SINGAPORE: Her words tumble over each other as she speaks, her hands moving animatedly in her excitement to express herself.
“I am by nature quite impatient,” she says with a grin. “I also talk very fast, and very loudly … But I’ve calmed down already.”
With her stylish haircut, ready smile and infectious laughter, Ms Doris Choy - or Teacher Doris, as her charges know her - looks decades younger than her 70 years.
Her youthfulness goes beyond appearance: Besides teaching and caring for infants in her day job as a senior infant educarer at a PCF Sparkletots pre-school in Telok Blangah, she also finds the energy to pursue dancing as a hobby, and even volunteers as a storyteller at the library.
“Let’s just say I cannot sit down and do nothing,” she said, with yet another laugh. “Besides, running after children every day keeps me young.”
SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH THE JOB ON HER FIRST DAY
It had never been her intention to join the pre-school sector, but the role seemed an almost natural fit for the former stay-at-home mother, who had quit her administrative job to look after her children.
It was 1992, her children had grown up, and while she was looking to keep herself busy, she recalled being slightly hesitant when a friend recommended her for a role in a small childcare centre.
“My first thought was, it’s so noisy,” she said. “Because I used to walk past and hear the noise.”
“But then, when I started work, I realised that actually, the children were very cute, and they were so obedient ...I fell in love with the job on my first day.”
But was she worried, or even a tiny bit apprehensive about the task that lay ahead of her that first day? She smiled, surprised to be asked that question, and shook her head firmly.
“I’m a mother, I’m used to kids,” she said. “I played with them and sang them some songs.
I enjoyed myself, otherwise how else would I have stayed so long?”
She spent 26 years in the early childhood sector, taking up different positions in her desire to pick up new skills and try out new challenges. From the childcare centre, she moved on to a PCF kindergarten, returned to childcare for a few years before rejoining PCF Sparkletots in 2010, where she was placed in charge of infants aged 7 to 18 months.
WHEN A CHILD POOPED IN HER FACE
An early riser, she is often at the centre when the sky is still dark. It is about 6.40am, and there is much to do even before the parents arrive to drop off their children: She cleans the centre thoroughly, wiping down the surfaces and boiling water for the infants.
The day gets even more hectic when the infants arrive. There is a whole host of things Ms Choy and her colleagues need to pay attention to and record on an observation sheet, including the times the infants eat and drink, when they sleep, when their diapers need to be changed and even whether their stool is loose or hard.
“I always tell the new staff members … when the children come in, you cannot turn your back,” she said. “We need to be on our toes the entire time.”
“But it’s good,” she added. “I can be slim and active.”
The early childhood sector had been in the news recently for the difficulties faced in recruiting and retaining manpower. Ms Choy agrees, pointing out that she had seen new entrants coming in thinking that all they needed to do was teach. They did not last long.
“They expect that they don’t have to do the routine jobs, like bathing the children, changing their diapers or cleaning up poop or vomit,” she said. “But all this is part and parcel of the job.”
“There was this once I was changing a diaper and a child just pooped in my face,” she added, with a grimace. “But I lived through it!”
But she is also quick to stress that the job involves a lot more than simply being a nanny to the children. There are activities aimed at stimulating the children’s interest in learning to plan and carry out, such as singing and role-playing.
“This is one of the biggest misconceptions,” she said. “People think we’re just nannies, but there is actually so much more to it.”
In fact, Ms Choy, said centre principal Ms Choo Sir Mori, has been instrumental in introducing storytelling to the children.
“She did it for her own children, and she saw how important it is to start reading, especially from a young age,” she said.
“I was amazed at how, every time she picks up a book, all the children just cluster around her like magnets,” she added. “There is no doubt that she’s instilled this love for reading in them.”
THEN AND NOW
While at its core the job has essentially remained the same over the years, there have been improvements: better facilities and the introduction of modern-day technology, Ms Choy said.
Before computers, for example, teachers spent much time drawing and using stencils to make signs for the children.
“My drawing’s not very good, so I trace, but there was this one time I managed to draw Santa Claus,” she said, smiling at the memory.
