One Heart

Evidently, the essence of a great educator, a Ruth Wong or an Elizabeth Choy, lies not in qualifications nor positions within the hierarchy of the civil service. Time and again, those who have had the good fortune of having a teacher change their lives for the better talk about these educators’ passion as well as their commitment to a calling. Great educators deal with their charges, one at a time, whether the child is the most able or the weakest, whether he calls attention to himself or sits quietly in class. Great teachers do not deal out a standard repertoire of teaching strategies and instruction. They reach out in as many ways as it takes to touch different hearts.

When we think of school leaders in the last fifty years of the Education Service, names such as Mr Earnest Lau, Mr Rudy Mosbergen, Mr Eugene Wijeyasingha, Mr Francis Thomas and Mr P. F. Aroozoo come to mind. Some of these leaders built schools from scratch and instilled discipline and a single-minded pursuit of knowledge for itself, among their students. They did not have the advantage of structured training programmes, the Leaders in Education Programme nor overseas attachment and stints in private companies. They schooled themselves in the art of educational leadership and administration. Well-read and eloquent, these principals of old commanded the respect of teachers and students alike, because they exemplified high standards of professional ethics and behaviour and expected no less than the best from all around them.

There is also a category of leaders for whom values and contributing to society were paramount in the list of virtues of an educated person. Mdm Fong Yuet Kwai, Mdm Liew Yun Sien, Mdm Ho Chin Geok, Mr Tooh Fee San, Mr Tham Tuck Meng and Mr Wee Fui Twee are just a few who epitomise the best of this tradition.

Then there are the formidable ladies, many Eurasian, whom Singaporeans who graduated from all girls’ schools, especially the convents, will not forget: principals such as Mrs Marie Bong, Miss Eunice Oehlers, Miss Evelyn Norris, Mrs Bertha Neo and Miss Paramita Bandara. These ladies instilled fear and respect in the hearts of the girls and boys, and demanded the best standards of decorum as well as spoken English from all who pass through the portals of their schools.

All of these have since retired and some are no longer with us, but their values and conviction that precious lives must be handled with care, one at a time, live on, in the best of our current leaders; and the baton gets passed on, from one proud generation to the next.

In October 2006, the Ministry announced a GROW package which comprises the following: competitive remunerations and better recognition for contributions made; more career options and opportunities for teachers to pursue different areas of interest; more support to facilitate the professional and personal growth of teachers; and more support for teachers’ work-life balance.

Since 2001, teachers with different aspirations can develop and progress along three tracks: a leadership track which will take them on a developmental path to helming schools as Principals; a teaching track that allows those who are dedicated to classroom work to be recognised as Senior and Master teachers and be mentors to younger teachers; and a senior specialist track for those who can contribute to syllabus development, educational research and aspects of planning within the Ministry of Education.

Minister Teo Chee Hean used to emphasise that teachers lie at the heart of everything we do in education. Knowing the central position that teachers play in the whole education enterprise, many schemes and awards have been instituted by the Ministry and others to recognise good teachers, such as the Outstanding Youth In Education Award, Caring Teachers' Awards and the prestigious President's Award for Teachers.

With the setting up of Teachers Network in 1996, teachers have also been able to participate in learning circles, conduct workshops for other teachers, involve themselves in action research and workplace attachments, or go on overseas stints to hone their skills.

Even as these are put in place, we know that money and recognition alone do not motivate our best teachers. The teachers who care, and who go beyond the call of duty to visit a child and his parents in their home, or listen to them outside of school, whoexercise tough love to bring an errant boy back to school, and who keep in touch with their students long after they have left school, do not do it for extrinsic rewards. Many work quietly because they love their job. Others are driven by a passion in an area of knowledge and want to pass this on to their students. Yet others devote their lives to helping the young, because they have had the privilege of learning from a good teacher or coach.

Education administrators and teachers do not work alone. The successful running of a school is dependent on the support staff and others who work to attend to details and acquire the resources for programmes to take place. Laboratory attendants, technical workshop instructors, canteen stallholders, school bus operators and school attendants are all important in this education enterprise. With the best of our Executive %26 Administration Staff (EAS) in headquarters as well as in schools, what drives them is not remuneration nor the security of a civil service job, but a deepseated belief that education is an important undertaking which has long-lasting impact on their children and their children after them.

