Susan Long

Turning impossible into 'I m possible'

Mrs Chua Yen Ching, 55, with her former NorthLight School student Jerry Ong, 35. He remains grateful to his ex-principal for helping him turn his life around.
Mrs Chua Yen Ching, 55, with her former NorthLight School student Jerry Ong, 35. He remains grateful to his ex-principal for helping him turn his life around.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

This Teachers' Day weekend, The Sunday Times meets Mrs Chua Yen Ching, the pint-sized dynamo ex-principal with a knack for turning around tough neighbourhood schools

Jerry Ong was a juvenile delinquent who dropped out of school. Six months later, he begged to return and his principal gave him another chance.

But within months, the Secondary 3 student was playing truant again, and broke her heart.

One day, when he was serving detention yet again, she set him a task. She placed a giant vat of red, green and soya beans as well as barley and peanuts on the table and asked him to sort the contents into five different plates.

Thinking it was for a science experiment, he applied himself, taking three hours before he proudly presented his finished work.

But looking him in the eye, she poured all the sorted beans back into the vat. Mr Ong remembers: "I felt frustrated, angry, like a fool. All my time and effort had gone to waste."

His principal just smiled gently and said: "This is exactly how I feel about you."

His eyes welled up with tears. Then he bucked up. He did well in his N-level examinations, sat the O levels, went on to Nanyang Polytechnic and did a correspondence degree in computers, networking and communications technology, working as an engineering assistant to pay his way.

Today, Mr Ong is 35 and an engineer at a multinational firm. He is married to an insurance executive and they have two children.

He remains grateful for his principal's bean-sorting lesson. "She taught me self-respect and discipline in a firm but kind way. Back when I was a teenage rebel, she never failed to remind me that I, like everyone else, possessed a special talent," he says.

That principal - Mrs Chua Yen Ching - was on her first stint as a young headmistress at Zhonghua Secondary from 1995 to 1998. She used unorthodox methods to reach out to her students when conventional ones failed.

She learnt the importance of doing this the first day she reported for work at Dunman Secondary in 1981. She had arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 6am that day, to print out notes for her science class. But one girl defiantly made a paper aeroplane out of the notes. Mrs Chua confiscated her aeroplane and asked to see her after school. She offered to help with private lessons after the girl confessed that she was bored because science eluded her. Within a month, the girl was paying attention and rallying her classmates to follow suit.

Mrs Chua's next posting as vice-principal at Tanjong Katong Girls' School in 1990 saw her dabbling in object lessons, where she would use steel frames and paper cuttings - like a magician - as concrete illustrations of a principle or moral. "About 70 per cent of us are visual. You can forget all that I tell you but you cannot forget what you see," she says of her sleight of hand, which was of course a hit with the girls.

By the time Mrs Chua was principal of Shuqun Secondary, from 2003 to 2006, she was known for her way with wayward kids. When Rui, the school's volleyball star, cut class once too often, she suspended him from a crucial inter-school match. Making him sit on the sidelines was a painful experience for him and the school, which risked losing the semi-final match.

"But I would rather win the child and lose the gold, than win the gold and lose the child," she says. In the end, though, the Shuqun team made it to the final and Rui, who learnt his lesson, led them to victory in the nationals.

In 2006, Mrs Chua ventured where few educators dared to tread by becoming the pioneer principal of NorthLight School, an entire school of repeat PSLE failures and secondary school dropouts.

This time, she learnt from the dedication of the teachers who volunteered to teach there.

She remembers one boy, Frank, who had stopped attending school. But his form teacher, who grew up in a one-room flat, continued to visit him at home, taking his favourite McDonald's meal and hanging it on the door if Frank was not in.

By the 12th visit and with no sign that the boy was responding, Mrs Chua asked the teacher how long he intended to keep it up. The teacher wanted to try a couple more times. By the 14th visit, Frank gave up, since his teacher wouldn't. The boy returned to school, going on to score a perfect GPA of 4.0.

Describing what she learnt, Mrs Chua, 55, says: "Hope is such a powerful word for young people. Hope is not wishful thinking but confident expectation. If we have hope and put in effort towards our goal, even the impossible can be possible."

