Do you focus on students or teachers? It took Peter Thia almost three decades to find the answer to that question, but once he did, there was no looking back.
Peter Thia, Catholic Junior College, President’s Award for Teachers 2016 finalist
Catholic Junior College’s Mother Tongue Department is on a roll. Their Mother Tongue results are up. Their students’ recent video project on Balestier Road got picked up by the National Heritage Board (NHB), who is interested in future collaborations. And in 2015, for the first time in the history of the Department, the entire Mother Tongue Language (MTL) staff presented different projects at various national and international competitions.
The man at the centre of this resurgence is CJC veteran of 29 years, Peter, Head of the Mother Tongue Department, who also happens to be an alumnus. “This is my first school, and, I hope, the last!” says Peter.
The soft-spoken and avuncular Peter has been teaching and training teachers for almost three decades at CJC, but his moment of epiphany struck some three years ago when he came across a quote at a training programme he was attending. The quote said, “When we focus on teachers, our students succeed.”
Peter instantly recognised the truth of this based on his past experience.
The early years – results focused
When he had first joined CJC, his focus had been firmly on his students. “I saw my role as an educator was to impart knowledge so that students would achieve good grades and enter university. I was constantly contemplating how to get good results.” He pitched lessons at a higher level and with deeper and wider content but this approach did not work for the students. When he became Head of Department (HOD) – his first stint – he reviewed the curriculum and standardised materials, so that everything was in place for “good teaching”. But his efforts didn’t deliver the results he had expected. The students were not interested in what was being taught, their results fluctuated from year to year, and the teachers were not equipped to do what was needed for effective learning to take place.
It is said that CJC students can be a challenge to their Chinese teachers, but, as Peter says with a chuckle, “If I don’t stay (and teach), who else will?”
So stay he did, though he decided to step down as HOD after five years to focus on his first love – teaching. Along the way, he built his own strengths as a teacher, exploring new strategies and methods. He also took on school-based training and staff development, which he found to be very interesting and gratifying. “I enjoyed helping fellow teachers take ownership of their personal growth, and seeing them gain confidence and job satisfaction.” Five teachers he mentored during this time were promoted to senior positions.
Moment of truth
In 2008, he became School Staff Developer, which led to him attending the training session and his epiphanic moment. With his new mantra in place, Peter threw himself wholeheartedly into developing the capability of every MTL teacher, creating more roles and responsibilities that would improve the learning and teaching of MTL. He also took on, once again, the position of HOD. “I was really lucky to have a second chance, right?” he says.
In an effort to re-energise the Department, Peter got every teacher to present on an area of interest or research at Department sharing sessions. The teachers would share their ideas and try to convince colleagues to join their project, forming Professional Learning Teams. Peter says, “If we say that we want our students to be leaders, then the teachers must be leaders, too. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to cultivate leaders.”
The sharing sessions and project ideas were a great success. Not only did teaching practices improve, the entire department was selected to present their projects at various conferences in Singapore and abroad. “Never before had the Department achieved on this scale,” says Peter. He also tapped on funds for professional development to arrange for the trips. “We had not utilised the conference funds before, and now all our teams were selected,” he says with pride.
One of the project ideas that came out of the sharing sessions is the students’ Balestier video project, which caught the attention of NHB. For this experiential learning project, called “Unlocking Cultural Puzzles@Balestier”, students trawled Balestier Road in small groups and created short videos on certain sites. Some of the videos will be shown on NHB’s website.
In producing the videos, students not only had to use and hone their MTL skills, they discovered a lot about the cultural heritage of that estate. “It brought Mother Tongue into the real-world context,” says Peter. “The students saw the practicality and value of the language.”
The Department today is re-energised.
Peter adds, “In CJC, a core value is ‘In Truth and in Love’ – in other words, integrity and care. I tell my teachers, if you care for your students, you will identify your own gaps — whether it’s in competency, knowledge or skill, and you will look for appropriate training to close it. And as a professional with integrity, you will constantly upgrade your skills, so that it translates into effective teaching and learning, and benefit the students.”
The last two years have been very satisfying for Peter. “The teachers’ belief in what they’re doing is the success factor that anchors any programme or activity. And what can be more fulfilling than seeing a mindset change in each and every one of my teachers and students?”