Caring Teacher awardee: everyone in difficulty should be helped

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The ĎCaring Teacher awardsí are aimed at acknowledging and rewarding those teachers in Singapore schools who, through their daily deeds and actions, exemplify the values of caring, sharing, and concern for the academic, moral, social, emotional, and mental welfare of their students.

Jointly organised by Esso and the National Institute of Education (NIE), with the support of the Ministry of Education (MOE), these awards were be presented on July 12, 2000. Two primary and two secondary teachers and one pre-university/junior college teacher received the awards. These awards will be used for the teachers' professional development.

Recipients of the award demonstrate exemplary character, initiative, integrity, altruism, and a proven record of service to their schools and students. While effective teaching and the production of excellent examination results was considered, the emphasis of the awards is on the humanistic qualities of the teaching profession.

Selection will be based on nominations from any member of the public, including principals, teachers, and pupils. A panel of judges for final selection will interview shortlisted candidates.

Mrs Tan Aye Leng, who had been teaching at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) in Toa Payoh for about 29 years, was one such recipient of this award this year. Miss Seema Prakash, 17, a former student at CHIJ, nominated her for the award together with the Head of Department (HOD) for Science, Mrs Jennifer Chu. The Catholic News spoke to Sr Anne Wong (principal of CHIJ Toa Payoh), Miss Seema and Mrs Tan together with some of her present pupils, Ms Suzanne Seah, 14, of Sec 2/1 and Ms Nur Hazwani, 14 of Sec 2/2, on her receiving this award. Miss Seema will be leaving for Norway to study the International Baccalaureate at the United World College.

CN: Ms Seema, why did you nominate Mrs Tan for this award?

Seema: Definitely I think Mrs Tan has been one of the major influences in my life, second to CHIJ. Sheís always willing to help others, and her help isnít restricted to those who are academically bright, or the more popular girls, but she helps everyone, and anyone who needs help. Sheís also been my mentor in my 4 years here, and I remember once when I thanked Mrs Tan for all that she had done for me, she said, ĎDonít thank me, donít feel that you ever have to repay me, just pass the kindness on,í and that impacted me a lot. The major reason why I nominated Mrs Tan was that she doesnít see all this as going out of her way to help others, but a very natural thing to help others.

CN: You mentioned that Mrs Tan was your mentor in your 4 years in CHIJ. How far has she helped you outside of academic work?

Seema: Mrs Tan was my form teacher in Secondary 2, but her influence on my life didnít end there. Over next few years, whenever I need to help or talk to someone, I always went to her.

CN: Mrs Tan, what do you enjoy most teaching in CHIJ?

Mrs Tan: The girls. (smiles) Different girls with different capabilities, backgrounds, and well, some with problems. Above all, we have very good fellowship amongst the staff.

CN: What made you think are your abilities or characteristics that made you the caring teacher you were awarded for?

Seema: I think Ďinitiativeí features prominently among them.

Mrs Tan: I feel that everybody should be helped, if he or she is in difficulties, whether financially or emotionally. It is the ones who have emotional troubles that are very difficult to help, because you need to gain the confidence of the students.

CN: I understand that there is a counselling program in CHIJ. Are you involved with that?

Mrs Tan: Every teacher is supposed to be a counsellorÖ

Seema: Ö and many teachers have counselled me at many a timeÖ

Mrs Tan: Ö but the girls will pick and choose whom they want. Some can relate better to you, some just canít.

CN: Are you Catholic? Which church do you attend?

Mrs Tan: Iím not a Catholic, Iím a Christian, but I have been a Catholic environment for a long time, and I was educated in an IJ school (St Josephís Convent). Iím a Presbyterian, but am attending the Trinity Methodist Church.

CN: Is there anything that you donít like about teaching in your 29 years here in CHIJ?

Mrs Tan: I think itís the other things we have to do (other than teaching), like the administrative work, the forms we have to fill in, itís just redundant work, because the same information is filled in many times over.

CN: Do you have any memorable moments in CHIJ?

Mrs Tan: The latest one is when my students of 83/84 sent me a huge floral basket after watching the award presentation on TV.

CN: After being in a Catholic environment for so long, have you ever thought of being Catholic yourself?

Mrs Tan: No. I think the belief is basically the same, a belief in God. I think it is the form of worship that is different. I may differ a little in theology, but I will not become a Catholic basically because my grandfather was a Presbyterian pastor. Thatís my main reason, although I go to all the Masses in school.

CN: How did you feel when you got the award?

