The Unlikely Teacher - David Hoe
I’m a great advocate for exploring and of discovery. If given the opportunity, we should always get a taste of the various fields, to truly discover what we love. If not, how would we know if we truly like something to the extent where it trumps something else? I’m glad to say that I have been able to practise what I preach. My journey has been an unconventional one, but it has definitely been worth it and something I am proud of. It hasn’t always been easy, but without it, I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today. So how did this whole journey start?
Well, life didn’t come that easily for me. My family was far from perfect. I grew up in a household with just my Mom, with my Dad and brother in a completely different house. I had to start working from young when my Mom went blind due to a cataract operation gone wrong. At that point in my life, I was just focused on the day to day, to survive and maybe one day be able to get out of poverty. All I knew was what was placed in front of me. My days were spent following my mother around buying items to sell for a profit. In the multiple trips to the supermarkets, I became to familiarise myself with the items and the prices. I soon realised that a whole chicken only cost a mere $5.
This created this perception that a chicken rice seller was a lucrative business with a high turn around rate where profit from a whole chicken was immense. Of course at that age, I didn’t factor in the rental cost and the other miscellaneous costs that went into running such a stall. But little did I know, these little tidbits fed my future love for economics as well.
Things were simpler then, I was merely focused on progressing, to take a path that would lead me out of poverty and the most obvious was to ascend through the education system. I didn’t have high academic expectations for myself in enrolling to secondary school, I simply wanted to get into one, which one didn’t matter. My environment also hinted me toward the same thing, with many of my peers not aiming too high with respect to secondary school. So when the time came for me to receive my PSLE results, I was content with my measly 110 for I knew it was enough to get me to the next rung of the education ladder.
I went into the normal tech stream, the lowest tier in our secondary school system. The dynamics in these classes would have definitely differed greatly from the other streams. Where others were eager and excited to learn, there was this unspoken challenge to get scolded by the teacher as much as possible. To us, the less time the teacher spends teaching, the less work we would have to do. This just seemed to be the routine that my class and I would get into each day at school.
But my schooling life didn’t just revolve around the NT stream, luckily enough. Through CCAs, we were able to interact with students from the other streams, both NA and express streams. This gave me the chance to peer into and interact with others from this different world from mine. The interaction was good, it gave me that little taste of what these streams were like. The turning point was when one of my friends from the express stream set me a challenge to focus in class. Given my ego at that time, I wasn’t going to back down from the challenge. This opened my eyes to this whole new world of academics. The subject that sticks out most to me even now was mathematics. It was just this complex world that I had yet to explore. There were just these foreign symbols that seemed so cool to my secondary school self. The first math formula that I remember picking up was πr2 due to the complexity of the symbol. I had little prior ability in math and this whole concept was pretty foreign to me. I just started plugging the numbers into the formulas provided and somehow I began to answer the questions correctly. There was this sense of instant gratification each time my answer matched the one I found on the answer key. The little tastes of success were what propelled me forward, making me feel like I was going somewhere and that I was achieving something. It was a real surprise to me to discover my affinity for Mathematics and soon enough, my results started to improve.
Success begets success and as a result of my growing ability of mathematics, my friends around me began to notice this change and they too wanted to get in on it. They started to approach me, asking how I managed to pick it up and whether I could teach them too. So I went on to impart this knowledge to my friends and I discovered that I actually gained some enjoyment from teaching. This was when I considered another career path, why not become a teacher?
My naïve, young mind told me that teaching was a very simple job. The working hours were so good, following the schedule of the students with little else to worry about. It sounded like a good plan and it would definitely be better than working a full day as a chicken rice seller.
Even so, this passion for teaching was real and I went on to explore it genuinely the only way I knew how to. I searched on yahoo the pathway to get to teach. The criteria I came across seemed pretty doable at first. It read ‘to have the passion for teaching, with strong personal attributes and values and a Polytechnic Diploma’. That seemed to fit my trajectory, I had the passion for teaching, my values were alright and I could aim to get into poly. As my sights were set on being a teacher, I was content with just fulfilling the bare minimum which meant aiming for an easier poly course to get into, I just needed to get a diploma anyway, it didn’t really matter what kind it was. But the statement ended with a last heartbreaking requirement ‘at least 5 O level passes’. My preset path in NT already blocks me from getting there. It seemed practically impossible to reach the ‘O’ Level path, let alone get the 5 passes required. In this stream, I was destined to take N levels at best with little hope of getting a chance at O levels. But without this one certificate with these O level passes, there was no way to become a teacher. I wasn’t going to give up on this dream yet. I was devoted to making this dream work and studied extremely hard in the hopes of getting into the NA stream. I went to my teachers to explore how I could chase this dream, to put myself on this path to become an educator.
