An Australian couple didn’t know what to expect of the Singapore education system when they arrived here from their homeland. Volunteering, they soon learned, is the best way to find out what makes a school great.
When it came to enrolling her eldest son, Stephen Yee, now 15, in primary school, Mrs Amy Yee, 51, was admittedly “lost”. Having moved to Singapore from Australia in 2002, she didn’t know what to expect.
What Mrs Yee thought would be just a simple registration process morphed into a stressful exercise requiring her to weigh factors like proximity, single versus dual sessions and what people around her deemed “a good school”.
“Over the years, I’ve asked myself, ‘What makes a good school?’ Is it the students, their grades or the teachers?” she says. And the mother of two boys found her answer when she joined the Parent Support Group (PSG) at River Valley Primary School.
“For me, it’s the teachers who make the difference,” Mrs Yee says. She recalls that when Stephen was in Primary 5, his then-form teacher, Ms Sim Kay Yin, had expressed concern that the boy seemed very shy and didn’t have many friends. To help Stephen get to know his classmates better, Ms Sim devised a seating plan that allowed him to mix with different groups. “By the end of the year, he knew everyone in class,” Mrs Yee says. “It built his confidence, which is very important for a child.”
Through her work with the PSG, Mrs Yee also saw first-hand how hard the teachers worked, whether it was the detailed planning behind each class excursion or the effort the Maths HOD put into organising additional classes for students preparing for the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE).
“The teachers are all about helping the children,” says Mrs Yee, the vice-chair of River Valley’s PSG. And when you see that, you want to do what you can to support them.” Beyond her role in the PSG, Mrs Yee is also part of the School Advisory Committee and serves as parent coordinator for the Family@Schools programme, under which parenting workshops and talks are held.
Happiness is… helping others
Four days a week, you’ll find Mrs Yee at school, helping with various programmes, be it wrapping or shelving books in the school library or playing Chinese enrichment games with students at recess. She also organises educational workshops for parents, covering topics ranging from nurturing a confident and resilient child to supporting your child at PSLE time.
While Mrs Yee’s volunteer work has helped both her sons adapt well and quickly to attending school in Singapore, her greatest reward comes from helping other children, especially those in the Reading Mums programme. Every day, for 30 minutes, programme volunteers read English books with students who need extra help in the subject.
“Some of the kids really need heIp,” she says. “Some kids never attended kindergarten. Some just came back from overseas. We read to them to help them build confidence. It’s more about encouraging them.” And when she sees the kids she has helped excel in school, it’s very fulfilling. “It’s everyone’s effort, from their parents to teachers, but you’ve also played a part in it.”
Two are better than one
Mrs Yee isn’t alone in her passion for supporting the school. Her husband, Mr Desmond Yee, 51, is just as committed. Despite his busy schedule as the regional marketing director for a technology giant, he serves as chairman of the PSG at Kent Ridge Secondary School, which Stephen now attends. He also helps out at River Valley Primary whenever possible.
On days when he works from home, Mr Yee usually heads to the PSG room at River Valley Primary with his laptop so he can work at the same time as he backs his wife of 20 years. “He’s a very supportive husband. Whatever I do, he’ll encourage me by accompanying me whenever he can,” Mrs Yee says.
At Kent Ridge Secondary, Mr Yee leads a 50-strong PSG in running a multitude of programmes. These include the Kent Ridge Secondary School Hands-On Day, where students engage in activities like beach cleaning and collecting recyclables. The goal is to develop a civic consciousness among students while raising funds for the Lee Kong Chian Gardens School and the school’s Entrepreneur Fair among other initiatives.
When exams draw near, the PSG offers support by prepping kitchens and food for the Home Economics exams for lower secondary students, as well as preparing simple dinners daily for academically weaker students in the Night Studies programme – five weeks before their O-Level examinations.
On how he manages to find the time for these efforts, Mr Yee says, “In secondary school, the activities are more structured so it’s a little easier to manage as a chairperson.” When work gets too hectic, his wife is always there to “bridge the gap”.
Often, the couple finds themselves “cross-pollinating ideas”. Take, for example, Teachers’ Day at Kent Ridge. The PSG made hundreds of flowers out of pipe cleaners and papers for the teachers, something they had done at River Valley Primary the previous year. When Mrs Yee learns a new craft or discovers a new recipe at one of River Valley Primary’s parenting workshops, she makes it a point to share her knowledge with students at Kent Ridge.
P is for parents
While Mr and Mrs Yee are firm believers in the idea that PSGs are about supporting a school’s principal and teachers, they feel that they should also be, in Mrs Yee’s words, about “looking after the parents.”
“I find that a lot of first-time primary-school parents don’t know where to start,” she says. At River Valley Primary, in particular, where there are parents of different nationalities, Mrs Yee takes the opportunity to get them involved through cooking classes where they typically share recipes for delicacies like dumplings, kimchi and takoyaki. The PSG room is open daily from noon to 2pm, which allows parents who are picking up their kids to pop in for a cup of coffee or tea.
“Some of the parents, especially the Japanese and Korean ones, don’t speak much English,” Mrs Yee says. “When you help the parents settle in, you’re also helping the kids.”
Next year, Mr and Mrs Yee will celebrate 10 years as parent volunteers – and the couple shows no signs of stopping.
“What makes Amy and I committed to the cause is the dedication of the principals and teachers,” Mr Yee says. “They’re genuinely there to help, putting their hearts, souls and minds into helping the students.”
While taking an active part in school life is a way of showing their support and appreciation, it’s also a means of leading by example. “The children notice what you’re doing to give back. I hope that in future, they’ll help out at their schools as well.”
Mr Yee also hopes that more parents will give volunteering a shot. “Every parent is a member of the PSG and every parent can contribute – whether it’s time or money,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s voluntary. All you need to do is help whenever you can.”