Trisha Reloaded

Dedicated to Trisha, as always. Dedicated also to L, my source of inspiration, and the reason why I choose to see the bright side of teaching.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

On 'stupid' students

At a Chinese New Year gathering yesterday, someone asked me a rather interesting question.

“So what do you do with students who are stupid?”

I was completely caught off-guard. I mean, I try very hard not to label anyone, especially my students, as “stupid”, and God forbid that I actually utter such harsh pronouncements on anyone under my care. So to be asked a direct question on my handling of “stupid” students left me speechless for a while as I grapple for an honest answer.

“W..e..ll,” I said, seeking the right words to convey the complex feelings I have about students who are less bright, “I encourage them in little ways. I praise them for even the little progress they have made. I want them to understand that they are not stupid, they just need more time for things to click.”

“But that means they are stupid!” my cousin insisted. “What if you have explained things many times and they still don’t get it? Hence they’re stupid, right? Why don’t you just tell them they’re dumb? Why tell them they’re ok when they’re not?”

You should have seen my jaw drop to the floor. I couldn’t believe the words I was hearing, from a parent with very intelligent kids. Thankfully, his wife butted in.

“How can a teacher say such things to a kid’s face? What good would it do? A teacher is supposed to encourage a student, not tear him down!” She spoke my thoughts actually.

To be fair to my cousin, I think he was merely trying to provoke me into thinking about and revealing some of the real but uncomfortable scenarios teachers and parents face when confronted with children who are not even mediocre, but are slow, not bright and who made you realize in a perverse way why streaming is a necessary evil in education.

I detest streaming. I have seen what the labeling does to a child’s self-esteem. I do not like to see such stratification in the schools, where often, the express students are treated differently from the normal streams (especially the normal technical stream) and yet, I know it is very very difficult for a normal technical student to cope if he is placed in the same class as express students. To those rare few (and my emphasis is on the word rare) who have crossed the great chasm, I salute them for their diligence and tenacity. But for the majority, such a meteoric rise can only be a dream.

But I am digressing. I was going to talk about how I countered my annoying cousin’s question.

My 'sagely' reply : “No one is stupid in everything, unless you have some mental disorder. Hence I see no reason why being frank to the student about his “stupidity” as you would like to call it, is beneficial to anyone. If you can’t do Math, ok, that’s not your strength. But you’re not stupid. I’m sure you are good in something else. I don’t believe a teacher should go around pronouncing anyone as stupid.”

Actually, I also wanted to niggle him about his Chinese, because I know that was the one thing he struggled with in school, despite graduating with top honours in other subjects. I could even be malicious, and ask him frankly, “So why are you so ‘stupid’ in Chinese?”, just to see how he would respond. But we were going to lo hei soon, and that would have spoilt the entire joyous mood.


At 6:01 PM, Blogger Ensui said...

I agree. Most teachers / parents scold their students / children without due regard for their feelings. And their excuse? "Say only mah. Cannot say meh?" After that, i just dun have the will nor energy to argue with them. -.-

At 6:12 PM, Blogger trisha said...

Ensui: your prompt comment scared me! I just posted this about a few minutes ago!

Happy new year to you!

At 6:55 PM, Anonymous Kate said...

Bravo, Trisha, very good reply to your cousin's insensitive question.
Being book smart does not mean a person is smart. We have so many educated idiots in Singapore who can't even apply what they had learn into real life. Also, as an educator, I'm sure you are aware of Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences. Perhaps your cousin should read up on Gardner's multiple intelligences theory, ( then perhaps he will really understand what is the real definition of stupid. Stupid is as stupid does.

At 7:47 PM, Blogger yanjie said...

i agree with your thoughts on streaming....It's heartbreaking to see students in normal stream who knows their stuff and are very much intelligent, yet lack the confidence in themselves to try. That's not something that constant encouragement could reverse easily....

At 7:48 AM, Blogger Ensui said...

Whoops. Didn't know i was that punctual. Dun worry, i'm not stalking you. :D

Happy Chinese New Year to you too. :)

At 6:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a cousin who was in normal stream. He is not good in the language subjects. The family decided that we would not pressurize him to move to express stream. We accept the fact that he is slower than his peers and if it means he needed more time to complete his secondary school education, so be it. I am sure he must have felt the pressure to perform well as his 2 brothers are much better than him academically.

As it turned out, he went to ITE and did well to progress to 2nd Year in Poly. We discovered that he is in fact very good in his Maths and Science subjects.

So I totally agree with Trisha and strongly believe that everyone is good at something that is not necessarily academic. We just need to discover our strengths.

At 5:56 AM, Anonymous Caesium said...

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At 6:39 AM, Blogger ? said...

The education system in Singapore in some schools can be really rigid, textbook constricted. Sometimes the real intelligent students are those that choose not to be schooled here.

At 6:42 AM, Anonymous whybegay said...

And it is the education system that is suppose to make students intelligent. What are teachers for? To educate students so that they can be intelligent to survive in the real world. If they can't do their job well, then the system and the teachers are the ones who is the real Stupids and Incompetents.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger piper said...

I dislike streaming as well but I agree that it would be incredibly difficult for both the teacher and student if there was not any. Perhaps the real evil is what we do with the kids after they are streamed.

Seeing that I have been teaching the N(A) kids all the years I've taught (with a few dabblings in the E and N(T) streams), I get asked this question too.

Honestly, they are not stupid kids. They know more about technology, pop culture, music, sport etc than me. They just aren't so great academically, which, sadly, is all our education system cares about.

At 7:27 PM, Blogger nofearSingapore said...

Hi Trisha,

I totally disagree with you.
Lo hei or no hei, you should have niggled him/her!

