SINGAPORE: In her trademark cheongsam, Mrs Chan Kwai Foong treads a familiar path through the school garden.
The ladies' fingers are planted by the science teachers, she proudly points out. The bananas? A bunch have grown, but not all can be eaten at the moment. And the winter melons? They have slowly sprouted from tiny seedlings to mature plants, and were already harvested.
"I come here as and when I like," Mrs Chan said with a laugh. "We are very attached to the garden ... It's something we are quite proud of."
Mrs Chan is not a gardener, but she might as well be. As principal of MINDS (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore) Fernvale Gardens School, she is responsible for the 180 students under her care - all of whom need careful tending and cultivating.
"When you plant the seed, you don't see the fruit straight away. It takes time," said the 67-year-old, who has been at the helm of the special education school for five years. "You need to use fertiliser, you need to look after with care, you need to water the plants - all this is part of what we are doing in schools. That's why I love gardening!"
Mrs Chan knows a thing or two about teaching - having been involved in shaping young minds since she was 19. First a teacher, then a Head of Department (HOD), a vice-principal and finally a principal; she has done and seen it all.
Education, as Mrs Chan pointed out several times, seems to be in her DNA.
A GOOD FOLLOWER WILL BE A GOOD LEADER
It was a word of advice and a twist of happenstance that set Mrs Chan on her career path.
"My late father said this: 'Teachers have taught you well, go and be a teacher’'," said Mrs Chan. "And with no second thought I applied … I applied for two jobs, one was a teacher and the other was a nurse … But the letter for the teaching post came in three days earlier - I had actually got both!”
After spending two years at the Teachers' Training College, Mrs Chan joined the now-defunct Yok See Primary School as a second-language (English) teacher. Her time there would prove valuable, for she would glean a lesson in leadership which she holds dear even decades on.
"What I am today is because I had the influence of my first principal in Yok See," she explained. "The school had this programme of spring cleaning during June holidays where teachers and even the principal had to do washing.
"The principal came in his pair of shorts. I asked him why he dressed like that and he said he was going to do the washing with us. He was holding the water hose and scrubbing the wall. Then I asked myself if the principal can do all this with us, then why can't we do a better job?"
Respect is earned, not given, Mrs Chan was keen to emphasise. She reminds her MINDS Fernvale Gardens teachers of this, even on her last day of work.
"To be a leader is not about commanding respect. It is not about asking people to listen to you and to say that I'm in charge and you have to be listening," said Mrs Chan during her farewell speech. "Leadership is about working with people, a good follower will be a good leader."
THE SLAP THAT CHANGED A LIFE
As a teacher, and later principal, Mrs Chan has dealt with her fair share of misbehaving students. But she prides herself on being the one who turned them around.
At Bendemeer Primary, her second school, Mrs Chan taught a monolingual class, who could "break bottles and fight like gangsters".
Incorporating unorthodox teaching tools such as the Highway Code to pique students' interest, she remembers them getting more involved in lessons, swapping the canisters of hair dyes in their backpacks for dictionaries.
And some of those students never forgot her.
Once, a pump attendant at a petrol station would fill her tank with a little extra, his small way of expressing his thanks. Another student turned up at her doorstep, in his hands a small sculpture of a Hindu god of wealth.
"He said: 'Mrs Chan I know you’re a vice principal now, can you tell me which school are you at? I want to send my children to your school'," Mrs Chan, who was then a vice principal at Boon Keng Primary School, guffawed. "My answer to him straightaway was: You already gave me enough of a headache, don’t send your next generation to me!"
A grassroots leader today, Mrs Chan was also approached by a former pupil turned lawyer at a community centre.
"During that time, we could give corporal punishment and he said I slapped him before," she explained. “I told him - do you now want to sue Mrs Chan? He said no - that slap had changed his life."
Another challenge as a young vice-principal was to win the respect of some staff. During her time at Boon Keng Primary, Mrs Chan recalls a senior teacher - Mr Lee - who refused to annotate lesson plans, even though it was mandated by the Ministry of Education (MOE).
"He said: 'I'm so experienced, I taught for the last forty years and everything is in my head'," she recalled. "MOE gave us three weeks before they came to validate the school - and the first document in that list was the teachers and staff's lesson plan book. So everyone put it on my table and this man came with nothing."
In order to help Mr Lee out, Mrs Chan gave him an old record book, asked him to copy the content into a new one and fill that in with his name.
“He felt so guilty for not listening … He became my best teacher,” she said "After this he really appreciated me a lot and became my spokesperson in the staff room."
As a principal at Fernvale, Mrs Chan's focus doesn't lie squarely on the children, she cares deeply for her team of teachers as well.
