Extraordinary teachers: The 9 winners of this year's Inspiring Teacher of English Awards

(From left) Top Row: Madam Kogilavani Veerappan, Mr Edwin Wan Yung Lin, Ms Sheela Devi Tet Baahadur. Middle Row: Mrs Mumtaj-Menon Ibrahim, Ms Michelle Tan, Ms Sophia Yap. Bottom Row: Ms Shalini Thanakodi, Ms Cara Chew Heng Suan, Ms Sharon Chan Wei-Ly
(From left) Top Row: Madam Kogilavani Veerappan, Mr Edwin Wan Yung Lin, Ms Sheela Devi Tet Baahadur. Middle Row: Mrs Mumtaj-Menon Ibrahim, Ms Michelle Tan, Ms Sophia Yap. Bottom Row: Ms Shalini Thanakodi, Ms Cara Chew Heng Suan, Ms Sharon Chan Wei-Lynn. PHOTOS: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The nine winners of this year's Inspiring Teacher of English Awards employed a range of strategies in the classroom. But they share one thing in common: a desire to pique their students' interest in the language and to connect with their students.

Seven of them received Teaching Awards and two, Leadership Awards. The awards were jointly presented by The Straits Times and the Speak Good English Movement last Friday. The event was supported by the Ministry of Education.

Each winner received a trophy, a certificate and $2,000 cash. Their school principals also received a plaque. As part of the awards' 10th-year celebrations, The Straits Times will also present each teacher with a one-year complimentary subscription to NewsEd, its new digital learning portal for schools, worth $4,800.


Nurturing a lifelong love for reading in her students


Madam Kogilavani Veerappan of Bartley Secondary, who won a Leadership Award, says teachers are role models. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

At the end of each lesson, Madam Kogilavani Veerappan's students break into a loud cheer, complete with fist pump: "English for life!"

That mantra is something the 43-year-old Bartley Secondary School head of the English language and literature department wants her students to embrace. "It goes beyond exam grades. English connects you to people," she said.

The students at first giggle and are sheepish, but soon start doing it with pride as part of their day.

She also believes in developing a strong reading culture, and started Tuesdays With Teachers, where teachers shared their favourite reads during assembly. This year, student leaders have been roped in.

She once dressed up as a character from The Lord Of The Rings, while other teachers came as Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood.

"Young people are not reading as much these days, and they need good role models. Us teachers are their role models," she said.

Serene Luo

Inspiring pupils to read, with magic tricks up his sleeve


Mr Edwin Wan Yung Lin of Yio Chu Kang Primary School, who won the Leadership Award, uses mentalism and even close-up tricks to pique his pupils' interest. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

He performed magic tricks as a primary school pupil. Now, he uses everything from mentalism to close-up tricks to pique his pupils' interest in reading.

Mr Edwin Wan Yung Lin, 37, of Yio Chu Kang Primary School, brings his unique hobby to the table as part of his school's Promoting English Culture to Students programme.

"If you want to start something, you have to get your hands dirty and lead by example," he said, on getting his colleagues on board.

He once used the characters of Dumbledore and Harry Potter in a magic trick, weaving a story of how children who were not interested in reading could see only blank pages in a book. As they grew inspired to read, they saw the pages come to life in full colour.

When his colleagues said their pupils were seeking out related titles after he performed a magic trick during assembly, he felt it made the hard work all worthwhile.

Serene Luo

Using drama and debate to draw out the shy ones


Ms Sheela Devi Tet Baahadur of Temasek Primary School seeks to build her pupils' self-confidence through English lessons. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Ms Sheela Devi Tet Baahadur admits to being quiet and shy as a student. So as a teacher at Temasek Primary School, she makes it her mission to build up the confidence of her pupils.

The 44-year-old incorporates drama and debate strategies in her classroom, which gives her pupils the chance to think critically, and communicate their thoughts and ideas.She used the drama strategy of hot seating with her Primary 5 pupils, who were reading the poem The Pied Piper Of Hamelin by Robert Browning. Using a courtroom setting, a pupil playing the role of the Pied Piper was put "on trial" to answer questions posed by classmates, on things such as behaviour or motives, while staying in character.

She said: "What gives me the greatest joy is seeing a shy child, or one who is lacking in self-confidence, come out of his shell to speak, act or conduct a presentation in front of his peers."

Nur Syahiidah Zainal

Getting her young charges to think critically about issues


Mrs Mumtaj-Menon Ibrahim of Huamin Primary School seeks to develop life skills in her pupils while getting them to use the English language. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Mrs Mumtaj-Menon Ibrahim, 40, believes in giving all her pupils a chance to voice their opinions.

The Huamin Primary teacher first shares a story based on values like honesty or friendship.

While discussing the story as a class, pupils come up with a list of questions. They then vote for the one they wish to tackle.

