desk. Sometimes I would even find lunch on my desk. We helped each other out, and I was taken aback by how immensely kind and supportive they were.

The only thing possibly better than support from my colleagues is support from my students. Sometimes after lesson they’d tell me how engaging it was, and that my style of teaching is refreshing even though I was shaky and uncertain during the lesson. Even the small gestures like the casual hello and a simple “how was your day?” can really make you feel a lot better amidst the everyday pressure. Sure, the students can turn into devils mid-lesson, but as I discovered early on, their childlike innocence never fails to reveal itself now and then. It makes you feel like for all your efforts, there is some positive result reflected off their care and concern. That in itself makes a lot of things seem worth it.

Ultimately, saying goodbye has been made very hard because of the above. All the encouragement and support, all the smiles and benign gestures have all melted down to harried goodbyes, a few thank you notes and nice firm handshakes. No, it hasn’t always been rainbows and butterflies, and yes, I’ve had my lows even within two short months. But within these trails hid important lessons, and with these lessons I have found some purpose in my life.

Every experience has taught me a lot, but what will truly stick with me is the kindness of both my colleagues and students. I hold them in such high esteem, and if my path ever takes me back, it is to be part of this family again.

Teaching, Part II

It is already March. More than two months have passed since I first stepped into the staff room.

Remember my first post about teaching? I sort of acknowledged that teaching came with it’s own ideals, and that you have to dismantle every last one of them to survive. If you don’t destroy your ideals, they will destroy you. Well, that’s what I thought, and I guess it worked for a while. Teaching each class, I tried having fun while I could with them, and the boys have been largely supportive of me. Of me, meaning me as a person. They can like you, but will they like what you teach? Lesson time is almost always noisy, and needless to say, I’ve had to compete with all that noise. When your primary school teacher says things like, THERE ARE FORTY OF YOU AND ONE OF ME, she absolutely means it. It is tiring, and you get frustrated.

Funny story, when I started off I made this silly vow to never shout in class. Amazingly, for the first week, it worked. The boys were still in a daze from the holidays, fresh from all the slacking and unfamiliar with each other after such a long absence. I could be engaging, and they would listen. I knew this wouldn’t last, though. I had been a student before, and I just knew they needed a few weeks to warm up.

It may have been the second or third week that I shouted for the first time. Two boys got annoyed at each other, and the bigger sized boy pushed his classmate to the ground. I strode over and slammed my hand on the table so hard my palm hurt. I shouted at him to sit down, I shouted at him to think about what he just did, and I shouted at him to look me in the eye. I shouted at him as if we were fighting a war and there were bullets whizzing overhead and bombs falling around us. I shouted so loud the entire class froze, that everything seemed to stand still for a while. My throat hurt and I was trembling. The boys looked at me quietly, as if thinking but you’re just a relief teacher…aren’t you supposed to be nice? Yes, I am a relief teacher, but no, I won’t be nice if that means you get to injure your classmate. There is something more important than kindness, and that is fear: the fear of wrong choices. That day, I felt very surprised at myself, that I could actually be so stern. It felt good to be firm about something, yet it felt strangely out of character. After that first time, the subsequent shouting sessions didn’t matter as much anymore, and the same goes for most first time experiences.

The subject I teach is very interesting to me, and I find great meaning in it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for all my students. Not that I blame them; no one can do six subjects in school and say they’re in love with every one of them. They tend to prioritize their energy on certain subjects and slack off on the others. It’s just my luck that Literature seems to be a popular “slack off” choice. So, weeks wore on and I could tell, that the interest level in the subject was fading. They were getting rowdier, clustering together at the back and disrupting my teaching.

Those were a tough few weeks for me. I thought I had prepared myself for it, but I was wrong. This is one problem that shouting wasn’t going to cure. There were a few attentive ones, but that was it. The rest were uninterested. They didn’t listen not because they were distracted, or that they were tired. They didn’t listen simply because they didn’t want to. That was, to me, very hard to accept.

