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From Hardware to Heartware

09 Sep 2019

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ICT expert Liu Kah Yang enjoyed troubleshooting software issues, until he found his passion with a different sort of “troubleshooting” – students in need.

Mr Liu Kah Yang, Bartley Secondary School, President’s Award for Teachers 2019 Finalist

When you enter the Pod, it’s clear that this room is meant for teenagers to have fun. There are Xbox and Wii consoles along the wall, stacks of board games on a shelf, a foosball table in one corner, and musical instruments like guitars and an electric organ ready for a jam session. Comfortable sofas in the room invite teens to lounge around.

The Pod was set up in Bartley Secondary School because Liu Kah Yang, Year Head, felt that the students needed a safe, supervised space after school hours to hang out.

In Bartley, as in any school, there are students who face challenging issues. They might have relationship problems, or they might have parents who work long hours, or who are in the midst of divorce. These problems manifest themselves in students as absenteeism, being late for school, falling grades, falling asleep in class, or being defiant toward teachers. Because of their issues, these students may be more likely  to mix with bad company after school, and their behaviour can worsen.

But while the Pod was created with challenging students in mind, it is open to all. At any one time, about 30 students hang out in the room, playing games, making friends, and most importantly, staying out of trouble.

Ready to listen

While an after-school clubhouse is not unique to Bartley Secondary, Kah Yang approached it in a unique fashion. He didn’t just find a classroom and pack it with what he thought the students would like. He surveyed the students to find out what  they wanted in an after-school clubhouse. In addition to the obvious, like computer games and board games, Kah Yang found out their number one request was air-conditioning. So, Kah Yang set off to find an appropriate room to turn into the Pod.

The listening did not stop there. He regularly does surveys and gets direct feedback from students about how they feel about the place. He doesn’t pander to all their requests, but if they ask for something reasonable, he always considers it. So, for instance, when students asked to move the furniture around for a change of scene, he said, ok.

Says Kah Yang, “The child needs to be heard, whatever the issue. I like to understand where he is coming from. I don’t think it’s fair to the child if I jump to conclusions based on just the feedback I get from teachers.”

A Pod that protects

To make students feel comfortable, teachers are not always stationed there. Instead there is a youth worker, who organises activities and acts as a confidante to the kids. Kah Yang drops by from time to time. If any of the students have any issues, the youth worker shares this with Kah Yang.

The Pod has become tremendously popular.

Apart from games, there are activities as well. During the festive period, students learn to bake cookies and make cards that they can give their parents. There are also learning journeys to places around Singapore, like Chinatown. Recently, the school took the students out to go shooting with air pistols, an experience many of them would not otherwise have had.

People, not processes

Helping people become better versions of themselves is Kah Yang’s forte. While his current focus is students, in his previous role as head of ICT at Bartley Sec, he had to help teachers leverage technology to drive self-directed and collaborative learning. Kah Yang sat in on different classes, so that he could familiarise himself with how the different subjects were taught, and recommended appropriate technology tools to enhance the teaching of the subject.

Previously a Maths teacher with a degree in civil engineering, Kah Yang took on the role of Year Head when the school merged with First Toa Payoh Secondary.

After wearing both hats – ICT and Year Head - for a year, Kah Yang decided to focus on the more pastoral role in 2016. “My role as Year Head gives me the opportunity to develop students in many ways. It allows me to look at not just the development of one, few or a class of students, it provides me the opportunity to work with at least a whole level of students.”

In Bartley, the Year Head follows the students as they progress from Secondary 1 to Secondary 4. This enables Kah Yang to get to know the students and their challenges well, and guide them along the way.

He relies on the form teachers to help him do this. “They work very closely with the students and they surface issues to me.” Another source of information is the school counsellor.

His ICT skills continue to come in handy. “I check data pertaining to attendance, late-coming, academic performance, and attendance in CCA. I sieve through the data so I can see which students are at risk.”

He then works closely with the form teachers and school counsellors to reach out to these at-risk students. When appropriate, he will talk to the students, and if necessary, their parents as well.

Sometimes the problems come to him. The students know that Kah Yang is someone they can talk to, and some of them approach him directly when they are troubled. While he has done a lot for students as Year Head, Kah Yang is particularly proud of the processes he has put in place to monitor student attendance.

“Programmes can only work when students are present for school,” he says. “It is never easy to help resolve family or individual issues that prevent a student from attending school”, so if he can help improve the attendance of even just one child, so that the child benefits, that, to him, is an achievement.