"It becomes our critical question, and we work as a community of inquiry, sitting in a big circle to talk about the issue. That allows for a whole lot of in-depth analysis about the selected text," said Mrs Menon. Ground rules include giving everyone a chance to speak and not to jump to conclusions while listening to others.

"Besides critical thinking, they are also developing life skills that make them future-ready. It's very meaningful because it helps them think of issues in a deeper manner and the plus point is, of course, they use the English language to express themselves," she said.

Nur Syahiidah Zainal

Using real-life issues to bring subject to life


Ms Michelle Tan of North Vista Secondary School said access to NewsEd, one of the prizes for winning the award, would be a useful resource. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Inspired by the popular photo blog Humans Of New York, Ms Michelle Tan Lai Yee, 34, of North Vista Secondary School got her students to represent their self-identities in a similar format.

Through this ungraded activity, they learnt reading and analysis skills, and became more confident in expressing their ideas.

Ms Tan, who has been teaching for a decade, has been with North Vista only since the start of this year.

Yet, her students are already asking her to continue her methods of bringing English to life through newspaper discussions.

On why she chooses to use news in class, she said: "One desire I have is to get students connected with real issues out there beyond just the narrative text, beyond just reading feature articles on certain themes and topics. I think there's nothing like being plugged in to whatever is happening around you at that point in time."

Ang Yiying

Key strategy? A word wall updated with keywords


Ms Sophia Yap of Bedok South Secondary School set out to empower her Normal (Technical) students with the ability to express themselves well. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Ms Sophia Yap, 43, said that she often jokingly tells her students that she became a teacher because she loves to talk.

However, in class, her actions speak louder than her words.

With the belief that "all learners deserve the best learning experience", she was unfazed when assigned to teach a class of Normal (Technical) students at Bedok South Secondary School for the first time last year.

Ms Yap set out on a mission to empower them with the ability to express themselves well through the English language.

One of her most effective ways was using a word wall, which was frequently updated with keywords, such as those she used most often in class or seen as most useful for the students' daily work.

After all, they had been taking notes of almost everything she said.

"Since they learn new words every day, I need to make sure that they retain them," Ms Yap said.

Nur Syahiidah Zainal

Bingo! Her innovative games open students' minds


Ms Shalini Thanakodi of Boon Lay Secondary School believes "English is all around us - it's not just a subject". PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

When Ms Shalini Thanakodi, 31, asked her class to share what they did during the December school holidays two years ago, no one could come up with anything.

Her students associated the word "holiday" with overseas trips, but they had mostly stayed in the country. So the Boon Lay Secondary School teacher created a bingo game in which they could mark off things they did during the holidays, such as attending a wedding or visiting a public park.

These were all experiences they could relate to but never thought of. Suddenly, they had the material they needed for the day's assignment - writing a letter to a friend about their holidays. Through this exercise - one of many she has conducted in her seven years of teaching - she wanted to show her students that "a holiday doesn't need to be overseas to be fun".

"English is all around us - it's not just a subject," she said. "It's a tool that we use in our everyday lives."

Chloe Ng

Tailoring her lesson approach to different abilities


Ms Cara Chew Heng Suan of Catholic Junior College teaches GP and has to deal with students who have different levels of competency and confidence. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

As the level head of General Paper (GP) at Catholic Junior College, Ms Cara Chew Heng Suan, 41, teaches students who have varying levels of competency and confidence.

So she customises her approach to dealing with different students.

For instance, science-stream students tend to be logical thinkers but may not be as used to writing as students who take literature or arts subjects, she said.

Therefore, Ms Chew may give them more writing practice.

To get students interested in GP, she gives them news articles so they can see the relevance of what they are learning.

She also uses tangible thinking strategies in class. For instance, if she is covering a topic such as politics, she would get students to read an article or watch a video.

"I would ask, how does this connect to a topic you already know such as governance? How does it extend your understanding of governance as a concept?"

Ang Yiying

Getting well-read students to be 'teacher for a day'


Ms Sharon Chan Wei-Lynn of Raffles Institution gets her students to role-play different interest groups while tackling a current affairs topic. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

In Ms Sharon Chan Wei-Lynn's General Paper classes at Raffles Institution, students play roles such as that of the Government, local journalists or foreign media.

Each group then makes arguments or rebuttals based on current affairs topics like media censorship and poverty.

This is important, said the 43-year-old, because it helps the students see that things are not always black and white - an important skill.

Because GP hinges on the student's breadth and depth of knowledge, Ms Chan is always researching new issues and perspectives to use in her classes.

But teaching is not a one-way street.

If a student is well read in a particular topic, she would invite the student to become "teacher for a day", and learn something new alongside the rest of her class.

She said: "It becomes a learning experience for all of us."

Chloe Ng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline 'Extraordinary teachers'. Print Edition | Subscribe