I was lucky enough to have good mentors who believed in me. Looking back it would take a lot of belief and effort to push someone from NT aiming for O levels throughout the process, where few have done prior. These mentors were very influential in my journey and I wished more teachers could be like this too. There was a lot for me to catch up on to just get into NA. I had to get Grade 1 for all my subjects for N levels to have a chance to enter into the NA stream. With the poor foundations I was starting with, it was definitely an uphill battle. A moment that stood out to me in this process was learning composition writing skills for English. My English was far from good, with my grammar and vocab all over the place. There was once where the composition I wrote made my teacher cry, for she was lost about how else to help me and this made me cry too. Despite this, she chose not to give up on me. In fact, she taught me a “hack”- if I just used past tense for every verb, I will be more likely right than wrong! My mentors were not only helpful but they were also realistic with me. They knew what I needed help with and weren’t afraid to say it.
All of this hard work and pain was the lead up to N levels, a dreaded national examination. I was prepared and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of my dream.
It wasn’t too long before I was preparing to receive my N level results. Before the release of the results, I received a call from the school that I was a national top student and they requested for me to come into school earlier to settle some administrative matters. I was a clueless boy at that point and I didn’t exactly understand what that meant. I just knew that I was going to be able to receive my results earlier than the other students. It wasn’t too long before the realisation hit me and looking at that, there was a sense of anticipation. If I was able to be the top student, surely I would be able to get into the NA stream. Holding that result slip made things real, this could be my first ticket towards my dream. It was all good except for one tiny blip. I scored Grade 1 for all my subjects except one, English in which I scored a Grade 2… It seemed as though my dream was shattered like my world was falling apart. I missed my chance by this fine margin. It was just a single grade, it couldn’t have been that far off. I thought it was over.
But this story is far from ending. Luckily enough, my principal too believed in me and he sat me down for a talk. He told me if I really wanted to take O levels, I could write to the minister of education to appeal to get into it. The common theme of me being that naive boy came up again. At that age, I didn’t have any official email and the only one I had was the email I made for my gaming accounts, aptly named something along the lines of ‘SingaporeRabbit@yahoo.com.sg’. On top of that, nobody helped to vet my email and it was quite informal, with me declaring my desire to enter into the NA stream to take O levels. The only real hint of formality was ending the email with ‘Yours Sincerely’ which I remembered was taught to me from prior English lessons. I felt that if I wrote to someone, surely they would reply, there was no real reason why I wouldn’t have gotten a reply. And sure enough, I did get a reply which caused a big commotion which made everyone marvel at the fact that the minister actually replied me. But to me, wasn’t that the right thing to do?
Our meeting was set in school one day and I was invited to a sort of meeting room. The room was filled with high ranking people introducing themselves to me, a young secondary school student. These directors of MOE had a common question for me on whether I really wanted to take this jump into another stream. I was sure of it and was ready to fight for it. They offered me the chance to enter NA as a sec 4, to take N levels once again before moving into sec 5 to take O levels. But to me, it all sounded like a scam. I was given just one year to study a new set of subjects unknown to me and take another national examination. Surely that would be close to impossible. So I made a counter-offer, to enter express stream as a sec 3 and to take O levels in sec 4. It was the same 2-year commitment as offered previously. This offer they could not refuse. To be honest, I didn’t fully understand what I was getting into, but this was the journey I was focused on taking.
