Not too late to say 'thank you' to a caring teacher

My nine-year-old son came home recently with a letter from his teacher addressed to all parents, to say the pupils had not been putting their best effort in their school work.

The note recounted how the children had handed in worksheets with careless mistakes and had not been attentive in class, and also gave feedback about their progress as a whole.

From my son's point of view, it was yet another reminder from a strict, no-nonsense teacher who had tried to instill in them proper study attitudes since the beginning of the year.

Given the chance, he would have simply brushed aside the letter, got me to sign it and stuffed it into his schoolbag to be handed back the next day. Unfortunately for him, I did not let it go just like that.

I read every sentence out to him again and told him how I agreed with the points his teacher had made. I elaborated on what she said and gave him examples of how they were true in his case.

I explained to him that it took a teacher who cared enough to write such a note to parents. And I saved it for my husband to read when he returned from work. "We're on your teacher's side," was all my husband said to him.

I'm not sure how much of the note sank in for a happy-go-lucky Primary 3 boy, but it was a gesture appreciated by his parents.

In it, I saw an educator concerned enough about the progress of her charges to write a note before the exams to update parents and seek their help to watch their children.

She could have let it pass. After all, those were things she had been saying to her pupils throughout the year. Those who paid heed to her advice would ultimately benefit from it. Those who didn't would just have to bear the consequences.

This teacher is one of the many unsung heroes in the education system. There are no awards for those who write notes to parents, provide a listening ear to students or reply to parents' queries on WhatsApp group messages late at night.

Sure, there are national awards and accolades, but these highlight the good work by just a small fraction of the teaching fraternity. Much is being done in and around classrooms every single day that goes unmentioned.

I was recently involved in writing a book about the President's Awards for Teachers and had the chance to learn about the contributions by educators who were shortlisted for the Education Ministry's top award, given out last month.

The winners have been written about in the media, but the ones who did not win have stories that are just as inspiring. They have gone all out for the children under their charge, from looking after their well-being to helping them academically.

As I spoke to the finalists, several common threads became clear.

They believed in a child.

Madam Noryatimah Yunos from Woodlands Ring Secondary makes it a point to focus on a student's strength instead of misbehaviour and has had students tell her they changed for the better because she did not label them as "naughty".

They cared about making the subject come alive so as to pique the interest of students. Ms Ng Pei Sun from Marsiling Secondary took a soda stream machine to chemistry class so her students could taste for themselves what happens when carbon dioxide is introduced to water. When a subject relates to everyday life,

like an item bought from a supermarket, its relevance becomes clear.

Their students were always on their minds. When Juying Secondary's Madam Ong Siew Har is out with her family, she is always looking for opportunities for school field trips.

But the teaching profession is not without its frustrations. I have asked educators I met in the course of my work what they felt was the biggest challenge in the teaching profession.

To my surprise, the most commonly cited reply had little to do with teaching, administrative matters or even students. The answer that came up consistently? Difficult parents.

As a parent, it was a reality check.

And the biggest reward? Appreciation from students and parents.

Much has been done in recent years to increase the pay and benefits for teachers but, sometimes, all it takes is a simple "thank you" to make a teacher's day.

It was a good reminder to be more appreciative of the teachers who have showered my children with care and concern over the years. Indeed, my six-year-old daughter's pre-school teachers were the reason I was able to go to work with peace of mind.

As the school year comes to a close, it is not too late to show appreciation to the teachers who have been instrumental to our children's well-being, either by writing a note, typing an e-mail or even sending a WhatsApp message to say "thank you".

Jane Ng is a former education journalist and now a freelance writer.

This article was first published on October 26, 2015.
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