Why do students in S'pore with poorer grades think they're not worthy of returning to see their teachers?

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | September 01, 2019, 12:20 PM

A Teacher's Race Course: Ruminations and Reflections is a collection of perspectives on Singapore's education system by the late Sie Siok Hui, a teacher whose career spanned more than 30 years.

In the book, Sie reflects on her personal experiences as an educator and examines issues surrounding the education system, along with its effects on teachers and students.

A Teacher's Race Course is published by World Scientific and can be purchased here.

Here, we produce an excerpt from the book on Sie's encounters with her students after they graduated from secondary school, and how those meetings impressed upon her the need to reaffirm the value of a child independently of their results.


By Sie Siok Hui

Why do we return to school to visit our teachers?

The tradition of returning to our alma mater to visit the school and teachers is still prevalent, I am sure, in most schools — albeit due to security reasons and the wish not to interrupt lessons — it is probably confined to special days like Teachers’ Day or festive occasions.

We hardly ask ourselves why we do so; it is probably mostly due to nostalgia, a part of ourselves in our childhood and teenage years being inextricably bound to the school, or a sense of belonging.

It has to be the good vibes… yet behind all that, my view is that the invisible hand here is values — a sense of not only what is good, but also what is appreciated.

The way that this is expressed need not necessarily be confined to physical visits to the school or teachers. In the present age, with the ubiquitous use of social media and other means to maintain links with ease, students are no longer limited to mere cards and letters.

The values they have assimilated can be displayed through the bonds built through the years such as inviting their teachers to their weddings, bringing their children to school to introduce the little ones to their mummy's or daddy’s teacher or even extending their relationships beyond that of teacher-student relationships to personal friendships.

How do educators actually measure the worth of students?

I ask myself how these values may be measured or weighed; when a school is evaluated, the values which have been assimilated by its students are not part of the evaluation process.

There is a tendency to value visible outcomes like students’ academic results because these can be accredited and honoured as a tangible form of evaluation.

We likewise habitually evaluate students based on visible outcomes, be it academic or co-curricular activities, or success in competitions, for the same reasons.

Yet, as educators, how do we weigh the worth of a student?

Or, to consider it another way, how do we define a valuation of any student? Although I have always felt that there is a lot more to the word “valuation” than just “evaluation”, it was only in recent years that I have been able to crystallise my thoughts.

Let me illustrate this anecdotally.

One student decided not to return to visit her as she did not do well in school

When it was my turn to be an educator, I had my fair share of visits from past students.

Even though the visits came at the expense of time with my present students, I liked to find out how and what my graduated students were doing.

In 1990, some of the students from the previous year came to visit me.

They were from a very weak class who had only been allowed to do a seven-subject combination: Elementary Mathematics, Human and Social Biology (which was not considered a Science subject), Art, Religious Studies, the two languages and Geography.

I never liked the subject combination as it left the students with very few options after secondary school.

Some of the subjects were easier to score in but had little value to the students after graduation. The class had had a number of disciplinary issues but they were not bad at all. Thankfully, they all passed my subject, Elementary Maths, fairly well.

During that visit, I remember asking how a particular student was doing, and why she was not with them. One of her classmates mentioned that she was working.

She had said she was not doing well anyway, and therefore did not see any point in returning to see her teachers.

That hit me very hard. I have never forgotten that moment, even to this day some 29 years later. I will never forget the  disappointment and sadness I had felt.

Forming relationships with students independent of their results

I want to see my students do well. But this is not the reason I want to see them. I want to see my kids because they had been my kids. I value every one of them, whether they achieved straight “A”s or they failed.

It does not matter.

Each of them is a human being, a person worthy of value. Thereafter, I remember telling every batch of students that I wanted them to return to visit me.

I wanted to know how each of them was getting on, regardless of their results or what they were doing. I emphasised that they mattered to me. I hope that this point had hit home for at least some of them.

I had therefore felt the disappointment keenly because I felt the reasons given by that student who had not visited me stems from society’s general definition of success and that I had failed her in not assuring her of her worth as a person.

By always emphasising good results, I had inadvertently reinforced society’s message myself, though I definitely value each child.

I definitely cared for this child and her welfare and really wanted to know how she was doing.

But I realised, with dismay, that I had not given this as much emphasis as I ought while she had been in school.

I always reflect on this with regret and so from then on, consciously made the effort to reassure struggling students that they mattered more than the results.

To this day, I remember this child who had taught me this precious lesson on valuation.

Every child is to be valued, regardless of outcomes

It is part of our culture to praise students who have attained many distinctions. But among those who had fallen short of the mark, did they all put in less effort than those who had scored well?

How often success obfuscates effort! A student whose parent is a surgeon shared that her father had felt that the hardest thing to him was to face the patient’s family’s looks of distress and grief when a surgery did not go well.

Does a surgeon put in less effort in a surgery that went awry?

Very seldom do we validate effort over outcome.

I do not dispute that the outcome is almost always a determining factor of “success”; however, “success” is a word I mentally discard because when assessing for “success”, the idea of valuation is not part of the definition.

To me, a person’s worth and efforts are to be far more valued than what “success” could possibly represent.

To me, “valuation” is to see the value of every child, to love the person as he is. As teachers, every child is to be valued. Every. Child. Valued.

Growth can be more important than success for students

During my adjunct teaching in a neighbourhood school in 2005 - 2006, I experienced a poignant encounter. I had returned to the school to see how the students had fared when the O-Level results had been released.

Generally, most of them had done fairly well, especially in Math.

There would always be casualties, though thankfully, there were not many that year. Most of the students were happy and excitedly planning the next phase in life and they came forward to thank the teachers.

Towards the later part of the afternoon I was walking along the corridor on my way out of the school, when I met a student leader from a uniformed group who had been waiting for me.

He came up to me saying, “I’m so sorry, I should have listened to you.” The moment that he apologised, I felt very much for him.

This encounter had greater impact on me than all the thanks I had received from the students who had done well.

To this day, this personal confession that afternoon is the only thing I remember.

While I was happy for all the students who had done well, I hold dear such students who showed personal growth during my time with them.

I especially cherish this boy’s apology for not realising his potential for the fact that he had waited outside the school just to express that to me.

From before, I had told him I believed in him and his ability but that hard work and discipline was indispensable and could overcome weaknesses.

After his apology, I had encouraged him to continue to pursue his dreams, told him that he had leadership potential as seen in his uniformed group achievements and that he could go very far in this field.

I should have established a point of contact before we parted. Regrettably, I had not.

We should encourage & praise students more often

Our focus is too often on the results or the achievements. When we praise certain people for their achievements, is there not an implication that those without achievements are somewhat lacking?

Do not wait until a child “fails” before telling him that you love him even if he does not reach those end goals. Unconditional love should be expressed all the time.

I hope every teacher (and parent) realises the innate value of each child and that his journey is more important than the destination.

Education is about values. I never felt I belaboured that point with all my kids sufficiently. But so long as one child remembers, being an educator (not a teacher) has not been in vain.

Top photo via MOE Facebook page