Speech by Mr Heng Swee Keat at the NIE Teachers’ Investiture Ceremony
Thank you for inviting me to join you on this special day. Your teachers and your loved ones are proud of you. Let’s take a moment to thank all the guides, mentors, and supporters who have made today possible.
I am especially proud to join you at this Teachers’ Investiture Ceremony – not just for the people you have grown to be, or the people you will go on to be, but for the many people who will themselves grow to achieve their dreams, because of you. A teacher’s job is different from all other jobs – you are in the profession of shaping lives. When you do your job with skill and with heart, your impact is immeasurable.
Care for Our Students
Let me share a story from a student’s viewpoint. I almost met a young man recently whose story shows just what a teacher can do. I say “almost met” because it was at his graduation ceremony, where, amidst the crowd, we never got a chance to talk. But this young man was so determined, he wrote me a long note afterwards. He told me, when he was young, he played truant, got into fights, almost flunked his PSLE. He started in an EM3 class because he was a weak student. His family was very poor and his parents were illiterate. They were in no position to help him. He went to the Normal (Technical) stream, then worked his way to ITE, polytechnic, and then to the Singapore Institute of Technology. In SIT, he was an active student leader. He has just got his degree from the DigiPen Institute of Technology, one of the best in animation, and he has a good job now where he likes his company and his company really values him.
Reading his email, I was intrigued and I asked him: “Who made a difference in your life?” This time, he sent me an even longer email. That email was very touching to me because he detailed every single teacher from primary school through SIT, how so many people made a difference in his life, and he remembered every one of them by name. One of them, Mr Soh, taught him Math in lower secondary. In his letter, he wrote: “Mr Soh told the class that he would give a remedial lesson but it ended up that I was the only one who went. Mr Soh said, ‘Even if you’re the only student, I will still teach’.” Today, this young man says, “If I meet any young person today who wants my help, I will give him all my time. Because someone else did it for me.”
He is a remarkable young man. I am not sharing his name because I have not had his permission. But I think you, as teachers, may find this interesting. In primary school, his personal ethos was this: “I stole and I fought and I lied. But there was one thing I would never do. I would never fail to greet my teachers. No matter how naughty I was, I always showed respect to my teachers.”
In fact, one time in secondary school, he got into trouble for fighting. When he was being disciplined for it, he was very agitated. But it wasn’t because he wanted to get out of punishment. He blurted out, “It’s Teachers’ Day!” In his schoolbag (which had hardly any books in it), he had Teachers’ Day cards for his old primary school teachers, and he was in a hurry to rush back to his old primary school to pass them the cards in person before the school day ended.
I think any teacher would feel inspired to meet such a student. Indeed, it is the privilege of the teacher to be able to shape lives in such a deep way. I was very struck by the number of teachers who made such a difference to this young man’s life. Each them probably did not realise at the time how profoundly, and positively, they were shaping him. This is one thing that training alone cannot bring about. It takes heart, care, a deep sense of duty, and an even deeper sense of responsibility that as teachers, you have a unique power to bring something to the lives of our students, in a way that helps each child get the better of his personal challenges, in a way that brings out the best in every child.
Not only the children, but their families, and the larger community, place faith in our teachers to do your very best for the children. This young man shows his faith by honouring his teachers no matter what – I think it is a faith well-placed, but it is also a faith that our teaching fraternity must continually earn, through the way we care and do our best for our students. I have faith you will do your best.
Care for Our Teachers
Now, while the work of a teacher is very exciting and inspiring, it can also be very challenging. In some aspects of your work, there are very clear boundaries, for example pertaining to duties and professional relationships with students and colleagues. These are absolutely clear and you must work within these boundaries. But there are other areas where boundaries are less clear, for example how much time to spend when you want to do your best for every student. Let me share some thoughts, if it can help you be the best teachers you can possibly be.
My first thought is this: you must take good care of yourselves, even as you care for your students. First, learn to draw a professional boundary. With the caring teachers I have met, the greatest challenge is not about timetables, or marking, or even the handful of unreasonable parents with unreasonable demands or complaints. With the caring teachers I’ve met, the greater challenge is always about not being able to stop caring. I know of teachers who cannot sleep at night out of worry for some of their students, and teachers who will spend extra hours outside of work giving additional help to students. Just as you cannot stop a child who wants to learn, you cannot stop a teacher who wants to teach. But you must also learn to make enough time for yourself, for your personal health and growth, so that you can be a better teacher to your students.
