Saturday, 31 May 2014

Written by Ms. Helen Henry, English Faculty of Cempaka Schools

On reflection of my years as a teacher I am often reminded of my years schooling at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, a French Catholic missionary order that arrived in colonial Malaya-Singapore in the late 19th century. It was with singular pride that girls wore the school crest which held deep meaning for generations of school girls in the trademark, ink-blue pinafores. It was also here that I developed an interest in teaching through very simple things like a love for the classroom, school spirit and an appreciation for the school crest that held a deep meaning for most of us. 

The school crest in white, red and silver with a touch of gold had a French motto which read ‘Simple Dans Ma Virtu, Forte Dans Mon Devoir,’ translating to mean ‘Simple in Virtue and Steadfast in Duty’. The crest was also fringed with the Marguerite flowers, the distaff, spindle, holy scriptures and praying beads. We not only wore the crest but took the motto to heart in the way we carried ourselves, approached our education and developed values.

The nuns ran the schools, which first opened at Singapore’s Victoria Street, followed by Penang’s Light Street. Their teachings highlighted more than a colonial syllabus of reading, writing, speaking and arithmetic. They emphasised that we develop personalities that embodied the school ethos – and it was in very simple things like greeting each other or lending a helping hand to each other. We heard the nuns speak of courtesy, honour and fidelity during sports drills, religious instruction, literature or any other subject. Often we were reminded to be alert to the needs of the people around us, and in many ways it helped shape the sort of daughters, sisters, wives and mothers we all became at the various stages of our lives. For me,  it shaped the identity of the teaching we aspired to.

Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, Seremban in 1942

In what were some of the landmark school buildings of its time, Convent Schools had distinguishable buildings with Gothic splendours such as Convent Bukit Nenas in Kuala Lumpur and Town Convent Singapore, or a classical mix of styles in Light Street convent in George Town, Penang. Within those hallowed buildings, worthy of the pilasters and pillars, we learnt core values of courtesy, honour and fidelity. These were traits that went across our relationships whether at home, at school or within the community and the nation at large.

The nuns and the mother superiors who managed the school administration and classrooms saw their charges as more than mere jobs to handle or oversee. They were each a special flower in a garden of various blooms, each offering different colours and bringing different joys.

As difficult as it can be when teaching in a class where there are challenges, it is precisely here in these circumstances that the values we learnt are most needed. I recall how the nuns and  teachers in convent schools made the effort with students who were weaker in their studies or did not keep up with the spirit. They never gave up on any student. “No student who leaves a convent school will leave without learning something to make a difference in the world out there,” a wise teacher once said. It is true when Convent students gather for reunions, there is the spirit that has moulded them, a belief that they have learnt something to make a difference in whatever they do.

I believe when I set out to teach, unconsciously I brought the ethos and values of a convent education into any classroom I ventured into. Each student that sat in my class, was not just another name or record in the class register. I have always made it a point to reach out to students in the classes I teach. And the students too have responded. While some took a longer time, most came to school eager to learn beyond the school syllabus. 

It certainly demanded patience in some cases, especially in schools where the students were from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is said that teachers who rise to the challenge of being able to reach such students are truly the gifted ones. Perhaps, being in the convent where they also, for a time, ran orphanages, showed us what compassion meant, when the nuns took in unwanted babies left outside the convent schools. These children too, grew up on the school grounds and while deprived of family life, and the school in turn became their family.  Now for some of us, as teachers, we are gently reminded to be more charitable to students who are deprived of stable family lives and to make a difference in their lives. Sometimes even a smile or an encouraging glance makes a difference as one student related to me, years later when she left school. Students themselves teach us teachers valuable lessons, and to be able to realise that, can be enriching, as how I sometimes marvel at the way some of my more lively students approach life and share their thoughts.

With thirty-nine years of teaching experience, most of which was in the public school system and the rest in private schools, I came to see that teaching cannot be just a job. It is a vocation, something that the founders of the mission schools, such as Franciscan founder of the IJ convents, Father Barre declared to his nuns or even as the patron saint of the teachers,St John Baptist de La Salle imbued in the La Salle School teaching fraternity. No child, they argued, is beyond hope. We sometimes symbolise hope in their lives.

Even when reality sometimes makes it easy to admit that teaching is perhaps the most thankless vocation, parents and students who are appreciative, allow us to renew that belief that we are not merely performing a job but taking on a challenge that essentially shapes the sort of people we all strive to be. Now as a teacher in my twilight decades of teaching, that school motto that I took seriously has given me more insights. If it held a certain awe to be simple in virtue and steadfast in duty when I was a student, now as a teacher it helps me renew my commitment to rise and affirm that the simplest acts of teaching – grading papers, preparing lessons, is something that has a supernatural value, and it keeps me steadfast in duty, to love what I was born to be – to share and learn about life with the children that come my way.

by Unknown 17:35 12 comments | in , , , , , ,


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