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Brains, Brawn and Heart

04 Oct 2016

PE teacher Chua Thian Keong’s done a lot of heavy lifting in his life. But none of it has been as rewarding as lifting the people around him.

Chua Thian Keong, Woodlands Primary School, President’s Award for Teachers 2016 finalist

At Woodlands Primary School’s Games Day, “passing to the girls” is a good thing. Boys launch ball after ball to their ponytailed classmates, cheering them on to score. And with good reason: girls snag double points for their teams.

“We want to dispel the notion that some games are for boys, and some games are for girls,” says Thian Keong, the chief architect of the annual event. He noticed that girls tended to hold back when placed in the same teams as boys, and came up with this solution.

Inclusiveness is his guiding principle: Games Day has an even spread of gender and races across all activities, prizes for the fourth place, and full participation of the upper primary cohorts. These features are a concerted response to the school’s now-defunct Sports Day, where – as Thian Keong observed – “only 10% of the students will be running, and the other 90% cheering.” Now, everyone’s involved. Even ex-students, who enjoyed the event while they were with the school, come back every year to help out.

Role model for colleagues

This spirit of spreading benefits to as many as possible comes naturally to Thian Keong. When he received the Outstanding PE Teacher Award in 2011, his first thought was how he could leverage it to help his colleagues. “More opportunities opened up. I got to work with the Physical Education And Sports Teacher Academy (PESTA) to trial certain teaching methods,” he says. “I decided to involve my department in these projects, so that all of us could grow together.”

When the PE syllabus was revised in 2013, Thian Keong was one of the active advocates. He initiated discussions with his team on why the changes were made, how the school  could implement them, and what the intended outcomes for students were. He then reinforced these with regular workshops to keep the conversations going. For him, it wasn’t enough for the PE Department to deliver the syllabus well, they had to be convinced of it too.

Even as he raises the competencies of those around him, Thian Keong also has a keen eye for individual potential, and will throw his full weight behind those he feels can really shine. Thian Keong, seeing how well a teacher in his department was able to engage her students, affirmed her qualities and encouraged her to be a Senior Teacher. While she was initially apprehensive, she eventually came round to the fact that “we will never be 100% ready”. Today, she is an associate trainer with PESTA.

Remembering to touch lives

The same principles apply for Thian Keong when it comes to his Maths students. The father of three – one each in primary school, secondary school and junior college – knows a thing or two about working with young people.

Even as he engages his students with ICT-enhanced lessons and stretches them by getting them to set questions for each other, he is mindful not to dwell on their shortcomings. He understands they can be very sensitive at this age. “I believe that words can help build people up or pull them down. Some children already have a lot of negativity in their lives, so I shall not contribute to that,” he says.

Under his guidance, several children turned Maths from their weakest subject into one of their strongest. One student, who had been struggling with the subject, eventually scored an A* in the PSLE, finishing among the top 10 in the school.

But grades are far from the be-all and end-all for Thian Keong. His students have a long road ahead of them and he wants to set them on the right track.

“I write in their report cards: Destined for greatness, but along the way, do touch lives,” he says.