July 11, 2018

Speech by Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the NIE Teachers’ Investiture Ceremony

1. Congratulations to our graduating teachers, who have completed the enhanced BA/BSc (Education) degree programmes and the Diploma Programmes. This is a significant milestone of your careers, and in doing something fulfilling and purposeful for your lives.

2. When NIE invited me to this ceremony, I was wondering what I should speak about. So I thought I should talk about how meaningful it is to be a teacher. The problem is I may not be very qualified to do that as I am not a teacher.

3. But what I can tell you is how teachers have been an important part of my life, as they must have been for many of you. My late mother, she was a teacher. She taught at Ngee Ann Secondary, and then Zhenghua Primary at Bukit Panjang. She was a Chinese teacher, and belonged to the generation when subjects were taught in Chinese. So she taught Mathematics in Chinese. Occasionally she would bring me to her school, and I would wait quietly in the office, the canteen or in the volleyball court while she went for classes and did her work.

4. So I was young, no more than 7,8 or 9, but the older boys in the school would always be very nice to me. Once, a group of them invited me to play volleyball. I got thrashed. Another time a boy asked me to play Chinese chess with him. I also got thrashed. But I knew they were friendly and nice to me, and it was done out of respect for my mother, their teacher.

5. When I was much older, when I went out with my mother, strangers would come to her and say, “Are you Madam Ng Soo Lung? I was your student…” Every one of these encounters was very heart-warming.

6. Yen Ching herself has many stories of how teachers touched and changed students’ lives. I worked with her for many years when she was the principal of Northlight school and I was on the Board of Directors. One of her often-cited stories was how a teacher at Northlight school did not give up on a student who did not turn up for school. So the teacher would visit the student, who lived in a one-room flat, to persuade him to come to school. And each time he visited,he would bring along a McDonald’s meal for the kid. But the student would get wind of the visit and get out of his home to avoid meeting the teacher… and then he would come home to find the McDonald’s meal hung on the door. The teacher did this 3 times, 4 times, 8 times, 10 times, 12 times, and still could not get the child back to school. His colleagues, and I think Yen Ching did too, advised him that, perhaps, it was time to give up, for there were other students they had to take care of.

7. But on the 14th visit, the student finally met the teacher, and said “OK, I will go back to school.” And when asked why, the student explained that he was sick and tired of running away from the teacher. But more tellingly, he said that everyone he knew gave up on him, except this teacher. And when Yen Ching asked the teacher why he did not give up, he said that it was because he himself had grown up in a one-room flat and knew how difficult it was.

8. Let me share another story. It is that of a 13-year-old boy, whom we’ll call Jonathan. He had been accused of abusive behaviour and his parents were considering putting him in a Boys’ Home. At this point he comes to Orchid Park Secondary where, for the first 4 months, he gets into trouble with his teachers, fought with his classmatesand his peers avoided him.

9. His Form Teacher, Mr Kenny Wang, knew that Jonathan had multiple special-needs conditions, and took him aside. Instead of reprimanding him, he asked him how he felt when his classmates shunned him. He asked if Jonathan would like to change the situation and if he would, Mr Wang said he would help him. Jonathan kept stubbornly quiet. For 40 minutes, he didn’t speak, but after that, he said with tears in his eyes, “I want to change.”

10. That is the beginning of a long journey. And over the next 4 years (Jonathan is now in Sec 4), Mr Wang caught up with him every day. Once a week they sit down and talk – initially about favourite movies, and then, as his behaviour and results improve, they start talking about goals. In Sec 3 , Jonathan emerged as one of the top students. He had already started making improvements in his social skills. Over the years, he has learnt to serve and lead – he is now Staff Sergeant with the Boys’ Brigade. Currently, he’s deciding whether to head to JC or to Poly. More importantly, he is a regular young man with a circle of friends. And this was a student who, 4 years before, had said, “I don’t deserve love and care.”

11. Most professions do good and make a difference in other people’s lives. But being a teacher is distinctively different. You may teach thousands of students who will benefit from your lessons and the knowledge you impart to them, but amongst them there will be individuals who are deeply influenced by you. You shape them to be who they are, and you change the course of their lives.

