The Necessary Rethinking

With inconsiderable reluctance I turn my mind to the inevitable fact that school will reopen in just three days. I find myself counting the empty gaps in my timetable for the rest of the week – one and a half more free days – and drowning in insecure gladness. There is no more to anticipate, because there is nothing more beyond anticipation.

More than preparing ourselves mentally and physically to go back to school (no more late nights and late mornings, the headaches have become somewhat incessant these few days), it was also important to rethink the spiritual and emotional investment in this profession.

Two days ago I met a good friend and sister. Although we only meet once every half a year, she is someone who holds the mirror in front of you and forces you to look at yourself very truthfully. We did not dwell on the topic of teaching as there were other things on our minds, but not before she made me admit that I was doing “terrible” spiritually. No wonder there is no zest in my punch, no energy in my fight, no passion in my dance. “So why were we thinking about leaving again?” 

It does not take a genius to realise that one’s passion for their job is dwindling, or that one may be leaving the service to a different grazing field; but it does take a bit more to pin point the root of the problem if one has lost their source of strength. And yet it definitely takes much more than that to compel such a person to go back to Christ and stop being stubbornly self-reliant.

The prospect of no longer being bound to a school or the profession, in other words, being able to do something different is actually very appealing. But upon more serious rethinking, I needed to admit a few hard truths to myself:

  1. The drive to think about leaving (whether it is further studies, another job or another school) is fuelled by a negative, not positive force.That frustrates me, because I know that these thoughts are not pleasing to God, and will not be pleasing to anyone. I want to get out of feeling tired and bogged down all the time; I wish to get out of the regular drone of the day-to-day because I am dissatisfied with how I presently lead my life. And while yes there is room for dissatisfaction, that should prompt further reflection not escapism. In other ways, these thoughts are fuelled by a desire to have it easier than I do now.
  2. I have been running on my own adrenaline for the past two years, and I cannot expect to do so without my God.Where are the prayers and the tears, where are the cries for mercy and help out to a loving Saviour, in the past two years? My neck has been stiff and my heart has been hardened. Two years! Sometimes the sheer fact that I am surviving in school right now, is by the grace of God Himself.

    And lastly,

  3. If I do not right my relationship with God, there is not going to be any change.I will still be tired, unhappy, unable to deal with the challenges in the classroom, and wish to do less because I give myself the plain excuse that it is difficult to cope.

I am thankful for the prayer meeting cum teaching session last evening which I attended. While sharing what they have learned from their summer course in Regent College, I picked out a few hard truths that will hopefully plant itself firmly in my heart and drive the second semester coming up this year.

One topic that came up was this concept of “suffering” – and I broadened the definition of suffering to refer to anything we would consider “hardship”. Mum pointed out that we tend to imagine that a good, desirable life is one that is free of suffering and challenges and pain. And it struck me so hard because that seems to be precisely the starting point of my dissatisfaction.

This concept of ‘treating’ yourself to a movie, a good meal, or a luxurious holiday to make up for the tough circumstances you are facing, is precisely that. The innocent desire to pamper yourself once in a while, when taken too far, can be misconstrued into something that slowly nibbles at your drive and passion to give your all.

There have been many instances when I chose to gratify myself and justify it with the challenges faced at work. If I’m tired, it warrants a right to sleep or rest. If I’m sick of work, it is my right to do something that makes me happy. Yes, it is important to take care of our whole being, and make time for other activities and take a break. But perhaps I need to be clear where the line between excessive self-gratification and caring for the self is.

When we assume that life is suppose to be smooth-sailing, then we will also end up being unhappy when it gets tough. When work piles up and we feel that we have trudged through enough nonsense, we tell ourselves that we have reached the brim, the very top, and we will not take any more. There may be several redundant, unnecessary things on our to-do lists as dictated by the job scope laid out by our superiors, but as much as they annoy us, God says to submit to authority. If compiling a few more tables of data, or writing a few more reports is what my role calls for, then I should ask the Lord for strength and do it, unless I can help it.

That works for the classroom too. When the kids we teach presents a formidable daunting challenge that baffles and irritates us, what crosses my mind? Sometimes when I’m near my tipping point, I secretly wish that I could teach a different class of students. I would very much like the option of bowing out and sitting out of the match. In other words, I crave the easy way out.

And who in similar situations wouldn’t, if we have already been so ingrained with the idea that an easy life is a blessed one?

