Not until my stint at my first school posting as a beginning teacher had I seen or felt what it was like to be on the other end of the social world – a world where opportunities are limited and one where I have to fight every day to keep my self-esteem intact. Neither am I, then and now, on the other scale where resources are easy to come by and I don’t have to worry about my bills. In short, I am wedged in, what you may call, a ‘sandwiched class’. Differences in social class has never presented itself so overtly until I taught in a mainstream school.
I was posted to St. Margaret’s Secondary School after graduating from the National Institute of Education (NIE) in 2001. I was the young adult, gushing with ideals and armed with loads of creative ideas fresh from teacher training. I had wanted to make a difference, as any beginning teacher would tell you, and that was the sole reason for choosing the path I did.
I was given three classes- two Express classes and one Normal Technical (NT) class. My first reaction was “Gosh! How am I going to teach the NT class? I wasn’t trained in NIE to teach lower ability students. What are they like?” I was worried. All my lesson plans had been created for Express level students. What should I do?
I studied the NT English syllabus, and I realised the great difference in the skills required between the Express and the NT students. The NT English paper is highly scaffolded and the language is rather basic. Upon further scrutiny and a little research, I discovered that the NT students’ end goal was a vocational path. The educational outcomes at the Secondary school would equip them with knowledge of basic literacy and numeracy skills, so as to progress to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), where they would learn specialised skills and secure a job as soon as they graduate.
Initial Reaction: Naïve Idealism?
I was disturbed by the disparity. I could not reconcile the great disparity in the learning outcomes set out in the different syllabi. Are NT students really incapable of learning what the Express students do? I refused to believe things were meant to be the way it was. I rejected the idea that kids at the age of thirteen should be sifted out, labelled and branded as Express or Normal. In a society where labelling groups of people would translate to perception bias and, consequently, treating the relevant groups of people as such, I was adamant to prove the system wrong.
I could hear the screams and shouts from fifty metres away as I walked along the corridor of classrooms towards Class 1-8. “Eight is the last digit or class in the level” I was told. I see. I had calibrated my expectations before I picked up my teaching materials to meet Class 1-8 for the first time. I had tried to recall all the stories I had heard from teacher friends about their Normal students. The students’ repulsive insolence; their physical untidiness; their lack of respect for teachers; their fights; their brushes with the law, and so forth. Why do they always relate these stories as if they were from the Horror genre? It can’t be that bad, can it? Truth be told, I wasn’t prepared to find out the answers.
I stopped short in my tracks at the doorway of Class 1-8. A puny girl took one quick glance at me and hollered, “Teacher here! Teacher here!” There was a sudden hush as all eyes fixate on me. I made eye contact with each and every one of them. There were a couple of overturned chairs; papers and textbooks were strewn on the floor, and a rather big girl was lying on the floor at the back of the classroom. She quickly scrambled to her feet. She hastily neatened her skirt and brushed her arms, and ran back to her seat. Keep your cool, I repeated to myself. I walked slowly to the teacher’s table, placed my stuff down and turned to write on the whiteboard. The squeaking of the whiteboard marker marking the surface of the whiteboard was the only sound in the room. After I was done, I turned to face them.
New Expectations: New Lessons in Class
“Good morning ladies,” I said.
Silence. I could see some of their eyes searching their friends’ for answers.
“Good morning ladies,” I repeated.
“Good morning, Mrs. Chua,” a voice, loud and firm rang out from in front. The same puny girl stood erect with arms straightened at her sides, her face resolute. The rest of the class chimed in.
Their eyes were filled with apprehension and curiosity. It’s the beginning of the year, the start of their new journey as secondary school students. However, I had to remind myself of my new class policy. I’ve always believed that discipline must be in place first before learning can occur. Hence I’ve always adhered to the mantra: Do not smile for the first 4 weeks. And I had intended to see that through.
