Sometimes the feeling grips me: why am I teaching? Is it really to “mold the future of our nation”, as MOE’s mission puts it? Am I teaching for the glory of God? Or am I just working for my next paycheck?
It is especially trying during difficult times, like the last month when I was tasked with supervising the national oral exam and clearing tons of assignment marking. I took a course on instructional mentoring at the same time. This should have been something I would have enjoyed, but it felt like yet another task to clear in the midst of the busy schedule.
“Start with Why.”– Simon Sinek
Why teach? How can I be sure I’m living my calling? Am I driven by a life mission, or is it more by a fear of what change might bring?
In English, it roughly translates as, “Do not forget why you do this in the first place”. It is more than the reason for doing something. It is also about not losing your self, your ideals and dreams for doing something.
There are many things that can derail our motivation for entering into our current job or calling – difficult colleagues, uncooperative clients, impossible bosses, work-life imbalance, to name a few (not that I suffer from any of them – ahem).
Today I want to do a bit of soul-searching, history-digging, to recover some of that initial motivation I seem to have lost.
So, I dug up an article I wrote back in 2003 for a youth newsletter in church. Some context: this was written 2 years after I was received the teaching award in 2001, BUT 3 years before I started teaching in 2006. Treat this as the words of a starry-eyed lad who hadn’t started teaching, but looked at it with idealistic lenses.
Well, my initial answer is, “Why not?” If teaching is my passion, if I have a love for young people, and if as a teacher I can touch young lives by imparting good values and inspire them with a zest for living, and even bringing some to know God, I can’t see why I shouldn’t.
But thinking deeper, it isn’t so simplistic. Take the workload of a teacher for example. Despite the increase in wage, teaching is still regarded as one of the most stressful and difficult profession. I always heard from other teachers how one single class session can drained all the energies from you for the entire day. And the workload is still increasing. Gone were the days when teachers get to rest in the afternoons. You need to mark assignments, settle administrative matters, manage CCAs, attend meetings… not to mention preparing lessons, tests and, more importantly, your well-being for the onslaught the next day. What makes me so sure that I want to teach, then? And as a Christian, why do I think God wants me to teach?
The thought of teaching first came to my mind towards the end of my National Service. That time I was looking for a good scholarship, since it was quite hard on my family to provide for my tertiary education. I prayed about it, and look at the choices I had. Being an Arts student in JC, I eliminate those that were simply unsuitable: engineering, finance (I didn’t take Maths C), etc. There weren’t many choices left, but then I was rather tempted to take a scholarship at MediaCorp as a journalist. That did not materialize somehow, so I zoomed in to a teaching scholarship. I can’t say it’s my dream all along (it wasn’t), but as I pondered the possibilities of going into teaching, praying about it and asking mature Christians, I began to see that it was an open door.
As you can see, the path God led me into teaching is not a dramatic one you might hear from other people. It’s actually very simple, because I believe that why I do a certain job is more important than what job I do. I asked myself: if I teach, do I have strong reasons for doing so? Yes! My years in Singapore Youth For Christ had instilled a passion for young people, as well as given me some experience in relating with them. I also have to know my personality, the kind of person God made me to be. I love to interact with people but dislike mechanical, mathematical stuff. I also like to do things creatively. These, I thought, are suitable for me as a teacher. Most importantly, I see teaching as an opportunity whereby I can influence lives for God at the direct frontline. Even if I am to go into full-time ministry in the future, I believe that my experience gained in teaching will be beneficial for me. When I had these strong reasons at the back of my mind, I can be confident that no matter how tough the going gets, God will lead me on.
As I look back, I can see the traces of God’s hand leading me to this decision. It wasn’t so obvious in the process, but as I committed this matter to God, seeking to please Him in whatever I do, somehow He just made a way by providing all that I needed: a smooth interview, MOE’s approval, finding a guarantor, signing the contract. My parents were very pleased with the scholarship, and I’m thankful for their support. My mid-term teaching experience at a secondary school made me more certain that this was the right choice for me. Almost every opportunity to interact with students thrills me.
As you seek God’s guidance in your future career, remember: “…in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
So much has changed since I began teaching. But if there’s one thing that stayed the same, it is the passion to connect with young people and making a difference in their lives.
Connecting with young people
I just turned 41. The age gap between me and my students is widening like the bald spot on top of my head. I remembered meeting my JC students with my toddler kids and they would swoon over them (“Oh Mr Mok, your kids are so cute!”). Now I am teaching a class of Secondary One that is at the same age as my daughter. It is funny to impress them by recognizing the Genshin Impact characters they display on their smartphones because my daughter forced me to play the game.
But beyond these funny moments, I am glad I still retain that passion for connecting with them.
Connection with young people is a two-way street. Seeing that youthful idealism and curiosity in their eyes fuels my motivation to impart, engage and bring to life whatever I want to teach them. I enjoy bantering with them during and after class, chatting up about their plans for the future, cheering them when they feel stressed by studies and the expectations that were laid upon them.
Of course, they are not as endearing when they displayed that cannot-be-bothered attitude. I have learnt to accept that sometimes, you just can’t connect with everyone at the same level.
But each and every one of them is a unique person made in God’s image, with a unique personality, backstory, personal hopes, and dreams. Recognizing this helps me get behind their hardened exterior and know the real person beneath.
Making a difference in their lives
When I first made the switch from teaching in a junior college to a neighbourhood secondary school, one of my new colleagues told me, “Teaching these kids really make me feel like a teacher.”
The reason? Because as a teacher, you really make a difference.
Students in junior colleges are more self-motivated. They are academically stronger as well, which means that with decent instruction they can really get quite far on their own.
But students in neighbourhood secondary schools need more nurturing and guidance. I realize that I can’t just focus on the cognitive aspects of the learning – it goes over their heads! No, I have to connect to their hearts. How they feel about me as a teacher affects how much they learn.
And more than a few of them came from difficult family background. Caring teachers become their surrogate parents, because for one reason or another, they lack the family support at home.
And that makes teaching here an even more demanding and yet fulfilling job.
Because when you can make a student feel different about the subject, about their learning, or even about themselves, you can make a difference in their lives.
And that difference goes a long way.
Revisiting my initial reasons for entering teaching revitalizes my motivation to teach.
What about you? How have your motivations and reasons for entering into your current career or calling changed over the years? What keeps you going?