The Equitable Education Conference 2020 ‘All for Education’ conference hosted by Thailand encompassed 60 thinkers, reformers and educators who had contributed to refurbish the world over the past half-century — brainstorming over the pitfalls of equitable education against the heavy-metal chapter of COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the striking discussions marks on School Leadership and Management.
Chua-lim yen ching, Executive Director, Academy of Singapore Teachers, and the Deputy Director-General of Education, Ministry of Education, Singapore, introduced NorthLight School’s leadership pursuit to integrate those underprivileged children in education and ultimately recreate the learning sphere to morph into equitable education.
NorthLight School: The darker the sky, the brighter the stars
As Executive Director, Academy of Singapore Teachers, NorthLight School has fostered opportunity-deprived and poor children to lifelong learning, she shared her opinion,
“Typically, in Singapore we have 6 years on primary school education and after they achieve their 6-year course, they are required to take the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE). And those who are able to clear the PSLE, they will move on to secondary school education. However, If they fail to clear the PSLE, they are required to genuinely repeat a year to reassure that they are ready to pass through the higher level of education.
“We conceptualised the school way back in 2006, then we started to take on the first batch of students in 2007. Our objective has been ruled that we provide the students a choice. Instead of repeating another year in primary school, they will be given a choice to study at NorthLight as we are fully funded by the government. What is important is that we need to have a compelling vision, and a mission for the school.
“When we first established the school, we knew that some of the children came from very difficult backgrounds in which they may not have experienced success in their lives, so we needed to keep up tightly with them. What we had done was just activating the first light and it finally became the school’s logo.
“Among the combination of purple and white, you will notice the star emerging right in the school’s logo. For us, purple represents the colour of a dark sky while white the colour of the star. So, we encourage our teachers and students to always remember — the darker it gets, the brighter it shines.
“These corporate colours are very important because you will catch purple and white right away when you enter the school. They are a very motivating factor for the students.
“Looking at another potential-driven aspect, the teacher’s factor is also very important. When we first conceptualised the school, we actually told the Minister of Education that teachers should not be reshuffled to the school as we wanted the teachers to apply for the school.
“You might be wondering whether our distinctive students were a little bit more challenging to teach, would there be any teachers who would like to apply for the school. But we do believe that it is important for our teachers to be passionate and competent.
“Back in 2006, when we recruited the first batch of teachers across the region, more than 150 nominees turned up while we only needed 20 to teach our first batch of students in 2007. Once we had identified the right and passionate gear to match our primary principles, it was when we got the right people up to the bus, and found them the right seat.
“And now we had our teachers with us. We also believe in collective relationship. Some people may be very competent, very passionate, but they are not really a team player. So, we could not accept them into our community because the collective relationship is something that the school believes in. Once the ingredients are merged, we find that, slowly, the students begin to smilingly respond.”
Worthy-nurtured bond within the community
According to the primary course’s atmosphere, the former executive director shared that the students were happy. Happiness was not only castled in the school but also the outside terrain. Bystanders took NorthLight as another alternative for learning space. Despite having resigned for 8 years during which two directors had taken over, she said those versatile masters managed to guide the school into grace, to the next S curve.
The previous master recalled: “In fact, I want to share with you a very touching story that happened just last December. A private company that has been a good partner with the school had faced drastic changes, forcing them to re-strategise their business plan. Towards the end of December, they held a very big clearance sale to cut down the cost. Unfortunately, they only had 14 staff, insufficient to manage the event.
“The boss took a picture and sent it to me. In that picture, I saw the alumni of the school trained by the company during the time they were studying here. All of them graduated and are already working, but they agreed to take leave and went back to the company and rendered their supports.
“And that is very encouraging to know that they are responding to this after leaving the school 6 years ago. So, they are paying forward. I actually delivered my complimenting note to the present principal.”
“While the technology is daring to build first-class robots, we, as educators, must try to build our first-class humans. And the students truly respect the spirit of empathy and gratitude. When we look back, it is really gratifying and it was challenging at times.”
Complementing leaders’ key characteristic and issues
Based on her administering expertise on underprivileged children’s education, she had sculpted the leadership character to the school, addressing that this identity could impact equitable education.
Ms. Chua pointed out: “Missions and visions are not just elements put up on the wall or a plain order stamping on a written mission — the teachers need to believe in it. So, when we have this group of children, the very important part is that we all must believe that if we are here to run this school, we need to give them hope. “Hope”, is an extremely powerful word for young people —and hope is not about wishful thinking but unwavering expectations.
“Many of our children have been experiencing repeated failure; or they have not experienced successes; or their livelihood has been very challenging. As a result of that, they lose hope and become deprived very often. They lose hope, alright, but it is important that the school leader as well as the teachers give them back their hopes. This is our mission.