Education is also a joint effort. Schools have long since been supported either by a School Advisory Council or a School Management Committee made up of industry partners, grassroots leaders as well as alumni. In recent years, the Ministry of Education has also set up COMPASS, a committee comprising community leaders, education administrators and parents who have been active in the various parent associations in the school. The work of this committee as well as efforts put in by staff in schools have seen deepened engagement of parent groups, community organisations and industry partners, especially in the informal curriculum.

Read the book for

  • When pure is the heart, ...enduring is the touch
  • the story of two principals (one the mentor of the other) who just loved the children, whatever shape they came in.
  • the wisdom of Wilfred James, winner of 1999 President's Award for Teachers.
  • the influence of Poi Eng School's long-serving principal on his daughter, Ng Tai Cheen, who became a Master Teacher.
  • the humble work of Ling Kay Siong which catapulted Fuhua Secondary's students onto the world stage.


A Well-Loved Educator

... so read the message written on a scrap of paper addressed to Dr Ruth Wong Hie King when illness stopped her from going to work in 1982. The writer of the note was a girl in a so-called low-ability Primary 4 class in the Monolingual stream, and someone to whom Dr Wong had to administer discipline more than once as a researcher on a voluntary basis. For all its awkwardness, it must have taken the child courage and effort to pen this note to inform Dr Wong she had been missed. And for all its imperfect English, Dr Wong must have felt heartened that the child "had understood that my expectations and my firmness were governed by concern for her personal progress." Above all, Dr Wong would have been right to observe that "the teacher is not merely an instructor; she is a friend. In no other profession do the years of a single career bring one into contact with so many potential friends."


A Legacy Built From A Library

It would be preposterous to ask Richard Bong, what books from his family's library he would save should the house be on fire, for the collection has passed through the hands of at least four generations, starting from his revered maternal grandfather Percival Frank Aroozoo. At eight, Richard was reading Charles Dickens, unabridged, from the collection left behind by Aroozoo, who was the first local to be appointed principal of a school. With only 'O' level qualifications, Aroozoo must have taught himself further because he wrote beautiful English. As a teacher and then as Principal of Gan Eng Seng School before the war broke out, Aroozoo changed the attitude that locals were not good enough to tackle Shakespeare. He promoted literature and drama as necessary education for the masses even in those poorer days...

Aroozoo's children must have inherited their father’s love for the English language and his belief in the power of books to open doors. One daughter, Mrs Hedwig Anuar, had a 28-year-long career with the National Library of Singapore and retired as its Director. Richard's mother, Mrs Marie Bong, who followed Aroozoo's footsteps and became first a teacher and then the Principal of CHIJ (Katong), was promoting arts enrichment at her school way back in the 70s. The school's Library Week would see lessons suspended and the girls would put up or watch Shakespearean productions, try creative writing, or choral speaking. To Mrs Marie Bong, it was more important that the girls got an education and learnt through play, than just getting good examination results. She believed that people need bread and butter in life, but that did not mean that they should be deprived of beauty.

P. F. AROOZOO retired as Principal of Gan Eng Seng School in 1955.
MARIE BONG started teaching at CHIJ (Katong) in 1951 and became its first lay Principal in 1972.
RICHARD BONG is Senior Teacher at Nanyang Junior College

To read the full story, please refer to the publication available at major bookstores in Singapore.


From Gangster to Godson

In Sec 2 one day, a fight broke out in class involving one of my 'brothers'. I rushed to his side, picked up the overhead projector and threw it on the other boy. But the OHP landed on the teacher who came to break up the fight.

Ong Chee Siang, now 24, recalls his days of being wild. It took the tough love of a principal to turn Ong from gangster to godson.

To read the full story, please refer to the publication available at major bookstores in Singapore.


