PE teacher Tan Sok Eng has led her students to set and break numerous records. Why? To show themselves and the world that they can accomplish much more than thought.
Tan Sok Eng, Fajar Secondary School, President’s Award for Teachers 2017 Finalist
For two weeks in October 2012, all students and staff of Fajar Secondary School were busy collecting 20-cent coins. A whopping $10,000 worth of them.
The coins were carefully arranged on a board to form the outline of Singapore’s then-newest attraction, Gardens by the Bay, setting a record for the largest display of 20-cent coins here.
This feat is just one of the mind-boggling 41 local records that Fajar Secondary School has broken between 2009 and 2017. During this period, they even broke one Guinness World Record, for the most people standing on one leg for two minutes – it took more than 900 members of the school community to achieve this one.
The woman driving all these efforts is PE teacher Tan Sok Eng. For her, the records are not about collecting bragging rights. Rather, they are a means to an end.
“I want my students to develop confidence in themselves, knowing that achievement comes from steely determination, collaboration, compassion and sheer hard work,” she says.
Her strategy has worked. After Fajar Secondary School broke its first few records, students became excited and started coming up to her to suggest new projects. Many even volunteered to stay back after school to brainstorm ideas for their latest ventures.
Some of these ideas that have been brought to fruition include the fastest relay of tennis balls using elbows, and the largest display of cereal boxes.
To make each attempt more meaningful, any money or resources raised are channelled to charitable causes. The Gardens by the Bay coins went to the school’s fund for needy students, and the boxes of cereal were later donated to Food from the Heart.
Not every undertaking has gone smoothly, though. One year, the students attempted to break a leap-frog record, but their numbers fell a little short.
“We looked back [at that], learnt our lesson, regrouped and pushed on,” says Sok Eng. “Failure is never final unless you let it defeat you.”
Sok Eng’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Metta School asked a group of close to 20 student leaders from Fajar Secondary School to conduct a motivational workshop for their graduating class of special needs students.
Unsurprisingly, the students from both groups worked together to break another record: the largest display of coloured cups.
Responding to The Singapore Association for the Deaf’s invitation to schools to participate in their attempt to hold the largest sign language event in Singapore, Sok Eng rallied 400 students for this, getting them to learn the national pledge and a song in sign language. It was a success.
It also got Sok Eng thinking that it would be a waste if her students did not continue using this skill when they returned to their school.
She took a brief course on sign language, and spent two weeks teaching all the students some basic hand signs during their Character and Citizenship Education classes. For Total Defence Day in 2010, the national pledge was ‘recited’ by all students and staff in sign language – a silent but heartfelt tribute to Singapore’s hearing-impaired community.
“It was so simple and yet beautiful. It opened the children’s minds and taught them that they can always learn new ways to communicate,” she says.
Continuing with this tradition, her project this year to commemorate Teacher’s Day is to collect used – but still usable – shoes for a mass display. Her aim: “to teach our children that everything has a value, even a pair of old shoes that one may be tempted to throw away.”
The shoes collected will be donated later to Soles4Souls to help the less fortunate in other countries walk with dignity in a still-decent pair of shoes.
The Difference One Can Make
While her projects usually involve hundreds of participants, Sok Eng is always keeping an eye out for individual students, especially those she feels might need her help.
During her PE lessons, she makes sure all her students, even the weaker ones, participate actively and learn the values of teamwork, compassion and good sportsmanship.
She often spends her time talking to students outside the classrooms during breaks trying to get to know each one better. “The teacher-student relationship is a personal one and is very important – you have to show them you care and that’s the first step in building a relationship.”
Still, there is only so much a teacher can do within the few short years they have with each child. Sok Eng recalls one student who had numerous disciplinary issues. As hard as she tried, she could not persuade him to change his ways before he graduated.
One day, he turned up at the school to thank her for caring for him then. Now a young man, he turned his life around, excelled in polytechnic and is doing well in life.
“Sometimes change needs more time,” she says. “I am confident that as teachers, it is our mission to do everything we can and it is that care that ultimately makes a difference.”
"Miss Tan wouldn’t give up on me. She would encourage me by saying ‘I see the good in you.’ It made me realise that she really cares about her students, and she inspires us to be better than what we think we can be," said Shawn Teo, a Secondary 4 student.