I should check myself constantly with the reminder that that is a fallacy – a blessed life is one where God is lord of, not one that is devoid of suffering and hardship. Even the Michael W. Smith song (I think) says the same thing: His strength is perfect, when our strength is gone. The Bible does not mention how followers of Jesus has a perfect, happy life – as much as we wish that for our family and friends – “Blessed birthday! May your life be filled with peace, love, and joy!” The Bible does however talk about how God’s grace is sufficient for us to tide through all suffering; and about how a blessed life is one of joy in the Lord’s redemptive work. Am I looking at this the right way?

Term 4 is going to be a really short term, cut even shorter by all the holidays. What will the rest of the year spell for me; will there be change in my life? Now many people may chide me for spending so much time thinking and rethinking this for the longest time. However at this moment, where life equals work, I think it is necessary to invest some thought and time into this life I currently lead.

It has been two years. What will the next year bring?

Distastefulness

I had a minor run-in with my brother today, a few days after his scholarship interview with one of the local ministries. He was telling us how they spoke to him for more than an hour, proud that they were engaged in thoughtful and meaningful dialogue for that long. Of those questions were the candy-crushing sweet questions about the intrinsic meaningfulness of the profession, the value of the career and the questions on your personal convictions. And then for a short, brief moment, my brother mentioned me, talked about my career, my slight disdain but protective musings about it on Facebook.

Now I am proud of my brother, and of course I would have preferred if he left me out of the picture or painted a better picture of me, but what unsettled me was how ignorant they were of how a government ministry works. But what unsettled me more was how affected I was by their ignorance.

“You do not know what someone would do, or how the ministry works.” I cried at one point, tired of their young, carefree and blissful attitude towards anyone who was nice enough to sustain a conversation with them. I remember how I was once youthful and ignorant, believing everyone who was friendly and cheerful.

But there are just too many ways to justify an action, too many ways to determine a right and a wrong, too many faces of people out there, that I have grown not to take my chances any more. Trust yourself, and only trust those who have proven that they share the same convictions and beliefs with you – by word and action – not hearsay.

Am I too cynical?

Smog It Out

Since about a week ago, we have been experiencing a hazy situation. I call it the “haze godzilla”, especially when PSI levels crossed the hazardous 400 mark two days ago, and the skies no longer look sunny and blue but a dull, sulphuric-ashy grey. As we stayed indoors to hide it out, we did not only observe the trends of the PSI and PM2.5 numerics, but also the reactions of people living in our midst. Those hours of surfing around online, at times bordering on claustrophobic insanity, did lead me to draw some rather interesting observations and thoughts.

Firstly, Facebook was both an escape as much as it was a hell-hole that bred disdain and depression. It was my primary source of communication, being able to network with friends from a variety of social circles, keep in touch with their lives (in Singapore or otherwise) and what their reactions were towards the haze situation in the region. Yet, the internet was also a space where an overload of depressing, negative talk thrived in, and Facebook was that window where we tasted that bad air.

Singaporeans are extremely reactive. I don’t mind explosive, or even bad-tempered. I mean Singaporeans react very readily to whatever is out there, almost as if the big bad haze gave us a topic to talk about, to live on, to fill our lives with. When the haze situation emerged, you started reading of PSI updates everywhere online, taking different forms. Some were screenshots of the NEA’s website, or some PSI android app, or some email or SMS update, some were complaints about the bad air condition, and some were news articles about the Indonesian fires and the nasty finger-pointing that had come out of it. Shortly after when the N95 masks came into the picture, there started to be photographs of people wearing masks (of different sorts). And then there came the complaints that there were not enough masks, that Singaporeans were buying masks from airports all over the region before returning to Singapore, and some were quick to accuse the government or individual ministers for not doing enough (or promptly enough) to help ease the burdens of the people. Wow, that was a mouthful. Not to forget the memes from 9gag about the haze. I just imagined that if it was not the haze that occurred but say, a zombie epidemic (like in World War Z, yes), how would we react? We would probably also keep ourselves locked up in our homes, huddling in safety, turning to our electronics and computers for an alternate reality indoors. Oh this is already sounding so Brave New World-The Machine Stops-ish.

I just wondered when the haze trend will pass and people move on to other things in their exciting (or lack thereof, mundane) lives.

It is also a time to assess how selfless and compassionate we are towards others we do not know. Texas Chicken called off all delivery services for the welfare of their service crew – did the rest of the delivery systems? People urged companies to take care of their workers who were labouring out in the nasty hazy weather – were they being taken care of? A maid agency near my block had their employees sit indoors behind the glass windows when previously they would make the poor girl sit outdoors. Companies gave out free N95 masks to spread goodwill among the people, while others freely offered bottles of water to those in need. Yet some others were quick to jack up the prices of the masks and other necessities, buy loads for themselves sparing little thought for others in need, and other companies capitalized on the bad weather to market their own masks (albeit of a different sort). How much thought did we spare for others these few days, when we needed to buy a meal, or when we saw someone with a similar need as ourselves? Or perhaps we were mostly out to protect and fend for ourselves. Are we constantly counting our blessings, or are we quick to fling responsibilities and accusations at other parties?

