Meet the Form Class!

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All the talk about our deployment in 2016 is speculative and at best tentative, although it would not be far from the truth to say it is likely I will not be teaching them next year.

It is no secret that teachers have our ‘favourite’ ‘best fit’ classes; I am truly blessed that other than my very first form class in 2012, I had the chance to enjoy that kind of camaraderie and rapport with this class of munchkins who have won me so many times over this year with their awesomeness.

  1. When I shared with them the importance of sincerely showing appreciation to others and made them write ‘thank you’ notes to all their subject teachers, they happily obliged – some of those personal thank you messages so honest and thoughtful.

    (So many teachers were immensely touched when they received the handwritten thank-you notes. Hope they keep encouraging others to become better versions of ourselves!) 

  2. All 43 of them showed up – properly attired and on time – on the last day of school.
  3. All 43 of them showed up on time for the entire duration of their examinations. (I was hugely impressed also because of the haze.)
  4. Three-quarters of the class brought along gifts (wrapped!) under $5 so we could have our year-end gift exchange! :) I exchanged a deco-tape roller with a fragrance incense, a choc bar and some pens.
  5. They unanimously agreed to stay behind for pizza when the pizza could only be delivered an hour later! (Impressed by their class spirit, not their desire for free food.)
  6. The student representatives of the class helmed and prepared their service learning presentation entirely on their own – videos, PPT slides, reflections, Q&A. We teachers only gave them the guiding questions and criteria, and some teenyweeny advice. This really won me over – took a huge load off my chest, especially when some other classes had roles reversed when teachers prepared everything (right down to the script) for the students.
  7. The student groups really took to the children at PCF – and learned from working with the teachers there – perhaps through some challenging tough ways. They may not have impressed PCF completely, but I could see them grow as individuals as they challenged themselves to break out of their comfort zone.
  8. They were mighty disappointed because they did not have time for the boomnet activity at the level camp because we had to take the first ferry back. But after the initial disappointment (“Really? Couldn’t we just try? Maybe we could go now? What if…?”) they accepted it graciously and made the most out of the flying fox pool, just hanging out as a class and playing in the water.
  9. For their VIA project, the kids went to a little village in Bintan and helped to tile the floors with bricks for the village school. Seeing the way they all (yes, even the princesses) got down to work and interacted and played with the children made me proud.
  10. The class committee spearheaded the class tee-shirt orders – sourced and liased with the vendor, gathered the names of the students, feedback and a host of possible tee-shirt designs (although they all looked questionable at best with florals, weeds and skulls and I ended up helping with the design.).
  11. They are receptive to feedback. If you reason with them and set clear but realistic goals, there will almost always be visible improvement – be it about using their handphones, being on time for school, greeting a teacher properly, arranging the furniture neatly etc.
  12. They are hungry to learn. Some boys automatically started on their corrections on their end-of-year exam paper, and this was the dialogue it triggered:

    Me: Wow, are you doing corrections? I need to run through the rest of the questions to check for marking errors – there may not be time for that.

    Boys: You don’t want us to do corrections? Don’t you want us to improve??

    Me: Well… [to the whole class] If I print the marker’s report – it shows you the answers, and reasons why the marker accepted or did not accept some answers. You can attach that to your exam paper then and go through it later on your own. Would that be helpful? Who would be interested?

    80% of the hands shot up in the air.

  13. We won Second Place in the SG50 National Day Inter-class Competition! Some of the kids really impressed us with their sporting spirit – to dress up as  SG50 national day icons!
  14. The boys came in second place in the inter-class frisbee competition for Secondary 3s. (You should have seen them – they light up and transform on the field.) Then they offered up their extra medals to us teachers on Teachers’ Day. The girls came in a close third too!
  15. We won the Best Class Award for the Normal Academic stream in our school! :D This takes into consideration their attendance, results, achievements, attitude etc.

Thank you, 3T1, for giving much and striving hard this year. :)

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How can we teach appreciation?

