“If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.” – Chinese Proverb

Teaching is a tough profession. A teacher’s day does not end when the school day is over. Many spend their evenings, weekends and holidays planning lessons and marking papers. This Teachers’ Day, SG Lifestyle’s features writer, Angela May Tan, sat down for a kopi with 49 year old Koh Soo Keong, who has been teaching for 24 years, to understand why he chose teaching as a profession and his motivation for staying true to his passion.

SGLS: Has it always been your dream to be a teacher? 

Soo Keong: When I was a student, my dream was to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) where I assume I could travel, learn different cultures and do diplomatic work. However, teaching was my close second choice of career. I entered the education sector because of my love of philosophy, which I studied as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Philosophy is a love for wisdom and I enjoy applying philosophical thinking and Socratic questioning into the courses I teach, to promote critical thinking.

Soo Keong with students at School of the Arts (SOTA)

SGLS. Having taught in mainstream schools in the past and now at School of the Arts (SOTA), what are some of the differences?

Soo Keong: I taught in mainstream schools under the Ministry of Education for the first seven years of my teaching career. I currently teach English Language & Critical Thinking (ELCT) and Theory of Knowledge (TOK) at SOTA.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) programme advocates broad-based education. Unlike A-Levels where students have to specialise in either Science or Arts. An IB Diploma student in SOTA reads six subjects from six subject groups, namely Literature, (a) Second Language, Humanities, Mathematics, Science, and the Arts.

While most A-Levels students are assessed through sit-down examinations, IB students demonstrate learning through a variety of formats such as research papers, oral defence and viva voce.

However, there is also a big difference between SOTA and other IB schools. SOTA encourages playful but meaningful experimentation of the curriculum. It has exposed all of us — teachers and students — to pedagogical ideas and models such as Understanding by Design, Integrated Curriculum, Integrative Learning and Arts Integration. I love how this encourages us to be innovative in our teaching and learning approaches.

SGLS: What were some of the difficulties you’d experienced throughout your teaching career?

Soo Keong: Some parents can be overly indulgent or overly demanding on their child/ren and they don’t see the harm they are inflicting on them. Often, I find myself being a mediator for both parties. Sometimes, if it’s beyond what I can do, I’ll rope in the school counsellor and the rest of the school community for support.

The other tough reality of being a teacher is losing students to illnesses or unnatural death. As teachers, we are greatly affected by these, especially if we treat these students like our own children. It takes a long time to get over the grief and we never forget these students.

SGLS: What do you love most about your job.

Soo Keong: I love working with young minds: I live for the moments where I see the twinkle in their eyes when they finally understand something, or when they receive affirmation for their hard work.

I also enjoy collaborating with like-minded people, especially when I am given the chance to work in a team to craft new curriculum and resources.

The best part really has to be seeing my former students return to tell me how much they appreciate everything I’d done for them.

I look back at the teaching of great teachers like Socrates, Confucius and Buddha and how their teachings have survived the millennia and continue to impact the lives of people today.

When I am old and gray, I want to look back and be convinced that I have made a positive impact on generations of students.

SGLS: You are a father to a teenager. Do you apply your methods of teaching at home?

Soo Keong: Having worked with teenagers my entire working life made me understand how to communicate with teens and help them deal with issues they face.

Being a teacher gave me awareness of what I should or should not do as a parent. Therefore, I exercise the same authoritative style of parenting with my teenager as I do with my students. I am generous with my love, but I also set very clear boundaries and expectations. I think all teenagers need this: they need to feel loved but they also need to have structure at home.

Soo Keong with his teenage daughter, Faith.

SGLS: Any words of wisdom for people looking to enter the teaching profession?

Soo Keong: If you want to have a long, meaningful career in teaching, then teach from the heart. Do it out of love for either the children or the passion for your subject, ideally both. As long as you put the child at the centre of all that you do, then you will never go wrong.


Interview by SG Lifestyle’s features writer Angela May Tan

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