Friday, June 15, 2007

Qualities of a teacher?

Recently there was a small uproar about the termination of one Mr Alfian Sa'at as a relief teacher from MOE. The commotion is caused by MOE's unwillingness to express directly why did they terminate Mr Alfian's job, even though he seems to be doing quite well. To know more you can read his blog at, particularly

Not gonna argue who's right or wrong but, if I were to comment on this issue, it would be that the students in East View has just lost a valuable teacher. And also, it's always not easy to carry your beliefs and ideals in big placards and hold them up proudly above your heads. Your limbs will tire and sometimes resting and taking the easy way out seems much more 'common sense'.

But is that what you want people to remember you as? A being of common sense? Solely?

Anyway, just wanna share this story with my students (the blogs links are all very well written and will certainly improve your EL, as opposed to your daily MSN gibberish...) as well as for me to record this event in my blog. In particular, this few paragraphs:

1:13 am - what i learnt in school

I've been doing relief teaching (for History) for a bit more than a week now at East View Secondary School, a school 15 minutes away from my house, and one which has often been described as a 'neighbourhood school'. The term is of course reductive, and quite often one around which stereotypes agglutinate: the students are ill-disciplined, they are not interested in studying, there are gang members among the school population, etc.

My first week was a difficult period of adjustment. It takes a lot to enter a classroom and to establish a personality from zero. I was very aware that I was a new face and would thus be subjected to certain trials: the kids would test my threshold of patience, see what they can get away with. My position as an unknown quantity meant anxiety on my part, but for them not being recognised with a name meant liberation from surveillance. And thus when I handed out papers they giggled when I mispronounced names, multiple hands shot up when I called out somebody, I was vaguely aware that seating positions were shuffled under my ignorant watch: couples were reunited, cliques re-established, no more the strategic estrangements that kept mischievous combustions at bay.

I have to admit the frustration I felt when half the time spent in a classroom was spent at raising my voice, issuing stern warnings (a whole spectrum of threats was taught to me by the outgoing relief teacher: confiscating EZ-link cards, making them stay back after school, invoking the names of the Discipline Mistress and the Vice-Principal), pleading for the students to return to their seats. The din from the classroom was overwhelming; a tidal wave of restless yelps, red-faced bully laughter, the wailing of the freshly-smacked...a boy at the back gripped the sides of his table and screamed, 'I hate History!' A girl at the side of the class stared at me as if she was putting a hex on me; how in the world did she leave her house in the morning with eyeliner on? A boy ran out of one of the classroom doors and re-entered through the other, as if he was an actor rushing to make an entrance from the opposite wing. A girl was putting some green dye in her mouth, probably Art Class leftovers, and spitting foul green liquid at her classmates. A rosette of lurid green sputum bubbled on her desk. She was like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, but ten times worse, because I couldn't wave a crucifix at her and make her hair evaporate.

But: as I was novelty, the one they could gleefully blindfold and turn around like the guy in blind man's buff, there was something else, almost melancholic, in the background. Some of these classes have had up to four relief teachers in the space of half a year. Every new relief teacher was an opportunity to start again, to revise the rules; but it also meant abandonment. This was what was unspoken in class--why were they fostered out to so many of us, was it a) frustration b) hopelessness c) surrender or d) all of the above that ushered the hasty exits of all their former teachers?

Over the next few days, I realised how humbling teaching can be. For someone used to attention, indifference can be bewildering. I learnt to pace up and down the aisles, standing in the crossfire of rubber bands, eavesdropping on conspiracies of after-school plans, trespassing through barbed wire enmities, lingering over baroque mind-maps, scraps of notes, learning that a boy had cried because a classmate had written the words 'I LOVE' over the name of Mr Jeremy Wee, his English teacher on his journal cover. It is an illusion to think that the classroom is a homogenous neighbourhood. There are overlapping ghettoes.

This morning, a girl in one of the classes got sick and vomited on the floor. She went to the toilet, and I was frankly at a loss as to what to do with the mess under her table. If this was back in RI, I could imagine the class too being paralysed, by both helplessness and embarrassment. Someone might then suggest that we call the school janitor. But in that class, a boy walked up to me, a tall, gangly boy who I once scolded for not bringing his spectacles to school. He said, 'Cher, I go toilet ah.'I asked him what for.

'I go and take the mop.'

'Do you know where it is?' I asked. He nodded. The boy promptly came back, with a mop and bucket, and cleaned up the mess while I resumed teaching. He did everything with stoic professionalism, although I caught him taking a deep breath, hands on his hips, surveying the mess as he brought himself up to the task. He was probably used to doing housework.

This all happened in a sec one class. And at that point I believed that the boy's initiative, that hands-on spontaneity, was a mark of intelligence. I wished I could have rewarded him in some way for that act. Actually I believe that all the students I teach are intelligent, although perhaps they respond better to visual than auditory input. I have to constantly strain my throat to get them to quieten down, but I realised that when I draw on the whiteboard they are rapt, respectful. And thus I would sketch the faces of Brahmins and Shudras, the four Ministers of the Melakan Sultanate, the Shang dynasty Emperor. I would draw four-clawed dragons, cavemen, even the faces of some of the students, who would blush at the attention. I have had so many requests for drawings: Stamford Raffles, a character called Lady Xin, exhumed from her tomb, from their textbook, and even a hamster. I have complied with all. After lessons, I allow the class to take pictures of the whiteboard, even though I know some teachers impose detention on anybody caught with a handphone in class.

While conducting a mock-election in class, to familiarise them with the meaning of democracy, I picked two students out and asked them to make a campaign promise to the class. In one class, one student offered to have a computer in class, another offered air-conditioning. It did strike me how these were freely available in other schools. In another class, one of the students offered the class money, the other offered 'food every day'. The majority of that class chose 'food every day'.

There's something to learn from that response. The students are hungry. In more ways than one.

My last day will be this coming Thursday. And then the school will start to have exams; they have more than enough teachers to invigilate. I might be called back after the exams, but everything's still up in the air. It's going to be less than two weeks that I would have spent at East View Secondary, but I have a strong feeling that I will miss the students, the cries of 'hello, cher!' when I walk past the canteen, the cheering when I give them toilet breaks, and that one time, when passing by a whole row of students, the voice that reached me: 'Mr Alfian, we kena detention, come and save us!'

Certainly gave me something to think about. So are you guys hungry?

No comments: