Pre-school heads get fresh ideas from learning trip to US

Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan Preschool principal Tham Kum Fong (right) with director Dr Hanna Gebretensae (middle) and documentation specialist Sammeh Solaimani (left) of Eliot-Pearson Children's School in Boston on Oct 27, 2016.
Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan Preschool principal Tham Kum Fong (right) with director Dr Hanna Gebretensae (middle) and documentation specialist Sammeh Solaimani (left) of Eliot-Pearson Children's School in Boston on Oct 27, 2016. ST PHOTO: PRISCILLA GOY

In one PAP Community Foundation kindergarten in Punggol, children with special needs comprise 10 per cent of the students.

Its principal Lim Wei Ni, 33, wants to take greater strides towards helping these children - and got some ideas from a centre thousands of kilometres away.

Last week, she visited a pre-school in the US, and was impressed by how several teachers there held a meeting just to discuss how to care for one single child with special needs.

"I'll try having such 'team meetings' in Singapore," she said. "We can exchange ideas on how to help the children with special needs. If a teacher looks after a child the entire day, she could easily run out of new strategies for helping the child."

Ms Lim is one of 24 heads from different Singapore pre-schools, who have been sent to the United States to gain ideas on how to better manage their organisations.

They are in the pioneer batch of participants in a six-month leadership programme, led by local philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation, called Principal Matters.

The $2.7 million programme was launched in April to help principals be more effective leaders and improve the quality of pre-school services. It includes leadership seminars, mentorships and a nine-day trip to Boston, where Wheelock College, a top pre-school training institute, is based.

Overseas research has shown that among factors that affect learning outcomes, school leadership is second only to teaching.

But in recent years, with the pre-school sector in Singapore facing a manpower shortage, teachers have had to rise up the ranks more quickly to become principals. If a teacher has the required paper qualifications, they can be made principal with just two years of work experience.

A total of 150 principals, or close to a tenth of all pre-school principals, will be selected for the Principal Matters programme, based on their openness to change, passion for self-improvement and commitment to a long-term career in early childhood education.

Partners include Wheelock College; the NTUC's Seed Institute, the largest pre-school training provider here; SIM University and human resources consultancy firm Korn Ferry Hay Group.

In Boston, each of the principals also spent three days attached to a pre-school.

They have come up with a project to initiate change in the management of their pre-schools, and will present them at a symposium in February next year.

Ms Tham Kum Fong, 61, principal of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan Pre-School, was inspired by her visit to Eliot-Pearson Children's School in Medford, and wants to instil a "researcher's mindset" in her team of teachers.

The Boston pre-school's director said this helped motivate teachers to be diligent in documenting children's learning and responses, to constantly observe and ask why children respond the way they do, and then refine lesson plans accordingly.

Said Ms Tham: "With such a mindset, I think the teachers would also look forward to doing their best and see that they too are developing professionally."

Participants said they have benefited from the Principal Matters programme so far.

Said Ms Lim: "We've also become friends. Some of us have even agreed to visit one another's pre-schools in Singapore."

One of the mentors, Ms Shaireen Selamat, 45, a doctoral researcher in early childhood, said the relationships built would help make positive changes in the pre-schools sustainable. "Building this community among principals is important. It can be lonely at the top for a pre-school principal. At the end of the day, no one wants to be alone."

• Applications for the second cohort of participants open on Nov 14 and close on Dec 31. Pre-school principals with three to 10 years of experience can apply for this and later cohorts at www.principalmatters.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'Pre-school heads get fresh ideas from learning trip to US'. Print Edition | Subscribe