She is inspired by the much-loved Japanese book Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window.
The book celebrates an unconventional approach to education that combines learning with fun, freedom and love. And veteran educator Soh Beng Mui believes that is the path to bring up children as responsible citizens.
She recalls her first home visit vividly. It was to a student’s house at Pipit Road.
She tells The Pride: “I’d never seen a place like that. What caught my attention was the groups of people with children in prams and smokers congregating at the void deck. It got me thinking – what was going to happen to the children.”
At the time, she was vice-principal of NorthLight, a specialised school for less academically inclined students. Beng Mui explains that the students simply have a different worldview.
She says: “It’s no use telling them that how what we want them to do is good for them, because at that age they’re not mature enough to understand. What they see as the norm is that nobody works in the household – people are in and out of rehab centres, parents are incarcerated, and some of them have unwilling caregivers.”
Today, the 48-year-old principal of Juying Secondary School in Jurong West has more than 24 years of experience under her belt but still fondly remembers her two years as vice-principal at NorthLight as one of her best. Her role there married her two callings – education and social work – and she gleaned a lot from the people she met.
During those two years, she made regular visits to hospitals and even IMH, because her students would be frequently admitted, often the victims of abuse, violence or neglect.
Beng Mui says: “It toughened me immensely, but it was so meaningful because it wasn’t just education we were talking about. The challenge came from finding out how we were going to make the students see the importance of school. For many of them, being educated is not a priority. They are easy targets for the bad guys out there – as runners for loan sharks or to sell illegal DVDs (back then) in Geylang.”
While she and the teachers at NorthLight couldn’t help every single student, Beng Mui believes in planting the seeds in each child, hoping that down the road, there would be others to carry on the work they have started.
Strong support structure
Now, at Juying Secondary School, she emphasises building a strong support structure in school to accompany what is taught at home.
“I tell my teachers that we are privileged to have close contact with our children, something we should leverage,” says Beng Mui, who works closely with her student development and special-education needs teams.
A school walkabout is the most crucial part of her everyday routine, especially since she believes in getting to know every child personally. In fact, her goal is to get to know three new children in school every day.
She also conducts Character and Citizenship Education lessons. So it is no surprise that Beng Mui has built a good rapport with the majority of her thousand-plus students.
“I make it clear to my staff that this is the standard of relationship I expect, especially from form teachers,” she says.
She even set her teachers a challenge: To be able to recognise their students outside school without their uniforms on, a goal that she says with a smile that they are still working on.
The path hasn’t always been been easy. There were a few episodes where she had discovered that some children were having problems at home, which had gone unnoticed by their teachers. These problems manifested physically in dirty uniforms or tattered shoes.
Building gratitude into the school culture
“The biggest thing I have done since taking over the school is culture-building because I really see the potential in both students and staff,” she shares. “The school’s results are at a satisfactory level. As long as I do not compromise on that, the teachers are quite happy to come on board with me on the things I want to do.”
Last year, she introduced a PASSION module that allows students across all streams to study topics like art, sports and nature, amongst others.
Explains Beng Mui: “I believe in taking the students out of the school into the community for projects, learning journeys and advocacy work.”
Last year as well, she launched a gratitude module and revamped the prefectorial board into a student council. Every year, she also encourages the graduating cohort to come up with a legacy project. Last year’s graduating students came up with an idea based on Singapore’s kindness lion Singa called “The Singa in Me” – a project that impressed her.
The project, launched this year, inspired a gratitude corner and raised funds for school janitors and families of financially challenged students. The money was raised from selling cards, which were placed at the gratitude wall, as well as staff member donations.
This is part of the trust within the positive school culture that Beng Mui is building. The trust within the staff ensures that they are ready to help whenever asked. And they did, many donating all or part of the money that they got from this year’s Solidarity Budget.
She says: “The school raised $14,500 from the staff alone and it left me in tears. I was only expecting around $5,000, which is already a great amount. So, we managed to help 29 families staying in rental and one-room flats, and parents who have lost their jobs during this period.
“When we gave them the money, it was amazing to see the smiles on their faces. It was such a beautiful thing that happened during the pandemic period.”
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Multiple pathways to success
In Singapore, Beng Mui says, the education system pumps in resources to help underperforming students – something not every country does.
“To put it bluntly, they were once perceived as liabilities in society, but we stay true to our mission that no child should be left behind. Because we truly believe that every child is unique and every child can learn and succeed. From that perspective, I am very thankful for our system,” she says.
Nevertheless, there is room for improvement, especially in the paperchase – we shouldn’t just talk about change, we should act on it.
“When it comes to the race (for grades), it’s a societal thing. The enlightenment of stakeholders is crucial. If you truly believe in building an inclusive society then stay true to it, not just agree to it on paper.
“I’ve seen people agree that getting a degree isn’t necessary, but yet their own children ought to. As long as we hold on to that mindset, we will never be able to fully appreciate the pathways that are readily available. ”
So what does a positive school culture look like?
“For students, it’s about discipline, having school pride, and being gracious,” Beng Mui says. “These are the three key things that I set up for the kids. And I told my staff that it will not be different for them. What I want to see in the kids, I must also see in the staff – it’s a simple correlation.”
In the same way, Mdm Soh also goes out of her way to build relationships with her staff one-to-one.
“Because I know enough of their work, I want to know them as a person, and I want them to know me too… I am very appreciative of my teachers. They invest so much of themselves into the lives of their students, aside from their own heavy commitments at home.”
A system built in love
This is where Beng Mui brings up the school in Totto-chan, which is a semi-autobiographical book of UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who wrote about her childhood experiences at Tomoe Gakuen, a Tokyo elementary school during World War II.
Says Beng Mui: “It goes back to understanding the child from the onset. Problems always manifest in behaviour and people pick it out as a behavioural issue… But it is when we really talk to them that we can make a difference in their lives.
“This is something I tell my teachers – try to see things from their worldview first, don’t be so anxious to show your worldview. They’ve got so many people telling them they’re wrong, it doesn’t help to just be a part of that number.”
One quote from American educator Nicholas Ferroni sums up her beliefs – “Students who are loved at home, come to school to learn. And students who aren’t, come to school to be loved.”
Beng Mui says: “It’s very powerful and I’m always repeating this. We have many kids who are not being loved at home. Even if they have an intact and fully functional family, the kind of attention and love may not be there. There are so many kids whose lives we can touch.”