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Igniting the Fire for the English Language

27 Dec 2011

Mrs Shirley Teo, Teck Whye Secondary School

Mrs Shirley Teo endeavours to make every English lesson a meaningful session and listens to her students' feedback.

Together, they have more than half a century of teaching experience. But Mrs Shirley Teo and Mrs Lee Poh Lin, both winners of this year's Inspiring English Teacher Award, will readily tell you that it takes more than the right techniques and tools to ignite a love for English and help students master the language.

Having taught for 24 years, Mrs Teo of Teck Whye Secondary School is convinced that establishing a connection with students and showing a palpable interest in what they think and feel, precedes the teaching of the nuts and bolts of the language. "When the students feel that I know where they are coming from, half the battle is won," she explained.

Similarly, Mrs Lee, who teaches at Montfort Secondary School, believes in the value of a genuine heart, a pair of listening ears as well as ample doses of fun and laughter, all of which her students in various schools have enjoyed for some 30 years.

Starting with listening

Wanting to encourage her students to read without the pressures of time or tests, Mrs Lee revamped the school's reading programme, turning it into a Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) session where students engage in silent and sustained reading for at least 15 minutes. "I spoke to smaller cohorts of students, by the level and stream, because I needed them to understand what we were doing," revealed Mrs Lee. "I appealed to their rational side and got them to see how 15 minutes a day of silent reading culminates into 2,700 minutes in nine months."

Through DEAR, Mrs Lee hopes to show students how reading is enjoyable and also broadens their ability to learn diverse subjects, both serious and fun. She decided against formal assessment of the reading programme. Instead, she encourages the students to start "active discussions of ideas" and pen "critical written responses of their thoughts and opinions".

Mrs Lee Poh Lin, Montfort Secondary School

Mrs Lee overcomes her own challenges with technology by using gadgets and tools necessary to engage her students and fire up their interest for the English language.

To help students become less self-conscious about speaking good English, Mrs Lee leads them in games and songs. "Making room for laughter goes a long way," she shared, adding that she tries to hold such sessions in venues where the students can hear themselves and speak aloud and clearly to each other. What matters, at the end of the day, is that the students are at ease with using the language.

At Teck Whye Secondary where Mrs Teo has been teaching for the past six years, many of the students come from non-English speaking homes. Hence, it was clear to her that they would struggle to pick up the habit of reading.

Such thoughtfulness is evident to students like Willie Goh from Secondary 4, who said, "Mrs Teo makes careful consideration of the environment for different lessons. For example, during oral lessons, she would book the music room. She makes a lot of effort to plan the lessons to make them interesting and productive."

Mrs Teo also introduced her students to CAMPUS, a live radio talk show hosted by Mediacorp's 93.8LIVE station, to get them to openly voice their views on current affairs. As they gain confidence and prowess in expressing themselves, she takes pride in having fostered "a learning culture of active involvement" where everyone has a voice.

From books to online bulletins

Knowing what makes students tick is also Mrs Lee's secret ingredient in a recipe for learning English that few students can resist.

Mrs Lee Poh Lin, Montfort Secondary School

Mrs Lee is often seen as a motherly figure in school who endears herself to the students because of her caring ways.

But as the present scene is very different from how it was like when she began teaching three decades ago, Mrs Lee has also had to keep up with the flavours of the day. "I came from a time where books were my main source of reference," she said with a laugh. "Today, I have to fight for my students' attention. So I source for information that interests them. I also use the iPad, play YouTube videos and do whatever is necessary to engage my students and sustain their interest."

Another tool she has picked up is a software called NewsMaker, which allows users to create online news bulletins. "They are able to do outdoor shoots as well," she remarked. "The students enjoy seeing their news bulletins live." The software, Mrs Lee added, "also provides students with a platform to hone their communication skills as they deliver short news clips on everyday experiences or reviews of short stories."

Motivated by the belief that English is a lifelong skill that empowers students to interact with the world at large, Mrs Lee regularly brings up current affairs in her classes. For students such as Sribalan s/o B T A M, it's a welcome change from the textbooks. "Mrs Lee talks about the current news around the world to update us and get us interested," said the Sec 3 student. "This makes us want to know more and read more. I always look forward to Mondays with Mrs Lee, as we get to explore newspaper articles and discuss major events."

Making an impact beyond the books

Beyond English lessons, Mrs Lee encourages her students to get involved in volunteer work, such as raising funds for a hospice. A teacher has to be a source of social values and positive role-model as well, she believes. It's a view that has won over students such as Sribalan, who commented, "She always gave her best in everything she does and expects the same from us. Through her constant guidance and encouragement during challenging times, we were motivated to do better. To me, she's an amazing teacher who cares about her students."

Mrs Shirley Teo, Teck Whye Secondary School

Mrs Teo feels there's no single method of teaching English, what's important is in getting students to feel at ease in using the language.

Chipping in, Sec 3 student Ian Yeow declared, "Mrs Lee is a very nice and compassionate teacher. She even gave remedial classes during weekends to help students who were weaker in English. I think she's a great teacher who is there for her students whenever they need her."

Mrs Teo's students have similar stories to tell. "She knew we hated English lessons but she always tries to make the lessons as interesting as possible," recalled Irene Leong, a former student who nominated Mrs Teo for the award. "The homework she gave was always meaningful because I knew there was always something to learn from it.

"I never liked reading. It was she who forced me to read and it was also she who changed me into someone who cannot live without books now," added Irene. "Mrs Teo never gave up on me no matter how poor my English results were. Without her, I would not have made it to the polytechnic."