How Can We Live No Differently?

I met up with an old old friend and sister-in-Christ this evening, only to be asked some really hard questions. I did not need to play ignorant or pretend that my current lifestyle and mental/emotional health is not reflective of my spiritual state. She knew the void that I was struggling with and how I desperately wanted to fix my eyes on something more — something higher than what I could see.

I shared with her my fear that I would still be in the same position, working equally hard, but still as a teacher, years from now. And she asked directly, Why do you need to know how you will advance? That question caught me unexpectedly, and I had no sure answer. Why did it matter so much that I know where I would be headed three years from now? Why did it matter that I ensured I advanced in my career, either on a teaching or leadership track? Things are different for us as Christians, she posited.

She also asked, What is your weakness? For her she confessed it boiled down to two things: Pride, in wanting to be in control, and the Desire for approval from others. I had not thought about it prior to hearing this question in my face. Why was I trying to do so much, what was keeping me from leaning on God?

I think it is a sense of self-pride, of wanting to be in control. I want to know where I am headed, and what I am capable of, and what is in store in the future. I also think it is slothfulness. Rather than spending my time efficiently, I give myself excuses far too easily to watch a movie, enjoy a good meal, or catch up on sleep. I think diligence should not come only in the form of long working hours, but time spent in a focus and driven manner as well.

Having established that, I realised that the way we make life decisions should differ from the way others do, as sound and solid their advice might be. Just like how we check ourselves when we wait for a partner for life, waiting in faith for God’s timeline to unfold in our lives, we should also have patience and godliness as we listen and humbly submit to His Will – even if I have no idea where my current life decisions will take me.

It is truly a time to kick myself awake and start making changes to my life. So how can we live no different from others, when we have the ultimate promise in an eternal living God? How can I struggle with the same jadedness and cynicism towards life and work, how can I claim to be a child of God, when I fight the same inner-demons to do my work with conviction and joy?

It is a troubling and embarrassing testimony of the power to freedom we have in Christ. I need to live a victorious life, and take on my challenges with wisdom and patience and humility. Colleagues may be difficult and challenges may be tough. But if God opens a way and I prayerfully submit to His will, I can only be certain that His good and perfect plan will unfold.

Time for change, hoshao. Time for change and plenty of prayer.


Hard Lesson #1: Make Time

‘Make time.’

This is a principle I am not unfamiliar with since the start of my working career. All of us have twenty four solid hours in a day, nothing more, nothing less, but we choose to spend them in different ways. Time, in its measurable quantitative value, cannot be made. But Time, in its qualitative form, operates in a strange and elusive paradigm. It can be stretched and compressed, it can pass slowly or quickly, it can be worth immeasurably, or nothing at all.

From the beginning, we were urged to learn how to ‘Make time.’ It served as an effective instruction to manage our various responsibilities and commitments. Of course, it is one of most difficult lessons to master, for me at least. Inadvertently, my time is spent squandered on indulging in the convenience of my introversion and my slothful private habits. Needless to say, my spiritual life, church life, even social life, suffer the most. For my selfishness rules with great tyrannical conviction over the twenty four hours I have been blessed with, allotting minute pockets of time to what may matter most in reality, and giving lavishly to matters of personal indulgence instead. What a shame.

My few achievements and successes in my career cheers my spirit some at the end of each year, although increasingly the value of the reward is little compared to the opportunity costs of it. Each time at the end of a grand year, I experience a rather short-lived reflective period and begin to count my blessings, and remember that it is the Lord God who builds up, and it is the Lord God who sustains the work of my hands. Only in a spiritual drought nearing the end of the year, do I remember that God’s grace is sufficient, His blessings like showers that pour out upon us. Then, I give God the glory.

At a home blessing service this evening, a Bible passage struck me, harking down to the very same principle of ‘Making Time’ as from the beginning.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Psalm 127:1-2

Unless the Lord God wills the house to be built, nothing will be accomplished. Tonight I remember the smallness of our being, and the greatness of our Lord’s might and compassion in contrast. Each time I see a child succeed, I have to give thanks and praise God – not just by my mouth, but with my heart and soul as well.

The curious thing is what follows in verse 2. When we forget who is in control, we tend to be worrywarts. I know I have a strong tendency to want to be in control. It is only then when I feel empowered, assured, and at ease, believing that I pull (most of) the strings of this puppet show. But how silly it is to think that we have access and control over all the puppet strings for the show! How silly it is to worry about those strings, when the Lord God has already promised that His will be done!

I try to, do things, even when I might guess that it is possibly in vain. When the busy season comes, my life extends late into the night, frequently tempering at deadlines, and believing that I am ‘busy‘ ‘toiling‘ away, robbed of the ability to be joyful and thankful and to have rest and sustenance when work gets tough. In verse 2, the Bible states – and right in my face – that ‘the Lord grants sleep to those He loves’. Whether this means a full 8-hour sleep package at night, or restfulness during a brief night’s nap, what it means for sure, is sustenance for the journey.