I saw through my no-smile policy and I was able to carry out most of what I had planned in my lesson plans. Undoubtedly, there were many instances of interruptions and disruptions from a few who had special needs. But what really surprised and touched me was how the rest of the class would try to explain to me their friends’ special needs. They understood and they could empathise, and they hoped that I would, too. That was my first lesson I’d learnt from my NT students during the first week of school. They had taught me about life.
During the first few weeks, the students were sizing me up – they were trying to figure out what my perception of them was, and whether they could trust me. I had to keep reminding myself to be firm and fair towards them. By the end of the first month, I found myself opening up to them about myself – my likes and dislikes, and my hobbies. I was careful about what I shared with them. I didn’t want them to feel lousy about not being able to do the things I had done. They had shared with me about their frustrations with family problems and financial difficulties, and most of all how they truly wanted to do well at school because “everybody looks down on us”. About 80% of them come from low income families. My idealism did not allow me to accept what I had heard from their mouths. On that particular day, I had to throw out my lesson plan for Class 1-8.
They are Them, and We are Us
It was my first lesson on class differences. I was to learn that the Express girls, and even the Normal (Academic) [NA] girls, would disassociate themselves from them. I asked them whether they had friends from the Express or NA streams, they would chorus, with vehemence, that “They don’t like us. They say we are stupid.” A handful of them mentioned one or two names from the Express stream whom they were friends with, “but not close friends”. When I asked some more questions about the other students’ behaviours towards them, some of their replies became more indignant, while others had the look of resignation etched on their faces. I had to back off. I knew I wouldn’t be able to answer any of their imminent questions why the Express and NA girls saw them as such.
I had come to accept the fact that they are most comfortable speaking Singlish and that some of their outbursts are their way of gaining my attention. I had come to accept the fact that sometimes when they don’t hand in their homework, it’s because there was a huge quarrel in the family the day before; or a family member was very ill and she had to take care of him or her; or the police had arrested one of their family members; or there was no electricity in the house. I had come to accept that they are who they are because of their family backgrounds, and not because they choose to be where they are.
I remembered this sense of surreality- a feeling of unreal juxtaposed in an authentic situation. I had read about the plight of low income families in the media, but now I was confronted with all its realisms. It took me a long while to reconcile with the harsh realities of social inequality. I wasn’t prepared for it. I had neither lesson plans nor backup plans to help me handle the stark truth. I only had my own childhood experiences of broken hearts and relationships to share with them. That was the key that bonded us.
Believing in Them
I had kept it a secret. It was the puny girl sitting right in front who asked me the moment I had stepped into class a few months later. “Mrs. Chua, how come you give us the same worksheets as the Express?”
“How did you find out?” I sounded like I was caught red-handed.
“Er… My friend in Express told me about this poem you shared with them. Then I told her we also did the same,” she replied. By now all their ears were perked up.
“Well, why not? Why must you do different things from them?” I asked. The look of bewilderment on their faces spoke volumes. “You can read the same materials as they do,” I said. “The only difference is the worksheet questions.”
It was immediately followed by a that-would-make-a-little-more-sense-look on their faces and a whimsical smile broke across their faces. It was as if I had given them the materials meant for the Express stream by mistake; it was as if they were not supposed to be on par with their Express counterparts; it was as if they could not better themselves if they wanted to. Yes, the Vice Principal had noticed the similarity in materials when she had checked my Express and NT students’ files. She affirmed me on my endeavours and, subsequently, she sat in for a lesson observation during a lesson I had with my NT class. If I had to pick a class for another lesson observation, I would choose my NT class again.
Shaping My Lenses
My profession has taken me on a road to self-discovery, a discovery of not only the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots, but also a discovery of my raw reactions and responses to this group of marginalised people in our society. My classroom discourse was shaped by how much I had learnt about their family backgrounds, and their special needs. It was a narrative of comfort and affirmation with the belief that each of them will rise from their circumstances with hard work and resilience. But we all know- from the bottom of our hearts- they will need to work much, much harder than their Express and NA friends to be at the same starting point.