SINGAPORE - Physical education (PE) teacher Francis Tang turns teams of non-swimming boys into water polo champions and makes them do well in their studies as well.
In the past decade, the boys in the water polo co-curricular activity (CCA) under his charge at Outram Secondary School have made a name for themselves in the sport, beating traditional powerhouses like Anglo-Chinese School (Independent). Where once they were languishing at the bottom, the team now ranks among the top four in inter-school competitions.
Mr Tang, 41, who was put in charge of the CCA in 2008, has played a key role in its success.
For his dedication, the senior teacher on Thursday (Sept 3) received the President's Award for Teachers, the top honour for educators.
Seven teachers received their awards from President Halimah Yacob at a virtual ceremony, which was also attended by Education Minister Lawrence Wong.
Besides Mr Tang, the other winners were Madam Shanthi Deenathayalan from Guangyang Primary School; Madam Wong Bing Sum from Radin Mas Primary School; Ms Yeo Cheng Yong from Fuhua Secondary School; Madam Ira Wati Sukaimi from Mayflower Secondary School; Mr Oh Chee Kiat from Institute of Technical Education College East; and Dr Chia Hui Teng from Singapore Polytechnic.
All were selected from a list of 17 finalists who were judged by a panel chaired by Ms Lai Wei Lin, the Second Permanent Secretary for Education, and Mr Wong Siew Hoong, the Director-General of Education.
This year, a total of 13,268 nominations for 3,399 educators were received from schools, post-secondary education institutions and the public.
The seven award recipients will get to go on an overseas study trip as part of their professional development.
Honouring teachers in a speech at the ceremony, President Halimah said: "As a teacher, your work has a lifelong impact on your students. Beyond academic teaching, you are also role models for your students.
"It is therefore important that we continue to develop our teachers with the right values and skills to meet the evolving demands of our education system."
Hard work pays off for underdog team
Mr Tang said he pushed his students during training because he wanted to show them that hard work and perseverance would bear fruit, instead of relying on just pure talent.
"Every time we don't do well, we are too quick to blame lack of talent. I wanted to prove that hard work really pays off, and it doesn't matter what school or background you come from," he said.
When he first took charge of the CCA, student attendance was poor, and the team nearly always came in last in inter-school leagues.
Mr Tang doubled the number of training sessions to six times per week, even during the school holidays. "I gave my students pep talks on why we were doing this, to motivate and help them believe in themselves," he said.
The boys trained in school in a 25m-long pool, half the size of a usual Olympic-size swimming pool, but Mr Tang organised friendly tournaments in polytechnics or junior colleges so that they could get some exposure to larger pools.
To ensure that their academic grades did not suffer, he implemented a two-hour study session before every training session. He even spent hours talking to their parents to convince them that their children would be able to juggle both their studies and sport.
His efforts paid off handsomely.
"The parents were very happy because their sons were studying and training without distractions like mobile phones and computer games. Within six months, the students' results actually improved, so the parents were even more supportive and they formed a support group."
But, apart from turning a team of underdogs into winners, Mr Tang emphasised that what was important was for students to become better people, learning to be disciplined and to look out for their teammates along the way.
He said: "It's not just my effort; the success is because of a village of teachers, coaches, parents and the students themselves."
Motivating through play
For Mr Oh, teaching at ITE College East has been familiar ground.
The 49-year-old senior lecturer in cyber and network security had himself studied electronics engineering at ITE before going on to the polytechnic and university.
He joined the ITE in 2006 as a lecturer after eight years gaining public and private engineering sector experience.
"I came from the system, and knowing that vocational training had allowed me to reach where I am, I've always had the inclination to pay it back," he said.
After attending an overseas conference, where he learnt about game-based learning, Mr Oh set up a lab called Tinkerspace in ITE College East, where students could play with tools and kits as part of their curriculum.
Minecraft: Education Edition, a game-based learning platform, as well as Lego brick kits, are used in the lab.
"We're allowing students to use their hands to construct things and this can give them the opportunity to learn more than just download content," said Mr Oh. For instance, nursing students learnt about hand-hygiene practices through a game simulation of a hospital.
He is now running workshops across the three ITE colleges about Tinkerspace and training teachers to weave such tools into learning.
"People see skills as blue-collar work and relate that to low job prospects, but in the past 10 years, industry has changed, and in reality, skills are just as important as academic qualifications on paper," said Mr Oh.
Bubbling with ideas
She may have been teaching for 24 years, but Madam Shanthi has not run out of creativity in her lessons.
Madam Shanthi, 47, has made learning the English language fun in several ways, including by making her pupils write letters to their peers overseas and getting them to go around school to conduct interviews.
The pupils in her classes are never seated for long as she gets them to choose activities based on their interests, be it drawing a comic strip, cutting out newspaper articles or just sharing their writing with classmates.
In one particular project that she led in her previous school, New Town Primary, a group of Primary 5 pupils would write once a month to their overseas counterparts in a partner school in New Zealand.
"They wrote about everything, from their favourite food to places of interest in Singapore, or why students here wear uniforms," said Madam Shanthi.
At the end of the year, the group of pupils visited their pen pals in New Zealand on a two-week long school trip.
Madam Shanthi said the pupils' level of writing improved significantly when they were writing to their pen pals.
"They took pride in their writing and put in more effort when they knew that someone else somewhere other than their teacher is reading it," she said. "They would reread and edit their drafts, get their friends to check for them, add in more details and do more research on their ideas," she added.
Teaching over more than two decades has made Madam Shanthi aware of pupils' different learning styles.
"When I was younger, I had a simplistic notion of teaching. You go into the classroom, impart your knowledge and skills to students," she said. But over the years she has honed her craft and now is able to cater to the needs of different pupils.
"Teaching has kept me young and youthful, I don't get bored at all," she said.