Teachers who bring hope – with Singlish, Hokkien, loud games and tough love

Teachers who bring hope – with Singlish, Hokkien, loud games and tough love

To engage their sometimes dispirited students, these ITE teachers have to be unorthodox in their teaching, hound them to attend lessons, and even play Aunt Agony, as On The Red Dot discovers.

They'll move you to laughter, to tears - and to be more than you think you can be. They are the unorthodox and passionate teachers of ITE.

SINGAPORE: No one bats an eyelid when doses of Singlish terms such as “lah” and “ah”, colloquial phrases, and even vulgarities creep in during lessons in this school.

This is the way some classes are conducted at the three Institute of Education (ITE) colleges here, and as the lecturers would tell you, it’s all about catering to their audience – students with short-attention spans who listen and engage better in an informal setting.

Mr Moses Tay, a life skills lecturer at ITE College-Central, keeps his presentations short - up to 10 minutes at any one time.

“Some of them are very nervous because their mother tongue is not English,” he explained. “If I have to speak, I have to drive home my point quickly. We also organise activities and games (during lessons) so that the fun element is there.”

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Mr Moses Tay giving out Oreo cookies as incentive in class.

Pastry and baking lecturer Jeremy Lim from the School of Hospitality admitted using vulgarities when scolding his students, to get them used to the rough and tumble culture of working in a kitchen after graduation.

“Right from the beginning, we told them that in this line, there will be words that were not used on them before, words from (the chefs) that they may not be able to accept,” he said. “This is the culture shock that they will have, and we have to prepare them.”

Lecturers Mr Tay and Mr Lim often have to think outside the box when engaging these ITE students, whom the former described as “not your typical book smart” types. 

More than educators, these lecturers also wear the hats of entertainers, counsellors and career guidance officers - going beyond their duty to motivate and engage their young wards.

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Mr Jeremy Lim prepares his students for the real working world.

The programme On The Red Dot gained unprecedented access to the ITE colleges, capturing not just stories of the students, but also an insight into the teachers and their commitment to their students. (Watch the 4-part series here. The final episode airs Dec 22.)


After secondary school, students who fail to secure a place at junior colleges or polytechnics can enrol at ITE, which equips these academically less inclined youth with vocational skills.

Mr Tay describes his students as kinaesthetic learners who learn better through visual or auditory study techniques such as watching slides and videos, and doing physical activities rather than passively listening to a lecture.

“They don’t learn as well when you speak to them, so we try to avoid giving too long a lecture because they see it as a verbal diarrhoea,” he said.

ITE teachers class 2

It is not an easy task, he admitted. “I think you really need to be a special breed to teach in ITE.

Students here are very different. I see it as my purpose to uplift them, motivate them, and it’s something that I believe I was made to do.

Many of these teenagers suffer from confidence and self-esteem issues because of their family background and the social stigma associated with being in ITE.

“Often the message of hope must be communicated to them, that it’s not all gloom and doom to be studying here,” said Mr Tay. “In fact, if they can make good decisions, there are many success stories that they can glean from and look up to.”

(Read: Former gang member gives his all to be a nurse)

Some 50 per cent of ITE students are on financial aid, and many take on part-time jobs in the F&B or retail sectors to pay their fees or to sustain themselves and their family.

Because of their work commitments, some students are habitually late, doze off in class or are persistently absent, said mechatronics engineering lecturer Nelson Ng, who has been teaching at ITE for eight years..


“Often we need to have a high level of empathy,” he noted. “Perhaps they didn’t sleep properly the night before because of what happened at home, or maybe they needed to work late.

Staying awake and focused in class is sometimes tough.

“We do remind them of the importance of attendance and the fact that they shouldn’t allow their circumstances to get them into greater difficulty (in school).”

There are 28,000 students spread out across the three ITE colleges and they must achieve a minimum attendance rate of 80 per cent or they will be barred from taking their exams.

Which is why Mr Tay and other lecturers regularly hound them, texting and calling them up to remind them to attend classes. Punishing these students for playing hooky, said Mr Tay, may not be effective.

“To a large extent, some of these students had been punished repeatedly by their primary school or secondary school teachers. So, when they come here, they are already hardened,” he said.

We need to have empathy for them, and encouragement really works.

Final-year Mechatronics Engineering student Ms Nurul Ain, for example, has a complicated home life – her parents separated when she was five and she now lives with her older brother at their grandparent’s HDB flat.

To support herself, the 19-year-old has been working night shifts at an F&B outlet, and was barred from taking the exams in three out of four subjects in her final term due to poor attendance.

ITE teachers Nelson Ain
Mr Nelson Ng pushes Ain to attend classes more regularly.

If she is unable to take her final exams, she will not graduate with her peers - but thankfully, she has Mr Tay and her form teacher Mr Ng, to push her.

