Running the Race of Education

Most undergraduates begin their university journey when they are between the ages of 19 and 22. However, for NIE undergraduate Joel Wei, university began at age 26 — almost half a decade behind the rest of his peers, and he has no regrets.

Starting blocks and hurdles

Following the successful completion of his ‘O’ Levels, Joel was ecstatic to know that he had obtained a place in a local Junior College (JC). With society’s heavy emphasis on academics, he felt reassured to know that he was on the right track. Moreover, with an interest in running, the JC’s Track and Field Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) would provide him with a platform to train with like-minded individuals.

Soon, Joel’s involvement in his CCA increased, and his JC journey became one that was centred on his sporting life. “I focused more on being a good athlete, rather than on studying. It affected my time management and my priorities. I played more than I studied,” the undergraduate shared.

Even though his athletic abilities had improved, his academic performance had been compromised. The athlete added, “In the end, I spent three years in JC instead of two, and performed very poorly for my A levels.”

Joel was devastated to know that in addition to being a year behind peers his age, he would not be able to study with them at a local university.

The recovery process

The light at the end of the seemingly dark tunnel came in the form of his JC form teacher. “My form teacher in JC made a difference in my life,” Joel said with a smile.

Emulating characteristics of a brilliant teacher, Joel’s teacher remained by his side post-results collection and comforted him as he expressed his disappointment. “I was still in shock and was feeling extremely upset. But she spoke to me about my results and encouraged me,” he recalled. It was then that he realised that he has a hope and a future. “Up to this day, I am still very appreciative of her actions.”

Picking himself up, Joel soldiered on and explored other options for tertiary education. Considering his avid participation in the athletic scene, Republic Polytechnic’s (RP) Diploma in Sports and Exercise Science quickly became the choice pick.

Pushing forward

Eventually securing a spot in that very course, Joel was determined to avoid making the mistakes that he had made before. Studying hard throughout the next three years, Joel constantly ensured that his priorities were in check.

Contrary to his JC experience, a large portion of the curriculum in Polytechnics is focused on practical elements. Assigned to Certis CISCO — the leading security organisation in Asia, during his internship, Joel was excited to see what was in store.

The final motivation

“They gave me a commercial project of theirs and I had to conduct training sessions at Singapore Boys’ Home (SBH),” Joel explained. As he began spending time talking to the trainees, he found himself empathising with them. “I found myself relating to them as I could still remember the choices I made when I was in JC. Our feelings were similar.”

This surprised him as given their differing backgrounds, he did not think that they would have much in common. He had come in with the sole purpose of fulfilling the course’s internship requirement.

It was then that Joel realised that he was now in the same position that his teacher had been in. Just as how her positive influence had made a difference in his life, his actions now had the power to make a difference in the future of these boys.

“Knowledge can be attained easily,” Joel pointed out. “I feel that a good teacher has to build the character of the students. What stuck with me over the years is my experience with my teacher, and how she was a role model for me in terms of character.” Joel began putting more thought into his conversations with the trainees and advised them on their situations. He had found meaning in the work he was doing.

Ever since then, Joel’s ambition has been to become a teacher.

Sprinting towards the finishing line

Today, Joel is studying to be a teacher in NIE. He aspires to be a guide for students when they are lost, someone they can approach in time of need. Furthermore, Joel hopes that with his assistance, his students will be able to discover their calling at an early age.

Although the journey Joel had embarked on was neither orthodox nor an easy one, if given a choice, he would not change a thing. “If I had excelled in JC, I would not be pursuing anything related to the teaching profession today. Everything I had gone through was a learning experience. My failures helped me to grow and figure out my calling,” the teacher to-be concluded. The learning experiences he has gained are things that he treasures, wisdom that he hopes to impart to his students.

During my first week as principal at Marymount Convent School, I sought to understand my new students better by meeting them in the canteen during recess. It was wonderful to be greeted by the twinkling eyes on the chubby faces of the girls.

The first group I met was a group of Primary One students. During our conversation, one of the girls proudly told me that she was the first to answer a difficult math question in class.

Next was a group of Primary Five students who had just taken a class test. One girl was upset that she did not know what to write for her picture composition during her class test; another was confused about the advice her teacher gave her, to “think out of the box”.

After meeting the curious Primary Ones and the seemingly stressed Primary Fives, I began to wonder, what had happened to the enthusiasm and excitement towards learning?

Freshly graduated from LEP, the conversations reminded me of some key lessons gleaned over the past six months.

An inquisitive mind

I strongly believe that every child can and wants to learn; Dr Christina Ratnam introduced us to the beliefs of John Dewey, which I resonate strongly with. Both the Primary Ones and Fives that I met wanted to acquire new knowledge. But their purpose and motivation in doing so were markedly different.

The Primary One student was excited that she was ‘assessed’ as ‘clever’ by her teacher because she was the first to give the correct answer. The Primary Five student was stressed by her class test because she was unsure if she could write a good story. Her motivation was most likely beyond writing well; it was likely that she desired good grades so that she could eventually score during the Primary School Learning Education (PSLE).

I wondered if there was a way to ensure that my students will want to learn for the sake of learning. What should I be communicating to my students regarding the reasons for learning?

A critical cornerstone of the school

Associate Professor Kelvin Tan taught us to consider the design of ‘assessment’ in school because it greatly impacts students’ learning and teachers’ way of teaching. One common belief is “what gets measured gets done.” If true, we must be careful of what and how we measure, as these indicate what is important and of value. Thus, it is of great importance to use ‘assessments’ wisely, to bring out the different talents of our students and enable them to better themselves.

