July 12, 2018
Speech by Mr Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Education, at the NIE Teachers’ Investiture Ceremony at the Nanyang Auditorium, Nanyang Technological University
Ms. Chan Lai Fung, Chairperson, NIE Council
Professor Christine Goh, Director, NIE
Ladies and gentlemen
A very good morning to all
1. Today, 885 of you will graduate from 3 programmes - the Bachelor in Education, the Post-Graduate Degree in Education and the Diploma in Education. This year, we also see the first batch of students graduating from the Enhanced Degree Programme and the Teaching Scholars Programme. You have worked hard to reach this milestone, congratulations to all our graduands!
2. My parents were both teachers. My father taught Mathematics at Catholic High School for a few years, before he joined my grandfather in the family business. My mother was a Chinese teacher. She started at Whampoa Secondary after graduating from Nantah. Later, when Whampoa Secondary closed down, she transferred to Raffles Junior College where she taught till she retired. My wife used to be a teacher too. When we were dating, she was doing her training at NIE. After that, she taught Economics at National Junior College. She left the teaching service when we had our 3rd and later 4th child, and she hopes to come back. But I think my entry into politics may have affected the timing of her plans.
3. So growing up with parents who were teachers, what have I learnt from them about the important role of teachers in education?
4. First, we need to help our students to discover their strengths, develop their interests and realise their potential. This seems like a straightforward objective, but it is not easy to achieve in practice. Part of the discovery process often requires “trial and error” and accepting some mistakes and failures along the way. As a student, I would not know what I am good at, and conversely what I am not so good at, if I do not venture out of my comfort zone to try new things and have new experiences. If I stay with what I am familiar with, how could I discover new strengths and forge new pathways?
5. So we have to create environments within our schools and educational institutions where our students can take risks, experiment with new ideas and fail without hurting themselves too much in the process. Our former Head of Civil Service Mr Peter Ho referred to this as “safe-fail” rather than “fail-safe”. It is not always easy to find a good balance. As educators and parents, we naturally want to protect our children. But if we are overly protective, they will not have opportunities to venture into uncharted waters, learn from their mistakes and discover new ways of doing things. So allowing them to take risks and to fail safely is helping them to learn and preparing them for the future.
6. It is also important that we do not impose our own definitions of success on our children, as they may have different interests and talents, including those which lead to unconventional new pathways which we are less familiar with. There will be no innovation if everyone sticks to well-structured education and career tracks. We can only have breakthroughs if someone is willing to stick his or her neck out to try something different, and be prepared to accept the price of failure as part of the whole package.
7. And after the initial failure, to have the resilience to learn from the experience and try again. Don’t give up. As we say in Hokkien, “Pah buay si. Pah si pun boh zao”. Never say die.
8. This is what we need to inculcate in our students: the courage to take risks and try new things. Not just conforming to SOPs, traditions and convention, but always asking if there are better ways of doing things and how we can achieve better outcomes. Over time, I hope this enterprising spirit can become part of our societal culture and DNA in Singapore. I believe it will be essential to our future success as a nation.
9. Next, a good teacher can inspire students to develop a passion for learning. Not just in school but for life. To continue learning even when there are no exams and no certificates. We know education is not only about imparting skills and knowledge, it is also about shaping a person’s character; developing empathy and caring for others; and opening up their minds to fresh perspectives and new possibilities.
10. When I was young, my father would design simple games that develop logical thinking and problem-solving skills. And he bought me many books on Mathematics and Science, including the famous series “100 thousand whys” (十万个为什么). Most of the books were in Chinese, probably because they cost less than the English books. So with the same amount of money, my parents could buy more books for us. One side-benefit was that I developed a stronger foundation in Chinese while reading about Mathematics and Science. It certainly shaped my interests in these subjects, and later influenced my decision to pursue an Engineering degree.
11. Till today, I am very interested in Engineering and I enjoy reading about new scientific and technological developments. And I often adopt an Engineering approach to solving problems, whether it is designing our healthcare financing policies when I was at MOH or now thinking about SkillsFuture policies at MOE.
12. Whether this is good or bad is for all of you and others to assess, but my point is that igniting a lifelong passion for learning is one of the important ways which a teacher can change lives through education. You plant the seed in a child and it grows into a tree over time, producing flowers and fruits which benefit the individual and society.
13. As teachers, you have the opportunity to shape our nation and future generations. Every day, you will touch the young lives that pass through your classrooms. I am sure many of you are here today because a teacher has once touched your life, and you want to do the same for your students.
14. Many studies have found that the quality of teachers is the most important factor for achieving successful education outcomes. This is why MOE invests heavily in training our teachers, including lifelong learning through the SkillsFuture movement. I am glad to know that amongst our graduands today, we have many teachers who have embraced lifelong learning to pursue your passion as educators.
15. One such graduand is Ms Petrinna Chua Chia Ling, who is receiving her Diploma in Special Education today. Petrina graduated with a business degree and worked in the entertainment business for about two years before enrolling in NIE. Through her conversations with a teacher at a Special Education (SPED) school and her interactions with a group of dancers with different special needs, Petrinna was motivated to learn more about how she could contribute to the education of our special needs students. She decided to become a Special Education teacher.
16. Petrinna took some risks to make the career switch. Her first year as a special education teacher challenged her way beyond her comfort zone. Her students required more socio-emotional support than she expected. But watching her students make progress every day encouraged her to return to work with much excitement and anticipation, day after day. Her passion kept her going, so even when she encountered challenges and difficulties, she found ways to overcome them.
17. Petrinna believes a good teacher is also a good learner who never stops learning and improving. Although the course duration is one year, she wants to keep on learning even after graduating from the programme. This is very commendable. Thank you Petrinna, I wish you all the best in your teaching career and that you will continue to inspire your students through your interactions with them.
18. Let me conclude by extending my congratulations once again to all our graduands. Teaching is a noble profession, but it is also a demanding job. There will be challenging times and difficult issues to handle. When the going gets tough, I hope you will continue to be guided by your passion and why you decided to become a teacher. Hold fast to your values of caring for each and every pupil, as you help to shape young minds and prepare them for a brighter future ahead.
19. Remember the compass that each of you received during the Teachers’ Compass Ceremony at the beginning of your studies at NIE. Let this compass be a reminder of your commitment and calling of joining the teaching fraternity.
20. We have a very good education system in Singapore, but it is not perfect. There are gaps we need to address. There is red-tape we need to cut or find ways to get around. And there is room for further improvement, especially when we are trying out new ideas and adapting to new changes.
21. I urge you to join us and be part of this continuous improvement process. Focus on doing what is right, and what will benefit our students. Follow your passion, listen to your heart and be guided by your compass.
22. Thank you very much.