The essence of a Caring Teacher

Madam Poh with her Primary 5 class at Yu Neng Primary School. She believes in being flexible in the approach she takes towards individual pupils as every child is different, with different needs. She once allowed a "problem child" to leave the classr
Madam Poh with her Primary 5 class at Yu Neng Primary School. She believes in being flexible in the approach she takes towards individual pupils as every child is different, with different needs. She once allowed a "problem child" to leave the classroom when he said he had to "buy flowers for his girlfriend". The boy eventually passed PSLE under her guidance.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Ms Lee Han.
Ms Lee Han.
Ms Santha Selva Raju.
Ms Santha Selva Raju.
Ms Noor Haida Mohd Jakaria.
Ms Noor Haida Mohd Jakaria.

Recipients of Caring Teacher Awards share their teaching philosophies

Four teachers were chosen, out of more than 1,100 nominations covering 234 schools, as winners of this year's Caring Teacher Awards.

Given out on March 31, the biennial awards recognise teachers who go beyond the call of duty to bring out the best in their students. The winners, whose ages range from 29 to 57, share their stories and teaching tips with The Straits Times.

OFFER A LISTENING EAR

When Madam Janet Poh saw a pupil slip out of her remedial class 12 years ago, she went after him and asked him where he was going.

He said: "I have to get flowers for my girlfriend. It's Valentine's Day."

When he was adamant about buying flowers despite her attempts to convince him to stay, she followed her instincts and gave him permission to leave.

BRIDGING GAPS

Many kids go through a rebellious phase in secondary school and this causes friction between parent and child. Having gone through that myself, I want to help bridge the gaps in their relationship.

MS LEE HAN, a Chinese-language teacher at Christ Church Secondary School.

"I wanted him to know that I was willing to listen and that he had a choice," said Madam Poh, 57, an English teacher at Yu Neng Primary School in Bedok, where she has been teaching for 35 years since 1981.

Little did she know her decision would make a big impact on his life.

The boy, then 11, was often reprimanded for using vulgarities and notorious for not doing his homework. Madam Poh was the first teacher who was willing to show flexibility towards him.

With time, he began to trust and respect her. Under her guidance, he studied hard for the Primary School Leaving Examination and made it to secondary school, a remarkable feat as he was failing badly before.

Now 23, he still keeps in touch with her, never forgetting to thank her on Teachers' Day.

LOVE MOTIVATES HER

Teaching involves a lot of work with students and it's not always easy. But my love for the profession and my students inspires me to do my best for them.

MS SANTHA SELVA RAJU, a chemistry teacher at Innova Junior College in Woodlands, on what tips she would give to other teachers.

This is but one of the heartwarming moments that motivate Madam Poh to continue teaching.

"When I meet my old students and I see the mature young men and ladies they have become, my heart swells with pride," she said.

As an educator, Madam Poh believes in the importance of understanding the needs of her pupils.

"There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Every child is different and, as teachers, we have to be flexible," she said.

Madam Poh has had to adapt to the changes wrought by technology on the education landscape.

EVERY CHILD IS SPECIAL

I am delighted to be part of my pupils' dream in helping them realise their aspirations. I believe that every child has something special to offer. With some help and the right opportunities, they will find a place in society where they shine the brightest.

'' MS NOOR HAIDA MOHD JAKARIA, a Malay-language teacher at Chong Zheng Primary School.

"With the advent of the Internet, children are more easily distracted. We teach them life skills like time management and introduce them to interesting books to encourage them to read."

Said Yu Neng Alumni chairman Tan Heng Lee: "Madam Poh is deserving of this award as she is truly a caring, hard-working and dedicated educator."

BUILD STRONG RAPPORT BETWEEN STUDENTS AND PARENTS

Parent-teacher interactions often weigh heavily on the hearts of students as they are usually equated with being in trouble.

So when Ms Lee Han, 29, a Chinese-language teacher at Christ Church Secondary School in Woodlands, created a WhatsApp group for the parents of her Secondary 3 class two years ago, her students were against the move.

"They perceived it as a platform for me to complain to their parents, but that was not my intention," said Ms Lee, the youngest Caring Teacher Award winner this year.

Her students soon realised that Ms Lee did not create the group to keep tabs on them.

She won them over with her efforts to help parent and child understand one another better.