Going On the Ground

"It was easy to be a principal with 381 students!" Mr Wee Fui Twee may say this now with self-deprecatingly good humour, but it was no easy matter in 1985 when he had to move Gongshang Primary School out of its York Hill site. At the end of 1984, Gongshang had only 105 students. For all its long history as a successful school established by a proud Chinese community of businessmen (hence its name which means "industrial and commercial" in Chinese), the school had to face the reality of declining enrolment that accompanies housing estates with a shrinking population of children.

To raise enrolment and the profile of his school, Wee revisited his belief that the support of the masses can move mountains. He had first honed this sensibility at Yuneng Primary School, where for 25 years, Wee had been a teacher, Head of Discipline and then Vice-Principal, before he took over the reins at Gongshang Primary. He remembers the 1960s when Yuneng's staff would go knocking on the doors of families living in the villages around, to persuade parents to send their children to school. Having experienced the success of such direct marketing, Wee has always believed that "it is important to win parents over. If parents are on the side of the school, should anything happen, they will lend their support wholeheartedly to the school."

So in 1985, Wee hit the ground in Tampines.

"I MADE A HABIT OF VISITING THE BUS INTERCHANGE AND MCDONALD'S RESTAURANTS IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD. I WOULD TELL MY STUDENTS TO QUEUE UP NEATLY WHILE WAITING FOR A BUS OR FOR FOOD; IF THEY MISBEHAVED, I WOULD SCOLD THEM; IF THEY BEHAVED WELL, I WOULD PRAISE THEM. OVER TIME, I GUESS WORD SPREAD THAT GONGSHANG STUDENTS WERE A VERY DISCIPLINED, WELL-MANNERED LOT."

At the same time, Wee analysed the profile of his pupils and thought hard about how to support all these children from humble, working class backgrounds in their learning. Besides pouring in resources to arrest students' poor performance at Mathematics, Wee encouraged his teachers to affirm each child's effort and assure each child that he or she can succeed.

History would prove that these actions of Wee were instrumental in turning the school around. Gongshang students soon achieved 100% pass at PSLE, which was news in the 1980s, and the school has remained a firm favourite with parents. As Wee sees it, "a student should count amongst his many blessings in life, his teachers who care for him and inspire him. There were times when I had promoted a student who had missed the pass grade by 2 or 3 marks; some teachers struggled with that because they felt it was important to uphold high standards. I would argue that should the student be promoted, he would have more respect for his teachers, and his parents would be grateful to the school. It doesn't matter if the results should fall a little; surely that's not the purpose of education? My teachers are right to care about standards, and I also want them to have broad perspectives. But what I would not want changed is the human touch that a teacher should have."

Mr Wee Fui Twee retired in 2002 when he was 62. He has since kept himself busy travelling and doing consultancy work in China.


Six to Sixty-Two

It's easy to write my CV – just Nan Hua all the way, from childhood to adolescence to old age!

In an age of flux, few can speak of a lifetime commitment to one school. Madam Fong Yuet Kwai, however, hails from a different era and that is all the difference.

To read the full story, please refer to the publication available at major bookstores in Singapore.


A Family of Teachers

Ernest and David Vaithilingam teach at St Hilda's Primary and Coral Secondary respectively. They dream of the day when every PE teacher is a specialist and that there is space in every school for the exclusive use of PE lessons. Mum, Hedy, spent 41 years of her life as a PE teacher, teaching for a few years in a kampong school on Pulau Tekong, together with Dad Kenneth Vaithilingam. Like their father, Ernest and David married PE teachers. Lydia, wife of Ernest, is a PE teacher at Tampines Secondary School. David's wife, Deborah, is a PE teacher who specialises in Track and Field and Outdoor Activities at Raffles Junior College. The youngest Vaithilingam, Daniel, still in university, has not disappointed the family – he has taken up relief teaching at Junyuan Primary.

