Should we expect young people to just automatically be good at managing schoolwork, life and work? Republic Polytechnic lecturer Teeny Teh feels otherwise, and will stop at nothing to teach her students how to tackle life. And work.
Ms Teeny Teh Wee Ting, Republic Polytechnic, President’s Award for Teachers 2020 Finalist
Coming to class as a bride while throwing rose petals on herself and her students. Dancing to K-Pop in a bunny costume with her husband for which they had to rehearse for months just for her students. Allowing her students to experiment with dry ice and playing songs like “Money, Money, Money” by BTS in class. (The Abba version gets trotted out for adult learners.)
If there is one thing you can expect in Teeny Teh’s class, it is the unexpected.
Get attention and they will learn
Teeny wants her students to thoroughly understand what “Leisure Events and Entertainment Management”, a module that she teaches at Republic Polytechnic, is all about. Walking into class in a white dress with a bridal veil and bouquet, tossing rose petals was meant to get students to visualize components of a wedding and get them thinking about the emotions and energy that can be created, as well as simple practicalities involved in events, e.g. flower petals staining light coloured carpets. The use of dry ice was to have the students try their hand at creating the misty effect for themselves to allow them to discuss the pros and cons of various special effects, and the playing of music during class was to tap into the auditory learning part of students’ brains to shake up their learning.
The bunny suit dance provided her students an opportunity to create a viral video as part of their lesson on “Event Marketing” and allowed them to observe in real-time, the trends, effectiveness and challenges of each social media platform (it the video was eventually viewed 114,000 times on Facebook and 70,000 times on Twitter). Teeny’s unorthodox teaching approach also made the news online and in the press.
Explained Teeny, “When students see you as a lecturer putting in effort into your lessons, such as bringing in fun and unique teaching aids or putting up a performance especially for them in order to explain a concept clearly, they somehow get inspired, and they too want to put in the same level of effort in their work.”
Through class, the students also learn practical life lessons, she said. “With that one bunny dance video, I was able to convey the power of being creative and the surprising things you can achieve when you are brave enough to be different.”
“Also, amongst all the positive comments on social media about the video…some were negative… and this was an excellent opportunity to highlight these comments to let my students know that no matter what we do in life, we can never please everybody. We just have to ensure that we have integrity and know WHY we are doing a particular thing.”
From uncertainty to a drive to achieve
Indeed, Teeny’s students in Project Management and Scheduling, and Leisure Events and Entertainment Management are inspired by their unconventional teacher.
Teeny’s students typically go from putting in what she estimates as “70% effort” to putting in “110% of effort” into their assignments. And it is common for her students to skip lunch just to deliver a good project by the deadline!
You can have students who underperform in the mid-term exam – but then show dramatic improvements in the final term exam. “That transformation is what makes teaching truly magical,” said Teeny.
“There are different types of learners in every class. There are visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic learners,” explained Teeny. “So in every lesson I try to include at least one component for each learning style to engage all students.”
Items like bubble makers and musical egg shakers that students can manipulate help kinesthetic learners better understand the effects of these props. Music like Korean boy band BTS’s “Money, Money, Money” serves as a lively introduction to the topic of budgeting. Difficult assignments get announced to the soundtrack of “Try” by Pink, or Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.
For visual learners, videos, pictures, mind mapping and the occasional dance performance grab their attention.
Keeping things fun and adding challenges
“When lessons are fun and engaging, students will want to attend my classes and will want to learn,” said Teeny.
To make learning project management fun, for instance, Teeny designed a board game in 2018 with a team of three other Republic Polytechnic lecturers. The board game teaches students the triple constraints of cost, time and quality.
“This game solidifies their understanding of concepts they have learnt and does it in a very fun way.”
The game was so successful it was showcased during Republic Polytechnic's schoolwide Learning Retreat 2018 and has since been commercialised. It is currently used not only by Republic Polytechnic lecturers, but also industry trainers.
The other way Teeny spurs her students on is to throw challenges at them. In 2017, she coached her students in a nation-wide MICE Challenge for tertiary students. Teams had to conceptualise and plan for a conference for a sector of their choice.
The team went straight for a tough sector: a conference on learning disabilities. What’s more, the team was made up of just one a Year 3 student and 3 students who had just entered their 2nd Year and had only learnt the basics of event planning.
By the time the students had finalised their idea, after overcoming numerous challenges along the way, they had the winning edge: Instead of just planning for a conference, they had actually planned for a whole disability awareness campaign.
The team was also able to leverage the unique perspective of one of their team members, who grapples with dyslexia, to craft an authentic and engaging concept, and emerged as the first runner-up for the competition. The team was even invited to present their project at the 2018 Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Convening Leaders Conference in Nashville, Tenessee, US.
The final ingredient in lessons and life: empathy
“Being empathetic allows us to understand others and their situations better. I wish for my students to be happy and successful people and I think that being able to communicate effectively is a big part of that. You can only be a more effective communicator if you are able to ‘feel’ for others.”
To foster empathy, Teeny gets her students to create campaigns on topics like compassion, showing appreciation, mental health and cyberbullying. She also works with them and to launch food bank drives.
In addition, Teeny crafts her lessons to get her students in touch with their emotions. For her “Change Management” class, Teeny introduces sudden and drastic changes to the students’ team projects. Weeks into a project, for example, Teeny would swap out team members, disallow sponsorship and set new key performance indicators.
“When this happens, the students experience emotions like anger, fear and anxiety.” She then tells the students about how these emotions can lead to depression, hostility and self-harm when not handled well.
“I want them to learn to accept change and move forward. I also hope that in future this can help them empathise with their teammates, subordinates, family members or spouse when they are going through ‘changes’ in life.
In events and project management, the first thing we do is identity the stakeholders and tap into their psyche: What are their expectations? What were their past experiences? How would they feel if we did certain things or did not do certain things? With empathy, we are able to manage complex and tense situations [work or personal relations] better.”
Teeny walks the talk. As a mentor, each year Teeny looks after close to 50 students from the time they enter Republic Polytechnic to when they graduate. Her compassion and support have proven to be a lifeline for many students.
This was the case with Belden Chua. He was not only facing serious problems at home, he was also not communicating well with his classmates and was ostracised by them.
For three years, Teeny set aside time to counsel the Integrated Events Management student thrice a week for long hours each time.
Belden pulled through and graduated as valedictorian with a 3.85 grade point average. He has secured a place in Nanyang Technological University’s Bachelor in Business programme and is currently thriving as a sergeant during his National Service.
“She is an extraordinary teacher,” said Belden. “I am extremely grateful to her. Without her, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Her other students are just as grateful to Teeny. And they show their appreciation in dramatic fashion, just like their teacher.
On the last day of school in 2016, her students created a haunted house and dressed up as ghouls to show Teeny how much they’ve learnt from her. The next year, another class surprised her with a performance of “We’re All in this Together” from High School Musical to thank her on their last day of school.
For Teeny, succeeding as a teacher is pretty straightforward. “Once you have love for the subject you are teaching and love for your students, the rest will all come naturally.”