Through the WhatsApp group, Ms Lee updates parents on their children's progress, encouraging them to motivate their children when they do not do well, and praise them when they improve.

She also conveys the sentiments of parents to their children to help them understand their intentions.

"Many kids go through a rebellious phase in secondary school and this causes friction between parent and child. Having gone through that myself, I want to help bridge the gaps in their relationship," she said.

Many Secondary 4 students go to her when they do not concur with their parents' wishes to study in a junior college upon graduation, preferring the polytechnic route.

She would suggest to them to do their best to qualify for junior college. "When they make the grade, their parents are reassured, and thus more likely to allow them to make their own choices," she said.

Ms Bo Bo Lim, 47, whose daughter Tang Jing Ying, 17, was in Ms Lee's graduating class last year, said: "With Ms Lee's encouragement, my daughter did well for the O levels and made it to junior college. Ms Lee is truly a dedicated teacher who is willing to sacrifice her time to help."

On being the youngest winner this year, Ms Lee said: "I am very honoured to be recognised. Being a teacher has been a life-changing experience and I am still learning every day, to better myself."

CREATE A SPACE FOR STUDENTS TO RELAX

When her form teacher at Temasek Secondary School spent countless hours coaching her in her studies, Ms Santha Selva Raju, 35, was inspired to pay it forward.

The chemistry teacher at Innova Junior College in Woodlands believes students need to find a balance between work and play.

To help students unwind, she came up with a "relaxation corner" in her classroom - an initiative she started when she was given her first form class in Christ Church Secondary School seven years ago.

Lined with carpets and cushions, the cosy corner is ideal for students to chat and have a good laugh between lessons.

"As students spend most of their time in the classroom, I want to create a homely environment for them. The corner helps them de-stress when they prepare for exams," she said.

This is just one way Ms Santha looks out for her students.

When she saw that a student did not eat during breaks, she approached her and found out that her family was facing financial difficulties. Besides helping the student apply for financial aid, Ms Santha paid for her meals and weekly allowance out of her own pocket. "It was a small contribution on my part. Knowing that someone cared for her, she was more motivated to study harder in school," she said.

One moment etched in her memory was when a former student invited her to attend his polytechnic graduation ceremony.

She said: "I am always delighted when my former students update me on their progress. I share their joy when they move on to bigger things in life."

Ms Santha, who has a master's in chemistry from Nanyang Technological University, is not only well versed in chemical bonding, but also enjoys class bonding. "When I share stories with my students, they are more willing to open up and tell me their problems. This helps us bond on a deeper level."

Stella Lee Conrad, 18, who is in Ms Santha's form class, said: "Her dedication motivates me to study hard."

On tips for other teachers, Ms Santha said: "Teaching involves a lot of work with students and it's not always easy. But my love for the profession and my students inspires me to do my best for them."

BRING OUT THE STAR IN EVERY PUPIL

When Chong Zheng Primary's Malay-language teacher Noor Haida Mohd Jakaria, 52, was asked to nominate five pupils for a drama competition, she felt it was a good chance to help her weaker pupils build up their confidence.

The two boys and three girls she chose were at first reluctant to take part as they doubted their abilities.

"They were worried about not being able to memorise their lines and feared making mistakes on stage," said Ms Noor Haida.

To convince them, she played down the significance of winning and assured them that it would be similar to what they had done in the classroom.

She told them: "More importantly, you should be proud to celebrate your achievements on stage."

The team spent countless hours after school and during weekends rehearsing the play, which is about the local legend of Red Hill.

Much to everyone's surprise, the team placed second-runner-up in the Tampines school's competition. "It boosted their morale greatly as it was their first time winning a title in a competition," she said.

Ms Noor Haida also uses interactive tools in the classroom to encourage her pupils to be creative.

Her pupils are taught to form sentences using Lego bricks marked with Malay words, which allows them to use their creativity to build structures using the bricks.

To help her pupils with composition and comprehension, she encourages them to visualise their thoughts by drawing and acting in short skits.

A teacher of 25 years who previously taught at Bedok North Secondary and Loyang Primary, Ms Noor Haida said: "I am delighted to be part of my pupils' dream in helping them realise their aspirations. I believe that every child has something special to offer.

"With some help and the right opportunities, they will find a place in society where they shine the brightest."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'The essence of a Caring Teacher'. Print Edition | Subscribe