“I’m late every day because I always sleep late,” she said. “Sometimes it makes me feel bad because he (Mr Ng) has to go after me every now and then.”


Mr Ng frequently calls his students on their handphones to check if they’re attending classes, or their friends to enquire about their whereabouts - even making his way to the basketball court to make sure they are at physical education classes.

“The night before lessons, I WhatsApp my students to ensure that they sleep early,” he said. “I follow up with the (absent) students after lessons to check what actually happened, and call their parents.”

He is so dedicated that he even sacrificed some of his weekends to hold remedial lessons for students who had skipped lessons during the weekdays because of work commitments, so that they would not fall behind.

Ask about this, though, and he shrugs: “In every job there will be some sacrifices. If my passion is this, I don’t think it’s a sacrifice.”

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Mr Ng often texts and calls his students or their friends, to check up on their whereabouts.

Mr Ng is even on a first-name basis with some parents like Ms Nurul’s mother, Madam Salmiah Samsudin, 44. He WhatsApps her regularly about her daughter as the two don’t live together. He calls her if she misses lessons.

“She is doing great actually, because I’ve been interacting with her form teacher,” Mdm Salmiah said.

He updates me about her studies every day without her knowing, I mean, not every teacher will do that for their students.

Ms Nurul certainly appreciates Mr Ng’s efforts and called him “a great motivator”.

“He supports his students although we annoy him. He has never given up (on us), since the first day I met him,” said the student who has since submitted an appeal to take her final examinations.

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Mr Ng on the basketball court, checking that his students are at PE class.


Many of the ITE students have been through repeated cycles of failure and may be unable to achieve success on their own steam, said Mr Tay - which was why he piloted the peer coaching programme for their foosball CCA this year.

The more experienced higher Nitec students take on the roles of coaches to the junior Nitec students, called the “coachies”. Having their seniors - some who have played competitive foosball before – as role models to draw inspiration from is useful.

“Many of them come from less advantaged households and often do not have adults they can look up to, to learn from and to emulate in terms of the way they conduct themselves and how they approach life’s challenges and obstacles,” said Mr Tay.

WATCH: These unorthodox educators at work (6:01)

Mr Tay also teaches the Life Skills module, which develops communication, personal, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, preparing his students for their career. 

He conducts mock job interviews, highlighting the way they answer questions, criticising their portfolio and even commenting on their attire, such as when their skirts are too short. “We want to train their thinking so that they can crystallise why they want to apply for certain jobs and how they can deal with interview answers,” he said.


And there are lecturers like Mr Rosli Omar, section head of the Pastry & Baking course at ITE College West, who frequently has to wear the hat of a counsellor, on top of managing lecturers, overseeing the curriculum, timetable and tackling student discipline issues.

“To be a teacher, you need to care about your students, their personal well-being and their growth,” said Mr Rosli, who listens to their problems and often counsels them when they need help.

One of them is Sasha Rie, a year-one Pastry & Baking student and the class clown.  The 17-year-old, who was recently diagnosed with anxiety and depressive disorder, was seeing a psychiatrist.

“If you look at Sasha, she portrays a happy face - she always laughs and she always jokes around,” said Mr Rosli. “But deep inside she has a lot of worries and her friends don’t know it.”

ITE teachers sasha

She often confides in Mr Rosli about her struggles with her studies and her depression.

In one instance, he advised the teenager to be positive and to seek help if she needed it, saying: “We don’t want people to see the real us, and you always keep a mask on. It’s a double-edged sword and people make assumptions. Sometimes, it’s best to be truthful.”

His advice prompted her to disclose her problems to her friends, who promised to stand by her. “It’s definitely something off my chest,” she told On The Red Dot.


At a dessert buffet event organised for parents, Mr Rosli played the intermediary between Ms Rie and her mother Mdm Mizue Hara, who was not fully aware of the extent of her daughter’s depression.

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Mr Rosli meets with Sasha and her mum.

“Sometimes she likes to dwell on certain issues over and over again. I'm just sharing that sometimes she needs the support,” he told Mdm Hara.

Ms Rie is always grateful for the opportunity to seek his help.

He’s always really, really busy, so I don’t really get a chance to talk to him. But whenever I (do), you know, it’s always a blessing.

Lecturers like Mr Rosli are a driving force behind their students, who typically face very different problems compared to those studying in polytechnics and junior colleges.

Mr Tay recounted how one of his students – who was so ashamed of his ITE uniform that he would only wear it in school – would change into his home clothes just before leaving the campus for the day.

“Some of the students do not like to be in this position where they have to attend school here,” he said. “But I think that after they study here, they understand, ‘hey, ITE is not something I ought to be ashamed of’.

“And bit by bit, they grow in their self-esteem, their confidence, and they become proud of who they are and where they are studying.”

Watch more heartwarming stories of students and teachers on the series On The Red Dot – ITE: Making The Grade here.

ITE teachers school

Source: CNA/yv