I would wake up on some days and ask myself: is it worth it? Is it worth teaching when you know that a lot of what you say may not actually help the kids? Sure, it got interesting sometimes, the weird things the students say, and weirder things they did. It was all fun and laughter, but I couldn’t help but think, that beneath all that, how much was I actually helping them? My confidence fell at that period, and I worried a lot about how I could reach out to these kids. One of the students told me after lesson, sir, I can’t listen well in class because it is just too distracting, we’re not getting much done. That comment was so raw and honest that it scalded me. I felt so empty after that lesson, and so bitterly discouraged.

That low point lasted for about a month. I would go to school and find it so hard to face the lesson, find it so hard to understand these kids. I’d like to think I understood what they had going on in their heads, but I have to admit, I had left my student days clean behind. I was tired but tried not to show it, annoyed at myself but pretended to smile through it all.

What eventually saved me was that I never stopped trying. I had to abide by the universal truth; that you cannot expect the circumstances to change for you, that you yourself have to change for your circumstances. I just kept to the routines: planning lessons, shouting for attention, slamming doors, banging tables, and giving out worksheet after worksheet. I mixed things up, and attempted to make things interesting.

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Found this in one of my students’ essays. And it related well to my situation at that time, that the storms you go through will eventually define you.

I think that after a month or so, it has paid off. It paid off not because the classes got any easier to teach, and it certainly hasn’t made the rowdy bunch any more subdued. It worked because after trying week after week, my perspective started to shift. I started to believe that although these kids may not appear to listen, they actually need you. Sure, they don’t need you to survive by a long shot, and neither will they need you as a friend. But when they look back at their secondary school days, they will realize how big a role every teacher has played, just like how I realize it now. What they need you for is your role in their growing experience; one that may have turned out totally dissimilar had a different teacher taken my place. I remember every last teacher that had taught me, and I’m sure the kids I teach will (hopefully) remember me. I hope they remember the “values” that I have preached, the ideas that I’ve shared during lesson. Time keeps running, and these are irreplaceable moments in their lives that cannot ever be exchanged for anything else. As someone who is just a relief teacher, I am glad I could share these moments with them. As you can see, I’m pretty idealistic after all.

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It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

It saddens me to say that I will be leaving soon. Maybe I’ll be back for a day or two in between holidays, but once the rhythm and routine is broken, it just won’t be the same anymore. This is probably a cliché in education, but I believe that the kids have taught me much more about life than I’ve taught them about literature and in some way that makes me feel selfish.

Learning purely from experience has been both terrible and fun, cruel and kind. The students have driven me mad, yet their kindness and (relative) innocence cannot keep me angry for long. I believe that to teach, you have to indulge yourself in such ironies. There were ups and downs, and that has made the journey a worthwhile and memorable one. Naturally, the next and perhaps the most important question I ask myself is: will I consider this as a lifetime career?

Why St. Andrew’s?

I recall an instance when somebody exclaimed “my blood runs white and blue! (white and blue are the St Andrew’s (SA) school colours)” To that, I smiled back and nodded in approval, for deep within, I knew exactly what this person meant. I’m not the most knowledgeable in regards to SA, but what I do have is a load of experience here. I have been in the Saints family for over fifteen years now. I started my journey at Ascension Kindergarten, then moved on the the junior school (SAJS), followed by the secondary school (SASS) and then finally ended my run in the Junior college (SAJC). Or so I thought. After army, I found myself holding a red pen and some markers, walking around SASS as a relief teacher. So yes, in a way, I’ve gone full circle, all the way as a student through St. Andrew’s and just to come back as a teacher. I thought it was a good conclusion to my time at the school. It was also good for me to give back to the school that raised me before I went off to uni. So as you read all this, you may be wondering: why St. Andrew’s? To answer that, I have to first go way back.

From Primary School...

From Primary School…

To Secondary School...

To Secondary School…

To Junior College!

To Junior College!

