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My daughter, my schoolmate

26 May 2022

When you learn for life, you’re never too old to go back to school. Mdm Tay Hong Lay returned to school not once but twice as an adult learner. An added perk? At the National Institute of Education, she and her eldest daughter got to be not only schoolmates, but roommates too. 

By Lee Qing Ping

Parents often seek ways to be more involved in their child’s schooling. Well, what better way than to attend the same school together, at the same time?

For Mdm Tay Hong Lay, she got to do just that when she enrolled at the National Institute of Education (NIE) at the same time as her daughter, Sarah Yee, in what was a happy coincidence for the pair.

Struggling with the school printer, talking about their lecturers, exchanging tips for classes they had in common… these were some of the classic school experiences they could share during their NIE days together as schoolmates. A year later, Sarah would graduate with a Diploma in Education (Chinese Language), and Mdm Tay with a Diploma in Special Education.

Sarah and Mdm Tay, having their photos taken at the NIE campus grounds after mother and daughter graduated with teaching diplomas.


Time for a career refresh

It all started when Mdm Tay was looking for a mid-career switch, and found herself gravitating towards similar goals as Sarah’s. “I didn’t come from a teaching background and we never thought this would happen,” recounts Mdm Tay, who is in her late 40s. She had been working in corporate support for 18 years at a statutory board. In 2017, she felt the need for change as well as to work nearer to home. At the time, Sarah, 23, was studying for her diploma in Chinese Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Special education (or SPED) was one area that held Mdm Tay’s interest. “I saw how the sector needed more manpower for children with special needs; I thought maybe I could contribute,” she says. She adds with a laugh, “And just nice, Metta School had a job opening… and it’s in the east of Singapore, where I live!”  

Though she did not have teaching experience, her sincerity and eagerness to learn got her a Teaching Aide role at the school, which caters to students with mild intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder, aged seven to 21 years. “After a year, I felt confident of my capabilities. I could contribute and support the children well, so I made a request to the principal to convert my support role to a teaching role,” she explains. Then in 2019, as part of the training programme, Mdm Tay began her Diploma in Special Education at NIE — just as Sarah was finishing up her polytechnic studies.

Enjoying hall life together

Being a recipient of the Chinese Language Teacher Training Scheme sponsorship, Sarah was slated to enrol in NIE for her Diploma in Education in August 2019 and graduate in May 2020. What she couldn’t have expected was that her mother would end up doing just the same.

Looking back, mother and daughter marvelled at how uncanny it was that they came to walk the same path, despite being at very different life stages. So close are they, they applied to board together in the university hall their entire year there.

“We could have meals together in school, or she would buy me dinner from the canteen if I didn’t have time,” Sarah says with a sheepish smile as she remembers the joys and conveniences of having Mum as a roommate. Mdm Tay also shares how they could support each other when it came to schoolwork. “At first it was a bit tough learning how to use all the technology for lessons. But Sarah helped me, so I managed to catch up after a while,” she says. “And there’s a good range of students in my class – some are around Sarah’s age, but there’re also many older students like me.”

Not her first time going back to school

Raising a family while keeping one’s grades up is no easy feat. Besides Sarah, Mdm Tay has two younger daughters to care for. But you do not have to do it alone, she says.

She speaks from experience because this was not her first time going back to school. Back when the girls were nine, six and three years old respectively, Mdm Tay took up a part-time degree course that was sponsored by her company. “Maybe I was young then so I could manage the stress and tiredness,” she says. “But thankfully my parents and parents-in-laws would help take care of the kids when I went for night classes three times a week.”

Today, with Sarah at NIE and the younger ones in polytechnic and secondary school, Mdm Tay has fewer worries on her mind.

“Having a good family support system helps a lot. But most importantly, you must have a young heart and be willing to learn. Always be keen to pick up new skills. When an opportunity comes by, you should go for it!” She encourages all adults, regardless of age, to model a healthy approach to lifelong learning, which keeps the mind active and work life fulfilling. 

“As long as you’re interested to continue learning, you can always go back to school.”

Dare to go for what you want

Now, Mdm Tay is teaching children aged seven to 13 years old with autism spectrum disorder at Metta School, and has no regrets making her mid-career switch. “With patience and love for the children, you can thrive in this job. All it took was me being daring enough to take the first step to expose myself to this industry,” she says.

Sarah is furthering her studies in NIE with a Bachelor of Arts in Education, continuing her specialisation in Primary School Chinese. Come early next year, she will graduate and set off on her teaching journey at last.

Though their paths have diverged once again, their bond remains strong. Mdm Tay and Sarah remind us that learning is a lifelong process — one that spans generations and even brings them together.