I started off grappling with the basics of the new subjects I had to take. They offered me combined sciences and humanities to start me off on the right foot but still, it was an incredibly steep learning curve and I was being bombarded with these new and unfamiliar subjects in a foreign study culture. I was not going to give up on this challenge. I consulted teachers and practised hard. I set that schedule and structure to make sure I was getting work done and moving in the right direction. This hard work paid off when I was able to secure the top spot in my class by the end of semester 1. Just prior to the end of the semester, the school asked me to take 2 additional papers, 1 for pure physics and 1 for pure chemistry. After they marked my papers, they hit me with the news. I was going to change classes and subjects. They wanted me to do pure physics and chem, and go from taking combined geography to pure geography with elective history. I was basically going from the last class to one of the best classes. There was a complete culture change as well. This class was only focused on getting ‘A’s, anything less was deemed unsatisfactory. This seemed to be the standard that was held for them. I still managed to cope, but I was never the top student again. My grades were good enough that I was told that I was now on track to go into JC. Before this, the concept of JC didn’t even exist to me. I was merely aiming for a poly diploma and this part of schooling never crossed my mind. This was a new change to my game plan, but I trusted in my teachers to lead me down the right path, which at that point they felt was to go into JC.
Going to JC was another new perspective on the world. I was in neighbourhood schools my whole life and the divide in socio-economic status I saw in JC was something new to me. It was a totally different culture to my time in sec 3 and 4 in the express stream. Where we once were aiming towards getting ‘A’s, now we were merely aiming for subpasses and this culture carried through me as well. It was a whole new struggle. There was even a point where I needed to see the principal due to my grades. But over time my grades picked up and I did relatively well for my A levels.
I was lucky enough to secure a scholarship with MOE which was another step towards my dream of being a teacher. I chose to study economics in NUS for various reasons. It was something I was interested in and NUS offered residential life with a more classroom-like setting which was something I favoured. Given my journey to university, it was hard not to doubt myself at times, to think whether I merely got here by some big stroke of luck. I hit one of my lowest points during a math module I took. My lecturer told us straight when he set a test for us to take that he was only interested in finding out who his A students were and who were the rest. The test he set reflected this sentiment exactly. I was so lost in it. I only understood one question, I guess he was just interested in who could even do the questions, not on how well they could do them. It was at this point where I started to think to myself if I was even cut out for university. I had flashbacks to my PSLE days and my presence in NT. I was punching so far over my weight, maybe it was time for reality to hit me.
But thankfully there was another voice in my head, one that wasn’t going to give up on me. It just made me think of me in the future as a teacher and how I wanted my students to see me and what values I wanted them to have. The thing that came to mind first was for them to do their best and walk out of the exam hall with their heads held high, to know that they put in all their effort and that was enough. If University is going to be like this then so be it. I didn’t want my full worth to be based merely on the grades but on the effort I put in. So I ground that test out in any imaginable way I knew how to, to reuse my secondary school technique of plugging numbers into the formulas and seeing where that led me. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing, it was just numbers and formulas.
Somehow it did work out in a way. I definitely wasn’t able to get an A, but I still managed to secure a respectable B. This whole experience was a bit of a turning point in my university journey. It took me back to my values. At the end of this journey, what story do I want to tell, what was I doing all this for. And whenever I think of these questions, whenever I think of the person I want to be, I would find myself back on the right track. These short moments of introspection are honestly big highlights of my journey and are something I feel is lacking in our current education system. There always seems to be this rush from lesson to lesson, without any real break to reflect on the lesson as a whole, to really think about what drives us and what we felt about our interaction with that particular session. There is little time for us to charter our own journey and this often times leaves us settling for what others want of us, what seems to be the conventional ‘best’ path. This introspection is important in the growth of students and it can and should be implemented into the curriculum, to get students to reflect and build up self-awareness, to be able to process and form structure from it.
We are just caught in this endless cycle, with teachers not being brought up in this system and thus struggling on the how of implementing these sort of programme.
After the years in university, I had finally attained my goal, I was now a teacher in MOE teaching economics. This was such a great experience and I have never regretted coming into this pathway. I didn’t stop exploring too and when an opportunity arose, I considered it and eventually took it. It wasn’t that I hated my job. I love it and would like to go back to the classroom again, but I had to practice what I preached, for my learning to never stop. This international company gave me the opportunity to dabble in different things in the economics world and even allowed me to take my expertise to other countries and this experience would have been hard to give up.