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A few days ago, I went out with an ex-colleague who interestingly pointed out that some of our students do not quite know how to appreciate. “They gave the least in return.” He said, and this random remark echoed alongside the deep recesses of my own mind.

For more than a year, I had avoided speaking about it because it just wasn’t something you could talk about openly, this, lack of love and appreciation from your own form class. It was somewhat embarrassing even, for did you expect your students to adorn you with gifts and words of thanks?

Teachers’ Day came and went by last year, and I remembered … not receiving any card nor words of thanks from them. Yes some individual students were really sweet and bought us some flowers and chocolates… All very arbitrary and random thoughts put together because of the festivity of the occasion.

This year, my birthday also came and went, and the class was disappointingly more interested in having their own cake and party. I don’t mean that they ought to throw me a birthday surprise but I had at least hoped they would remember and not expect me to throw them a celebration.

This episode does not stand on its own. I bought a cake for the class last year. A boy said “What cake is this? It’s not nice.” They would always be thinking about what could be done for them than what could be done for others. It feels that whatever we have done for them, most of the class is happy just being at the receiving end of things.

If not for the comment my colleague gave, I probably would have avoided even thinking about it. I cannot figure out if theirs is a matter of not knowing how to show appreciation, or of appreciating others. If it is the former, we could show them strategies and ways to spread kindness and thanks. But if it was the latter, how can we teach the younger generation to be thankful and not assume that things should go in a particular way as planned? Life is not going to present challenges to them all nicely decked with a red bow.

I think parents and schools need to look at this issue and take action to reinforce the good values of sharing, caring and giving thanks among the young people. Perhaps we should be more strategic and thoughtful in rewarding our students when they do well. A friend once mentioned that we reward too easily for things they should be doing, perhaps because our expectations have fallen that low. It doesn’t give students any reason to want to do better than they are, not so much because they cannot, but because they don’t need to.

My school has a merit/demerit point system which helps to indicate a student’s conduct in school for the semester. We were told at our level meetings that we should remember to be more generous when awarding students with merit points. We arrived at this proposal to award students without any misbehavior with some points. I clarified this with the level Dean who said yes to this definition: that we reward students who behave as they should. I don’t know whether we hear sirens when we look at it that way, but I know I didn’t like the idea. Students become in the habit of asking to be rewarded for something nice they did. Even if we want to encourage it to become a norm in life. Does it actually work to inculcate such habits of kindness in students? I have my doubts.

Perhaps it is also the way we market ideas and programmes to our students. When we tell them “this is a great opportunity!” and “we believe in you!”, I think we are essentially telling our students that we think they are great, and they are fantastic, and they should be a part of it because they deserve it. I think sometimes we present them too many opportunities and we forgot that we have also inflated their ego enough. As far as I can remember, opportunities to represent the school, go for conferences, or participate in trainings were privileges my peers and I would look upon with admiration and envy. Nobody would wave them at you and coax you to participate by inflating your ego time and time again. We would be yearning secretly for a chance to be a part of the programme, and if we had the chance, it would be something almost sacred we never for granted. Maybe we coax the students too much, and give them too many opportunities they think they have a right to choose. They withdraw from competition when the commitment surpasses what they are comfortable with, they shrink back and fear to follow through.

This brings us back to the issue of self- entitlement that characterises children today. When will we stop reinforcing this sense of self- entitlement in our own children?

Glimpse

I have taught for two and a half years This year has challenged me to work harder beyond what I had expected for myself, question my ideals more than ever, and struggled to find a balance in my life. It has been exhausting and a constant battle, and perhaps in time, I will be able to negotiate an outcome from all these.

There has been much ongoing dialogue about the workload of teachers and what our focus at work should be. This has obviously led to some disagreements, unpleasant exchange of opinions, and hopefully also helped  to shed some light on the real situation on the ground in schools. Not just elite schools, or specific-tiered schools, but schools dealing with all range of student profiles.