With two generations of PE teachers at home, conversations about teaching past and present are inevitable. Kenneth and Hedy recall that in the early 70s when they were teaching in Pulau Tekong, their students then had little contact with the world outside the island. Many did not have a television set at home; they would go to the community centre and watch TV in the open air. To this day, Hedy can still recall that it was tough teaching basic English to the children, using picture cards that show ‘dog' or ‘cat', though it was also a very enjoyable time. Ernest sometimes feels sad to see secondary school students today who do not seem to have psychomotor skills, whereas his parents share that children in the past would run and play in open spaces, ride the bicycle, throw a ball or climb trees. Perhaps, the Vaithilingams think, many parents today are over-protective and do not give their children enough opportunities to leave the flat to play downstairs and to develop psychomotor skills. So the family was most heartened to hear the news in late 2006 that all schools would get an indoor sports hall – a space for students to exercise even if inclement weather should spoil the best PE schedule.


An Extended Family of Teachers

Mr Ismail Taha I grew up at a time when the guru (Malay for teacher) or the see fu (Cantonese for Master) was very well respected in the community. My father was Principal of Telok Blangah Primary School and my mother taught at Geylang Malay Girls' School. In the 1950s when we used to live in the Kembangan area, the kampong chiefs, Chinese and Malay, used to seek and act on my father's advice on keeping good relations in the community. You have to remember that those were the days of the racial riots sparked by the Maria Hertogh case. So I grew up feeling that teachers play a crucial role in a community's life though I never set myself the ambition of becoming one. But my five sisters and I all became teachers. Four brothers-inlaw were also teachers. There are also a number of teachers in our children's generation. So collectively, my extended family boasts of a few hundred years of teaching experience, covering all levels in our school system and a variety of subjects!

Ismail Taha was for many years Head of Physical Education at Victoria Junior College and then an officer at the Co-Curricular Activities Branch of MOE. One of his sisters is currently Principal of Fuhua Primary School.


100 Metres in 10.38 Seconds

A coach is like a father; he has to be concerned with the athlete's needs outside the stadium: is he eating well? Does he have money to spend? Is anything worrying him?

If not for Tan Eng Yoon, 1969 Coach of the Year, Singapore may never know sprint legend C Kunalan. If not for Teachers' Training College, Tan may never know Kunalan. And Singapore would have been the poorer by a legend.

To read the full story, please refer to the publication available at major bookstores in Singapore.


Scoring With Skates

I used to go hunting for the missing boys only to find them skateboarding at the void decks of nearby flats or hiding in the canal nearby.

In 1998, a young teacher was at her wits' end. Mrs Veronica Ho just wanted 'the missing boys' to stay in school long enough to learn something. Then she had a brainwave.

To read the full story, please refer to the publication available at major bookstores in Singapore.


A Joint Effort [1]

Lao Yang Parents entrust their children to the school. We must do our best to take care of them when they are in school. The school treats us like family. Chinese New Year gatherings or other celebrations, we also get invited. So I never think of leaving the school. Sometimes strangers on the road say hello to me, like the doctor when I took a blood test at a clinic recently. Then they tell me they were students at Dunman High, and I'm so happy.

LAO YANG / DRINK STALL VENDOR / DUNMAN HIGH SCHOOL //


A Joint Effort [2]

Emily Tan I have been volunteering at the school since my son started Primary 1 in 2005. I used to be an accountant, but since I am not working now, I thought I might as well help the school where I can. I also get to learn with my child and find out what he is like in school. The teachers here have good ideas and they show that they care for the children. We parent volunteers help to carry out the ideas since they have to teach in class. That's how we came to make and serve sandwiches to the children who arrive in school without breakfast.

Nurhayati Bte Mohd Tahir I started volunteering a year ago when my older boy started secondary school. I felt that the children had grown older and I had more time. I heard from other parent-friends that the school welcomes volunteers. So I come three times a week, and do duties like traffic control, make sandwiches, cook or do make-up for the children, depending on what is going on in school. My son loves coming to school, and so do I because I have many friends here. I hope my children can go to good schools and get good results.


A Joint Effort [3]

How does one persuade ex-students to contribute to a school that exists no more but lives by a new name in a new address? Persuade Mr Renny Yeo did. It may have taken him 40 years but he finally got round to returning to his alma mater, even though it had moved and changed its name.

To read the full story, please refer to the publication available at major bookstores in Singapore.