But teaching doesn’t just stop there. Through my story, I too am teaching and inspiring the future generations of students. Whenever I get the chance to share my story, I will jump at the opportunity. If some student out there relates to any small bit in my story, who knows how much further he can go, how much belief I can create. This passion to inspire and build up students is also why I started the ‘I am Talented programme’. Students shouldn’t go away from school thinking they are stupid. Even if you are bad at math or science or anything else, it doesn’t mean you’re dumb. Maybe your talents just lie somewhere else. This programme would then expose students to topics outside of school such as robotics, design, website building for example. These are just small sections to give the students this taste of the different sectors available and maybe through this, they would ‘accidentally come across their passion, like me. It also helps them to have that taste of success, that they can look at themselves and say, ‘Hey, I achieved something.’ But this doesn’t just stop there. The programme at its ending will also provide students with places or schools where they can follow up on their passions, listing the requirements for the various courses to really chart the path ahead for them, to give them that avenue to dream.
As much as I am an advocate for chasing one’s passion, I am an even greater one for exploration. Even during my studies, I jumped at the opportunities for internships although they weren’t directly related to teaching. I used the excuse of exposing myself to the working sector to better download my experiences in the various sectors to my students but it was something I wanted to do too, and I wouldn’t want to give up that chance. This came from a lot of introspection, for me to really learn to live for me. I learnt to be self-aware, I can’t always live for people’s expectations. That would just lead me to a dead end. To chase something I deemed meaningful would mean there would be more motivation there too.
In my journey, I picked up certain things that made a difference to my journey. Structure was one of the most important to me. To have that set schedule in a way directed by my friends. It made sure that I had set aside to study through the week to make sure I had progressed. I was lucky I had this through friends where family didn’t exactly provide it. They created routines for me that cultivated these good habits. Other unprivileged students rarely have this structure. Their parents aren’t always there to force them to study and sometimes they didn’t even have the time to set up this structure.
Next would be aspirations. I had that dream to be a teacher and that was what pushed me on. I knew what I wanted to do and looking at that as the end goal was a good motivating factor. Peer influence also helped. Having the opportunity to interact with others from other streams gave me that taste of the other worlds. Although I have yet to have taken these subjects, through my interactions I have managed to get that sampler and slowly find what I liked and didn’t like. They were also a good influence in the sense that the structure they provided spurred me on as mentioned before. Lastly would be mentors. My parents weren’t that present through my academic journey and it would have been easy for me to get lost and confused on this journey without this adult presence. But I was lucky enough to have good mentors, whether it was teachers or even adults from church who just believed in me, were realistic with me and were genuinely willing to help me along this journey.
These four factors are not always afforded to students, especially the less privileged. The hardest to achieve would be structure, for parents are not easily substituted. Even across the streams, we are given different privileges. The lower streams rarely get the chance to experience new and more niche subjects, even at a surface level. They would have little chance to just see whether they have interest in that subject and instead and ‘forced’ to stick to what is available to them. Every student should get that chance to at least have a taste of all these subjects and choosing what subjects to take should be a more conscious decision. Changing this may actually bring about more passion for learning and a more personally paved path.
In built in the system there are these premade perceptions simply from the tiering of the streams. And this also leads to attitudes within the streams being formed. People don’t always mention it but it has become a pretty known fact.
When dealing with students with less motivation, there has to be that sense of instant gratification, of achievement to just make the student feel accomplished even ever so slightly, and this was what math was to me. If the student can go away from the lesson feeling like he or she wasn’t stupid, that would already be a step in the right direction. Sometimes what they need is just that little taste of success.
My route to fulfilment has shown me not only the fault lines of our education system, but also the potential and roadmap to better opportunities for everyone.
Personally, what I stick to and what drives me is the vision of the person I want to be. What story do I want to tell? University was what expanded my worldview and find people who are really passionate about their own fields, people who would give up rank and money to chase what they loved and stick to their values.
So for those of you who are still studying or still deciding what you want to do in life, or maybe even those who have found what they want, never stop exploring. Expose yourself to different fields. And whenever you find something you are sure you want, pursue it with all your heart.
It’s ok if you do not know what you want to do. I never knew what my trajectory was going to be like. All I did was make sure that my values were right, and when I discovered anew what I loved, I pursued it with all my heart. With that vision and heart, you will find your way.
Sometimes all we need to do is take a step back and reflect. This introspection can make a world of difference, to really ask yourself what do you want in life? What and who do you want to be?
So what about you? What is your passion? Who do you want to be?