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Rising above the odds

17 Sep 2020

francis tang

He made a name transforming poor swimmers into water polo champions. Now Francis Tang is helping his peers to bring about similar success through their CCAs. And it’s working.

Mr Tang Yee Fun Francis, Outram Secondary School, President’s Award for Teachers 2020


Looking at his water polo team, Francis Tang thought that things did not look good at all.

The year was 2008. Fresh out of the National Institute of Education (NIE), Francis had been put in charge of the water polo team at Outram Secondary School. 

The team was made up of poor swimmers. In fact, many could not swim at all. For the past 22 years, the team had come in last or the penultimate position in the interschool league. 

At the first training session, only a third of the team showed up. The number didn’t improve in subsequent sessions.  For six months, Francis went through the motions of managing the team. 

They were going nowhere and he was about  to give up. It hit him only when his Head of

Department asked: “What can you do for the water polo team?”  

It made him think about why he had chosen to be a Physical Education (PE) teacher in the first place. 

In secondary school, Francis played competitive badminton despite not having a school coach. By training hard with an external badminton club, he beat the top player from a top school, in an interschool match. “I realised then that it’s not about the uniform you are wearing or how smart you are, it’s about having the right attitude and how hard you work.

“A lot of success is just from hard work and perseverance. Most of the time we are too quick to blame our failures on our lack of talent and lack of ability before we even have a chance to see success.” 

This badminton experience also led him to choose teaching as a career. “I became a PE teacher because I wanted to be the teacher to motivate and believe in my students.”

A tale of persistence, perseverance and passion

After that talk with his Head of Department, Francis asked himself, “Why am I not that teacher to my water polo students? Why do I have the thought of  giving up on them?” 

At the next training session, Francis gave his team a 2-hour pep talk. His message: Believe in yourself and we can achieve anything. The students sat riveted, jaws agape. But slowly the message sank in.

“I could feel their excitement. And it was simply because somebody believed in them.” Francis became a driven man. He was in school from 7am to 7pm. He increased water polo training from three to four times a week and then to six days a week. 

While the school management was supportive of this move, the parents of the water polo players needed  some convincing. 

A thought struck Francis, “If I can motivate and convince the players, why can’t I do the same for their parents?” That night, he gave an hour-long heartfelt talk to the parents, driving home his message – it was not about winning but to show the students that hard work pays off. The parents were sold. 

A parent’s support group for the water polo team was formed. They began organising camps, get-togethers and even an overseas training trip to Malacca. The parents’ support made a world of difference. 

Twice a week, Francis would arrange for the entire team to train at the bigger pools at polytechnics and junior colleges. Previously, with no budget for transportation, the team hopped on public buses and trains to get there. Now parents eagerly ferried the players to these pools. 

Just two years later, the school’s C Division team (Secondary 2) entered the finals and finished second. Recalled Francis, “I was shocked at the speed of the improvement.”

In 2013, Outram Secondary won the school’s first ever national water polo title, beating three-time champion Anglo-Chinese School (Independent). From then on, the team rarely stepped off the winners’ podium. 

From underdog to winners 

Francis commands from his players a high level of competence, both in and outside the pool. 

Outram Secondary’s water polo players are regularly among Outram’s top students in the O- and N-Level examinations. Former Team Captain Zander Widjaja is a case in point. From a non-swimmer when he first joined the team, he went on to be selected for the national water polo team in Secondary 4. Academically, he graduated with stellar results.  

What’s going on here? One reason could be the study group set up by Francis. Before each training session, Francis makes team members sit together for two hours to do their homework and help each other as needed.  “I keep repeating that if they can see improvement in the sport, they can surely see improvement in their studies.  All they need is belief and commitment,” said Francis. “Also, teaching others, helps you understand concepts, better.”

Another key contributor is Francis’ tough discipline. Previously, the boys used to give all sorts of excuses for being late. 

Today, the seniors take it upon themselves to keep up this culture of excellence in the team.

“In the early years, I had to come down hard… now, the seniors tell the juniors that all the hard work are for their own good.”

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Champions-in-the-making

Some would say that Francis has an unconventional way of picking his players. Instead of athletic ability, he wants to know how hard they can work. He asks, quite simply: Can you do the hard work needed? Because of this, the bulk of his recruits may even comprise weak, or even non-swimmers.  

Francis’ selection of the team captain may also seem unusual to some. Instead of picking the popular boys, or the dominant ones, he asks himself: “Does the candidate have the moral compass to lead?”  

Francis’ less orthodox selection method stems from his firm belief that anyone can be a champion, anyone can lead and serve. And he’s seen it paid off in his teams. Imagine, the transformation of a motley bunch of middling swimmers, some of whom barely know how to tread water, to a championship-winning team within four to five years. 

He also applied the same belief to his students with mild special educational needs.  He modified the sports equipment like lowering the basketball net for those on wheelchairs to be able to throw the ball into the net, using different types of rackets for badminton and having the students support and learn from one another.  He could see the sparkle in the eyes of these students when they could participate in their favourite sports despite their physical disability. 

The mentor who works magic

Francis’s zeal is infectious. Not only is he transforming the students, he is helping to do the same for the teachers in the school.  

It all started in 2012, when a teacher took what she had learnt during her attachment to the water polo team —believe in your students; let students help one another — and went on to lead the school band to a distinction award in the Singapore Youth Festival. 

She was followed by a string of other teachers who went on to achieve similar success in their CCAs following their attachment to the water polo team.

In 2017, the school decided to tap the magic that Francis wields by requiring all new teachers to be attached for six months to the water polo team. There, the new teachers study Francis’ strategies for inspiring kids and adapt them to their own CCAs and other teaching experiences.     

Today the values that the water polo team espouses, such as selflessness and showing care for others, permeate the entire school.

Every day after school, students can be found helping one another with homework along the halls. Students with disabilities are cheered on for every achievement and supported by their classmates. 

Said Francis, “Hopefully I am developing selfless individuals who want to make the world a better place. Teaching  is not just a job, it is a mission and a calling .”