These few days of staying indoors with the windows and doors shut (almost all the time) without the air-conditioner (it stopped working a few days before the haze hit Singapore) was a nightmare. I wished I could see clear skies so I could run outside and live it up. It reminded me that we were not made for stagnancy. If you placed someone in a little room and expected him or her to be happy, he or she would never be. We were made to desire and live for personal contact, meaningful communication, socialisation and working towards progress. I am just glad this evening offered a little glimpse of hope and heaven when the temporary winds blew the smog away. God is good – giving us a timely reminder that He is in control and things will be okay. :)

A Friend From Long Ago

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A teacher in primary school once said, “There is no such thing as a best friend at your age. How will you know who will be the best friend you can possibly have?” On hindsight, I think I understand why she would have said that to a class of primary four students. We were at an emotionally vulnerable age where we declared each other best friends one minute, and broke off friendships the next. What was usually at stake was popularity and friendship – those things that seemed the world to a ten year old. No wonder she felt compelled to set our minds straight when she could. But her good heart sank deep in my mind and I have believed since that the words “best friends” were empty words, void of the promise they may have once held.

I had a good friend in primary school. We lived two streets away from each other, a total walking distance of ten minutes on average. Our parents were “friendly” – they met one another at those Primary One orientation sessions. I recall that my mother and her mother were ex-colleagues many years ago. Because we lived so close to each other, we took the same school bus every morning.We became quick friends even though we were from different classes, because we spent so much time outside of school getting to know each other.

One of my favourite childhood activities was going to her house. It became a norm to find her at my house, and more commonly, me at hers. My domestic help, “auntie”, would walk me to her terrace house, and leave me play there for a number of predetermined hours. We did many things at her home. I did not own any Barbie doll sets, but she did. And we would play Barbie and Ken sometimes in one of those spare rooms in her house. There was also an electronic walkie talkie set, which we would use when we played “espionage”. That did not happen often because we would need access to the many rooms in her home, and may not have been the most convenient. There was also those drawers of toys and lego playsets which we enjoyed thoroughly during our childhood years. She was an only child, and my younger siblings then were still too young to engage in meaningful play time with me.

As the years passed, we matured from playing with doll sets and plastic toys, to flipping through mesmerising encyclopaedic adventures in her set of encyclopaedias. I remember that it was dark brown and had a layer of dust over it which we had to sweep off before reading.

We also picked up the habit of using the telephone. I still remember her contact number after so many years, like a set of numbers purposefully engraved in your head, a pattern that glowed on the keypad of the phone. We would talk, at first for a few minutes, asking about homework and what to bring to school on those “special” days, then tens of minutes, then hours. We indulged in the latest gossip, sharing the events of the day, I remember even reading whole articles off magazines and books to her – a few times I chose articles from a Christian magazine that accompanied me through my youth (BRIO). I enjoyed reading aloud, and I remember also being prompted to share with her the good news that I treasured after I turned to Christ.

We even had a “friendship journal”, where we would take turns to write journal entries or letters to each other, and exchange it every fixed number of days.

I remembered that at one period, her parents would drive us both to school in the mornings. I would walk to her house, and then take her father’s white Mercedes to school. Most of the time, I would look forward to going even earlier for breakfast with her family. It was strange having breakfast with them, because contrary to the practice at home for me, where eating bread was a norm, having hot porridge in the morning was a norm for them. I grew to enjoy the novelty of the experience though. Because she lived with her grandparents, their family was also conscious of the amount of salt in their food. That explained the very different taste of the porridge, which to be honest, did not rest well with my tastebuds at first. The plain porridge grew on me though, and over time, I looked forward immensely to the steamed minced meat dish, steamed pork balls, and steamed egg.

Those were very happy childhood memories. But like all things, friendships do not always last, they do not necessarily grow stronger, and very often they fade away. Just like how I recounted the good times, I shall now attempt to capture the fading of the very friendship I held dear.

Although we enrolled into the same secondary school, we were streamed into very different classes. With that, we came into contact with different groups of people. Perhaps in a bid to “survive” in a new environment, I sought out safer ground – a space where I had friends I could trust, friends I could hang out with during recess, friends whom I could count on to do group projects with in class. That must mean that the time and effort I had to spend with this special childhood friend was greatly reduced. We could no longer talk about what happened at school (for we understood less and less of it), or how a particular teacher or schoolmate was like (for we knew completely different people), or ask about the homework that had to be submitted.

