Can I Let Go?

Here I am, standing behind an examination hall full of students seated anxiously in neat rows, looking their best, only dripping in cold sweat, rubbing their sweaty palms together in torment and anguish. No one could be more anxious than these youngsters… beside their teachers. The principal and vice-principal are pacing around in the front of the hall, exchanging sombre and definite glances, visually checking to make sure that every class’ attendance was fulfilled that morning. The PowerPoint slides come on screen and the principal begins to the test the microphone.

Everything the principal says is jibberish until she starts revealing the national examination results, and percentages of students who passed and who earned distinctions at the national examinations that year. The statistics are flashed slide after slide on the big screen, and students squirm and squiggle in their places. As the results are being revealed slowly, some teachers begin to exhale in relief, some clasping their hands in joy at the vast improvements made, and others wallow in great disappointment.

As I picture the above in my mind, happening a few months from now, I asked myself for the first time today, How will I be feeling then?

It will be the first time sending a batch of students to sit for a national examination three weeks from now, and I have no idea how much I have prepared them for the examination, and how well-prepared they are. The anxious ones ask me for their marks to their writings over and over, the numerical grade a reassurance of their current ability, a testament to their potential performance. But what good will the numerical grades do for them, if only as a false, unfounded reassurance… a huge lie to the students?

Teaching this group of students for almost a year is not an easy feat. They are a jolly bunch, true… a jolly bunch who needs to know the concept of time management and responsibility. I had enjoyable pleasurable conversations with these man-boys and ladies, but I also had a fair number of grievous and unpleasant moments with them. When I wallow in self-doubt and worry, the same question seems to pop back into my mind: Have I done what I could?

The underlying assumption of this question is that if I have done whatever I believed I can for these little people, I can only do that much… and I can therefore send them out to fight their battles without any reservation. A soldier has to fight… and he can only be as prepared as he can be. Given the time, the resources, and circumstances. But… is it shirking my responsibility? Truth is, I may not have been as “WOW” enough to blow their minds while these young ones were under my charge. Have I inspired them to enjoy Literature? Well, I have definitely made them clearer of what they academic interests are, of that I am certain.

There are two schools of thought here. One group of people will think that the teacher can do that much, and the student has to do the rest. In other words, if a teacher has done whatever he or she is able to do given the circumstances, without racking or killing himself or herself, no one has the right to heap guilt and criticism upon the teacher if the students failed. The soldiers are trained for battle… but when they do not return from war safely, it is by no means the fault of the officer.

Yet another group of people will think that a teacher’s influence can extend beyond the boundaries of the imagination. A great teacher can work wonders… if he or she were gifted enough or had character enough. If students fail, the teacher must have failed somewhere too.

Where should I place myself between these two schools of thought? I have never felt so uncertain in whatever I do before. Well, yes, maybe when I was writing those Literature essays in University, half-awake, trying to complete them before the stipulated deadline. I never knew what kind of muddy grade I would be getting for those papers. But now what is at stake is so much more than a university paper. Or a person. It is the future of a classroomful of people.

It honestly feel like a burden too great to bear.

Because It Is So Important, What We Do

“As teachers of Literature, we must be self-respecting and that self-respect can only come if we understand the nature of what we do … It is as vital as what the sciences do … you must have this conviction. If you don’t have it, you must cultivate and grow it… Objectivity is what the sciences aspire to; what we aspire to – the subjective – is not less important … We have the ability to reason and argue our subjective positions … There is no objective meaning of a poem. There are many possible commentaries. We get a feeling of inferiority that we have no right answers. There are many ways to be right in Literature. The world is plural. The question is how you arrive at what you arrive at not what you arrive at, and we do so with thought and feeling together … Literature captures this complexity. It is the scientist, bureaucrat and politician who should make way as we walk by … the danger is that the measurable is the only thing measured in education, we need to break the back of this prejudice … Literature gives pleasure; don’t let your student approach a class like a visit to the dentist.”

Most Inspiring Teaching-Movies

So we all know how movies can tug at the heartstrings and inspire courage and turn into solid diamond gems as time passes. There is a sizeable pool of movies that boast inspirational life lessons from its plot and cinematography, without being labelled as too over-the-top, or trying-too-hard, to just conveniently labelled as “propaganda”. The recent local drama series on Channel 8 “Don’t Stop Believin'” (the contraction in the third word really ticks me off because of the slang it seems to so cleverly boast) is an example of a really (I am sorry but I cannot lie about this) awful programme that does not reflect an ounce of reality. If the local community would take what they see at face value and form their impressions of teachers, secondary school students and schools from shows such as these, I could just well, bury my head in the ground until the world passes over and a more intelligent community takes over the planet.

Anyway, because of shows on television that can be so cringeworthy, here is a list of films that I feel has been most powerfully moving and inspiring, in all senses of the word. Granted, these films are set in different communities, cultures and time periods, but I think they educate and raise very thought-provoking issues about education and life, rather than plaster an imagined idealised reality in viewers’ minds.