12. This is what makes a teacher. Each of you has the opportunity to change lives – one student at a time. Never forget that families entrust what they value most – their children – to you for guidance. No other profession has that privilege. You hold the hopes and dreams of many in your hands, and so you have to handle it with extreme care, and discharge that responsibility with wisdom, patience and determination. The impact you make will be felt for years afterwards – in the lives these students forge for themselves, the values they espouse, the families they create, the Singapore they make. The future will literally pass through your hands.

13. Some of you might ask: how can we best discharge our duty and mission as a teacher? Not being a teacher, it is hard for me to answer that question. But I know one aspect that is paramount, which is: To be able to get through to the student, you need to win their respect. You need to reach the students before you can teach the students.

14. During my home visits as a Member of Parliament, some residents who are teachers would open up to me and tell me about their work. Occasionally they would express their worry, that students these days are “harder to control”, “less respectful”. I can totally empathise with that but I don’t think the key to earning the respect of students is either to impose your authority over them, or go to the other exteme of bending backwards to deliver impeccable customer service to them. Neither will win you respect.

15. To win their respect, I think you need to get two things right. First, genuinely care for the welfare and development of the students. We are all in public service, where the central ethos is to do what is right for the people we serve. And I believe that for many students, whether they are conscious of it or not, they know how much you care, and they care less about how much you know.

16. How much you care for students will come through in the way you develop lessons, the way you answer questions, the way you go beyond the call of duty to help the weaker members of your class. It will come across when you discipline students. Students will judge whether the reason and the form of punishment are fair, or merely reflect a burst of anger. The students are observing you all the time, as kids and teenagers always do. The great majority of students know right from wrong, and in those rare occasions when they have yet to understand, they will benefit from your disciplinary actions when they are motivated by care.

17. Second, walk the talk. Be a role model, bearing in mind that for some of your students, you may well be the only role model they ever have in their growing-up years. Hold yourself to high standards of behaviour. There is a reason that when a teacher is suspected of having done something wrong, there is so much public concern and outrage from the public. It is a good thing, because it shows society’s regard for and expectations of a teacher.

18. So when you walk into that class, you are showing those young, impressionable minds what it means to be an adult. How you speak to them; how you stand up for what you believe in; how you react to something bad that just happened to you; how you look at the controversial issues with no right or wrong answers but shades of grey; how you react to fake news; how you yourself approach lifelong learning. There is nothing more authentic than walking your talk.

19. Care for students, be a role model – this is my advice on what I think will guide you. Teachers I have spoken to told me that these attributes will be put most to the test when you encounter unmotivated students. Students who cannot see meaning in their learning They will cause you to feel discouraged and overwhelmed. And you will feel so some point in your career.

20. But this is when you show your true colours. If you care enough you will not give up. And by not giving up, you demonstrate resilience and learning from mistakes. The students will watch and learn from your behaviour.

21. Some of you may be posted to schools or classes where the expectations for high performance are very high, and you feel the urge to prepare students very well for the examinations. My suggestion is to do your best to teach and help students understand the lessons, but don’t try to sculpt the “perfect student” for examinations. Instead sculpt the best teacher in yourself to be a role model for the students. Examinations are fleeting, whereas lessons from a role model are lifelong.

22. The journey ahead will appear daunting, but NIE has prepared you well. You have been training for this day, up to four years. You have a strong foundation of pedagogical skills and content knowledge upon which you can build your profession. Amongst you are specialist teachers from the Diploma Programme, the first batch of the enhanced BA/BSc (Education) degree programme and the Teaching Scholars Programme.

23. And MOE will continue to help you learn and grow professionally. Most importantly, you will always have the professional support of your fraternity – the corps of 33,000 teachers. They are standing by your side all the time. No matter what difficulties lie ahead, don’t be too harsh on yourselves. We all need time to make mistakes, learn and become better. Your colleagues and seniors will help you, and you are never alone in facing your work challenges. As DGE says in his letter to you, “Through moments of joy and challenges, you will find a community who is there with you, to learn and grow together.”

24. Congratulations, welcome to MOE, and all the best.