I just saw an inspiring commercial on TV for people to join the teaching profession. It reminded me of how important it is to believe in someone. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to believe in them, and it can mean a difference to a kid’s life. And it reminded me of a student I once had – Alan.
I first met Alan when he was in Secondary One. I had the fortune, or misfortune, to be his form teacher. Later on I found out he was from the primary school next door, where my aunt used to teach. I asked her if she knew him, and did she know him! He was in a programme for at-risk kids in her school and she was overseeing the programme. More interestingly, my husband and another friend used to volunteer at the programme and they both knew Alan too. So I got quite acquainted with Alan even before class really started.
Alan was the typical hyperactive Secondary One boy. He got into mischief. A lot. And was very disruptive and loud in class. I remember Teachers’ Day of 2007. Alan waited for me behind the door in his class, armed with a water bomb. I got alerted by his classmates (good thing I had them on my side!) and disaster was averted. To show him how mad I was, I refused to go to class for the Teachers’ Day celebration, until he came to apologise, upon pressure from his classmates. The lesson for him to learn was that he had to apologise for his mistakes, and not think he could do as he wished and get away with it! Being attacked by a water bomb was just not my idea of a wonderful Teachers’ Day celebration.
Each day as I stepped into class, I wondered what tricks this boy might be up to. Could it be taking the glass panes off the window slabs again? Or hiding his friend’s belongings? Or bullying? (One time he sent a text message to a boy he and his group of friends were ostracizing. He pretended to be a secret admirer, but the boy knew it was Alan and told me about it. Alan feigned ignorance. He was adamant that it wasn’t him. I waited a few hours later before calling the number, and it was his voice on the other end of the line. So much for “I swear it’s not me!”)
With a case as extreme as Alan, the turning point was quite memorable too (although it still took him some time to kick the habit of playing pranks and bullying his friends). I remember the day well.
We had public speaking in English class. I told the class I was grading them and the best presenter would get a prize. Alan surprised us all with his speaking skills. It should have come as no surprise, seeing how good he was at fabricating stories to get him out of trouble. My favourite story of his was how he told my friend, his ex-counsellor, that he was an orphan, and didn’t have much money, and no one to love him. It wasn’t true! He actually has good parents who both had good jobs. So Alan won the prize for best public speaking.
When I presented him with the prize, which was a little purple stapler, you could see the pride underneath his cool exterior. He muttered thanks. But it was the way he took care of the stapler that showed how much winning this meant to him. When his friends needed to borrow his stapler, you could hear the pride in his voice as he said, “Here, here, you can borrow mine!”
What made a difference was for Alan to realize he could be good at something, that he could do well, and that success was an option.
Alan started to open up to me slowly. I learnt to focus on his strengths and gave him words of encouragement instead of reprimanding words that he had no lack of from everyone around him, teachers and parents alike.
One day, he broke down when I had a heart to heart talk with him about why he had to behave badly, and that he could make a choice to do the right things. He told me that if there was one thing he wished, it was that his dad would stop hitting him in punishment. At that age, what he wanted was for his dad to talk to him like a big boy, a teenager. You could see that underlying that was a need for affirmation from his father. I called his mom to tell her what he confided in me, and to share these thoughts from a teenage boy who didn’t know how to communicate his thoughts and feelings to his parents. His parents are wonderful people and very open to communication. I’m sure his mom talked to his dad about this, because the next time I saw Alan, he was beaming, and I asked him why he was so happy. He told me his family sat down to dinner together the night before, and they talked. It was a simple conversation over a meal, but it meant a lot to him. And as his parents changed the way they dealt with him, you could also see the change in Alan.
As I said, it took some time for Alan to kick those bad habits. But you could see new motivation in him when he got the approval of his parents and his teachers. I wasn’t the only teacher, of course, whom he felt he could approach and who believed in him. He did very well in his CCA too as his teacher gave him leadership opportunities and trusted him with responsibilities that would normally not have been given to him.
Alan later on went to ITE and is hoping to go to Poly next.
I got a Facebook message from Alan today. He wanted to let me know he’s graduating from ITE with Early Childhood Studies, no less! And was scouted by soccer coach, Fandi Ahmad to play for him last year! He’s pursuing his passion indeed. And then he went on to say, “A lot has happened in the past 2 years since I graduated from secondary school and while a lot of people have written me off back then, you were one of the people who kept spurring me forward. I just wanted to say thank you for believing in me when others have clearly lost hope.”
I am sharing this story of Alan not to say I’m a good teacher, for I am still learning. But I want to remind us all, teachers, parents, youth leaders and youth workers, that it is so important to see the good in a child, and encourage him to pursue his best, and not put anyone down for the mistakes he has made. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to believe in you, and you can soar.
I am so proud of you, Alan.
(His name has been changed for privacy reasons.)
A practical tip I learnt (for parents and teachers):
Use the positive instead of negative.
Eg. “Please put the blocks in the toy box.” Instead of “Don’t throw the blocks all over the floor!”
Or “Please sit down and read Page 78 of your textbook.” Instead of “Don’t talk, don’t walk around, don’t ….” Because then they will say, “If I can’t do this and that, what can I do then?”