How can a person be so STUPID as to ask such idiotic questions and make such moronic comments.

For your sake, I hope your cousin's sickness ( stupidity) does not run in the family.

By the way, are you related to your cousin by blood or by marriage? ( ha ha)


At 4:17 AM, Anonymous Rowen said...

Well let me tell you a story.

Once there was a child who came from a family which was very poor and he studied in a kampong primary school. In Primary 1 the first year of his education, he scored the last in class and his tests (especially maths) got 1 or 2 marks only. His mother begged the principle to put him through another year of Primary 1. The principle agreed.

For the next year his results improved a bit till only 30 or 40 marks. again the mother asked the principle to put him through another year of primary 1.

In the third year his results were very good. Then he never got bad results again. For his PSLE he got the highest in his school and qualified for Dunman High school.

In Dunman High he was one of the best students and yet due to his poverty he could not go to JC and then University. He chose to take a loan and went to Ngee Ann Poly.

In Ngee Ann Poly he did very well and won a scholarship. In the army he became the best officer of the graduating officer.

This is the story of my father.

Let me go to the point. Some seeds need time to grow. No one is stupid. it is those educators, who never give others a chance, which are the biggest fools and idiots in the world.

At 8:23 AM, Anonymous thebro said...

I remember Pa used to tell us about this cousin of ours with an EE degree who couldn't change a 3-pin plug - is this the same cousin?

Anyway, I'm just thinking, if I were in your shoes, and were in the right frame of mind, this is what I might do: Find a topic which you know this cousin knows crap about. Say, Women's Shoes (what the heck are pumps??). Now ask him to imagine himself as a student in a world where Women's Shoes is a compulsory subject in school. And ask him if he would like his Women's Shoes teacher to call him Stupid.

Like you wrote, I believe everyone is good at something. And I believe the real challenge for education is not so much to make every student good at some specific set of subjects as determined by the policymakers, but rather, to discover what it is that each student is good in, and then provide the right opportunities to develop and excel in that area. The role of primary & secondary education should be to faciliate such discovery, rather than to determine a student's worth.

In poly, I see way too many students just wandering into courses they are totally unsuited for. And yet, I see some of these same students in my course, who have mediocre results in their studies, doing so well in school events - they would make great event organizers, MCs, corporate trainers (team-building, anyone?), etc, but they would make terrible IT professionals. You definitely wouldn't want them working on your hospital's IT systems or programming the surgical robots that are going to operate on your spleen. But that's the kind of thing we are supposed to train them to do. (OK, maybe not the surgical robots.) I think that's one big problem with our education system - it isn't helping our students to discover what they are good at.

At 10:32 AM, Anonymous Germs said...

Hmmm .... i wrote a couple of lines 2 days back but it seemed like BIG BROTHER has censored it.

ANYWAY.....i meant to comment that yr reply is in the same league as yr other "sagely" answer to yr interview question for MOE, remember? Difficulties...what difficulties?.....etc ;)

At 11:40 PM, Blogger `winston said...

hey,just chanced upon your blog from google search on sporean teacher blogs :) and read about the tuition post.

im 16 (admittedly in 7 months time) and am tutoring just for the immense joys.seeing that you are a teacher,and a maths one at that,how do you nurture interest in a child,and yet get the results required?what is needed to arouse his interest?

insights from anyone would help in my aim for tutoring excellence. thanks!


At 9:44 AM, Anonymous PC said...

I was a relief teacher at my old school for a couple of months, and I was assigned to be form teacher of a Normal stream class. I heard from them that their regular teacher had given up on them and told them so explicitly.

I am so glad that you are not that sort of teacher.

take care..

At 4:15 AM, Blogger IZ Reloaded said...

love the blog name!


At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm Zichun, I'm a student currently studying Science at a local university now... going to be a teacher in a few years as well... sigh... hehe.

I think that most of us miss quite an important point about this issue of 'stupidity'. Unfortunately, our world is not fair. As much as we'd love to think otherwise, the reality is that there ARE people who are hopelessly stupid, without being 'gifted' or 'talented' in any other areas in their life; they are just not good at ANYTHING. Oh sure, perhaps some are, eh, good at uh... drawing? Or maybe they do music or something. However, there are also brilliant students with good grades, and even better extra-curricular talents and achievements which would make the 'other talents' of the 'stupid ones' seem trivial and irrelevant!

Try as we might, we can't change the fact that there are students of different calibre with any amount of euphemisms or clever use of words and meanings. And this brings me to what I feel is the crucial point of this issue: how do we measure the worth and value of students as individuals? Is a student more precious because he/she is smart? Conversely, is a student not worth teaching and loving just because he/she is born a little slower or truly dumber than others? Our society has already been shaped such that people from their impressionable student days have been conditioned to put a price tag on themselves and others based on how they perform, and thus base their sense of self-worth based on that.


I believe, as Christians, we already have an answer to this.


Thus, the crucial role for you and (in the future) me, is not so much to try to convince ourselves and our students that they are not worthless because they must have some hidden talent hidden somewhere, somewhere... well... somewhere. Rather, it is to convince, and most importantly, SHOW them, through love and patience, that they are not worthless, regardless of how stupid (ok, over here, euphemisms and tact would then fall into place once we've got our fundamental ideas right...) they are, but that they have a teacher who's unconditionally supportive of them so that they may fulfil their God-given potential and roles as a useful, contributing citizen of society, much in the same way as we are called to be an obedient body of Christ.


Does it make sense?

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i especailly hate them long meetings, because they have to be long and the minutes run to hours. I actually wrote a cute little ditty when in one of these meetings which ( if I find it) I will post it.

BTW I had one meeting where the P sepnet abut 20 mins talking about his divorce.

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