Friday, May 13, 2016

Has the System Failed Us?

How is everyone doing? This should be exam-marking time for most of you. If you are neck-deep in papers to be marked and panicking over the worksheets to be returned, hang in there! It will all be over in 2 weeks!

The following comic came up in my Facebook feed today which made me think of our exam system, I wonder if any of you have seen this:

If you switch the tree with the PSLE exam, I suppose that makes the monkey the middle progress (MP) student, the bird the higher progress (HP) and the rest lower progress (LP). It might even put the seal and the penguin in the Learning Support Programme (LSP) and the elephant in the School-based Dyslexia Remediation programme (SDR).

I know there will be some people who will protest that I'm making a mockery out of the LSP and SDR programmes and the students enrolled in these programmes really do benefit from them. However, that is not the point. Yes, there are weak readers and dyslexic students who really need the LSP and SDR programmes. They do improve with the additional guidance and it can make a difference in their academic performance.

This is the point I'm trying to make: That we have these programmes to help them succeed in OUR SYSTEM, not necessarily always to help them find their own.

Consider this, that ever since the PSLE system was first formed, it has continued to assess in the same medium, that of a written paper. It is fully impartial, like that of blind Justice. It sets out a set of standards and expectations, and it weighs its candidates according to those.

This is one of its strengths, but it also leads to its weaknesses.

It does not, for example, acknowledge PROGRESS. It does not see that a student may have strenuously struggled with the Chinese language for 6 years and finally passed for the first time in the exam. It only sees a C.

It does not acknowledge SOCIALIZATION SKILLS. It does not acknowledge what we know as the 'people skills'. This may include the ability to lead, to motivate a team to a common goal, the ability to work in a team etc. Ironically, these traits may even be stronger factors of a person's success in the corporate world than their PSLE or O level grades.

It does not acknowledge CREATIVITY, from the wide-ranging vision of a CEO who may scout out new directions for a company right down to the practising artist who thinks of new ways of creating art.

I write this because I have seen the system fail some of my past students in these ways. I saw kids who couldn't read a word in Primary 1 finally write out 80 words in a (somewhat) coherent composition in Primary 2, who would fail because the composition had too many grammatical mistakes to make the passing grade. I also saw kids who would work hard every night on their own with minimal parental supervision have their efforts rewarded with a barely-passing mark above 50. Of course, I also saw kids who were masters of leadership, who did badly in their exams and yet could plot and instigate other kids to do their bidding. (For the sake of the country, I hope they used their leadership powers for good in the end.)

Whenever some of the above situations occur, the system impartially puts a failing grade on them. And for all the changes in the PSLE system since the very first paper, it remains the same. That is, of a written paper which tests reading, writing, listening and analytical skills (in the case of Math and Science). If the system cannot assess, monitor or reward our kids in the 3 areas I mentioned above, then instead of having it fail our kids, we should say IT HAS FAILED us.

As of now, I cannot decide where the blame lies. Do we blame the system, for only rewarding the A students who were lucky enough to be born with brains and those born with the money to go for tuition and enrichment? Do we blame society, for catering to the system and demanding higher levels of accountability? For letting the system stay in place without higher demands for change at a more profound level?

*Sigh* Such big questions just because I've been marking some English papers. I'm not sure anyone can answer them easily in my lifetime but maybe, if some people read this, think about it and start changing mindsets, I'd be satisfied enough. For now, enough with the big questions, away from the keyboard and back to the red pen...

What do you think? Do you agree about the system or not? Why do you do so? Please leave your thoughts in the comments! (Trolls will be sent out of class)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Just do the corrections

Recently, I was talking about the good old days with a friend. She reminded of something I had forgotten and as we talked further, I felt the emotions from long ago rise up again.

Slightly more than 10 years ago, I went for my interview at MOE HQ. I hadn't thought about it much since then, but my friend reminded me how devastated I was after that. "Do you remember," she chuckled, "That you were so sure that you wouldn't be chosen and that you would be unemployed for the rest of your life?"

Then I started to remember. I remembered how all my prepared answers flew out the window as the panel of interviewers shot questions in rapid-fire. I remembered how totally unimpressive my answers were and that I was sure I had screwed it up somehow.

I was pretty upset after the interview, to be sure. I had been unemployed for about a year and I had been giving tuition to support myself. The MOE interview was one of the last bets I had to secure a decent-paying job. I didn't manage to say any of the answers I had rehearsed with my friend and after the interview, I sat with her at McDonald's wailing over a cup of coke, lost about my future and whether I would ever get a full time job.

When I remembered that, other memories then surfaced. I also remembered the first class I ever had as a BT, how I couldn't handle the problem students and how I felt imprisoned because of the bond. All the optimism I felt at NIE was gone and I felt helpless. I couldn't handle the students, I couldn't leave because of the bond and all the other BTs seemed to be doing fine or even better than me.

I wondered whether to leave after my bond.

The years passed again. I remembered a particularly bad observation. The kind that was so bad, I had to have another observation, which was even worse. The kind where the students didn't listen, didn't do the work properly, where I became even more panicked because they were getting out of hand and the fact that my RO was there frowning in the corner made me even more panicked and of course, things rapidly spiralled out of hand.

Of course, the evaluation I received at the end of that, suffice to say, was not excellent. I didn't want to face my colleagues in the staff room, who would ask me how it went. I just sat alone in the classroom after dismissing the kids for recess, wondering if I was ever cut out for this job and maybe it was all one big horrendous mistake. Even now, thinking about it makes my heart sting, despite all the years that have passed since then.

The funny thing is, it's been 10 years and I'm still here. I've been saying that to myself a lot because to me, it's such a miracle that all these screw-ups happened to me and yet, I'm still here. I've seen people cleverer and more capable than I was leave the service. I've seen others lapse into depression after getting the same bad evaluations that I did. I've also seen less capable people stay on due to well-played politics.

And of course, I've seen classes of children, good and bad, come, study and graduate.

Maybe reaching that 10-year mark was something of a tipping point for me. After reaching this point and experiencing some of the lows that I did, I realised that there was nothing really that could faze me, except myself. Despite all the bad and really terrible times I went through, I still made it, plodding along, slowly but surely. I created a sort of mantra for myself. If it doesn't get it killed or fired, then I would be fine. I would be upset, surely, but I would learn and get through, because I had already gone through so much other worse stuff.

Perhaps that is the advantage that the class failure has. The lesson that if you can get through failure, you learn better how to survive it and thrive from it.

Today, I screwed up again at work, though thankfully on a more minor matter. I felt the same upset feeling again, but this time, compared to the past others, was slightly different. This time, there was also a little voice telling me,

Just do the corrections.

I had to laugh. It was my own voice, the same voice that I told the kids again and again in class. Maybe reminding me of the same encouragement that I would give to any kid struggling with the times table or even to add 2 and 2. The voice I used to tell the kids not to give up on your mistakes, to do the corrections for it and learn from it. Mistakes are ok. If you don't get it now, as long as you try again, you'd get it eventually, and I know you'd get it if you just keep trying.

So to anyone struggling in their career, having a bad time with the kids or even a worse time with the adults, to anyone who's felt that they would never ever finish the marking, who's felt that they would never get through to the kids,

Or to anyone who's ever felt that you're a failure as a teacher and that you'll never make it.

You're not bad, you're not stupid and you're not a failure as a teacher.

Hang in there, do the corrections, learn from your mistakes. You will get there in the end.

Take this lesson, not from the successes around you, but from the account of one who's already failed before and who's still around.

And you know what? One day, you will reach the 10, 20 or even 30 year mark. Maybe, like me, you will also look back and wonder that you made it through after all.