Life lessons on a ski slope

The best teachers not only impart knowledge but also inspire and make lessons come alive


September is when Singapore and many other countries around the world mark Teachers' Day.

And if you want to know about good teachers, who better to ask than the children who are with them on the front lines of education every day? So let me quote from the testimonies of three who paid tribute to their teachers at this year's President's Award ceremony.

Mohamed Faiez Zaini admits he felt "hopeless" after doing badly in the Primary School Leaving Examination until he realised his teacher, Dr Muhammad Nazir Amir, "believes in me".

"He has helped me discover my hidden talent in fixing things. Now, my dream is to become a specialist technician and I will work towards it," he said.

Ashton Ng Jin Han marvels that his teacher, Madam Linda Lim Yen Peng, manages to be both "no nonsense" and fun. "She takes us to task when we are not focused, but she brings in toys and tools to help us understand complicated science concepts. I look forward to every science lesson," he said.

As for Kelly Chen Xinying, her excitement is palpable when she talks about her Chinese language teacher Lucy Sim: "I never thought Chinese lesson could be like PE (physical education) lessons but this is what happens in Miss Sim's class!

"Through the Chinese character aerobics, we use hand movements to form Chinese characters and sway our body to the tunes of the music... She makes Chinese characters come alive!"

You may be thinking that is all very well for children, but when they grow up they will value teachers who help them score the grades and secure the degrees and diplomas that lead to good jobs. All those are important, to be sure, but when people recall their favourite teachers, I find their memories rarely centre on those who help them attain such external measures of performance.

Instead, what they recall is the way certain teachers made them feel, and opened their eyes to new ways of seeing a subject and, ultimately, themselves.

One of my favourite teachers was a young German woman half my age with whom I spent all of six hours on a ski slope in Austria. I met her when I was trying to learn how to snowboard, a sport I struggled to grasp the way some of us struggled with Chinese.

I remember two of my teachers well. One managed to make me feel stupid by rolling his eyes whenever I failed to do what he asked me to; the other was Sondra, who showed me that I could not only learn the sport but also enjoy it.

There were four of us in her class, all adults from different parts of the globe. As the lesson progressed, it became clear that I - the bookish journalist from Singapore - was going to take a lot longer to learn the basics than the experienced surfer from Australia, who quickly took off, riding his snowboard downhill the way I imagined he rode the waves back home.

That meant Sondra had to keep moving up and down the slope to cater to our different speeds of descent - tiring work. Still, her enthusiasm was infectious. When our spirits flagged, she said: "It always feels better if you smile."

To help those of us with no instinctive feel for how to manoeuvre a plastic board attached to our feet, she taught us to rotate our hips as though keeping a hula hoop in the air - a movement that makes the snowboard turn smoothly, as though being steered.

Most important of all, she made me feel that I could get better if I practised, and she made me want to keep at it.

That, I think, is what gifted teachers do - they show students who struggle to learn what they are capable of and awaken in them a desire to keep learning.

And they empower those they teach.

A few years ago, I spent 10 months at Stanford University on a journalism fellowship which yielded neither degree nor diploma but changed my perspective of learning.

The course I remember best was called Acting with Power, an elective in the graduate school of business taught by Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, an experimental psychologist whose research is in social power.

What intrigued me was that this course, which she taught once a year and dared to schedule at 8am on Mondays, was always over-subscribed.

Those of us who secured a spot spent 10 exhilarating weeks learning about the inner workings of status, power and empathy within the social hierarchies we live in, and we did so not by sitting in our chairs and listening to her lecture but by acting.

We stood in front of the class and acted out scenes from plays. We put on costumes and improvised with home-made props. We had the help of professional actors who were in class with us every week, but we really taught ourselves, by experiencing how it felt to play either high-status or low- status roles in different settings, and discovering how small changes in posture affect how powerful we feel, and therefore how oriented we are towards action.

Prof Gruenfeld shared with us that, as a child, she had been so shy that at the playground she would always be the one watching from the sidelines, not daring to join in the fun.

As an adult, she had to teach herself how to take action by signing up for drama classes.

Thanks to her, I learnt that acting is not the art of faking but the passionate pursuit of an objective, and that that is how many thespians understand their craft.

That too is how she encouraged us to live, assuring us of our own capacity to act and that we did not need others' permission to do so.

Thanks to teachers like her, I have come to see education as much more than a paper chase, and learning itself as a lifelong joy.