SINGAPORE: The teacher's eyes filled with tears as she scrolled through the Facebook post on her mobile phone, reading aloud the heartfelt words penned by one of her former pupils.
“Just happened to come across this news, but why am I not surprised by this?" the post read. "My form teacher back then, the one who stood by my hospital bed when I broke my arm, the one who motivated me to play soccer better and the one who strikes fear and is yet so loving to her students ... You have always been an awesome, wonderful teacher, and this is so you.”
They were small gestures by Madam Azlina Hassan, but they had made such a great impact on the student that more than two decades later, he could still remember them. And that affirmation, said the 51-year-old Teck Whye Primary teacher, was what made her eyes well up.
“He’s in his 30s, has children and he can still write that about me,” she said. “It really made my day.”
Such gestures could have slipped under the radar, but for a video taken and shared on Facebook by a parent of one of her pupils. In the video, which was shot during the release of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) results on Nov 22, Mdm Azlina is seen speaking encouragingly to one of her pupils and giving him a warm hug before going through his results with him.
The pupil, Nur Haqim, had been the last one in his class to receive his results and was visibly nervous and on the verge of tears when he approached Mdm Azlina, she said.
“He was thinking that, maybe I didn’t make it ... I’m the last one here and I waited so long. When I saw him coming, I shook his hand, said 'Congratulations, you’ve passed, I’m very proud of you',” she recounted. “And he cried ... When I hugged him I could feel that he was shaking, because it was really nerve-racking for him.”
Haqim’s mother, Mdm Haryati Mohamad Saleh, told Channel NewsAsia that she was filled with anxiety as she waited and watched as the other students got their results. “I slowly realised that it was taking so long because Mdm Azlina hugged each and every one of her students and said something to them,” she said.
“I actually teared witnessing that.”
THE FIRST THING HER PUPILS TELL HER: “I’M GOING TO FAIL”
With more than 29 years of teaching experience under her belt, Mdm Azlina has come to realise that a hug is the best way to calm a nervous pupil down when they’re receiving their results. She explained that unlike today, where parents typically accompany their children to collect their PSLE results, it was not uncommon for children in the past to show up alone on results day.
“When they came alone, most of them were very nervous, and to them, it was like pass or fail, I’m here without any support,” she said, adding that this was when she decided to start hugging her pupils.
“I just thought the kids needed it,” she said, adding that a hug can go a long way for them particularly when they’re collecting their results.
“They are 12 years old, it’s a national exam and a big thing for them,” she said. “Any child would be nervous.”
But besides encouraging her pupils amid their anxiety, Mdm Azlina, who teaches foundation level English and Mathematics, also stressed the importance of encouraging them to persevere and validating their achievements, no matter what their grades may be.
She explained that some of her pupils come from troubled backgrounds, and often enter her class with marks in the single digits.
“The first thing they tell me is: ‘Teacher, I’m going to fail',” she said. “'We have been failing since Primary 1, how can you expect us to pass?’”
“So I always tell them that it’s not about passing, it’s about putting in your best effort. It’s not about getting your four As,” she added. “If this is your best, I accept it and I am still very proud of you.”
And while every pupil has a special place in her heart, she also cited the words of one particular pupil whose words – like those of her former student – moved her.
“There was this boy I taught in Primary 2, who came in shoes with flapping soles,” she said. “I asked him: ‘Do you have a new pair?’ And he said yes, but it never appeared. He just put rubber bands on to tie it up.
“I knew he didn’t have them, so I just decided to buy him a new pair of shoes. And four years later, when he was getting his results, he came up to me and said: 'Teacher, I’ll never forget you. You were the one who bought me that pair of shoes.'"
HER COLLEAGUES WOULD HAVE DONE THE SAME
She is modest when asked about her new social media fame, smiling shyly and shrugging her shoulders. “What you see is what you get,” she quipped, pointing out that she had no idea she was being filmed, and never expected the video to attract so much attention online.
In fact, she is quick to emphasise that her colleagues in Teck Whye Primary also hugged their pupils on results day, and during the school’s graduation tea – actions that she says barely scratch the surface of the school’s culture of warmth and caring.
Walking through an empty school building with students away for the holidays, it is hard to discern this culture she speaks of. But it became clearer from watching Mdm Azlina and her interactions with her colleagues.
There were her “cheerleaders” – fellow teachers who returned to school during their holiday to cheer her on for this media interview – and who encouraged her with claps and whoops as she confessed to being “slightly nervous” sitting in front of the camera.
There was the school’s principal, Ms Tabitha Wong, who enfolded Mdm Azlina in a tight hug after she completed the interview, congratulating her on a job well done in much the same way that Mdm Azlina herself congratulates her students on results day.
And then there were the former pupils like the father who made the Facebook post about Mdm Azlina: Those who have since graduated and grown up, but do not forget their teachers and the positive impact they had on their lives.
“I have a pupil saying: ‘My father was a Teck Whye Primary pupil, I was a Teck Whye Primary pupil and now my daughter is going to be in Teck Whye next year,'" she recounted. “That sense of pride, when she said that to me ... I think that’s an indication that we’re doing something right.”
And that, she says, is the biggest affirmation of all.