Recently, I’ve been meddling a lot with the thought of what makes a Saint? A Saint is what the students here are generally addressed and identified as. However, the term Saint didn’t roll off the tongue very well for me. It was just a mere label, and I already formed that conclusion late into primary school. I looked around when I was in Primary 5 and decided that there was nothing special or spectacular about the students here, and so the term Saints, with all its grandeur and prestige, meant nothing to me. Coming back, I did take some time to register some fleeting opinions on what this school meant to the boys. I got a lot of lacklustre answers such as “like that lor,” or “everyone is here because of the affiliation from Junior School.” I smiled at these responses because they were so blatantly honest, and an exact reflection of how I felt back then when I was in secondary school.

So what would lead to such an opinion of St Andrew’s, even within the psyches of the students? It all began with the notion that no one is here by chance. These are the words displayed at the entrance of SAJC which ironically requires much more than just pure chance to enter. To me, this motto applies more to the junior and secondary school. It is the notion that the school will accept anyone with various backgrounds and abilities and work to value add to every individual. It is a highly idealistic notion, that no one is here at random, and that every student serves his role; that every student has a higher purpose here. And from that assumption the school is willing to go all out to develop each child.

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And we stick close to our ideals, knowing that having a few triumphs among the majority makes everything we champion worth it. (That's my best friend on the left by the way)

And we stick close to our ideals, knowing that having a few triumphs among the majority makes everything we champion worth it. (That’s my best friend on the left by the way)

However, any lofty ideals I have reserved for this school have been shelved in a deep corner of my mind. In the final analysis, there isn’t much about it really. Besides our strong rugby culture and some signs of life from our school band, what else is there about our school that really stands out? I’m not putting down any efforts made by the school to improve itself, but one must recognise the nature of competition out there; not just in academics but in sports. It is ruthless and goal oriented, and many institutions we are up against are backed by prestige and substantial funding. I just want to make the point that ideals aren’t something that makes this village stand out. To me, what this school represents is the struggle of the average Singaporean student. There will be distractions and there will be hardships, and somehow that student will just have to suck it up and battle through it all. That’s the reality of our education landscape, not the dream stats of 50% straight A’s and 99.9% University eligibility some schools effortlessly achieve.

Here they are, ordinary students living their ordinary lives. And there is nothing wrong in that.

Here they are, ordinary students living their ordinary lives. And there is nothing wrong in that.

But a lot of how I felt has since changed. I still accept that this “four schools one village” concept is a far cry from perfect, and that a lot of problems lie deep beneath the impressive facade you see as you pass by St. Andrew’s Village (SAV) on the PIE. I accept that these problems have led to a lot of unhappiness both inside and outside of the school, because back in the day, I faced some of these problems myself.

But then, what’s the big deal with problems? Parents make a huge fuss of it because they want to protect their precious children. Teachers fuel their staffroom talk with student problems, administrative problems, etc. But then when you think about it, it makes sense that every educational institution has it’s own problems. In fact, there are no perfect institutions. Even the comparatively ideal schools at Bukit Timah and Bishan get the occasional student outcry that goes viral on the blogsphere. Problems will plague any system that caters to the masses, so saying that we have problems is as good as saying that there are clouds in the sky. It would be mighty weird if the sky was cloudless all day, wouldn’t it?

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Except it WAS cloudless on this day when I took this shot of our neighbourhood!

Problems aside, I believe that in those formative years, we made the most of what we had and learned to have fun in the process. That was my most important lesson learned. In a strange way, this was only possible because our school gave us space. In the secondary school, we were a fun loving bunch, that was often immature and didn’t get our priorities right. We did silly things and never looked back. There was this once that a group of us decided to skip lessons to leave school and study ourselves outside. Well, that was what we explained to the discipline master the next day, and I was sure he didn’t believe a single word we told him. But the truth was, we were really studying outside. We studied and laughed in between conversations, and received multiple phone calls from different teachers telling us to come back. We diverted our attention to how we could cover each others’ butts on the next day. Thinking back, it was really silly to skip school just to study on our own, but somehow this memory remains a very fond one. Why? Because sometime in those few years, I learned how to have fun and not regret it.

