By Mr Patrick Wong
GP teacher/Raffles Press teacher-mentor
I have been studying for some months now, taking a part-time course three evenings a week. In one of my modules, we covered the concept of empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Or, in a familiar metaphor, to stand in someone else’s shoes.
More aptly, it’s been like sitting in someone else’s chair – the student’s, to be precise. And the experience has deepened my appreciation of what my students may be going through. It has certainly allowed me to understand better why they behave the way they do (sometimes infuriatingly) and made me think about what I expect or ask of them.
“Am I good enough?”
This is not a phrase that I like. I don’t believe that acceptance into this school or that CCA says anything about how “good” a student is. And I’ve shared this view with many batches of students (even my own children) in the hope of urging them to value themselves beyond narrow judgement criteria of personal worth.
But I must admit that the thought did stay in my mind after I’d sent in my application for my course. In fact, it strayed all over my mind, switching back and forth between a confident voice (“Of course I’m good enough – I have X qualifications, Y experience, Z personal qualities…”) to a nervous whimper (“They’re going to reject me… I don’t have what they’re looking for… Others are sure to have better CVs…”).
In truth, I was quietly confident that I would be accepted. Also, I kept reminding myself that even if I were not, it would not be the end of the world: I have a good, satisfying career; I don’t really need the extra qualification; I have hobbies to occupy me if the night classes did not materialise.
I don’t think my students have – or believe they have – that same safety net. Especially not with the narrative of “academic excellence” that is writ so large in their young lives from an even younger age. Being “accepted” into that dream school or CCA must mean so much more for them, whether I encourage that sort of thinking or not.
Lesson: Don’t dismiss or devalue what a student aspires to. Never tell them “don’t feel so bad” if they miss out on something they’ve set their heart on. Make time to listen to their hopes and disappointments, to offer them guidance in reaching life goals that are meaningful to them, as far as a teacher can.
“What a lonnnnng day!”
So I got accepted into the course. Yay!
The orientation was exciting. Getting my student card was fun (last time I held one was almost 25 years ago). Buying a new laptop for my course work was cool (we had chunky PCs and floppy disks when I last studied).
Enthusiastically, I was 10 minutes early for the first evening lesson. I’d made sure I left work to get home in time for an early dinner, pack my school bag (so fun just saying that!), and make my way to “school”.
But as the first week of triple three-hour evening lessons closed, reality bit: This is tiring! How could I keep this up – working by day, rushing home, dashing to class, concentrating (or trying to) through an evening that I could have spent unwinding (books, music, the latest episode of Doctor Who or Game Of Thrones, etc.)?
Soon, personal commitments and sheer fatigue meant that I skipped one lesson… then another… It helped that I was allowed a certain number of absences (adult learning is like that), with catch-up videos of lessons available online – bless you, technology!
My students don’t have that luxury. (Well, they’d be in big trouble if they skipped lessons without a valid reason.) And their day must be just as tiring, if not more: long hours of lessons, back to back; CCA after (or before, if training for some sports); homework to do after getting home past sunset… Makes you want to throw in the towel – or work till the wee hours!
Lesson: Don’t preach to students about “getting more sleep” – well, some of them should, instead of being on their devices. But many have no choice. If students keep nodding off in class, check why before ticking them off, complaining to their civics tutor, forming a negative impression of them.
“Why are you so quiet/noisy?”
Teachers must seem like a funny bunch. We keep prodding you to speak up in class, then we shhhhh you for “chatting” with your classmates. In our defence, for the latter, it can be hard to distinguish between students discussing what’s relevant and chattering about other things.
But sitting in the student’s chair, I’m experiencing again (the decades have hazed over my memories) the dynamics of being among so many disparate personalities. Just as no two teachers are alike, there is no way that so many students will respond similarly or uniformly (no pun intended) to a teacher’s instructions – or, more often, expectations.
So I must stand up for the misunderstood student, quiet or “chatty”.
First, why do students clam up when the teacher asks a question? Did they not prepare for class? (Guilty! I seldom had time to read up ahead of a lesson.) Do they not know the answer? (Actually, I didn’t catch the question because the teacher was going so fast!) Why does that student who seems to know the answer not speak up? (I don’t want to come across as Mr Know-It-All or as sucking up to the teacher!)
