Engineering poly grad's relief teaching stint led to a lifetime of educating children

Mrs Elaine Quek, principal of Maha Bodhi School. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - If Mrs Elaine Quek was not a school principal, she would have probably been an engineer.

The two jobs are not quite the same - one involves facing thousands of students, while the other is about handling technical problems and understanding complex systems and machinery.

But "engineering is also about creation, and teachers are 'engineers' of people", said the Maha Bodhi School principal.

"Our tools are different, but we mould, we guide, and we shape," said the 45-year-old who has an electronic and computer engineering diploma from Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Her foray into teaching more than 20 years ago was almost by accident. She had nearly completed three years of polytechnic studies, when just two weeks of relief teaching at Outram Primary School - her alma mater - changed the course of her life.

"I found I enjoyed relating to the children and the intangible aspects of teaching, like when a child comes up to give you a goodbye hug," she said.

After graduating from polytechnic, she went on to complete a diploma in education at the National Institute of Education (NIE), was posted to teach at Bukit View Primary School in 1995, and has not looked back ever since.

Throughout her teaching career, it has never occurred to her that she needed to obtain a university degree. After her first school posting, she taught at River Valley Primary School, before becoming vice-principal of Woodlands Ring Primary School in 2005.

Four years later she took on the role of Chongzheng Primary School's principal, and in 2013, moved over to helm Maha Bodhi School.

"Having graduated from NIE, I was all ready to go. I enjoyed teaching, and I didn't really consider further education," said Mrs Quek, whose husband is a global director in a multinational corporation.

"I also didn't want to go through the stress of the pursuit of a degree," she said, adding: "I didn't have the best health, with prolonged cough since young and chronic migraines."

While non-graduates in those days may not have been promoted as quickly as their graduate counterparts, there was no lack of opportunities for her.

"It's the best man, or woman, for the job," she said. "It's more about learning along the way and my capability to do the job well."

She may not have gone to university, but learning has not stopped for her outside school.

"There are opportunities to upgrade, to learn on the job, to attend courses," said Mrs Quek, who went through the Leaders in Education programme conducted by NIE, before she became a principal.

Is a degree necessary today? Her answer is both yes and no.

"Degrees have their place, especially in certain fields of work where you need depth and breadth of knowledge," said Mrs Quek who has a 16-year-old son waiting to enter polytechnic and a 12-year-old daughter.

"It's everyone's dream to go to university, but at the same time, finding meaning and that passion for learning is important."

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