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Being young and having regrets were two mutually exclusive events. We had fun and weren’t sorry for it.

I see a similar culture in the staffroom. Not the skipping of lessons, of course, but the learning to have fun part. There are jokes exchanged and students discussed. Amidst all the administrative problems, and the occasional lack of motivation, I would suddenly see a packet of fruit juice on my desk or a Ninjompeipakoa (throat relief medicine) suddenly pop up. We weren’t afraid to help each other and that made my experience strangely heartening and fun.

The kind of thing I see now and then, sore throat remedies and flu medicine appearing out of nowhere on my table. It helps a ton especially when you're thrust into a new environment.

The kind of thing I see now and then, sore throat remedies and flu medicine appearing out of nowhere on my table. It helps a ton especially when you’re thrust into a new environment.

Of course, I’m not saying that fun is absent from other institutions, or that SA is especially fun. I’m just saying how I felt, and what I remembered. In other words, I’m talking about memories. And these are memories that I have no other school to compare to, as all my memories were forged within these walls. The feeling that you had fun or that it was worth it are all attributed to what happened in the past and how we choose to remember certain phases of our lives.

Memories are dredged up every now and then as I go around my business at school. I’ve bumped into a few primary school teachers who (to my surprise) still recognised me (must be because of the occasional teachers’ day visits). Travelling out to have lunch I’d sometimes end up on the same table as my SAJC teachers. I had a relatively smooth time in those institutions, and nothing exceptionally bad happened under the watch of these teachers. So with that assurance I was able to snuggle up in the warmth of my recollections from three to ten years back, and feel a sense of closure. This was the sort of closure I didn’t intend to seek, but was more of an indirect result of my return. Like I said, it was about going full circle, and right now, this circle feels pretty complete.

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Of course, I’ll always choose to remember the good times.

To round it all off, I’m glad to say that my blood, too, runs white and blue. I’ve had my doubts before, but right now I’m more sure than ever. The school has stuck firmly with the values of our forefathers, and because of that, I was accepted into this community. St. Andrew’s has accepted me and taught me a lot through the years and I can never forget that.

Featuring the alumni of the Primary school, Secondary school and Junior college. I didn't realise the significance of this photo until now. Clement, the guy in the pink shirt, even followed me through army!

Featuring the alumni of the Primary school, Secondary school and Junior college. I didn’t realise the significance of this photo until now. Clement (the handsome guy in the pink shirt) even followed me through army!

So, back to the question: why SA? I must be honest, there has been good and bad, from feelings of absolute joy to outright misery. I was allowed to dream, and occasionally pounded headfirst into the cruel depths of reality. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with the most fun and diverse groups of people imaginable, and many of us still keep in close contact. There are memories, good and bad, but in the end these memories made me who I am, and I am glad for that.

There’s no reason really, nothing for me to utterly convince you as to why SA should be an institution you would want to invest in. This is not an institution that is spectacular in any way, nor does it pride itself in being over-the-top or elitist. But alas, after being here for so long, I can say that this school is as much a part of me as I have been a part of it. And for me, that has always been enough.

Thank you SA, you've always been enough.

Thank you SA, you have always been enough.

The All-Encompassing Package that is Teaching

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This week was my first week working as a teacher in my old secondary school. So much has happened in the short span of five days that I can’t possibly put everything down in nice concise sentences. I feel like a pet fish thrown into open water. It has been immensely tiring yet at the end of all this I feel tremendously encouraged to carry on. I feel at peace with myself after all this. It’s hard to describe this feeling precisely because it has been so long since I’ve felt this way; living my own life and doing the things I believe in. I guess one good way to visualize this would be to imagine a smooth flowing river, water heading towards the ocean, lost in its unobstructed flow, unhindered, free and purposeful.

 I knew before I stepped into my first classroom that I had to strip away all idealistic notions of what “being a teacher” meant. Sure, you get to touch lives and make lasting impressions, so on and so forth. That’s one message MOE advertisements have been trying relentlessly to instill in the public. But I knew with acute clarity that this was not going to be the case; at least not in the short space of one week. I held my reservations as I stepped into my first class.

