Principals who put down students have no place in educating our young

By Andrew Loh

‘It is very sad when your principal doesn’t have faith in you and will not give you a chance.’

– Student from school where the principal’s “apply for ITE” remarks sparked outrage.

That sums it up for me. This is the result of what adults can do to children with unthinking and insensitive words. And when such words come from a school principal, it is unforgiveable, really.

The principal had “advised” some 27 Sec 5 students “ to seek transfers to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), since they were unlikely to do well in the O levels this year.” (Straits Times)

The “advice” was given on the very first day of the new school year.

The Straits Times further reported:

“To back her point, she even flashed the girls’ detailed N-level grades on the board in class using an overhead projector; she also stressed that she wanted 100 per cent passes in her school.”

Note: She “stressed” that she wanted 100 per cent passes in her school.

Principal’s impression of ITE and ITE students

From the words, behaviour and tone of words used by the principal, I can’t help but feel that she has a very poor impression of the ITE and ITE students. Which makes me wonder if the principal is aware of how far the ITE has progressed.

In a speech at the opening of the ITE’s new College East campus in 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said:

“ITE itself has grown into an institution that has an international reputation for excellence in technical training. As a World Bank report put it, “ITE has achieved significant breakthrough by establishing itself as a post-secondary institution. It has effectively rebuilt and transformed its former ‘vocational’ institutes into top-line educational colleges. ITE has given skilled occupations a new social and economic importance, creating viable careers for its graduates.”

If that praise was not enough, the ITE also won the Harvard Award from Harvard University in 2007 which “recognises the world’s most transformative government programme with profound impact on citizens’ lives.” (Asia One)

Education minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam added his praise by describing the ITE as a “jewel in Singapore’s education system”.

Asia One also reported:

“The chairman of ITE’s board of governors, Mr Bob Tan, said a unique feature was its nurturing quality. ‘When students come to the ITE, they have a self-image of people who cannot make it. It’s a matter of raising their confidence.”

It’s The End – if educators and ministers put students down

Instead of taking a firm stand in support of the students, Minister of State for Education Lui Tuck Yew steps in and defended the principal. According to the Straits Times:

“Speaking to reporters after a teachers’ investiture at the National Institute of Education, Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui said it was important to separate the ‘tone’ from the ‘substance’ of the message.”

The minister was also quoted as saying:

‘We can calibrate the tone, we can soften it, improve on the presentation, but there is a lot of work to be done between Secondary 4 and Secondary 5.’

‘Principals need to do their job to convey this message to the students and teachers to do their part to challenge them, set high goals and to help them achieve these goals.’

I am amazed that the minister would put his weight behind the principal’s words and actions – “conveying this message”, as he put it. Flashing the students’ results with an overhead projector in class? Stressing that she wanted 100 per cent passes? Telling the students to apply to the ITE because “they were unlikely to do well in the O levels this year”?

And doing all these on the very first day of school?

Conveying the message indeed.

The minister then goes on:

“’We will be hit by storms, there will be waves, we will be lashed by the winds… but we can be responsible for how we respond to it.”

The minister seems to have forgotten that it is not only how each person responds to challenges that is important but also the way leaders encourage and inspire others in times of challenges that are just as important, if not more so.

You do not try and get people to be ‘responsible’ by putting them down – especially when the people are young, impressionable students. And certainly, you do not do this in front of an entire class by flashing their results using an overhead projector!

Irony – PM Vs Principal

In his speech at the College East campus, PM Lee described an example of an ITE student, Sairin Sani, who did well:

“Last year, I visited ITE College Central (MacPherson) and met one ITE graduate, Sairin Sani. He came from the Normal stream and had little interest in his studies while he was in school. But his life turned around when he enrolled in ITE.

He took to ITE’s hands-on training like a duck to water, and regained his confidence and zest for learning. From ITE, Sairin went on to polytechnic and then to NTU, where he graduated with first-class honours in Mechanical and Production Engineering. He is now pursuing his dream career in aerospace engineering.”

PM Lee also described the achievements of another ITE alumni, Johnny Tng. PM Lee would make a better school principal, it seems. He related real life examples of ITE students who did well in what obviously was an attempt to encourage and inspire present and future ITE students.

This is what the school principal should have done, instead of her demoralizing and disheartening rhetoric of doom and gloom.

The bigger picture

The importance of ITE graduates cannot be discounted, especially in our small population of Singaporeans. As the Minister for Community, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan, said:

Together as a cohort, ITE students will form up to 25% of our future workforce. You have a significant role to play in our economy and to the building of our nation.” (MCYS)

25% of our workforce will be made up of ITE graduates. Now, that is something to think about – especially for teachers, instructors and yes, principals. Yet, that should not be the reason why we should refrain from demoralising our students. The only reason why we must be patient in nurturing and inspiring our young, perhaps, should be because it is simply a joy to mould young minds, see them succeed and make something of themselves in life.

Now, that calls for a breed of special people dedicated and dedicating their lives to the task – teachers, principals, parents and friends.

My last words will be for ITE students themselves. And here I would like to quote PM Lee and blogger I Am Not A Geek:

PM Lee:

The Singapore education system will provide many avenues to suit different needs, with many routes up and many ways to succeed.”

Blogger I Am Not A Geek:

I wish those Sec 5 girls all the best. Do not give up, the ‘O’ level is actually easier than you think, trust me! Just work hard, and never listen to people who tell you that you are a gone case.”

Principals who put down students have no place in educating our young – no matter how you “separate the tone from the substance”.


Read also: Sharing with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong from the ITE website.


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