“The process to fulfill such mission is to change a bit of our mental models. For example, if I ask you to give me one adjective of a ruler, I am very sure that almost 90% would say that the ruler needs to be ‘straight’ because you use it to measure something. But take a look at this ruler (picking up a curved ruler). This ruler is not straight at all because it doesn’t need to be straight. So sometimes, in pure oblivion, our mental model limits us. We might take it for granted for how much this group of children could achieve in life. That’s too hard, we cannot help them.
“We all must have our desired future (picking up an elastic band). If we were a rubber band and we resisted stretching, it would be very painful because it was very tense. So one way to release tension, if we relaxed the lower part (holding the top), we felt better because the tension was being released. Veering out of the goal seems to mean that we abandon our aspiration, but in the meantime, we could hold tight to our desired future and bring up the current reality (loosening the lower part).
“Our school was initially located in the east side of Singapore, so when the students registered, the teachers realised that many of them stayed in the north, taking quite a long journey to school. The teacher demanded at first that 85% of the students must come to school every day as we could tolerate only 15% absence. Some even proposed to lessen the expectation to 65%. But we needed to stick to our aspiration and goal, so what happened was the school provided three buses to pick them up daily from a train station. Look, this is when you overcome your predicament without ignoring your goal — and we still achieved 85% attendance.
“If the students cannot make it, even if you integrate the best programme, you cannot execute it out.”
Developing teachers’ capability, weaving inclusive community
NorthLight School could effectively navigate equitable education because they insightfully develop teachers’ capability, the key operator of Singapore’s educational system.
Ms. Chua revealed: “When it comes to learning, we can never say that we have arrived. Teachers must be proactive and well-aware all the time. For example, during this COVID-19 pandemic, we regulated a one-month circuit breaker; our teachers returned to their homes and worked very hard to initiate online home-based learning. Ultimately, they were able to come up with the effective lessons.
An aim to motivate ineffable engagement for teachers as a collective ace, Ms.Chua raised three ropes and tied the identical colours as one to expose the situation when teachers project that their works are excluded from others. On the other hand, if the ropes are tied continuously until they are long enough to make a circle, the formulation discloses the mind-trained collective working culture — that all exist as one.
“In Singapore, we have this thing called ‘Teacher Ownership and Teacher Leadership’. For us, we have a career path for teachers where they can be promoted to the senior teacher, the lead teacher and the master teacher consecutively. Fortunately, in our country, the teachers must be trained at least 16 months to two years of pre-service depending on their different programmes. And because we do not need to worry so much about the funding, we could fully focus on the professional aspect.”
A question was raised concerning the greater scale of education. As an ex-executive director running a large school under the Ministry of Education, what are the practical guidelines to integrate those school principals to facilitate equitable education for underprivileged students?
“Besides adopting the professional know-how for teachers, the comprehensive professional development roadmap will be applied to train them in a formal manner before they officially plot the in-service as the school leader. Our first principle is to have a compelling vision;
“The second principle, we need to change our own mental models by redefining success. I will give you one example for a mental model; when you enter NorthLight, you will see the poster on the wall. The school has this fair share of CCTV, but our teachers go further in creativity because they attach lists of good-mannered bulletin instead. They also design the shrewd solution in some area by saying, ‘If you vandalise all this stuff, we would be very sad, from your teacher’, not that — ‘You will be punished.’
“The third principle is collective relationship, not only the teachers themselves but the community and parents, living together at the same side of the fence. I will give you a few examples, in Singapore, we have a big bakery located in the central area. They provide free buns for our children every morning for the first six years. Secondly, we have a group of about 40 Chevy drivers. They said that if a child was sick, you just needed to call one of them. The one staying nearest to the school will pick up the kid. This is safer than taking a taxi or public transportation. The last one was this sponsor. Craving Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream is just a simple dream, right? But they have been sponsoring us for around 10 years since 2007. Every child gets a cup of Ben & Jerry’s ice-scream. So what happened was this boy, who once was benefited from this cup of Ben & Jerry’s ice-scream, brought back the 850 cups of ice-scream to his juniors so that they could experience what he had experienced 10 years ago.
“Looking at the large range of scale in Singapore’s educational system, we do not allocate equal amounts of funding to every school. For example, if the school is struggling with their high needs, we give them two counselors instead of one. Welfare officers will knock at their doors and encourage them to come to school. We also systematically set up the so-called ‘UP Lift’ office, in collaboration with other ministries, to elevate their carefully-polished education towards social and family development.”
All of this is part of Chua-lim yen ching’s dialogue about her realistic experiences which include a change in mental modules and teacher development that had been integrated into the inclusive community network. ‘The darker the sky, the brighter the stars.’ is carpeted as the core value to generate Singapore’s equitable education. This is the overview of the strong spirit of Chua-lim yen ching, Executive Director, Academy of Singapore Teachers, and the Deputy Director-General of Education, Ministry of Education, Singapore, and countless beautiful lessons she expressed in the School Leadership and Management Conference.