Lessons of a Dream (German)

This was one of those movies I came across when I was channel-hopping during the holidays, lounging on my couch in the living room, hoping to spot something worth viewing before I left home. Foreign films usually take a while to whet my appetite, mainly because of the difference in languages, but this one got me hooked. It tells the tale of an Englishman who moved to Germany to be an English teacher at an all boys’ school, a strict, regimental institution. In it he finds himself dealing with the German’s general prejudice against the English, from both the boys, the alumni and the general public. The film also delves into issues of social and class discrimination through the taunts and frequently bullying of the a young scrawny scholar who faces the constant threat of being expelled. Values of teamwork and empathy come out of the movie too, through the introduction of Football to the boys. There are certain points in the show where it borrows too easily from cheesy inspirational movies that yanks you back into reality where you go, “Oh, it is all quite romanticized”. But for most of the ride, it gives you wings and some zesty food for thought with regards to teaching young boys become men of heart and courage. Needless to say, I was late for my appointment that afternoon.

Here is the trailer on Youtube:

Freedom Writers

Who would not think of Freedom Writers when we speak of inspirational teaching-movies? At one point (or two) the film made me cry buckets. I think the film is a treasure find because it honestly presents to you the cracks and brokenness of the community in California, and the effect those riots had on the teenagers in the High School Hilary Swank’s character Erin Gruwell was teaching at. I also appreciate how it doesn’t paint a rosy picture of becoming a teacher – happily married with a supportive spouse, lovely children, having cakes and tea with your family at home on a Sunday afternoon. Instead, it very realistically depicts the brokenness of Ms Gruwell’s home, where her husband left her because of the overwhelming commitment she made to her job and her kids (Of course, it doesn’t give us room to think about whether or not it is worth it, it just makes us feel all blurry teary, so we bury those unanswerable questions in the compassion of our hearts). Yet, I also appreciate how Ms. Gruwell’s kindness and effort to her kids was not a standalone effort – because no teacher can stand on his or her own – her parents and other members of the community chipped in to help create a powerful learning experience for these kids that lasts a lifetime and could lift up the power to love and forgive.

3 Idiots (India)

I was first introduced to 3 Idiots by a friend and fellow teacher-student while reading my Post-Graduate Diploma in Education. It was one of the movies I laughed the hardest and longest to. But beneath the hysterical nonsensical facade, with a really interesting cranky name to boot, 3 Idiots deals with the educational landscape in India, which bears are stark similarities to the educational landscape elsewhere. I, for one, can find myself relating to some of the comical parodies it draws from real life.

Perhaps the best part of this movie is that it can be found (Yes, in its entirety) on Youtube! You don’t have to be disappointed watching a movie in fragments and trying to piece together the parts, or trying to figure out what significant moments of the film you missed. And, it comes with English subtitles too. It’s a whole 2 hours long, but it is definitely worth your time.

Here’s a short clip from the movie:

Taare Zameen Par (India)

When I was on my attachment, a great teacher mentor and friend introduced this wonderful wonderful show to her students (and I). The film tells the story of an eight-year-old boy who had fascinating imagination and a strong sense of art and colour, Ishaan, who was sent to a boarding school in India because he could not excel academically. His father, and family, was naturally disappointed with his performance in school, and at one point this strained their parent-child relationship much. Of course, a teacher, comes into his life and insists on seeing him for what he could do, rather than what he could not do, and finds out that he is dyslexic. To tell the truth I cannot remember the ending of the movie, but I know it was a heartwarming tale of love and conviction between a teacher and his child. Are we willing to see our students for their gifts, not what they lack?

I think the best part of these two movies it that it stars Aamir Khan (and in Taare Zameen Par Aamir Khan directed and produced it too). I love it because they contain the best of Bollywood’s outrageously dramatic jiggly dances and good-natured comedy, a good mix of slapstick and satirical humour rolled into a jolly good time.

Dead Poet’s Society

Do I need to say more? This is one of the giants of inspirational educational films that I have heard since I was a little kid. Perhaps my parents desired to inculcate that passion for teaching in me before I could fully appreciate the film. But here is my absolute favourite scene… together with the excellent music it makes my heart flutter and chest heave. I love watching the boys’ expressions as they struggle between doing what they want to, and what they are expected to. If one day I should move one kid in the same way as Mr Keating did, I would be much content. :)

I will not deny that there are plenty of other awesome and inspiring teaching-movies out there, but from the pool I know, these are the 5 that has struck and stayed with me. Perhaps one fine day I could add more to this list and revisit it ever so often to keep that little flame aglow.

Warm Happy Things

This school holiday has been riveting with plenty of sweet goodness. Twice this week I have had unstoppable cravings for waffles and ice cream, and twice this week I have insisted on satisfying them cravings for those warm happy things.

Haato & Co. on Saturday, and Scoopz this evening, as a yummilicious and extravagant and sinful treat, twice with my mother and with each of my two brothers. I guess the best part of the evening lies not in the sweet waffles but the time spent with the two growing young men of the family. They can be so reticent they hardly speak, but somehow, sweet pleasurable waffles always help to break down the barriers and make happy boys loosen up.

Mum prefers Haato & Co.’s waffles because they taste better, but for what it’s worth, I am most easily satisfied with hot waffles and sweet cold ice cream, never mind the taste (well, it matters but not so much). So Scoopz is definitely more value for money, plus Haato & Co.’s ice cream tends to be much creamier and milky which doesn’t go down as well with me. Don’t ask about the quality of service though. At one I could barely hear the cashier nor understand her; at the other we waited almost half an hour for our waffles because the ladies forgot our order. I think it is the generally poor service in most local shops in Singapore. I can never have high expectations of the quality of service in Singapore, it pains me to say.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean those waffles and ice cream are any less warm happy things! So there, enjoy the last two days of our holiday freedom! :)