I wish to return in my short speech to the fundamentals. By that I mean why we teach. The answer to this why question might shed some light on the related but secondary issues that is the stated objectives of today’s symposium, firstly, that of what, that is, the matter of curriculum, and secondly that of, how, that is, the matter of pedagogy.
The question of why we teach might at first seem trivial, too easy to bother with. Do we not teach so that our children learn the things that make them good workers, knowledgeable, skilled and nowadays creative and thinking employees who can make as good a living as possible for themselves and at the same time contribute to our economy? Do we also not teach so that our children can learn to be good citizens, law-abiding people who will hopefully also give back to society and take care of others more needful than them? Yes, we teach for these reasons, but I submit that they are not the most important reasons why we teach.
I do submit however that the most important reason that we teach, that we wake up early every morning and go to school and spend our day there to stand in front of our charges, is this: We teach to impart magic. To impart magic? What do I mean?
First, we have to go back to another fundamental: the meaning, the purpose of life. We are human beings. Hence the purpose of life is to live as fully a human life as we can. Notice, I do not say a happy life: I think happiness is a nice by-product of living fully at best, and a distraction, the wrong tree which one barks up, at worst So a fully human life: what do I mean by that? I mean a life that is flourishing, a flourishing that brings out and fulfils and lets us see and feel and experience all our human possibilities. And among the human possibilities is that of the sensation of what is best called magicness. The magic of our individual being, the magic of other people whether family, friend or stranger and our love and care and concern for them, the magic of beauty and even better of truth, the magic of goose pimples moments, the magic of us being in this big wide universe, of early morning walks amidst last night’s dew, of slow sunsets, of late evenings drinking, the magic of the mystery of life, of not being able to completely know or understand it, and the magicness of trying nevertheless to glimpse into that mystery.
My pre-university teacher Mrs Tan who showed me the magic of mathematics – she was the first person I know who adored the subject and her love infected me like fairy dust – Mrs Tan who inspired me to be a teacher, which I did for two years before the admin work wore me down. My literature teacher Mr Ho whose spell-making sonorous voice read to us Armstrong Sperry’s The Boy Who Was Afraid showing me the magic of performance and of story and of the sweet intermingling of emotions of fear, courage and growing up to be a person and of being transported out of the hot and muggy secondary two RI classroom to the blue cool of the Pacific Ocean. And Mrs Lim who showed me the magic of words in general and of poetry in particular through, what else, Romeo and Juliet, and of course the magic of love, laughter and tragedy. A lucky boy out of a Kaki Bukit Hainanese kampong thus fell in love with not just with mathematics but also literature. That spark was for him the beginning of a life-long love of both. The role of the teacher is not to teach a subject but to make their students love it.
Other teachers came and went. Many taught quite well. I learned a lot. I am grateful for them. They say that RI boys teach themselves, that they are teacher-proof. That is not at all true. I hold my Chinese teachers wholly responsible for the dire state of my Chinese. In fact, I had to relearn it again in adulthood. So there were many okay to good teachers in RI. I am grateful for them. But they did not impart magic. So I was extremely fortunate that these three – Mrs Tan, Mr Ho and Mrs Lim - came into my life, waved their wand, and I was transformed. They imparted magic.
The magic of this kind of magic is that once it happens to a child, the child pretty much grows on her own even when the teacher is no longer around. I have never stopped reading ‘literature’ books since my school days. And to this day I still love reading about mathematic breakthroughs even I only bring a layman’s understanding to it and I still love doing mathematical puzzles. The effects of the fairy dust is lifelong. It has added to whatever little flourishing that I have had.
Is it easier to create this magic for the arts, for literature, than for science? I am not sure about that. But I do know that literature is such fertile ground, the infinitely fertile ground of human experience. The possibilities there are enormous. We just need to find that part of this infinit which touches off the magic for each child.