Mrs Tan: My first thought was, ĎHow am I going to live up to this award?í (laughs) Well, I was happy, because I didnít know that they nominated me. I knew only after the interview, but after that I heard nothing, until more than a month later when Sister (Anne Wong) told me one morning when I was going for the school assembly.

CN: A lot of students find you very strict, so do you find a conflict to being strict and caring?

Mrs Tan: I donít think there is a conflict. Being kind doesnít mean that you have to give in to the girls all the time, because they donít understand that what they have done is wrong. So, by being strict, they will only see the results later on in life.

Seema: I think being strict is a part of being caring, because you will want to correct that person when they are wrong.

CN: Do you have any comments on the issue of the 6 CHIJ girls being arrested for drugs?

Mrs Tan: I think we did the right thing, because we nipped the problem in the bud. If we donít do that, Iím sure it will spread to the other girls. I think Sr Anne did the right thing to report them (to the police). It is good that they are caught in school, because if they were caught outside, they would be in bigger trouble.

CN: If you had a chance to counsel them, what would you say?

Mrs Tan: We have already counselled a lot of them. I know 2 of them personally, because Iíve taught them. I hope they have learnt their lesson, and that they would walk the straight path from now on. They are still young, so they can definitely change. Iím sure by now they know what they have done is wrong, hopefully. I think people should not judge us on the basis of those 6 girls, because 6 girls are a very small percentage of the school. We should look after the majority, and that is what we did, when we reported them to the police.

CN: Suzanne and Nur, how do you feel about Mrs Tan receiving the award?

Suzanne: To me, she is like a mother to everybody in the school. She always cares for us, and she makes sure that every single one of us understands her lessons.

Nur: When a teacher is strict, it means that the teacher cares, and that she wants you to be successful in school, and get everything right. Some people might get it the wrong way, like sheís Ďevilí, but from what I know that most teachers are very caring, and their strictness shows that they care for us.

Mrs Tan: It is easy for us to walk away when they (the pupils) have done something wrong, to be popular. But you spend more time and effort counselling them, and being strict with them, and going after them.

CN: Can you cite any examples of how Mrs Tan has helped you in your academic work or otherwise?

Suzanne: In the past, I have had teachers who didnít seem to bother very much when I had a question. But for Mrs Tan, each time I had any query at all, now matter how stupid it many seem, she would just answer, so sheís really understanding.

Nur: Whenever she explains something in class, and some people donít get it, she still explains it again fully.

CN: Sr Anne, how did you feel about Mrs Tan getting this award? Has she been outstanding in her work?

Sr Anne: It is not in just for one year that she had been demonstrating all these qualities of caring and challenging every student that she has been assigned to teach. It is a very sustained record, and in her own words, she represents the (CHIJ) group of teachers, all of whom are very deserving, except that you canít give it to everybody, so you have to make a selection. The selection was not done by the school, but by the MOE working in collaboration with NIE. The HOD of Science nominated her and I endorsed the nomination.

CN: I understand that Mrs Tan is not Catholic. Has this been a problem for her working in CHIJ Toa Payoh?

Sr Anne: No. It has never been a problem, because I think religion, is anything, unites rather than divides, because God is universal. We may worship differently, we may say different prayers in different ways, but we are still addressing the same one Almighty God who is our Creator. No one religion can be so arrogant as to say God is for them and not for somebody else. Mrs Tan Aye Leng has been able to imbibe the school culture of giving priority to pastoral care. Whether she is given a top class, or a class that is academically weak, her caring and sense of mission has always been there. And this is what makes her unique, because some people are good only with certain kind of students, but she is able to extend to them, regardless of race, language, religion or academic ability. So in that sense, she is an educator with a deep sense of mission, for she shares the IJ vision that every child deserves our best.

CN: As an educator yourself for so many years, what do you think makes a caring teacher?

Sr Anne: A deep sense of mission, and of hope. It is dedication to mission that makes the difference between schools and educators.

CN: So what is the mission?

Sr Anne: The mission is the dedication to the realisation of vision. The vision of a society, child or school may change over a period of time. For example, when the convent was founded, we looked after orphans. We fed and clothed them, we made sure they had shoes and books and we sent them to school. So those were actually basic needs. The child of today, especially the Singaporean child, has lots of these things already. So what can we offer them? We have to offer them faith in themselves, hope that they have a future to walk towards. They donít walk towards that future alone, it is always within a group, whether that group be their family, classmates or ECA mates in partnership with a significant adult. Where the school is concerned, that significant adult is the teacher.

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with the support of the Ministry of Education

This article appeared edited in the August 6 2000 edition of The Catholic News.