My first class was a rowdy bunch of secondary three kids, which I was tasked to teach the fine and delicate subject of literature to. Yes, I should expect disaster when it comes to this. I was new, alone, young, and inexperienced. And chances are, these kids knew it. And besides, decades of social reinforcement show that literature isn’t a “guy thing”. First impressions are important. I could start by throwing a table out of the window and scare the living daylights out of these kids. I mean it’s actually not a bad investment. If you scare these kids enough you could actually have attentive lessons in the long run. When they let their guard down you could throw something else out the classroom or break a broomstick. Easy. And it is proven to work almost every time. However, I went for a different approach. Scaring them by being firm was just not my thing. If you’ve known me for any good measure of time you’ll know I’m not the type to be fierce or aggressive over anything involving another human being. I couldn’t be overly firm. So what else was I to do?

I did something one of my literature teachers did in the past. I made them come up with their own ideas after I briefly introduced myself. I asked them to come up with a word and branch out to as many words with an association to this particular word. We made a mind map of sorts. The class was noisy at first, giving unfocused and slightly age inappropriate replies. However, they soon caught on and started giving answers that I valued. If you want to gain a kids respect, it is important to pay attention and credit them for their opinion. I basically started with that, thanking everyone who gave valid answers, and soon the naughty ones started chipping in some valid answers as well, much to their delight.

I explained to them that this is literature in a nutshell: to find meaning, value and significance within certain words, circumstances and characteristics. Of course, I didn’t put it so nicely, but I got the message across. It was from there that everything went smoothly. I went about trying to answer questions, walking to their tables and talking to them face to face. If you could get up close and personal, and give them the attention that they need, it is only natural that they give you the respect you deserve. It is hard work and I admit that.

Later, I got them to write a paragraph for me in the best of their abilities, and at the end of the lesson found out that five of them were copying from each other all along. These were the mischievous five that never failed to cause the occasional ruckus. I could scold them the next lesson, and for a moment I was tempted to. But eventually I just wrote a short personal paragraph at the back of each of their papers telling them nicely not to waste their time and to have fun understanding the poem (probably sounded very lame to them) and to discover “something more” within each line. It didn’t make much sense come to think of it, but in retrospect I guess it didn’t really have to make sense. The fact that I was willing to write so much for them despite their behavior probably spoke the loudest to them.

They were much better the next lesson. I asked them to copy down notes this time and to my pleasant surprise, every last boy did it. Halfway through the lesson one of the boys in the mischievous five even asked me “Sir when are you leaving?” and when I told him probably by term two, he replied, “Sir, we want you to stay to the end leh.” I was taken aback by that and mildly touched. Sometimes you have to wonder, what makes these kids that seemed so horrible to work with at the start, say something so heartwarming?

I am very new to this and have no previous experiences to relate to, but if I had to go by first impressions, I believe it is absolutely crucial to let them know you care. Between all the harsh scolding and sending offs, a child often stops believing that you care. They deprive him of the attention he truly needs and in the end you will be unable to direct his energy in a positive direction. Sure, this is all very theoretical and abstract, but it’s all I’ve got to last the next two and a half months. Bottom line is, I have to continue paying close attention to these kids and understand them. These kids have encouraged and inspired me so much thus far. I feel hopeful when I take my literature class, hopeful when the kids smile and say hi when I walk past them during change of periods, when they bombard me with questions about the poem which they refused read just a few minutes ago.

So yes, that was my first week. Probably not the best indicator of the coming weeks but it is a highly encouraging start. Working here was never going to be a breeze and I knew that. There have been grumbles, curses and times I wished I were on the other side of the desk. This is part of the all-encompassing package that is teaching. And I know that for sure now.

It’s going to be an interesting and tiring next few weeks. I hope to continue working with my class, to understand what literature means to them both inside and outside the classroom. The rowdiness, raised hands, broken paragraphs and looks of heavy contemplation will be a sight to behold every day. And that in itself makes for good literature.

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