I remember growing colder towards her. At that time, I felt that she belonged to a different class of people, a different world. I cared less for her as a friend, and more for those new friends I made in class, in CCA, those friends I could have the same recess with or count on to send me reminders about school. Our sentiments towards each other grew more distant as we turned to different friends in our now vastly social circles. We stopped exchanging diaries, letters, and the times we exchanged greetings in school were driven by guilt and compensation rather than good affection and friendship.

There is very little of what I can recall beyond primary school quite apparently. Yet every year on my birthday without fail, this special childhood friend will send me a birthday greeting – and this is not because of Facebook birthday reminders. Her goodwill and faith in people moves me. I truly hope good things always come her way, and she finds a best friend to spend the rest of her life with. :)

All the best, dear friend!

 

Overseas in June

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Some friends and I went to Universal Studios Singapore. It was my debut trip there and it as much as I cannot wrap my finger around how people would pay so much, and queue so long for rides that last for less than three minutes, I enjoyed it. It is horrifically commericalised indulgence in excess, but it was a different world and it provided an avenue of thrill and entertainment.

My favourite was the 3D Transformers ride, followed by Battlestar Galactica Human. I could not appreciate being tossed around inside the 360 degree spins and turns like in Cylon, although I liked the exhilarating experience of falling from mid-air in Human.

I would not pay close to a hundred bucks to visit USS again anytime soon (not in a few years I am sure) – but I am thankful for today’s experience. :) At least now I can go back and read all the essays my students are writing about USS and Battlestar Galactica and understand them from the inside out.

 

Prata

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Roti Prata, must be one of the most sinful yet delicious pancakes that ever lived on earth.

There is something unexplainably pleasing and cathartic about digging your fingers into the soft, warm threads of bread, cooked to golden brown, and dunking it into a dish of warm accompanying curry.

I did not use to eat roti prata with my fingers. As a child, it was a practice in my family to use forks and spoons when digging into our breakfast. It was our challenge not to get any curry on your fingers or the table. But since meeting some colleagues at work who shared the same love for prata, I have learnt to enjoy my prata the real way – using your fingers to tear the bread apart and sinking it into curry, before stuffing the bread into your mouth, and letting the body of your tongue squeeze the curry juices out of the layers of bread, all over your mouth.

I think the act of eating prata has evolved for me since a particular colleague and friend bought us prata for breakfast – on those nasty early mornings when we had to work extra hours. We would camp in the staff lounge, open our breakfast love packages, and eat it together with everyone else. We had to look dignified of course, but it was no biggy having curry on your fingers or on your lips. It was a time of bonding, over prata, curry, and work.

It is fascinating how the idea of food can change so dramatically by how we relate to it.

Plain Vanilla

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About a week ago I turned twenty-six.

It was a long day at work, and the enrichment programme we planned for at school turned out a partial disaster. As I left the office, I thought of how to spend my evening. Original plans to meet a friend for a quick get-together meal fell through, and I found myself stranded figuratively, at school, without any plans for the evening, but with no desire to go home early. So I bought a ticket to Star Trek, paid to watch it a second time, convinced myself that it was that good, and had pasta for dinner in the theatre. Sad life? True story. It sounds pathetic hearing my recount, but my day wasn’t that bad.

You see, my birthday had already been celebrated too many times. One week ago, some old teacher friends surprised me with a birthday cake from Rive Gauche (my favourite cake shop), card and earrings from Chomel at a dinner get-together. I thought it would be awkward meeting them (and their spouses or partners) after so long, but they were wonderful and reminded me of how loving and good our God is.

At school, some colleagues surprised me with very sweet gestures of kindness and goodwill. By the end of the day, my desk was piled with chocolates, goodies and presents. I wasn’t moved by the physical gifts as much as the thought behind those gifts, from people I may never have expected to show such love. A colleague gave me a plush bear! And my co-form teacher who has become a friend, decided to play a joke and buy me a PINK BARBIE STATIONERY SETIt was hilariously embarrassing to say the least, especially when he said, “I was looking around the store for something to get you… and it just screamed you.” Thank you very much -curtsey-. Because mum and sis are spending the Summer in Vancouver for a summer programme, other friends and families from church extended their goodwill and kindness. My aunt bought me a rabbit plush toy, which I am calling Apricotwith his home next to my pillow. A dear sister painted a witch’s boiling cauldron on a bag (thank you very much again) as an artistic birthday gift. My dad who resides in China, sent over a bouquet of lovely peach roses and a rich chocolate cake. I had five chocolate cakes in all. At one point, I had four cakes sitting in my fridge (gasp).

