Some Teachers Suck
“Don’t be a teacher that sucks!” I stared at my trainer at Republic Polytechnic, not quite believing my ears. So what is the most important teacher skill?
Yes, she looked straight into my eyes. Some teachers are just horrible, she reminded me.
Unfortunately, from experience, what she spoken the truth. I have met so many friends and relatives who became teachers. While some truly want to change people’s lives and inspire, most I have met became teachers because it pays, and they tell me so blatantly. Often, after they have failed to get other jobs.
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. I believed this all my life until I had no choice but to give up my own career and became an instructor in the university.
Teaching was the wilderness to me. I have always seen myself as an entrepreneur, the founder and the CEO of companies. I like to negotiate with world-class businessmen and close multi-million dollars deals, I like to sit on government round-tables to give suggestions, I like to strategize and second guess and beat the market trend.
But as it turned out, I had actually forgotten how much I love to teach: it’s much better than being an air stewardess visiting the world, it is much better than sitting on the same table with who’s who during a gala dinner. Those were great, but teaching is far greater.
Teaching Failing Students
At 15, I started teaching as a tuition teacher as I wanted to be independent. My student was just three years younger and he had one month to taking his PSLE exams. He had failed his preliminary math exam, so his mother wanted me to perform a miracle.
This little boy came to my house twice a week for a month and I had no clue if I could help him. But I knew how to make him laugh and think. I would create Math questions with him as the protagonist. He laughed and participated in my jokes. At the end of the month, his mom did not pay me.
However, on the day they released the PSLE results, she brought $40 and a gold chain to my house. He had not only passed math, but scored an A.
I realized I could feed myself by telling stories to little children. So, I continued.
Teaching Students with Emotional Needs
The next family that came to me was an Indonesian family with three girls. They lived in a big house in Bishan area with a house keeper, a driver and a maid. Their parents visited them once every month or so.
The youngest daughter was not very interested in studies, so in order to get her to the ‘tuition room’, I had to go to her room to wake her up and carry her school bag.
I became particular good friends with the second daughter, and her academic work was good. Seeing that they were always at home watching the TV, I wanted to tell her a bit about the world. So, I brought her to cut her hair, played badminton with her, bought ingredients to bake cakes with her. In the end, she told me that her parents had asked her who I was, that I could get the youngest girl to start scoring close to full marks for spelling and tests when she used to get zeroes.
But I think she missed the point. The parents were probably scared that I was trying to get too close, so they found ‘less involved’ teachers. I got it. They were rich and had to be careful of people who might have ulterior motives.
Teaching the Capable and Smart
Another memorable family was a 3-generation family that I taught. The kids were the smartest I have ever taught. The boy was Sec 3 and his work was already good. So, I started teaching him Sec 4 additional math and we got him ready for ‘O’ levels when he was in Sec 3. The girl was Primary 5 and I did the same for her for PSLE.
I would bring them cakes that I baked and shared funny jokes. In the end, I had nothing else to teach them as they were so ahead, so I stopped. Many years later, I received messages and photographs from them. They did so well in school and in life.
That was when my career started to take off as well and I stopped teaching. I didn’t resume teaching until decades later, when I had to stay home to mind my children and started teaching in the university.
Teaching in the University
In the university, I was on the Dean’s list every semester I taught. This is not an easy feat, given my colleagues were mostly professors who were highly regarded in their fields.
As I reflect, I think I know why I managed to rank high. Being a great teacher is not about how much subject matter we know, but how much we can inspire our students to learn.
It is no different whether we are teaching students who are failing, those who need more emotional support or those who are already excelling in every aspect. There are always things we can do to motivate them to do better for themselves.
The Most Important Teacher Skill – Teaching People
Over the years, I have taught thousands of students, and people comment that my students really do very well. I always believe that a good teacher can teach almost anything. It is not the curriculum, but how we can inspire our students that counts.
That is my little secret. The secret to why students with learning disabilities who cannot even score 150 at PSLE can catch up and score A’s in high school. The same reason why 11-year-old previously bored students hope that they will prepare for university entrance exams by 14. Same reason why bankers-wannabes or jobless people became great mega-millionaire entrepreneurs after attending my classes.
I actually didn’t do much. My job is really to find what is already in the students and to bring that to the fullest potential. My job is to inspire them to be who they already are deep inside but buried from the noise of the cruel world.
I think, I finally understand what the RP trainer was saying. Most teachers impose too much of themselves on students and ignore what incredible gifts they each already possess. For me, I believe my job is to inspire and motivate through anything I teach. Teaching a subject or curriculum is easy. Teaching people is not. It is about finding the best in that person and finding ways to maximize his potential in the field we teach. People will forget what we teach but they will not forget what we say to them.
Everybody has something to teach and therefore is a teacher in some ways. Everybody has to inspire and motivate. That’s the most important teacher skill we should have.