What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was:

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

Here’s my answer:

My teaching philosophy is influenced heavily by the teachers I had growing up. I had teachers who looked out for the last, the lost, and the least, and they put in so much effort to ensure that the weaker students would not get left behind. And I have had the personal experience of having good teachers who, with their patience, nurturing qualities, and clear explanations, allowed me to go very far in my learning. My own life would have been very different if I had did not have the fortune of encountering them.

And so in many ways, my teaching philosophy is influenced by that, and I enjoy spending time with my students to help them learn better, and to help clear up whatever confusions that they have about their learning

The most profound lessons I gained as an educator were during my time as a Teaching Assistant for interdisciplinary modules. It was shocking to see the amount of fear and anxiety students had when it came to a discipline outside their major. Their fears were fuelled by the fact that it was a discipline alien to them. But at the heart of the fears and anxieties was the fear of failure.

And it occurred to me that so many of our university students have never experienced failure before in their lives. They succeeded in every major exam by pursuing what they can score well in. And so when an alien subject — which they have no confidence or experience in — is forced upon them, suddenly, they are faced with the prospects of failure.

And time and time again, I have seen how that fear of failure kept getting in the way of their learning. I encountered many students who were reluctant to internalise their learning because they were afraid of saying or writing the wrong thing. And so there’s this tendency to stick to model answers, to replicate and modify examples. They never really gave themselves a chance to try to express what they learnt in their own words.

There are many other examples I could cite of fear getting in the way of their learning. Suffice to say, these experiences shaped my approach to teaching. That if I want students to learn well, then I need to help mitigate the single biggest impediment to their learning, which is their fear and anxiety.

This insight comes from my own personal experience in learning. Years ago, I used to have a terrible command of the Chinese language. But I needed to work in China for a couple of weeks. I could not speak well, and I could not write well either. So I signed up for adult business Chinese classes. The teacher told me that since we only had a week before I had to fly, the focus would be on empowerment and making me confident. Lessons were less about grammar and vocabulary. She was perceptive and she saw that my struggle with the language was my lack of confidence in speaking, and in some aspects, anxieties in speaking in Mandarin. I was sceptical about it, but she did a surprisingly fantastic job at building confidence in me. I survived my work trip in China, and my command of the Chinese language improved vastly since then.

This made me realise just how far students can go in their learning once the impediment of fear and anxiety are alleviated. And so I provide a variety of support systems in my teaching to help alleviate that fear, such as the Telegram Helpline where they can always seek help when they’re stuck. In addition, I engage them with humour, and other fun activities as a way of alleviating the fear of failure so that they can focus their minds on the task at hand.

I also put them through simulated scenarios in a safe environment where they can and will have to fail and learn to evaluate and recover from those simulated failures. It is my hope that through these experiences, they realise that failing isn’t as bad as it seems, and so they feel more empowered by these experiences to take risks and learn better.

Do overly desperate students ever annoy you so much that your mood to teach or guide them in the right direction is ruined?

A student asked:

Do overly desperate students ever annoy you so much that your mood to teach or guide them in the right direction is ruined?

They do!

The first semester I taught as a lecturer, I got burnt really badly not just by desperate students, but by very self-entitled (and desperate) ones. Some wrote nasty e-mails or came to my office to bang table over grading matters (over 1% of the total grade!). Some banged tables all the way until senior management got their attention. And it’s very frightful to be contacted by the people upstairs only to discover how a trivial matter got blown way out of proportion.

Also, this semester (AY2020/2021 Sem 1), I received anonymous threats and hate messages from a student who disliked the fact that I’m going the extra mile to make the module engaging. It’s so bizarre.

It’s things like this that made me realise why some lecturers are unwilling to move a finger to help students. They’ve been burnt by bad experiences in the past. There are many awful cases, some of which I am not allowed to share (lecturers had to lodge police reports). In one publicly known incident, many students went online to bitterly complain about a lecturer. Those comments were so vile that he broke down during lecture and cried in front of his students. It’s not easy to teach university students, especially very self-entitled desperate ones.

I can tell you from my years of teaching that every bad experience from bad students impacts me, and it’s very tempting to put up a barrier or care less about them just to avoid more of these awful (and hurtful) experiences.

But the truth is this: Students behave awfully not because they are evil. Rather, it’s because they allow themselves to be overrun by fear and anxiety. And as an educator, I have to remind myself every single day that I have to be better than that. I cannot and I must not succumb to my own fears and anxieties. Otherwise, I’ll be no different from those educators who have lost their passion in teaching and have made learning a chore for other students, or worse, an unhealthy learning environment that just increases fear and anxiety amongst students.

Toxicity breeds more toxicity. So it’s important that we do our best not to succumb to our insecurities and irrationalities, or reciprocate pettiness with more pettiness. We must break the cycle of toxicity by having a bigger heart.