The underlying culture

One of the key lessons that I resonate strongly with, is Associate Professor Ng Pak Tee’s saying, “Education is a human enterprise of paying it forward”.

Principals have to shoulder immense responsibility because of the lives under their charge. They need to diligently chart the direction, lead their staff, and at the same time, ensure that students who pass through the gates of their schools are able to develop to their full potential. Principals must also be able to rally teachers together and communicate instructions and formulate strategies.

Ms Esther Lai and Dr Zoe Boon challenged us, as school leaders, to check on our culture. Is it one where teachers feel comfortable to take initiative, to try and to ask questions? A culture where students strive to learn, and not just for the sake of grades? Are we merely striving, or thriving? I, therefore, wish to develop a nurturing culture which seeks to understand the needs of students and help them develop their full potential.


Coming back to the Primary Five girls, I asked them to consider why the picture was “in a box”. I challenged them to think of the concepts taught by the teachers on framing a perspective, and to imagine the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the picture, so that they could string the story into a cohesive whole. The two girls’ eyes lit up and they thanked me profusely.

I noticed a girl amongst these Primary Five girls; she was limping and one hand hung by her side. When I addressed her, she flashed a big smile at me as she turned, greeting me with slurred speech. It was then that I realised that she was suffering from muscular dystrophy. Elated, she described her favourite lessons and enrichment activities to me without hesitation or inhibition.

I remembered what the late Associate Professor Benjamin Wong had told us about equity and inclusivity. This cheerful girl, though physically disabled, enjoyed learning and showed evidence of development, demonstrating clearly that the school’s culture is inclusive and all-embracing.

Such is what I envision to do — to build a culture and environment that will continue to encourage curiosity in my students. Teachers will inspire learning with their own desire to learn, students will have a strong desire to learn beyond the class, and most importantly, every child will help and support one another in learning, growing and blossoming into their fullest potential!

Often referred to as a gifted gardener of trees and teachers for his unerring ability to nurture and grow both, Professor Lee Sing Kong's success lies in his unique ability to define and refine the smallest detail without losing sight of the big picture, and perhaps, in the seeds he used: innovation and creativity.

A Time to Plant, A Time to Harvest, A Time to Rest

Professor Lee Sing Kong was unarguably a legend while he lived; respected by peers, colleagues, institutions of learning both at home and abroad, civil and corporate organisations, the Singapore government, and her leaders.

He garnered praise, accolades, awards and medals at every turn in his career. However, it was his special blend of truly connecting with people and being able to inspire them to want to push boundaries, to see how the future could be and, to invent solutions to realise dreams, that made him the visionary he was.

Laying Down Seeds

Planting came naturally to Professor Lee. As a horticulturist by training, his pioneering efforts to plant trees brought about Singapore’s vision of a rich tropical green paradise. Then, combining aeroponic technology with his passion and creative approach he fertilised the development and adaptation of aeroponic production of vegetables.

Deemed the brain behind the success of growing temperate vegetables in the tropics, his aeroponic farming technique was ranked among the top three green solutions worldwide in 2009, and televised by the Discovery Channel.

A less energetic, curious, optimistic, forward-thinking, entrepreneurial person would probably have then been content to continue to further grow within that field. Not Professor Lee. He embarked on a second career.

What seemed a career change when Professor Lee moved into the education pasture, was in essence a different opportunity for him to do what he loved best — growing and nurturing. This time round though it was educators. As he once said “... education and farming share a very strong parallel — they involve the process of nurturing and the goals are to help unleash the potential of either a plant or a child.”

Cultivating Growth and Harvesting Quality

Bringing his dynamic personality and original thinking to bear, in just six short years as the Director of NIE, Professor Lee built on the strong foundation he inherited and used it to grow an innovative and differentiated strategy: to mould NIE into an institution that has ambition, to excel in teaching, to perform useful research, and to be a valuable member of the education fraternity.

This he did while always acknowledging the work of thousands who contributed. In her tribute, Professor Low Ee Ling succinctly sums up his immense contributions. “Prof Lee, though you have gone way too soon, rest assured that your enduring legacy of transforming teaching, inspiring learning and lives locally and globally will far outlive the brevity of your life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you have done for me, for our institute, our university and our nation. May you rest in peace and enjoy everlasting life in heaven.”

To read what Professor Lee accomplished in the education industry alone is breathtaking, but it is the how he achieved it that is inspiring, especially to educators.

He made innovating seem doable and the notion that it was a natural way to think and teach; to see to the core of situations and craft creative actionable solutions; to be a life-long learner, as he was himself.

Watching The Shoots and Blooms

The legacy that he leaves behind is something that current and future educators can draw on as they strive to be the best teacher they can be —“one who can inspire the heart of every student and through this, change their lives not only within the classroom but beyond.”

Professor Tan Oon Seng, Director of NIE elaborated, “…as an NIE community, let us build on Professor Lee’s legacy by continuing to take our mission of teacher education with devotion and excellence, working with a heart of care to transform teaching and learning and ultimately impacting young lives for the better. For this is what he would have hoped for all of us.”

As tributes poured in with news of Professor Lee’s demise, what was revealing was the many facets of Professor Lee’s personality. From humble, inspiring, dynamic, innovative, determined, persuasive, positive, passionate and charming to wise, warm, kind, humourous…

However, from an educator’s standpoint, it is his fierce belief and championing of pedagogy that he will be watching as he rests from above to see that it continues to shoot and bloom.

Professor Cho Youngdal, College of Education, Seoul National University, summed it well by once saying, “Making the world a more pedagogical place” is a pun for teacher educators, but no truer words could be said especially with reference to Professor Lee Sing Kong.

July - September 2017    |    Issue 100 VIEW OLDER ISSUES


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