“The thing I like most about this job is that I could help to mentor teachers, build their potential, groom them to take over the leadership,” she said. “It is a community, you are not alone, you work with everybody and the teachers will give you the support."
Mr Gerard Vaz, who has taken over from Mrs Chan as school principal, said she took a personal interest in the teachers' problems.
"Mrs Chan was not just a boss," he said "For myself, she made it a point to know what’s happening in the family and offered her own little bit of advice, and tried to make herself available whenever she could."
A "CULTURE SHOCK"
After stints as a principal at Ahmad Ibrahim, Parry and Yishun Primary Schools, retirement loomed for Mrs Chan in late 2013.
Then 62, she wasn't done with work just yet.
"Retirement age went on to 65 at the time," she recalled. "MOE said that if you don’t want another job, we'll give you a lump sum (Employment Assistance Payment). I was still interested in working with kids so I didn't want the lump sum!"
"I was at Gold Coast with my family in December that year and I got a call from MOE to say that they were offering me a post to head a special education school. Straight away I said yes – no second thoughts.
“Even in my next life, if you ask me would you want to be, I would still want to be a teacher," she added.
After passing an interview, it was back to work for Mrs Chan on Jan 2, 2014. But despite her years of experience, her first day at the school was a "culture shock", she added.
MINDS Fernvale Gardens School is one of the four special education schools set up in different parts of Singapore by the Voluntary Welfare Organisation (VWO).
The school serves children with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities, and also those who have conditions such as autism.
"In mainstream schools, I only had one or two students with special needs, but here the whole school consisted of students with special needs," said Mrs Chan. "Everybody was talking about having a principal coming from MOE ... what were they going to expect from her?
"But I told myself, since I’m posted here, I need to do something for the students and having been in education for the past 45 years, I told myself there is something to be done. So I decided to engage the teachers, the caregivers and we went on a curriculum journey," she added.
One of the key priorities on her agenda was to better understand the students under her charge. In order to do so, Mrs Chan had to tap on the expertise of her teachers, some of whom had years of experience in special education.
"I’m not trained in special education, I’m mainstream trained," she said. "I got the teachers' buy-in because I told them that I’m learning from them ... I told them, I'm trained in school administration, so let's work together and they took it on board."
"It’s not just the years of experience being a teacher for so many years but she also offered a different perspective," added Mr Vaz. "For the other (past) principals who were from MINDS, they saw things from a certain way because they look at things more from what I would call the VWO work lens.
"Whereas Mrs Chan brings in a slightly more educational perspective."
Looking for different ways in which students could learn better was part of Mrs Chan's personal mandate. For one thing, she helped set up the school's Spanish Dance co-curricular activity, after noticing the children's interest.
"Just switch music on and you'll see the children dancing here," she said. "I remember the first time when the parents saw the Spanish dance – they were in tears.
"They were saying that they never knew that their children could dance so well. The parents are very appreciative, when they see their children are able to do certain things which had never happened."
The students also learn values such as responsibility, teamwork and punctuality through such Co-Curricular Activities, pointed out Mrs Chan.
"This has changed the children, they know they can do it and there is success," she said. "Parents are very supportive because they see their children able to do and I think it’s very important to help parents see their children being successful."
The setting up of the school's community garden was another initiative which the indomitable principal was involved in.
"This garden is very helpful for us to teach our children, because nothing beats seeing the real thing, and our children all love it," she said. "When the kids go to their supermarkets and see the vegetables, they can actually link it back to what they've planted.
"It gives some hands-on learning, because here we’re not talking about mainstream syllabus, we are talking about daily skills, life skills ... However our kids are, if we can think of a way to engage them to help them, they can learn."
Being a principal is not about being holed up in the office, Mrs Chan is keen to point out.
"I walk around the school, I pay attention to every details and I make sure that children are learning in class, teachers are teaching, school attendants are doing their work," she said. "The principal doesn’t stop work at 4.30pm and go home. The principal works throughout the day, even sometimes as late as 1am, reading messages, answering emails, attending to emergencies."
Given her level of involvement in the school - it is only natural that Mrs Chan would find it difficult to finally retire.
"I have grown up in a school, my whole life is around schools, around children, it's very hard to get out of it.
"Being the last day at work, there is a feeling of loss, I will miss the school, I will miss the children," she said. "When I see them coming to hug me and say "I'll miss you', I really miss them. Hopefully the school allows me to visit them whenever there is an event or function. I would love to be back."
In her trademark cheongsam, outgoing principal Mrs Chan Kwai Foong treads a familiar path through the school. The seeds have been planted by the teachers, as she proudly points out. Her teachers? Many have grown, equipped with new leadership qualities. And the students? They grow day after day, from tiny seedlings to mature plants, ready for harvest.
This is the fruit of her labour.