And while centres now are better equipped and certainly more comfortable for the teachers and children, the demands placed on the teachers have also changed.
“In the past, there was a lot of rote learning, where we had to use books and teach, but now, learning through play is more important,” she said. “So things like sand play, water play … it stimulates their mind and fine motor skills, and I’ve found the children learn better this way ... but it’s also more challenging for us as teachers, because we have to think of a lot more activities.”
And to that end, she is grateful for the many training opportunities she had access to in recent years - something which was rare in the past.
Training gives her greater confidence in her job, she said.
One incident - which she recalls with a wistful smile on her face - was the time she had to take care of a child with Down Syndrome, without having had any training in special education.
“I was actually very scared, but I just did my best,” she said. “I had to use signs to communicate with her, and I had to be very, very patient.”
“But it was so fulfilling when she smiled at me and started responding to me.”
She is always on the lookout for training opportunities and is happiest when the workshops relate to dancing, her hobby.
“I have to do concerts, so I must know the dance steps,” she said, “I learnt folk dancing, line dancing and social dance … and whatever I know, I will impart to the children.”
THE LEGACY SHE LEAVES BEHIND
The centre echoed with the cries and gurgles of young children as it gradually filled up with people. Besides the infants under Ms Choy’s care, there were also siblings, former students and their parents, all present this Friday afternoon to honour her on her last day at work.
After more than 26 years in the sector, she is finally retiring to spend more time with her family and pursue yet another of her hobbies: Travelling.
“I’m going to Hokkaido!” she said, clapping her hands as she spoke about her upcoming trip, her eyes lighting up in excitement.
“I really like travelling, but I’m so busy working here ... and I still haven’t seen the whole of Singapore, so maybe I’ll travel Singapore too,” she added.
She is almost childlike in her excitement, a quality that Ms Choo, her close friend, good-naturedly pointed out.
“She’s very much a child at heart,” she said. “When I see her face, I can immediately tell how she’s feeling.”
“She’s also so full of energy,” she added. “No one is like her ... Rain or shine, she’s there for me, professionally as well as personally.”
“She has never taken a day of MC.”
Indeed, despite it being the tail end of a long day at work, Ms Choy’s energy levels never flagged even as she was ushered, smiling bashfully, into the gaily decorated room filled with balloons in all colours of the rainbow. As she embraced Ms Choo, applause rang out, cameras flashed and young children ran towards her, clutching gift-wrapped presents and calling for their Teacher Doris.
She greeted each one by name, bending down to accept the presents and gamely posing for photos, giving each of them a warm hug. From her excitement at seeing some of her former charges again, it was clear that the children hold a special place in her heart.
“She always remembers the children, even though she taught our first child more than eight years ago,” said Mr Lee Jui Boon, a father of four whose children all experienced Ms Choy’s care.
“She taught them to be independent, cared for them when they were sick and inculcated all these good virtues in them,” he said.
“We have to go to work very early and my son is usually the first to reach the centre,” chimed in another parent, Mdm Kuah Hui Yeng. “Doris is always already here, and will always welcome us with a warm smile, play some music and make my son very comfortable to be here.”
“I’m sad to see her go, but I’m happy she can finally have some time for herself to do what she likes.”
The cake has been cut, the last pictures taken and the party is wrapping up. As Ms Choy carefully closed and latched the safety gate as she left the centre, the infants she left behind may not have grasped the significance of the moment.
But the legacy she leaves behind will remain: Whether it is the children’s books she painstakingly picked out and packed into gift bags for all the children at the party, or the storytelling sessions that Ms Choo says will go on even in her absence.
And most of all, the scores of children who have passed through her care over the years, some of whom are already on the cusp of adulthood, but still recognise her and smile shyly when they bump into her.
“Some of them are already in NS, or in university,” she said. “But the parents still know me, and the kids ... they still call me ‘Teacher Doris’.”
Indeed, it is clear that while she may no longer be a teacher, she will continue to live on in their hearts and minds as Teacher Doris.