There is no rule on how to draw this line. For example, I cannot say to you, as soon as your last class of the day is over, you stop being a teacher. Teaching is a calling to be measured not semester by semester, not grade by grade, but life by life. If you ever find yourself beginning to count your work hour by hour, day by day, then I suggest you take a moment and ask yourself, will this next effort be of help to your students? Will it help them grow? Will it help them become better people? If the answer is yes, and you have the capacity, by all means, push the frontiers to be a better teacher. Teaching is an art and these are some of the lines you will draw and redraw throughout your career. It can prove challenging, especially for beginning teachers, but even for experienced ones. It is a question of balance, and that is why it is important to walk your teaching journey with trusted mentors and friends.
Second, always find the joy and purpose in what you do. You explored these questions in NIE courses such as Education Psychology, Social Context of Teaching and Learning, and Teaching Practicum. Once you start work, keep finding the mentors and peers who can boost your sense of joy and purpose in your work.
Third, keep learning and growing. You are graduating from NIE, and have earned your place amongst our education fraternity. Yet there is always room to grow. Keep the spirit of the curious student alive in yourself.
MOE is committed to supporting you in your learning journey. Every year, MOE awards the Postgraduate Scholarship (PGS) to outstanding Education Officers to deepen our teachers’ knowledge in key subjects and specialised areas. 57 officers will be receiving this scholarship today. Another 28 officers have been awarded the Postgraduate Award (PGA), which was introduced to provide more opportunities for our teachers to deepen your professional expertise. I encourage you to make the best use of these opportunities to hone your teacher’s craft.
These are my heartfelt tips to you, as a person who has worked many years. I personally draw inspiration from the many dedicated school leaders, teachers and MOE officers I meet every day. I wish for you the fortune of coming to work everyday with people who inspire and move you. When the work gets heavy, try out the advice I shared. Remember to take good care of yourselves, even as you continue to do your best for your students. MOE, the teaching fraternity, and our larger community will support you too.
Outstanding Educators – OYEA recipients
Our teachers, whether they have been part of the teaching fraternity for many years or just a few, touch the lives of students in ways big and small. Today, I am happy to honour five young teachers for their extraordinary work and for inspiring their students. The Outstanding Youth in Education Award (OYEA) this year goes to Miss Gidwani Poojalal from Haig Girls’ School; Mdm Nur Ain Binte Ahmad from Park View Primary School; Ms Lin Xiaojun from Chestnut Drive Secondary School; Mr Mohamed Ashiq Bin Mohamed Elias from Pasir Ris Secondary School; and Miss Khairiah Bte Hairoman from Peirce Secondary School.
Each OYEA teacher has his or her own way of bringing excellence into teaching. Gidwani has a passion for holistic development, Nur Ain is an excellent classroom practitioner, Xiaojun infuses her work with socio-emotional learning, Ashiq encourages the sharing of teaching strategies among teachers, and Khairiah pairs academic teaching with character development. Just as each child is different and has his own unique needs, there are many ways in which you can excel at bringing out the best in your students. My heartiest congratulations to the OYEA winners!
We have been giving out the OYEA for 15 years now. Teacher excellence is not a quirk – it is the standard – in our schools. Every year, many young teachers are put up for the award whose idealism and innovativeness give us much cause for hope. These young teachers show care for their students’ character and moral development while motivating, challenging and inspiring them to achieve their full potential. The ethos and enthusiasm of our OYEA recipients shows that our young teaching force is a strength in our education system. You, and our many other dedicated teachers, are the true face of our schools – I am very happy to celebrate your achievements.
Thinking back to the young man I talked about earlier on, I hope that you will have the opportunity, in your career, to make an impact -like the many teachers who have had an impact on this young man. I hope you will remember to treat yourselves and your fellow teachers with the same care you show your students. I hope you will find peers and mentors with whom you can share the joys and challenges that come with doing a job unlike any other. And I hope, one day, your students will write letters to future Education Ministers, filled with gratitude and respect, to name and thank all the teachers who helped them become all that they want to be.
Let me end by extending a warm welcome to all of you into our MOE family! Thank you.