The education system we work under is not perfect; but no system is perfect, and I don’t think we should blame the system. It is at most an inanimate set of structures, procedures, and guidelines, managed by people and applied across all schools. The problem, I believe, lies in the transference of a system (developed with an ideal, good purpose behind it) onto a group of teachers and students. Teaching is a laborious, painstakingly human job, and you can not apply a system without giving due consideration to the people it concerns. When you take away the heart of the matter behind education, commercialise it, and run it as a business, it tears the ideals and purpose of education apart. So easily your students and their parents become your clients, stakeholders become opportunities to profit (mostly in the form of raising the school’s reputation, or fulfilling some targets), and teachers and staff inevitably become units of labour.

There are many things that frustrates me as a teacher. As a disclaimer, no school is alike, and one teacher’s experience should not be generalised as others’. However, I believe most educators would be in agreement of this: that an outsider to the education system, should not assume knowledge of the challenges of a teacher. Let us not even go into the issue of our pay and how deserving we are of it. One of the biggest personal peeves is when someone assumes that teaching is simple.

“Those who can’t, teach.” 

“It’s the holidays now, right? So you should be freer?” 

“Oh, so it’s the exam period now? So it’s like holidays for you? You just need to invigilate, right.”  

It is easy to misunderstand the requirements of being a teacher when you have not stepped into the classroom or taught in a school. This is why I am in full agreement for the contract teacher schemes that are offered to interested applicants for the job. Some people are cut out for it, and others are simply not suitable.

For the past two weeks I have, together with my colleagues and teaching friends, marked till late at night just to clear our pre and post-examination marking. After 1:30pm (which is our official dismissal time), we strategically visit some local (very kind!) cafes and sit there with coffee and a quick lunch, and mark till late – often past 9 pm, before we pack up and head home. I had 9 classes of papers to mark in 10 days – a reasonable load, thankfully, but still a challenge when you have to mark for an average of 8 hours straight every day.  We could work faster if we had the luxury of marking during school hours, but unfortunately, there is also the organisation of post-exam activities, keying in of marks for the summative assessment, writing student remarks, writing school reports that consume our time and concentration.

I have tried my reasonable best to work less (work smart) this year. I have become more selective about meeting deadlines (because there often more pressing things to do) and more strategic in directing my efforts to completing tasks (some require more work while others, minimal effort). There are afternoons when I make myself take some time off early to go watch a movie, shopping, or just hang out with good friends and colleagues at a cafe to chill out. I am really thankful that I have not yet driven myself to the ground with the support of people around me, especially my colleagues and friends. But on most other days, we find ourselves working till at least 5pm, and work does not end there – we take it home, work at night, and half the time this does not even involve preparing for lessons the next day. Much of my weekend is spent ensuring that I am ready for work responsibly when Monday comes – and often this means missing family appointments or other additional activities that may require my time and attention.

I know not every teacher spends his or her weekday or weekend this way, uptight about work, but for someone who is still struggling to manage my self, teaching is not giving me an easy time.

I can empathise very closely when people remark on how our attention on teaching is being diverted onto other things that “counts for something”. These include sending out emails (with your initial on it), organising programmes for students, preparing excel templates for marks analysis, writing reports for official school documents for recording or auditing purposes, writing remarks for students… and the list goes on. If you prove yourself able to these things that count towards something on your KPI, you are almost guaranteed to be on the right track when it comes to promotions and career advancement opportunities.

It is not that these tasks are unimportant and ridiculous. Targets are there to help make things better, or at least they should. But when we lose sight of the purpose behind the targets we work towards to achieve, when we forget that our purpose is to add value and teach our students to become educated, keen learners of good character… when we work towards these targets at the expense of the soul of teaching, then we need to take a step back and ask ourselves if there is a necessity to realign our priorities.

 

 

 

Yesterday

The celebrations yesterday did not evoke the same feelings of affirmation for our profession as it may have in the past. Perhaps with time, the joy that you derive comes not from the presents and cards showered upon an educator on that one special day in a year, but the hard work, improvement and moments of sincere gratitude, that comes in the classroom, throughout the year. To an extent, true appreciation does not need to be planned or scripted; it should not be.

