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What makes a teacher inspiring?

02 Sep 2021

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The writer’s daughter dressed up as Harry Potter, with her English teacher Mdm Noor Rita dressed as Maleficent, for Reading Week at school. Photo: Mdm Noor Rita

What does it mean to be an inspiring educator in the digital era? Freelance writer and mum-of-two Eveline Gan pens a Teachers’ Day tribute to the teachers who have made a difference in her children’s lives.

When my older daughter started preschool at the age of four, she cried almost every day.

“Noooo, I don’t want to go to school. Let me stay at home with you, please Mama,” she would plead with me the night before every school day.

The struggle went on for some time before I uncovered the source of her terror: She was terrified of the teacher assigned to her class, a no-nonsense type who yelled indiscriminately in class.

With my child’s terror of her teacher not letting up, but intensifying, over the months, I decided on a change of learning environment and enrolled her in a kindergarten near our home.  

Fortunately, her unpleasant first preschool experience was an exception rather than the norm. In her new kindergarten, she settled in comfortably after several weeks, thanks to some amazing teachers who went the extra mile.

I never forgot how one of them would patiently sit with my daughter for 10 minutes every morning, holding her hand and reassuring her that school would be fun (she was right about that).

Another teacher took the time and scheduled extra reading moments with her, when my daughter had trouble identifying common sight words.

Needless to say, I sent my younger child to the same preschool. She too, thrived in the caring and supportive learning environment.

The teachers who make a difference

After their preschool years, my daughters would go on to meet several other inspiring teachers who have positively shaped their childhood years.

Like Mrs Ong, who had been eagle-eyed enough to notice my older daughter’s subtle learning difficulty early in Primary 1, then flagged it in a non-judgmental manner to have it addressed by a professional.

Or my younger child’s current form teacher, Mdm Rita, who gamely dresses up as interesting fictional characters to spark students’ interest in reading.

One week, she was sweet and innocent Red Riding Hood carrying a basket to Grandma’s house; recently, she pulled off a 180-degree transformation into Disney’s iconic villain Maleficent, complete with horns and talons. 

Then there is Mr Azmi, my older daughter’s quirky Science teacher.

His passion for the subject has done more than just help my daughter learn to hotwire a simple electrical circuit or how the digestive system works; it strengthened her resolve to pursue a Science-related career. 

Characteristics of inspiring educators

What is it about these educators that makes them so inspiring to my children?

I have observed several recurring characteristics. From my daughters’ perspective, their most inspiring teachers are not necessarily the ones who have their lessons planned, smoothly executed (digitally or in person), and completed on time. Nor do they drill the tried-and-tested answers to questions in a revision paper.

In fact, teaching contributes only a part of their role in my children’s learning journey.

Their favourite teachers enjoy what they do, and in turn, their passion brings to life what could have been a dull academic subject.

In an era where knowledge and information are so “Google-able”, and when answers can be found online in an instant, I am grateful for educators who put more questions in my daughters’ minds at the end of their lessons, directing and guiding them to actively seek the answers themselves instead of passively providing information.

Another characteristic of a good teacher in their books is a teacher who shows up for them, the ones who care.

I recognise it is not an easy thing for a teacher to do. As a parent, I can barely juggle just two children with differing personalities; what more when one is required to manage a class with different learning styles, personalities and backgrounds.

It would be all too easy to fall into the monotonous routine of doing the same things again and again, during the school week.

But what teachers on a busy day sometimes may not realise is that their kind word or some encouragement can change a child’s outlook towards learning and school, which I consider their second “home” given that they spend so much time there.

For instance, despite her weakness in the subject, my older daughter’s Primary 6 Math teacher, Mrs Peh, never gave up on her and provided additional learning support even when she did not need to.

“I can see you have a good attitude. I know you can do it,” she said. For my daughter who started off with low self-esteem, those words kept her going even when the learning was challenging.

For children who struggle with esteem, mental health and other issues, hearing too many disparaging comments without constructive feedback may break their interest in learning.

And in these uncertain times, I think we can all agree that every child needs someone like Mrs Peh in their life.

To the teachers who have made a positive difference in my girls’ education journey, thank you.