The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate “apparently ordinary” people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people. ~K. Patricia Cross, Education Scholar
This quotation stood out amongst the many I came across searching for inspiration quotes for Teacher’s Day. I guess it is because I have always considered myself ordinary.
I attended ordinary neighbourhood schools throughout my formal education. My Chinese teacher parents enrolled me into St. Stephen’s Primary, a neighbourhood all-boys English school because they realised that the government was switching to the use of English in education, government and business. I would be at a disadvantage if I were to attend a Chinese school.
I moved along with the majority of my classmates to St. Patrick’s School, an affiliated all-boys English secondary school nearby. School was fun. I did not feel at all pressurised moving along the system and then into Temasek Junior College, then the only junior college in the east and near my home.
Throughout school, there were always more brilliant students who outshone me at every examination. Being in an all-boys school, there were more sporty and athletic students who outplayed and outran me in every sports. I was a fairly timid person in my younger days. I wasn’t the leader type who would become prefect and class monitor. My growth hormones came late. I was amongst the shortest and smallest size up till secondary three. In my uniform group, I wasn’t identified as a leader because of my small stature and timid personality.
I moved along with the tide, contented with taking a backseat in things. Somehow, I was given leadership positions, first in my uniform group in secondary school. It was more an accident that I became a leader and it led me to slowly open up myself.
Then in college, I felt more liberated with the lecture-tutorial system and with the freedom to take many CCAs (then called ECAs). I was actively involved in five areas, including being a student councillor and chairman of a club. Somehow the college didn’t control what we took. I took part in as many activities as I could and enjoyed myself thoroughly.
It was when I thoroughly enjoyed myself that I started to do better academically. My biggest bugbear was Physics. In my first year, we changed our Physics tutors four times. I was memorising but not understanding. At every test, I struggled to figure out which of the formulas I had memorised that I should apply to the problems. I hated to have Physics as a blemish in my report card and contemplated dropping the subject.
Then, in year 2, we had another new Physics tutor. Mr Yang Che Kay came just a week before the first term common test. I remember clearly that the lesson was on electricity. As usual, I had memorised every formula we were supposed to know but I could never figure out how to apply them definitively. Mr Yang used simple analogies of things around us to explain the basic principles. In one lesson, I understood what I had struggled a whole term to understand. I understood and could derive things from first principle. It was my Eureka moment.
A week later, I scored very well for the common test. Understanding what went on behind the formulas unlocked everything I needed to know. Physics never bothered me thereafter.
Today, I still consider myself ordinary. I came from an ordinary family background, attended ordinary neighbourhood schools and did things just as people around me would. If there is something I feel proud of myself, it is the process that I went through from being a timid person to one willing to take on anything without fear of the unknown. It was that boldness I had developed that allowed me to take the plunge to become an entrepreneur and to accept many life challenges as they come.
This confidence building was a gradual process. I am grateful to the teachers that picked a timid boy with a small stature to hold leadership positions which allowed me to discover myself. I had many good and encouraging teachers throughout school, particularly in college. I like all my college teachers – Dr Chua Siew Lian (whom we still visit yearly during Chinese New Year), Mrs Beetsma, Mrs Mary Lim, Mr Goh Choon Leng and Mrs Chen Siew Har. I mentioned Mr Yang in particular because the transformation was so dramatic. The other teachers were equally good. I wanted to cite my example to encourage teachers that it is possible to make a dramatic change in someone’s life, even unknowingly. Mr Yang was just delivering his usual lesson. To me, it made a lot of difference. If I was constantly bothered by Physics, I would not have had the time and confidence to take on the other subjects.
Our education system today streams students and puts them onto different education paths and into education institutions of varying brand recognitions according to the students’ academic abilities. Society places a lot of emphasis on picking winners. From young, we find ways to identify winners and pile resources on them to make them into the crème de la crème. We feel this is the way to develop our best and the best will then lead us into the future.
The experiences I went through give me the conviction that it is better to make winners out of ordinary people. I do agree that different people have different levels of potential. How we guide them to discover their potential and reach to their best is something very important. Being winners also does not only mean scoring well academically. There are many other ways to be winners. Last month, I met a junior from St. Patrick’s. He said he couldn’t study so he went into business early in life. Today he owns a chain of hostels and a pub. To me, he is a winner.
Teachers play a vital role in helping students become winners, just as my teachers did for me in subtle ways. Our education system, philosophy and the execution of it are also very important in how we develop winners out of our students.
This Teacher’s Day, do contemplate how we can make winners out of ordinary people.
I thank all my teachers for the roles they had played in leading me to where I am today. I wish all educators a Happy Teacher’s Day!