I was disappointed with the way my school celebrated Teachers’ Day. It was planned with Health Fiesta Day – with the written objective of celebrating teachers’ day through healthy and meaningful activities. The programme ran quite smoothly apart from the rain, but I felt that the conflation of the two events simultaneously in half a day made the objective behind the event unclear and confusing. The stated objective a valid but lame justification so that we do not need to give up an additional day in the school calendar to conduct both events. As a result, the essence of both events were diluted and maybe even trivialised. Most students were not challenged beyond their comfort zones to participate in physical, mental, social and emotional sports and activities because of the time constraint and the long queues that greeted every student who wanted to participate in an activity. Similarly, the half-an-hour Teachers’ Day concert was hardly impressive and memorable in the course of the day, much less in the course of a month or term or year. At the end of the day I am proposing this: If an event is important, it is important enough to be done thoughtfully and completely. If you are going to put two events on the same day and tie it loosely together by a thin thread of a stated objective, the day’s programme might just fall flat.

I was also disappointed with some incidents leading up to yesterday. Trying to advertise for students to buy post-its to show their appreciation to a teacher so that the funds raised can go to the school is not cool. It conflates money with a value as raw and genuine as being grateful for someone – and conveys a very disturbing message to the students. Insisting that every class write cards for every subject teacher is not a bad idea – but when it is a reactive measure because some people realised they were not receiving as many gifts as other teachers with form classes, it dulls the initiative and makes it a whole lot of meaningless wayang you make the kids dance. As a result, some cards were half-heartedly written, and as biting as it might sound, I would much rather do without cards thrown together “just because” they were told to do so by the school.

Gratitude is not an easy value to teach and inculcate, much less the spirit of appreciation. Too many times we miss out on acknowledging the important things in life because we assume that it is our right to have them. Is it our right to have a good teacher (otherwise how can you blame me for doing poorly?); it is our right to have interesting lessons (otherwise how can you blame me for sleeping in class?); it is our right to do only what we want (for it is our mind and body, and you cannot make us, hear it?); it is our right to lead our lives (so stop telling us what we should or should not do, ‘it’s my life’!) … and the list goes on. It is painfully sad that even when we feel grateful for someone or something, we stop short so often of expressing it. After all, what’s important is that I am not taking it for granted right? But wrong – we do not know how much someone can be encouraged or is in need of a single word, or note, or card. So why do we always find the easy way out for ourselves, and persuade ourselves that it showing our appreciation is not necessary or important?

To every single thoughtfully-written note, carefully-chosen gift, or card out there, thank you. Because it is the culmination of all these sincere expressions of love and appreciation that made yesterday wonderful. It was for that reason alone that I pulled myself to school even though I could hardly utter a sound for a week. I wanted to come to school because I wanted to show my appreciation to my colleagues, and well yes, to receive that kind of appreciation from my students and people I work with. The amount of gifts, or the value on the pricetag does not matter at all, what mattered was the heart and thought behind those gifts, because those were the gifts I sieved out, and the gifts I cherished. Now I understand why some of my older teachers in Secondary School would insist (almost complacently) that they did not want us to spend money on them – if only to write a note or a card to thank them – for the words (and actions) matter more than the gifts you can buy from a world far too commercially wrapped up in presents than it needs to be, perpetuating the very same ideas I mock.

Teachers Greater than ourselves II

Perhaps we need to rethink what being an educator means to us, and the significance we attach to the day – Teachers’ Day. The 1st of September is no longer fixed as Teachers’ Day because there have been instances where September 1 fell during the the September Holidays, and the day lost its significance – teachers had no additional day of rest to unwind and enjoy their day. But Teachers’ Day is not just about making sure all general education officers have a day of rest, is it? How can a school or an institution make use of that day once a year to reaffirm a teacher and renew a teachers’ conviction?

