Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

How a chat and a toothbrush led a child back to school

07 Jul 2023

Gan Eng Seng Primary School Year Head Mr Benjamin Gan (second from left) has a heart for the student at risk. He gets to know them as individuals, and this can happen in the most unexpected of ways. 

Schoolbag speaks with the Outstanding Youth in Education Award (OYEA) 2023 recipent on how his every effort, including an after-school project called Sandbox, echoes his desire to see every child attending school and learning.


What inspires you to teach? 

I learnt from a form teacher that there was a student who had been ill and his family lacked the means to see a doctor. He had attended school for only eight days that month, and kept very much to himself. We grew concerned about his well-being.

Subsequently, there was a cohort camp and he attended it without bringing the usual supplies, not even a toothbrush. When we passed him a fresh set of toiletries that evening, he received it quietly and walked away with his head lowered. The following day, I saw peeking out from his bag that the toothbrush and toothpaste we had given him were unused. He was, in fact, keeping them for home. 


“These experiences have taught me that sometimes, the most impactful difference a teacher can make in our students’ lives is simply to take the time to listen and connect with our students.”


I found the opportunity to speak with him over lunch and asked about his family. We landed on the topic of his five cats and baby sister whom he loves dearly. I shared photos of my own cats and my toddler son with him, and there was a profound moment of understanding as his eyes widened, and a smile peeked through. He finally opened up and shared that his father had left home, and threats of family violence ensued. His mother kept him at home at times for fear of his safety. 

After listening to him, I assured him that he could always turn to us when needed. After the camp, I continued to reach out to him regularly and he became more comfortable and opened up even more. With the constant show of concern, his attendance at school improved significantly. These experiences have taught me that sometimes, the most impactful difference a teacher can make in our students’ lives is simply to take the time to listen and connect with our students.

Describe a teaching approach you have found effective. 

In my role as an English Language teacher, I wanted to explore the potential of ChatGPT in the classroom given the current buzz on generative AI revolutionising the education landscape. I decided to try it on the process writing approach, a commonly used pedagogy where students go through the process of producing a text together with the teacher. During process writing, students have the chance to think, produce drafts, revise, edit, and receive feedback on their work before coming up with the final version of the text.

I used ChatGPT to provide tailored feedback on improving a paragraph for every student in a much quicker way. This allowed students to receive immediate feedback to improve their draft paragraph, and allowed me to focus on students who require closer support.


“With deliberate design, generative AI tools like ChatGPT and other technological tools can be harnessed to vary our lesson delivery and help students learn better.”


Furthermore, I observed that by asking my students to suggest instructions to improve the piece on ChatGPT, such as adding dialogue, using descriptive elements, or adding the writer’s thoughts and feelings, they learnt to provide specific feedback on a piece of writing to shape it and apply it to giving peer feedback. As a result, they became more attuned to what a good story looks like and were able to apply it to their own writing.

For some of the students who had low entry scores at the start of Primary 5, they are gaining confidence and competency in writing. With deliberate design, generative AI tools like ChatGPT and other technological tools can be harnessed to vary our lesson delivery and help students learn better. However, we also need to ensure that our students have the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to make the best use of these tools. In doing so, we can help our students construct knowledge actively and develop thinking skills and dispositions that prepare them for the future.

How a chat and a toothbrush led a child back to school pic 2

Which school initiative are you especially proud of?

One of my key aims as a Year Head is to provide personalised support to every child depending on their needs, and prevent vulnerable students from deteriorating into long-term absenteeism and other behavioural issues. 

Together with my colleagues from the Physical Education and Aesthetics department, we started an after-school engagement programme last year called Sandbox. The aim of Sandbox is to engage and befriend students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, through fun activities like go-karting, bowling, trampoline, and games. We even partnered the SMU Sports Union in a collaboration where its volunteers regularly join the sessions to befriend and be role models for our students.

One year into the running of Sandbox, we have seen tremendous results as many students forged strong bonds with the teachers, volunteers and their peers, leading to a greater sense of belonging and more regular attendance at school.


“By igniting an interest in education and providing additional support to students requiring greater support or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, we earn the privilege to support them, one student at a time.”


Besides Sandbox, I’ve also had the chance to start and lead our school’s reintegration programme, known as SOAR (Scaffolding Opportunities to Achieve Readiness). Our reintegration programme, also tailored for disadvantaged students, supports them by having dedicated one-to-one teacher support and regular check-ins by an assigned teacher mentor, and guides them to keep track of their own attendance.

This has helped to close their learning gaps and put in place the structures necessary for the at-risk students to readjust to the regular school-going routine. I’m most proud to be able to work with the dedicated team of form teachers and colleagues in sharing in this mission to empower our students to overcome challenges and forge a brighter future for themselves. 

As William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” By igniting an interest in education and providing additional support to students requiring greater support or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, we earn the privilege to support them, one student at a time. 


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