Former Standard Chartered Singapore chief executive Euleen Goh, 59, chairman of NorthLight's board of governors since its inception, says Mrs Chua inspired all those around her on the "art of the possible". She even had a fan emblazoned with the word "Impossible", which turned into "I m possible" when the blades rotated.

Ms Goh tells how Mrs Chua took a sick boy to a nearby clinic one day. Along the way, she chastised him for being unruly in class, challenged him to be good for a week and asked what would be a fitting reward. The boy asked to stand beside the principal and raise the school flag during assembly.

They struck a deal. And the boy, after one week of exemplary behaviour, earned his wish. "She inspires simply through showing she cared and reaching directly into the heart of each student," notes Ms Goh.

When Mrs Chua left NorthLight in 2011, more than 80 per cent of her students, previously written off as "hopeless cases", had completed the school's three-year course. Eighty students from the pioneer batch of 200 made it to the ITE to take up certificate courses. Another 20 continued their education in private institutions such as hospitality training school Shatec, and 60 found jobs paying an average of about $800 a month.

Against the grain

Since last year, Mrs Chua has been executive director of the Academy of Singapore Teachers. A sign hanging in her Malan Road office has a message in bold red letters which she tries to live by: "I will follow my internal GPS, to persist in doing the right thing even if it goes against the grain."

At the academy, she sees her mandate as supporting Singapore's 33,000 teachers in their professional and personal development and helping them keep abreast of new ways of teaching, learning and connecting with students.

After seven years of policy work - she served two terms at the Ministry of Education Curriculum Planning and Development Division from 1998 to 2002 and 2011 to 2013, the last as director of the sciences branch, helping to review the curriculum in subjects such as mathematics, science and technical education - she often hears remarks from teachers on the ground such as: "Who came up with all this new stuff? So much unlearning and relearning to do."

Mrs Chua notes that teachers tend to focus on the "what" and the "how", rather than the "why", of a policy change. She sees her role as helping teachers reflect more deeply on "Why am I doing what I am doing?" If they can answer that, and deliver the curriculum as intended, she is convinced every Singaporean child will experience quality learning in every classroom, regardless of home background.

The diminutive woman says she was not born so bold, and it was going back to school - to teach - that drew her out of her shell.

She grew up, risk-averse and introverted, the eldest of five children of a civil servant and housewife in a five-room HDB flat in Marine Parade. Her father always told her: "If you get a C grade for maths, I will teach you. But if you get a C grade for character, I will punish you."

She beavered through St Margaret's Primary and Secondary, then Hwa Chong Junior College, set on becoming a doctor to fulfil her father's wish, devastated each time she missed the mark.

At 18, a kindly teacher took her aside, showed her how life was about the process, not the outcome, and broadened her mind to different dimensions of success beyond achievement, power and wealth. That day, she left school, unburdened, with a spring in her step. "Doctors heal the body but teachers can heal the soul," she was convinced.

She decided on a teaching career and chose to study biology and chemistry at the National University of Singapore.

The principal's kids

Just as her father respected her career choice, even if it was not what he had hoped for, she has tried to do likewise with her own three children, now aged 20 to 26.

But she is the first to admit it is tough for an educator to be a parent, even one resolved not to fulfil unfulfilled aspirations through her kids. "I have high expectations of my own children and am probably more patient with my students than my own children," she confides.

After her second daughter aced the O levels, she sidled up to her mum and asked: "Can a principal's kid go to the polytechnic?"

Mrs Chua knew where it was headed. "Deep inside, as a parent, I wanted her to go to junior college. But as an educator, I would encourage her to pursue her interest in design as it would sustain her. It took me a week to reconcile it."

Her daughter went on to study visual communications at a polytechnic, and is now an art teacher. Her other daughter is a finance executive who works on mergers and acquisitions, and her son is serving national service.

When choosing schools for her children, her top criterion was proximity - no more than 15 minutes by bus from their home in the eastern part of Singapore. Because she and her civil servant husband wanted to ensure each child grew up with his or her own identity, they all went to different primary schools, despite the inconvenience.

Asked what advice she has for parents whose kids are floundering in the system, Mrs Chua says: "Tell them your love for them isn't proportional to their PSLE T-Scores. Affirm your kids and look for the effort. Kids need constant support and encouragement. Start young and maintain that channel of communication. Once it stops, it's very difficult to start later."

suelong@sph.com.sg