Many of us would have distinct memories of studying our mother tongue in school, whether they were good or bad. Kee Jing Guan, 76, taught Chinese and Art at Bukit Ho Swee Secondary School (BHSSS) for over 40 years. We sat down with him to hear about his years as ‘季老师’(Teacher Kee), and how Chinese language teaching in Singapore has changed over the decades.
Even though more than 50 years have passed, Mr Kee still remembers the date 3 January 1966 clearly: it was on this day that, aged 26, he joined Bukit Ho Swee Secondary School as a Chinese language teacher. It was his first job, and as it turned out, he would stay in it for over four decades.
Mr Kee considered himself very fortunate to have landed the opportunity – not just in getting a job that he liked, but in getting a job at all. “At that time, the economy wasn’t doing so well, so I immediately took the job when I found out my application had been accepted.”
“To be able to find a teaching position then was considered lucky,” he said. “It was a bonus that it was my aspiration to teach.”
Mr Kee started out at BHSSS as a temporary teacher. Like any other newcomer to the profession, green and untested at that time, he had first-day jitters. “I was nervous when I first stepped into the classroom! It was a new school then, so it was very chaotic. Many of the students were very playful and mischievous,” he said.
At that time, he was not only inexperienced but also untrained, having never gone for any sort of teacher training before starting work. Key features of his job, such as learning how to structure a lesson, engage his students, or maintain order in the classroom, were completely new to him. His only option was to feel his way through and hope for the best.
“I had no idea how to teach at the time, so I could only depend on my instincts to devise ways of communicating the lesson content to [the students],” he said.
“By contrast, teachers today are very well-prepared thanks to their NIE [National Institute of Education] training,” he added. “They get the benefit of proper guidance during their training and even after they become qualified teachers.”
To his relief, Mr Kee eventually received formal training. After six months on the job, he was given a permanent teaching position, and eventually began a two-year teacher training course at the Teachers’ Training College [now the National Institute of Education (NIE)].
“It was conducted in half-day sessions. I would teach in the morning before attending the course in the afternoon or vice versa. We [the trainee teachers] were all very busy, but nobody complained. We just worked and got on with things,” Mr Kee shared.
Bukit Ho Swee Secondary School during its official opening ceremony in 1967. It later merged with Tiong Bahru Secondary School (now defunct) in 1991 to become Delta Secondary School, which in turn became Bukit Merah Secondary School in 2004. Photo source: National Archives of Singapore
According to Mr Kee, who started out teaching a Secondary Two class, class sizes then were quite large. An insufficient number of secondary schools at that time meant that every classroom was packed to the brim, with around 42 students per class. (In contrast, there are, on average, 34 students in each secondary school class today.)
Moreover, teachers were sometimes expected to teach more than one subject in order to make up their teaching hours. For example, Chinese language teachers who were short of teaching hours might teach Art or Physical Education to make up the balance; Mr Kee himself taught Civics in addition to Chinese. “We weren’t always clear about the system at that time. The increased responsibilities for teachers sometimes made it hard to focus on one single thing,” he said.
At BHSSS, a Chinese-medium school under the vernacular education system of the time, classes were taught in Chinese and students studied English as a second language. This would eventually be reversed during the 1970s and 1980s, when the vernacular education system was phased out in favour of teaching English as students’ first language and their mother tongue as their second.
Between 1969 to 1970, Mr Kee stopped teaching in BHSSS to serve mandatory National Service – although, as things turned out, he was really swapping one classroom for another. After completing the Basic Military Training course, he was posted to the Language department at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), where he was tasked with teaching Malay and Indian recruits to speak Chinese as part of cultural integration efforts. According to Mr Kee, recruits who had taught in English-medium schools were called on to teach English to Hokkien-speaking recruits, and Chinese recruits were also expected to learn Malay.
After his return to BHSSS, Mr Kee had to adapt to changing education policies, such as the introduction of the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979 and the adoption of English as the official language of instruction in 1987.
Another difference was the introduction of different tracks for learning Chinese, based on students’ abilities. “In the past, in order to pass [the] national exams, it was a must to pass Chinese. Now, students who are weaker in Chinese have the option of taking Chinese Language ‘B’, while students who are more proficient can take Higher Chinese,” he explained.
On his part, he looked upon the changes with equanimity. “When policies were implemented, it was expected that changes would need to be made to support their implementation. It was never a question if it would be troublesome. That was just our mindset at the time, to do what needed to be done,” he said.
When asked about the impact of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, he explained that it was targeted at people from English-speaking homes. “After Chinese-medium schools were phased out and Chinese became taught as a second language, people’s grasp of the language [weakened]. However, the decision to teach English as students’ first language was meant to help build a cohesive society. And because in the past, students from English-medium schools struggled with speaking Chinese, the policy did help to address that problem.”
Campaign paraphernalia (posters, booklets, and drink packets) on display at a Speak Mandarin Campaign press conference in 1986. Photo source: National Archives of Singapore
“It’s hard to say how the importance of learning Mandarin has changed since I began teaching, so much is different nowadays.” he added. “[You could say that] Singaporeans looking to do business in China would be at a disadvantage if their grasp of the language is poor, but then again, language as a whole is important to society because it is about expression and understanding of knowledge. Without language, communication would be impeded and things cannot be done.”
His teaching career took on a different direction, however, when he was appointed Head of Department (HOD) for Aesthetics (comprising visual and performing arts) in 1990. Given his new area of focus and additional responsibilities, including taking a more active role in managing the school, Mr Kee stopped teaching Chinese when he took up the HOD post.
Although Mr Kee had not taught Art before, he began to do so after starting his new role, as he believed he ought to have teaching experience in a subject he was overseeing. In his classes, students learn about traditional art forms such as Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting, alongside basic skills like sketching and painting.
“It’s good that the students were willing to learn even though the content was non-examinable,” he said. “These programmes helped them develop a deeper understanding of Chinese culture. For example, they got [the opportunity] to learn about nuances of Chinese painting and the use of symbols.”
Mr Kee eventually retired from the teaching profession in 2006, although he continues to teach today as a flexi-adjunct teacher in another school. Cumulatively, he has amassed over 50 years’ worth of teaching experience, but remarkably, until he retired, he had only taught at BHSSS – the very first school he started at.
“I have the best memories from BHSSS,” he said. “It was a new school when I joined, and it was notorious for its students, but they all grew up to become working adults and made good lives for themselves. I feel proud of them when I look back on how far they have come.”
Mr Kee continues to keep in touch with many of his former students. For the past 10 years or so, his ex-BHSSS students have invited him, and other teachers who taught them, to a reunion every Chinese New Year.
Looking back on his decades of teaching and preparing students for life beyond homework and exams, Mr Kee was calm and clear as he shared what he finds most fulfilling about teaching.
“Naturally, I feel good when my students do well and achieve good grades, but all students have different abilities and learn at different paces,” he said. “A good teacher must be able to motivate students to learn, and to be fair to them regardless of their abilities or background. I only regret that I didn’t have better training at the start of my career, so I could have done more for my students then.”
“I follow the mantra ‘Just Do It’ when teaching my students,” he continued. “It’s not how much they know but how much effort they put in and their willingness to learn. At the end of the day, whether a student performs well or poorly in their studies isn’t the most important thing. It’s how they go on to apply what they have been taught to their lives in future that is most crucial.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
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