But these are moments of abundance, joy and blessing. Each gift, card, note or greeting a representation of a friendship or relationship stemmed from love and appreciation.

Thank you, for reminding me that a world bigger than textbooks, students and red pens, exists. That is perhaps the most significant gift I received this year.

 

 

 

Fact & Fiction

When your mind is in constant dialogue with others, you are inevitably influenced by the multiple other points of view your mind engages with. It is no secret that truth, small letter t, is subjective. And sooner or later you will find that your ideas and opinions are formed and reformed by the dialogue you have been exposed to. To be honest, I am aware that my beliefs and opinions have been shaped by my personal convictions, my faith, as well as the conversations we have had in the staffroom, or outside of it. And at this point of my life where my personal and professional life seems to be one huge joint, I no longer know which thoughts and feelings are strictly my own.

In one or two weeks it will be possible for myself to apply out of my current workplace, to somewhere else. Would I? Possibly not yet. But has the thought ever crossed my mind? It sure has. I think it is important to look at every thought and feeling as objectively as possible, just so that I can answer for my own opinions and feelings when the time calls for it. I do not, after all, want to be mimicking someone else’s tongue.

Truth | It is required of me to do much work that does not add value to students’ learning.

This includes punching in numbers, copying and pasting, preparing excel templates and spreadsheets, sometimes more than once, just so that data can be presented and stored as desired. This makes the nature of my work increasingly redundant.

Myth | Our school gives us much redundant and excessive work that it is slowly killing us.

I do not know how our school compares to others, or if the comparison even matters. I believe that every school demands their staff to do work of some redundant nature. A friend training at a law firm recently told me how he was called back on a Sunday morning to tab page numbers to stacks of files before a meeting with a client on Monday. But if a school, or a leader, can help it, I think it is only reasonable that he or she leaves their staff alone during off-work hours. It is no longer about work ethic, it is about human compassion. If the school leaders cannot realise that their staff are only human and their off-work hours need to be protected, I think there is something intrinsically wrong with the management.

Truth | My focus is no longer on teaching and learning, and seeking to add value to my students’ learning.

As much as I want to focus on T&L, plan my lessons in advance, and create lesson resources that have been looked at and edited at least once, I just find myself unable to afford that luxury of time. Instead, I end up replying emails and keeping track of other things on my to-do list, coordinating meetings or planning school programmes. Well, not always – other times I find myself too drained after a day’s work that all I would like to afford as I wind down in front of my work laptop, is a mental idea of what I need to cover in class the next day, period. Nothing more, no fancy powerpoint slides, games, titbits and prizes, video clips or funky pictures.

Truth | Other non-teaching related work is affecting my priority at work.

I may not be doing much compared to another colleague, but it doesn’t matter because we have different capabilities and life priorities. But if I am in this job for the students, and I cannot deliver to the best of my desired capacity, then something needs to be reviewed and dealt with. I could easily decide to sleep an hour less every night so that I can adequately prepare for a class the next day, but am I prepared to do that? I could spent a few hours less outdoors every week in order to prepare for a lesson during the week, but do I want to do that? If I am not prepared to make that commitment to give extra of my life, then something else has gotta give.

Myth | I am giving my best.

“Giving my best” is an awfully subjective expression. I am giving my best, in the sense that I take pride in my work and am accountable when it comes to carrying out professional duties. But am I being the very best I can be for my students? Probably not. I need to go back to God and rely on Him for the mental, physical and spiritual strength, to go on in good shape. Until I do that, prayerfully and humbly, I cannot confess that I have given my best to this occupation.

Truth | I have lost heart for some students.

I know each child comes with their own baggage and has a different story, but I have had enough of empathy and patience. When I think of some students, all I can do, is sigh in dismay as my heart and mind wells up feelings of frustration and angst. If I could, I sometimes wish they were in not in the classroom and I was not responsible for their learning or performance. Perhaps I do not have sufficient energy and love to give, as much as we would like to think of ourselves as potentially a bottomless pit of love. I am not selfless as a teacher ought to be – not yet, if ever, perhaps.

Truth | I think I might enjoy teaching students in another school.

A change of environment always presents itself as a wild temptation, like strawberry fields. Of course I think I might enjoy being somewhere else because it presents a fresh perspective, a new change, a way out of the old and stale. But is there reason enough for me to take the leap and submit the application?

As I continue to figure out what my heart and mind is wired to think and feel, I will need to put an end to their floating around my head and capture them on paper. When the time comes, I may need to find the courage to give these thoughts a voice.