When Ngee Ann Secondary School (NASS) teacher Tan Hee Pheng was still a young student himself and struggling with his grades, one teacher found a way to motivate him to do better in a way that few others could before.
Speaking to The Pride, 41-year-old Tan recalled: “This teacher took me to one side and said, ‘These are the worksheets and if you’re willing to do it, I’m willing to go through them with you’,”.
While other teachers would simply ask him to improve, this teacher was able to show him how to do so by giving him a concrete plan of action.
“That’s the best way to help a student. Don’t tell them to study harder because who doesn’t know that?” said Tan, who joined the profession 15 years ago after he found his brief stint as a relief teacher to be a rewarding experience.
Besides being a physical education (PE) teacher for four years now, Tan is also the subject head of student leadership and oversees the student council.
He’s found that being a PE teacher gives him an edge: As physical education is thought to be more fun as compared to other topics like Mathematics or Science, he makes use of it to build rapport with his students, which he stresses is important for teachers if they want to dish out advice.
How does he do it? He shares stories about his personal life. And not just any stories, but those with a message, says Tan. “Whatever stories or anecdotes I pass on, I ask myself, ‘Who is my audience? What is my message about? What is the best way to deliver it?’”
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His students have been touched by his approach. One such student is Claudia Chan, 17. The former student council vice-president from the class of 2016 told The Pride: “I’ve always had poor health and Mr Tan constantly checked in on me. This is one thing that stayed with me after I graduated and seeing him go out of the way to care for someone taught me to do the same for my peers. Now, if I hear about someone in my junior college having problems, I will reach out and ask them how they are.”
For Toh Si Ying, 16, student council president from the graduating class of 2017, she noticed the difference and described Tan as a teacher whose “approach is very unique”. Toh recalled: “When I was writing my graduation speech, I found it uninspiring because the tone had to be formal. I sought advice from Mr Tan and he challenged me to think outside the box.
“He said that quotes are a good way of making it interesting and gave me a list of famous quotes to look at. That led me to look up other valedictorian speeches and graduation speeches as a reference.”
The result: a nice balance between being formal and fun, said Si Ying.
Asking questions is Tan’s way of encouraging introspection to develop his students’ maturity as well as to instil a sense of conviction and responsibility behind their decisions. It’s also how he grooms his students to internalise values.
Tan explained: “Instead of listing down values that you should adhere to, I always ask them, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ and let them deliberate internally on what the right way forward is when they make decisions. To me, this is more lasting. I can’t be telling them what to do forever.”
And the outcome doesn’t matter as long as the decision is backed by reasonable and rational thinking, said Tan, who believes in creating a safe environment to encourage his students to try, even if it means failing.
He feels too much emphasis is placed on blaming the child or student when they fail or if something goes wrong.
“We also need to make it clear that this failure isn’t representative of them and it failed because things just didn’t work out, and not because they’re lousy,” he added.
And at the end of the day, what makes Tan satisfied in this profession is hearing from his ex-students how happy they are, and what they’re doing to give back to society.
He added: “As long as they’re happy and they’re contributing (to society), that’s enough for me. My take on being human is that we have a responsibility to try and improve the lives of others so all of us will benefit. I believe in helping others become a better person.”
While Tan acknowledged that he has the “privilege of working with better behaved students”, retired teacher, Mohammad Thahirrudin, 59, had to adopt different methods to deal with delinquent youths over the course of his 30-year career.
Speaking to The Pride, he recalled having to cane a Secondary 2 student in front of the class because he was “very rowdy, very naughty and very rude”. It was a “tough decision” to make because it felt like “caning my own child”, said Mohammad. He even spoke to the student’s father to explain his decision and who gave his blessings for him to go ahead with it.
The student stopped behaving badly, and it wasn’t just due to the caning. Mohammad also spoke to the student to ensure that he understood why he was punished.
And when Mohammad met this student five years ago, he discovered the student had set up his own barber shop. He said: “He thanked me because he felt that without the caning and the discipline, he would not be what he is today. That really made an impact on me.”
With years of teaching and moulding the younger generation under his belt, Mohammad, who retired just two years ago, is well-placed to observe how educators have had to adapt and change their approach with the times.
For one, the trend of helicopter parenting, where parents incessantly interfere in their children’s learning even at school, is often seen as potentially causing youths to lack independence.
Acknowledging that things are much different now from the time when teachers were seen as the highest authority in the classroom, Mohammad observed that today’s students are “softer” and parents are more likely to get involved in their children’s lives.
“Twenty years ago, parents had limited ideas on how to discipline the kid. If they had problems, they just let the school handle it. Today, it is different because we actually work with parents and talk to them a lot more.”
So while it’s a good thing that today’s parents are becoming more involved in their children’s education, perhaps what could help teachers do better, is for a little more trust to be placed in the professionals.
Mohammad said: “There are certain areas which should be left to the teachers and the school because they are trained professionals. For example, whether the students need coaching or tuition should be something parents should consult with the teachers on.”
And with this foundation of trust, teachers can be the better mentors that they have the potential to be, just like Mohammad was, and Tan today, is.