After a life-changing trip to Sri Lanka, Ms Shobana Sreetharan was convinced of the desire for every child to learn.
The Outstanding Youth in Education Award (OYEA) 2023 recipient, a teacher at Holy Innocents’ Primary School, tells Schoolbag about how she finds handles for her students that play on their strengths, and works values into her strategies too.
"Every student should have the opportunity to experience the transformative potential of education, and a trajectory that is best suited to them."
What inspires you to teach?
My journey as an educator began in earnest when I volunteered to teach underprivileged children in Sri Lanka. Despite being beset on all sides by the harsh vagaries of civil strife and the aftermath of the tsunami, the children continued to hunger for learning. All they had in their makeshift classroom was chalk and chalkboard.
From there, I developed the conviction that every student should have the opportunity to experience the transformative potential of education, and a trajectory that is best suited to them.
Back home, during my years as a Beginning Teacher, I was tasked with teaching Mathematics to a pull-out group of Primary 5 students who had not performed well in the subject. Among them was a particular student who had a deep hatred towards the subject and by extension, towards her teachers who taught it. She would put her head down on her table once Maths lessons began, and repeatedly not complete her assignments. There was a time when she threw her calculator to the side of the classroom in anger at being asked to finish her work.
I realised quickly that the reason for her behaviour was her deep and persistent sadness from being unable to do well in Maths for the past four years. As a deep lover of Maths myself, I knew that I could not let her pass through my class with such disdain for the subject. As such, I took it upon myself to find ways to draw Joey* into the subject.
After I found out that she loved K-Pop, I introduced K-Pop references to my lessons. In a lesson about percentage, I used the discounts from companies selling K-Pop tickets as a case study for students to work on.
After teaching Joey for two years, I was able to melt away the hatred she had for the subject. I am proud to say that she did well in her PSLE and moved on to a secondary school of her liking.
*Not her real name
Describe a teaching approach you have found effective.
Not all students are immediately good with their words. As such, it is useful for them to have routines and moves they can tap on to make their thinking “visible”, that is, to articulate their thought processes to those around them, and to express themselves comfortably.
A teaching tool I find very effective in this respect is called Visible Thinking Routines (VTRs), encompassing routines that go by names such as Step Inside and See, Think, Wonder.
I use the Step Inside routine regularly with my students in the classroom as well as at a school-wide level. It encourages students to explore different perspectives, widen their imagination, and develop empathy.
During an English lesson discussing the story A Butterfly is Born, for example, students were tasked to think about a butterfly being kept in a jar, and explain if they would like to keep a butterfly in a jar, and why they feel that way.
A student shared that she would not want the butterfly to be in a jar, as she herself would not enjoy being trapped in a jar and instead would like to be free. While I did not explicitly require the students to use the Step Inside thinking routine, they were exposed to it regularly enough to use it independently, and to name the thinking routine too. I find these VTRs to be handy and effective tools to enable students to be active learners in the classroom.
Which school initiative are you especially proud of?
A school project I spearheaded is the Sincerity and Charity Donation Drive, as the head of the Values in Action Committee in 2022.
The donation drive is a yearly event to encourage students to do their part during the Lunar New Year festive period. I suggested making the drive more meaningful and intentional. Instead of simply asking for money from their parents or guardians to make the donation, we wanted the students to actively put aside money daily for their donation. We shared the various ways in which they could do this, through simple actions such as saving 10 cents per day from their pocket money.
We also wanted students to understand the impact their donations were going to have, and urged them to step inside the shoes of the beneficiaries and think about how they would be feeling during the festive period.
When the collection period of the donation drive came, I saw that many students donated repeatedly. Each day, they would submit their red donation envelopes to their form teachers, which jingled with coins that they had saved up over the course of a few days.
The collection gathered from last year’s donation drive was the highest over the recent years, and I believe it is due to the students taking an active part in the donation drive themselves. When they reflected on their experience with this drive, they shared that it was meaningful, and made them think of others in their lives whom they could show kindness to as well.
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