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.

Fear is the Mind-Killer

Recently, The Girlfriend and I went to Batam for a short holiday. We didn’t plan this in advance, but it turns out that part of the itinerary included a visit to a place that does flying fox jumps for only S$6!

It isn’t very much, but it’s about 4-floors high.

 

The only reason why we were there was because it was part of another couple’s tour package (the tour group put us together in the same bus since our itineraries were almost the same). Since we were there, we thought – why not?

Now, here’s the thing… I’ve always had a paralysing fear of heights since young. Well, to be more exact, it’s not so much the fear of heights, but the fear of falling FROM heights. It’s so bad that when such a fear strikes, I can’t move. I’ll tremble in fear and grab on to the most stable thing I can find up there.

I remember that when I was young (before entering nursery school), I was at a particular playground with a suspension bridge (the Indiana Jones kind), and when I reached the middle of the bridge, I realised how high (for my age) I was. I was so paralysed by fear that I clung to the bridge’s suspension chains with all my life, crying for helping at the top of my voice. My parents had to run to me and carry me out of the bridge. The bridge wasn’t really that high. My parents could just lift me out from the bridge by standing next to it. That’s how low it was – but it felt like I was up in the sky at that age.

Anyway, over the years, it got better. I could climb ladders without worrying about dying or be paralysed by fear. So I thought, maybe I’ve outgrown that fear. After all, I’ve changed quite a lot over the years as I age. There used to be so many things that I used to hate eating. Today, I love eating them. There used to be so many things that I was afraid of. Today, they don’t bother me so much. The fear of falling from heights? I’ve not experienced that fear in a while, so I guess it’s gone. Right?

Well, so we paid our S$6, and walked up the steep flight of stairs up to the fourth floor. I asked The Girlfriend to go first so that I could take photos of her going down the flying fox.

Ready?

 

Go! Wheeee!

 

It definitely looked like a lot of fun! I really wanted to jump off and experience the thrill.

Then came my turn.

The operator signalled to me to stand at the edge of the post as he fixed the safety cables on me. As I stood there, I saw the vast horizon before me. Worse still, I made a fatal mistake – I looked down.

Immediately, the once familiar fear of (falling from) heights returned in full force.

My legs felt like jelly and I pretty much freaked out very badly. The operator kept asking me to position myself in a seating position so that he could push me off the post (you need to get into a seating position so that the safety vest around your hips and groin wouldn’t suddenly tighten because of the fall and injure your crown jewels). At that point, I kinda lost it. I freaked out and started yelling: “TAK BOLEH!!! TAK BOLEH!!! SAYA TAK BOLEH!!!!!” (Translation: Cannot! Cannot! I cannot do this!!!)

Anyway, the Operator wasn’t very helpful. He kept trying to push me off the post. He said something (in Indonesian) along the lines of, “Don’t worry, it’s safe!”

Hmm… Pushing someone off while telling him that everything’s gonna be alright, while the poor guy’s holding on to stuff to save his life DOES NOT assure him that things are alright. It just freaked me out even more.

The operator gave up and allowed me to climb down the post. Unfortunately, that was quite a horrible ordeal. Now that I’ve been paralysed by fear, going down the super steep staircase was really a challenge. I think it took me about 15-20 minutes to crawl my way down.

It was pretty embarrassing.

Anyway, gosh… It looks like I’ve still not overcome this fear. To think I told The Girlfriend that we should do para-gliding sometime in the future. Looks like that option’s out.

It’s amazing how powerful fear can be. Someone recently mentioned that people are driven by two things: (1) the things they desire, and (2) the things they fear.

We all have our fears and insecurities. But it’s easy to forget how our fears can shape our perception of the world by taking something that’s value-neutral and transforming it into something dark, wretched, and/or scary. It’s easy to forget that fear has the power to paralyse us, and even to make us act so irrationally even if we have been assured or seen enough empirical proof that everything will be ok.

This fear of (falling from) heights is quite ridiculous. But equally ridiculous are the fear of being ostracised, the fear of failure, and perhaps worse of all, the fear of loneliness.

Though ridiculous, I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of. We all have such fears. I admit that I too am driven by such fears occasionally.

The Chinese philosopher, Kuo Hsiang (郭象) said that people are basically what they are not – they’re constantly driven by what they lack. The one who feels most unloved will be driven by the fear of loneliness to be as popular and loved as possible. The one who feels unsuccessful will be driven by the fear of failure and constantly work towards success.

Ironically, it’s the ones who are so popular, friendly, and successful who tend to be the ones most plagued by such fears. The ones whom we think are the most ok in life are the ones who, ironically, are the most broken people in the world. But that being said, everyone is driven by at least one fear in their life (usually more, though).

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It does motivate us to do something about our lives.

BUT, sometimes, we can be soooooo paralysed by our fears (just as how I was paralysed by my fear of heights), that we can become so terribly blind to see that we already have what we’ve been searching for. Or, we can be so blinded by our fears to see that things are actually ok (of course, it’s hard to be convinced in such a situation).

And of course, when the fear becomes too much to handle, sometimes bailing out seems like the best option (just as how I felt it was for me when I couldn’t do the jump).

I’m not going to say, “Fight your fears!” I think that’s rather cliche. We all know that we should face our fears.

But I’m writing this so that we learn how to be more human – so that we learn how to be more understanding of others, including ourselves.

There’s this odd misconception that being strong means not having to struggle with fear. I think that’s a problematic mindset because it makes us afraid of admitting to our fears, or daring to show any. Sure, courage is a virtue that’s highly commendable. But part of being human is about struggling with fear. We all have our fears. It may not be a healthy fear, but it’s still a fear nonetheless, and it’s part of the human condition, a part of our human experience, a part of what it means to be alive.

I know most people would laugh at my ridiculous fear of heights and my whole freaking-out incident. It’s amusing, I’ll grant you that. I think so too (on retrospect).

What touched me the most was the fact that The Girlfriend came to hug me after the incident because she remembered that I have this bad fear. And I think what made her most understanding about it is the fact that she too has her own paralysing fear of some creature-that-cannot-be-named.

I used to think that her fear was rather silly. But this episode was very eye-opening for me because after my freaking-out over the heights thing, I understood that we’re both the same and very human in many ways – we both have paralysing fears over stuff, and that it really isn’t easy to pluck up the courage to be strong in the face of our fears (it’s not impossible, but it takes a loooooooooot of moral strength to be able to do it – it’s not like anyone can summon it anytime they like; it doesn’t work that way).

Just as how we are struggling with our own fears in life, I think it’s useful that we recognise that everyone around us are struggling with their own fears too – whether they show it or not. They’re just as human as we are – we have our strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows. We crave and yearn for a super hero to save us, but deep down, what we really seek is someone as human, as frail, as ridiculous, as we are. Because it’s only with such people are we able to best understand each other thanks to our shared similar experiences in life.

And I think when we begin to understand that we’re all struggling with our own fears, that we become more understanding of other people and the seemingly-irrational things that they do.

That’s what makes us human.