Of course, how does one do this imparting of magic? How does one do it with sometimes 44 students to a class, a syllabus to cover, grades to chase, homework to mark, lessons to prepare, HoD and principal and equally fearsome parents to answer to, symposiums to attend, and that dastardly admin work that still has not gone away since I left this noble profession that I now still love almost three decades ago? When you think about it at all, it is hard to think that any magic can happen under such demanding, such dire circumstances. It is an achievement that one can keep up much less be concerned with nonsense such as this thing called magic. But it happens. It happened with Mrs Tan, Mr Ho and Mrs Lim. And I am sure it still happens now, every year, with some teachers, with some students. Perhaps it happens more often now, what with the greater professionalism compared to my time, and the focus on training (in my time, after you left the then Institute of Education you are pretty much cast out on your own for most of your career, and symposiums such as this.
But can we make the imparting of magic more reliable, more routine, oxymoronic as that idea sounds? I think so. Think of concentric circles of causes and circumstances. Starting from the outermost, the most general, the society in which we live in. Our society just has to start valuing equally or perhaps more important things than making a living and being obedient, helpful citizens. We have to start valuing other aspects of life, in particular, human flourishing and the magic well of life. One circle within that is the education system in general. It has to be an education system whose purpose goes beyond the economic first and socialization second. It has to enable flourishing, of which the experience of literature (and not necessarily literature as a subject although that too is important) and the arts is one aspect. And that education has to open up spaces: for students to be able to do things besides studying and chasing grades. And it has to open up spaces for teachers to do what is necessary, to have time to do their magic. These are spaces to play, to dream, to seemingly do nothing and achieve a lot, to explore, fail, to engage and to laught – it is true, being pretty grim people leading pretty grim though monied existences, we don’t smile and laugh enough. For it is true that what works as magic for one student might not for another, for which another method of bringing it about has to come. And for that space is required for both teacher and child. Yet another circle within is that of teacher training. I think we have focused too much on efficiency. Even on effectiveness, because the question is effectiveness at what? There should be a course at NIE called Imparting Magic. The follow-up course will be Advanced Imparting Magic for English Language and Literature teachers. I am kidding, of course. No, I am not. I am quite serious.
So Mr Tan Tarn How, sir, how about you, hotshot teacher, proselytizer of magic. What did you do during your time teaching? Imparted any magic, eh, during your time? Well, I can safely describe my two years as a teacher as this: a period of prolonged drowning. First in Anderson Junior College, where I taught Physics and GP, I drowned for a year. Then, in Victoria Seconday School, which at that time was in Geylang Bahru, where I taught Physics, English, Mathematics and… PE, yes, PE, they were that desperate then – I drowned for another year. Not much imparting of magic there. Teaching was that hard. Teaching is still the hardest job I have even done, from journalism to policy research to playwriting. Then I left teaching. Not because it is hard. But to this day I still have nightmares about being unprepared for a class.
But I do remember one afternoon in particular: class 3B, I think it was, a difficult physics concept, no one understood even though I had explained it a few times, and then I hit upon an idea to make it clear. The second I finished with the new explanation I could see in each student’s face a light go on one by one as they grasped the idea: tink, tink, tink, tink… magic for me, alas, but I am not sure for them. I have not yet unlocked the secret of Mrs Tan, Mr Ho and Mrs Lim. But thinking back, I could see that as the beginning of a possibility. In a way the magic I have been talking is similar to that turning on of an intellectual light except that it is the turning on of something even more basal or visceral, more akin to emotion, affinity, ephiphany, something that could be intellectual but probably much more. If I had not left, I could perhaps have found a way to harvest that afternoon’s magic for me to create more consistently magic for my students.
In other words, I offer my thoughts to you in failure, in humility. As much humility as a policy researcher – whose job is tell other people in particular the government wat to do, and a playwright – whose job is to live in fantasy land never mind reality. But I think that perhaps today if I were still teaching, my yearly KPIs – don’t you love to hate that word KPI, Ke-pie – my private KPIs would be how much magic I have imparted and to how many students. Because these will be students who remember you fondly, and who might even thank you for the magic your imparted. Thank you Mrs Tan, Mr Ho and Mrs Lim.