So with this promise, what God wants is probably the simplest thing from us: to ‘Make time.’ To make time for Him.

This hard lesson #1 is for Twenty Fifteen.

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?

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?

We are not Superheroes: The Matter of Fact about Tuition

Some time between yesterday and today a friend of mine asked if I had “spare time” to provide some academic coaching for the sister of a friend. The lady who was hoping to get some tuition support was in her final year of school and would be sitting for her national examinations at the end of the year. According to the friend of mine, she needed tuition in a string of subjects (except English and Literature – which I teach).

I tried to think about how best to break it to her that it was impossible for me to afford the time and heart for tuition. Furthermore, I am not sure I believe in tuition – not in the generic Singaporean sense of the word anyway.

It frustrated me that this has been the umpteenth time someone has approached me regarding the availability of giving tuition. I have this nagging feeling one of the underlying reasons is because I am a teacher – and teachers are suppose to, well, teach.

So I decided to compile all the frustrations and possible assumptions people tend to make about teachers, students and tuition together. Here goes.

Just because we are teachers in profession, doesn’t mean that teaching comes effortlessly to us 

I think it is a fallacy to believe that teaching comes easy and simple to all teachers. Yes, most of us may enjoy teaching and interacting with young people and may not mind the brunt of angsty teenage minds, but do you realise that teaching is more than just whipping out an assessment book and coaching you through a series of questions? It requires thoughtful planning of an overview, of teaching strategies, to teach, to engage and to motivate. Teaching requires time to plan, mark and to know the child’s strengths and needs. You need time and heart and effort; it is not something that starts and ends when you arrive and leave the student’s home. The last thing I hate is to find myself unable to give my best and fullest attention to a student because I made a mistake in choosing my lots. 

Just because we teach, doesn’t mean we can teach everything 

I teach English Language and Literature, period. If you ask me to teach Science or Mathematics or anything else, I will tell you “no can do”. (Unless you are a kid who is desperately seeking some guidance and I am confident my current abilities will not mislead you.) Even teaching English and Literature means that I need to read up and plan and prepare materials on my part. It doesn’t mean that once someone has gotten a graduate degree, he/she is able to teach anything else from Primary to Secondary to Junior College. Don’t belittle the syllabus nowadays – that’s a deadly mistake.

Just because we teach, doesn’t mean we are obliged to take up tuition 

Teaching and giving tuition are completely two different things, two different ballgames, which require different skill sets, different levels of commitment. I may be a teacher, but that certainly does not make me a believer of tuition. I must say that I frown upon most reasons why people seek tuition. I think it is a concept that has been strongly abused by the rich and the intelligent, and it is founded upon very wrong assumptions of tuition – which has been perpetuated because people are just willing to pay sums of cash for a chance at a good future.

Sometimes I feel that just because we are teachers by profession, people expect us to be interested in giving tuition. “Just teach them in your free time,” my relatives would say. I would want to shoot back, “My free time comes at the end of the year for a few short weeks. Then it wouldn’t be free time anymore.” Honestly, if all teachers wanted to give tuition, we would be tuition teachers.

I don’t believe in every of that tuition crap 

Singaporeans seek tuition for two main reasonsA, they want a guarantee that they can ace an examination. B, they want to make it – they have not been doing well and they hope that a final academic booster programme will help give them what they need to catch up with whatever they have missed for the past few years. 

Usually, the former comprises of students who better off families who also have larger, higher, taller dreams for their child; while the latter comes from families who suddenly realise something needs to be done before a major set of examinations in order to secure a decent future for the child. And both sets of reasons are warped reasons for tuition.

If you are doing well based on your own efforts, you are doing well. Use that as your means to do well in life. You do not need to come in Tops in order to proof you will succeed. Also, nobody (not even the best of tutors) can guarantee a student can ace an examination. Where would that leave the effort on the students’ end if the tutors can guarantee success and achievement?

If you are struggling really badly, you cannot expect a few months or weeks or sessions of tuition to turn things around and make magic. Which brings me to my next point:

We are not superheroes: you cannot create a miracle in a short time 

I advised my friend who asked me if I had “spare time” – that if you need help in subjects A to E, then you need to think about how you can utilize your helplines effectively. Are you sure tuition for all 10 subjects (Well, A to E is 5 subjects) will be helpful?

Also, how do the subject teachers come into the picture? A child should make effort to seek consultation and guidance from his/her teachers at school first – before seeking alternative helplines. For the simplest, most obvious reason: your subject teachers know best. They know the syllabus, they have the latest updates, they most likely have extra resources to spare, they have the strategies and tips.

That is a huge repository of knowledge and skills you as a student need to learn to tap on. Who are you seeking help from? Is it the best means for your success?

The next time you are thinking of seeking academic support or tuition, think about this please.