Second, why does that bunch keep on talking? There are two main reasons. One, the group is genuinely excited or curious enough to want to confer with classmates. Two, they are just a talkative group who influence one another badly. I belong in the former (you can ask my tutors), but there is that other table that seriously needs to pipe down. And the tutor is not helping by doing nothing to stop them!
Lesson: Students aren’t machines who will respond or shut up simply because we want them to. There are so many dynamics in the classroom: fear of speaking up because one didn’t read up; fear of speaking up too often; genuine interest that sparks conversation; lack of interest or energy that causes one to “switch off”; chatty friends who just don’t know better; chatty classmates who are so distracting… I have to keep honing my classroom management skills to get the best out of the most as often as possible – any higher target is probably a pipe dream.
“That assignment is due when???”
I’m a stickler for timely submission of work. Ask my students. And I want to scream when a student does not read or follow assignment instructions carefully. I mean, I took so much trouble to prepare that assignment sheet!
But in the first three months of my course, I almost missed a deadline as well as a 50%-portion of an assignment. Me! Mr OCD when it comes to such things!
Regarding the deadline, I just didn’t plan my time properly. I’d forgotten to factor in a week-long family holiday during the June break, but thankfully a much more on-the-ball course mate pointed out that I needed to finish the assignment before flying off.
As for that 50%, I plain didn’t read all the way through the assignment handout (which the tutor must have taken so much trouble to prepare!). Once more, it was my course mates who came to my rescue, and I had to make a mad dash to meet that deadline.
And I was doing only three modules. My typical student juggles at least five subjects, with more homework and class time than I have to bear. Let’s not even get into CCA… or tuition… or VIA… or hanging out with friends (you’re only young once, right?)…
Lesson: Students will miss deadlines and assignment requirements. They’ll mess up even when instructions are crystal clear. I’m not making excuses for some who really need to focus better. I can only say that so much is competing for a student’s RAM space, especially across subjects. So I need to exercise more patience. And, yes, patiently repeat those instructions…again!
“Studies aren’t everything!”
The all-consuming nature of studies is another bubble that I try to burst for my students. I come back to this theme often, reminding students that there’s so much more “out there”, exhorting them in Thoreau-esque fashion to “suck out all the marrow of life”. I imagine myself as Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society.
Mostly, all I get in return are stunned looks, confused brows. Or worse, the sceptical sneer. I think to myself: “These people need to get a life!” or “How narrow their worldview is!” Having recently mugged my eyeballs out for three exams in one week, I won’t be making such hasty, nasty judgements again any time soon.
Because my studies really got all-consuming! I was lucky enough to get study leave to prepare for the exams, because there was just so much to revise or read for the very first time. I went to bed with course concepts swirling in my head, had weird dreams about statistics (yes, there was a module on that), woke up and rushed through breakfast so that I could hit the books.
My family took a back seat (well, all I could talk to my wife about was “There’s this interesting thing I’m studying…”). My goldie was deprived of those long walkies she loves. My vinyl collection cried out, “Play us! Spin us just once!” My marking piled up – and for once seemed like a really good alternative!
And this was just after three months. Imagine studying two whole years for a major, possibly life-defining exam. Imagine doing that after 10 years in the school system. Forget the marrow! Life? What life?
Lesson: Stop judging students for being so caught up in their studies. Yes, it should not be equated to “life”, but it does take up so much of their time and attention. Understand – nay, empathise with – how much it must mean to them. Still, do find ways to help them see the “bigger picture”, though much of that perspective can only come with age and experience.
“If I only knew then…”
In my 15 years of teaching, I believe I have connected well with my students. I am always fascinated by the person behind the student, as I believe many of my colleagues are. That keeps us going when students irritate, frustrate, vex us.
But stepping into a student’s shoes again, I see more clearly why they might do so. I also have stronger compassion for them as they grapple with so many things with such high stakes. And I certainly have new respect for how so many of them carry on not just with acceptance but with joy and enthusiasm.
When I sit in the teacher’s chair now, I know there’s much more to learn.