Jane Ng
Wed, Mar 05, 2008
The Straits Times
Engaging students beyond the classroom

THE teachers' rock band at Ping Yi Secondary started out as a fun activity among a group of colleagues who enjoyed making music.

But their weekly sessions in the school's music studio, practising a broad range of songs, have yielded unexpected dividends - upping their 'cool' factor and helping them bond with their students beyond the classroom.

Now some of the students are starting their own bands as well.

Even students they do not teach are approaching them to compliment their performances and to ask about jamming.

Secondary 5 student Delson Ng said he now sees his teachers in a different light.

'From a boring teacher, the teacher became someone hip. I used to think there was a generation gap, but now I find we have more things in common with them. I see them as an inspiration,' he said.

Teachers today who want to reach out to their students have a number of methods in their arsenal, including engaging them in their hobbies such as online gaming and blogging, or by playing sports with them.

Gaining the students' trust and respect is half the battle won when class time starts, they say.

Science teacher Ang Shu Hui, 25, the lead singer in the Ping Yi band, said establishing a bond with students made them more willing to take instructions from her after that.

'You become 'famous' in their eyes. Jamming shows them you can be cool and funky too,' said Ms Ang. Her other interests - the online role-playing game World Of Warcraft and anime - also allow her to connect with her students.

Her colleague Muhammad Rezal Ramli, 27, who teaches geography and plays guitar in the band, said being in the band has worked wonders in building a relationship with his students.

'After the performance, they come and ask me what kind of music I usually listen to or play,' he said.

'I start talking to them about things that interest them. Usually, students see us as teachers with no life and think we just teach. It's nice to show students that you have hobbies also.'

Ping Yi principal Julia Woo said engaging students this way is in line with the school's aim to build a culture of trust and openness.

It makes the students 'more open to listening and this is when pep talks with them will be effective', she said.

Over at Temasek Junior College, mathematics tutorials take place in the day but help in the subject continues into the night - online.

Maths teacher Low Chang Hong, 36, who is also the college's deputy head of IT and a self-confessed fan of all things tech, began dispensing mathematical solutions on the Internet when students kept shooting him questions via MSN, the instant messaging system, five years ago.

These virtual remedial lessons have since morphed into two-hour slots once a week when students with questions can log on between 8pm and 10pm for answers.

The teachers volunteer their time to be on call once a week each. They get about five students a night. As exams approach, the teachers go online thrice a week and field over a dozen questions each time.

Mr Low said: 'The students are quite keen to ask maths questions on the Net. Most of them study only at night and that's when they have questions. So they know they can get solutions just by logging on and asking us.'

He uses a tablet PC so he can show the working or draw diagrams.

'The world changes all the time, so we have to adapt,' he said, noting that communication tools have progressed from landline telephones to pagers to cellphones.

When the solution to a maths problem runs on for too long, he e-mails his students the solution.

And his cellphone number is no state secret to his students either.

He said: 'As long as the students find it useful, I'm willing to do it at the expense of my own time. I tell them I'm like 7-Eleven - they can contact me 24 hours, either via Internet or SMS.'

He still manages to find time to play computer games, read and spend time with his wife, a 32-year-old vice-principal of a secondary school.

'To me, teaching is a 24/7 job - 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's about the way you manage your own time,' he said.

What Mr Low and his colleagues are doing, however, is appreciated by the students.

Huang Ziye, 18 and in JC 2, who often logs on to clarify her doubts, said what her teachers are doing means she does not have to wait until she sees her teachers to ask questions.

She was on a month's holiday in China last June, but spent some time studying for class tests expected to be held after the vacation. The online access allowed her to check with her teachers, despite being away from Singapore.

'The question was fresh in my head so it was better to ask straightaway,' she said.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Mar 3, 2008


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