This Teachers’ Day meant little to me. I enjoyed myself thoroughly (despite the few disappointments) but not because it was teachers’ day and I received a truckload of goodies and I took lovely photographs with my students and the school had a rocking exciting concert which blew our socks away. It was because yesterday was a time well-spent with my friends at work. After the Teachers’ Day lunch, we went to playnation and then to watch a movie before we winded the day off with a cup of good coffee. I realised this is a group of friends from work who actually wants the best for the kids they teach, and who holds strongly to the same beliefs and values as I do. These are the people you want to be thankful for because it is a blessing to know them, and a privilege to work with them.

There are always going to be untrustworthy and dishonest people – adults – you will meet at work which might slowly tug at and ruin your faith in the greater community we are a part of – but let’s hold on to those adults we have come to trust and confide in – because it is those people who matter.

Straight Talk I

In all honesty this has been an issue talked about to death since i started working. But that does not invalidate its importance.

I am twenty six (for a moment i typed 27.) this year, and am really seeking for a way to have a healthy social life (of which family and church comes under) and work life. There is a recent Facebook post that says if you have those two, you cannot have enough sleep – you can only pick two out of three.

As teachers, we have tons of teacher-friends on facebook, and I have to admit that not all of us are the happiest beings on earth. We are often bearing the gripe of marking our homework over the weekends, commiserating in the same poor fate together.

The more I think about it though, the more I felt that something isn’t too right. How could such a big proportion of teachers, albeit from my perspective, be taxed as such? It is hard for someone who isn’t a teacher to understand. Many parents and members of the public have contributed their fair share to the discussion of the workload and expectations of a teacher. But without an authentic understanding of the reality going on in an actual classroom, whatever remark or advice just comes across as tacky and based in ignorance. Someone recently mentioned that as teachers we should learn to “manage expectations”. That stirred up some frustration amongst some teachers because it implies an incompetence to do what we should be able to do.

I also realised in increasing measure, that we are not quite doing what we signed up for as educators. I would like to become more adept at doing my thing in the classroom, but there are many other things drawing our attention away from the actual practice in class. I find myself drained and because I’m drained, I find myself settling. Settling for minimum effort, and thinking less about how to maximise learning.

I do try. I believe I do take pride in what I do, although at times, we face situational constraints that compels us to make choices, just like the choice between a career, a social life, and good well being.

But truth be told these are sentiments I am not proud of. Why should our thoughts be always so bleak? If we are facing constraints, do our minds need to be similarly so?

In the past week, a colleague had approached a friend and I for help to be substitute oral examiners on a few afternoons. This led to a conversation that sparked off some thoughts for me. My friend was quite upset that people seemed unaware of the work we had done on the other afternoons when we have had to help cover for them in duty. There were other alternatives, taxing us was just one of a few other reasonable alternatives. We had committed slightly more than 2 weeks of afternoons 3 to 6+ doing oral testing. As much as I was glad someone was voicing out a similar displeasure, I felt uncomfortable by it too. Shouldn’t a department work together in mutual support? It was my responsibility to support the learning and assessment of my students, sometimes at the expense of my afternoons, my holidays, my personal and social lives. Should we be defining our job scope in the workplace in order to “protect” ourselves? Does it really have to come down to that? That seemed to run contrary to what I believed a calling is. If everyone began drawing boundaries to work, the world would be terribly unpleasant.

But I am far from being noble. I find that I am much inclined to being grouchy about the workload we are given. Is there any guiding principle that will help me decide where the meaning and joy is in all these? 

Just this morning a few good friends (and inspirational teacher figures) shared an article on Facebook that seemed to specially acknowledge and speak to my concerns and gripes. But the article sounded a very optimistic outlook – one that called for young, noble, aspiring educators to stand together and fight hard for change. It sounded very … fresh-faced and ideal. I do agree that we need people who are in it for the right reasons (not the money, the lifestyle, or even the acknowledgement from the kids) to help lift up this foreboding shadow of teacher-hood off our shoulders. But the article seems also to deal with the issues on a very idealistic and generic level. What about the individual teachers who are willing to fight for an education which they believed in? How long can they last?

Not everyone is made for this. Then I find myself asking: am I?