Introduction

It is my pleasure to join you this evening at the Leaders in Education Programme (LEP) graduation dinner. My heartiest congratulations to the 35 graduands, including the five school leaders from Brunei Darussalam. You have reached this milestone after a challenging six months’ programme. Today marks the start of a new phase of your school leadership journey.

Building a Culture of Learning and Respect

At our recent Work Plan Seminar, I focused on how we can grow the Singapore Teacher, who has four qualities – belief in your students, belief in yourself, belief in each other and belief that you are part of something larger. The Singapore Teacher lifts up his students and helps them to fulfil their potential, continues to grow in his craft throughout his life, supports his fellow educators in their journey of growth, and does this all to build something bigger than himself.

What do I mean by “belief that you are part of something larger”? Some educators shared with me after WPS that they do not frequently think of their work in terms of building something bigger than themselves. You are focused on bringing out the best in each individual child: encouraging them to love learning, instilling in them the right values and moral compass, and building strong foundations so that they can do well at the next stage of learning. Many of you go beyond the call of duty to look after the welfare of your students, and it shows in the way that students poured out their thanks for you in the closing video of my WPS speech!

This is precisely what I mean by building something larger. While you may not think about it in these terms, instinctively, all of you know that the future of our nation depends on the thousands of little interactions we have with our students every day. The students passing through your hands today will learn the values that will determine what our society will look like in a few decades. They will discover their passions and pick up the skills they need to serve the community they live in, and make Singapore a better place for their fellow citizens. As teachers, you pour your hard and heart work into these children because you want the best for them, and want the best for your country. Lesson by lesson, life by life, generation by generation, all of you in this room have given much to build something larger than ourselves.

I also spoke about how we can grow and support the Singapore Teacher. The Government, in accepting the ASPIRE Committee’s recommendations, has thrown its weight behind three shifts we would like to see in society:

  • First, a stronger emphasis on skills and applied learning, so that our students can use knowledge in the real-world context to solve problems and to create innovations.
  • Second, a desire for continual and lifelong learning, instead of just being frontloaded in the first 20 odd years of our lives.
  • Third, a respect for every person and every job, stemming from a belief that people may differ in their interests, temperament, aptitudes and learning styles, but are valued in society.

The recommendations of the ASPIRE Committee and the new CET 2020 Masterplan, which was recently unveiled by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA), signal the importance of looking beyond academic qualifications, to build and develop skills among Singaporeans in the next chapter of Singapore’s development as a nation. The SkillsFuture Council, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, will build on the work of these two initiatives and lead the way for Singaporeans to build a future based on skills and mastery in every job.

The Critical Role of Educators in Building this Culture

As educators, we play an important role in effecting this shift.

Stronger Emphasis on Skills and Applied Learning

First, a stronger emphasis on skills and applied learning. Many of us already help students apply their learning in real life situations, or at least help them see the applications of their learning – this after all often makes students much more interested in the subject matter. It also equips them to learn and innovate on the job, which will be a critical success factor for them. We will continue with this good work and through the Applied Learning Programme (ALP) in every secondary school, will do it in a more concerted way. I encourage you to implement it in your schools in the spirit of helping students deeply understand why they are learning what they are learning, and how they can go beyond to innovate, once they have grasped the concept.

Desire for Continual and Lifelong Learning

Second, a desire for continual and lifelong learning. As teachers, you are the foremost models of lifelong learning to your students. The classroom and school is your classroom too. It is there where you learn what works, and what does not; where you pick up new skills, often by learning from each other, or by attending courses that are relevant to your job. The humility you demonstrate in your quest to keep improving, your strengthened teaching skills, and the mutual support that teachers give to each other in learning – all these will show your students that learning does not cease after the first 20 years of your life.

Teachers’ learning can be in different forms: on the job, or through courses; or learning in practice and through practice on the job; through mentoring, or simply, self-learning or personal reflection. There are many existing efforts in support of this, such as structured mentoring at the individual level, professional learning communities at the school level; and networked learning communities and subject chapters at the national and cluster level. Over the next five years, we will focus on high impact learning and developmental activities such as providing more opportunities for specialisation, deepening our support for mentoring, and growing the subject chapters and networked learning communities.

As School Leaders, you play an extremely important role in encouraging this culture of learning in your school. When asked what are the top few things that have helped in their professional development at the Work Plan Seminar discussions in the afternoon, the participants – teachers, Key Personnel (KPs), Senior Teachers (STs) etc. – unanimously said that one of the most important things to them is a supportive school culture; one where their leaders encourage them to take up professional development opportunities, sit with them to list down their areas of development, and encourage sharing and learning among school staff. I urge you to lead well in this respect, building a culture of teachers growing teachers in your school, where each person takes ownership for his or her own learning.

Respect for Every Person and Every Job

Finally, respect for every person and every job. In society today, there unfortunately exists an unhealthy lack of regard for certain jobs. This shows up in the way some people shun particular jobs, because they perceive it to reflect poorly on their status; or in the way others treat the people who hold these jobs.

Senior Minister of State Ms Indranee Rajah shared a good example of this existing mentality that society holds in her opening speech for the Parliamentary Debate on ASPIRE. It was recounted by one of the ASPIRE committee members, Olivia Lum. There was a technician who was very good at his work. With his expertise and years of experience, he was being paid more than some of the graduates. However, he wanted to switch to a white-collar job even though it paid less. You might wonder why. His wife actually did not like him coming back in dirty overalls, smelling of the factory and the plant – she wanted him to have a white-collar job, even if it paid less.

We need to shift away from the mentality that some jobs and people are more valuable and respectable than others. We need to help our children understand that everyone is valued, and will use their gifts, talents, and strengths to serve the community in a unique way. In this regard, the Learning for Life programme, or the LLP in our schools, is relevant, as it not only provides the platform for students to continue their learning beyond the academic areas, it also helps them develop their character and values and cultivate positive attitudes, and shape them to better appreciate each and every individual.

We must also reflect on the Educational and Career Guidance that our teachers are giving our children – are we, by default, asking them to strive for certain tried and tested routes that may not be so suitable for them? Or are we really helping them to discover the path that is best suited for them? We should work towards encouraging them to pursue their interests, regardless of the qualifications, and help them to turn their passion into their careers. As School Leaders, let’s help our teachers reflect on this, so that we can build respect for every job and every person in society, and help our young ones to understand that there is more to life than landing a particular job or getting a specific qualification. More importantly, we should continue progressing and doing our best based on the opportunities provided to us. I know this is challenging, and mindsets – including those of parents, students, even some educators amongst us and society in general – have to shift. But let’s continue working on this together.

We all know that the world we live in today is drastically different from the one we grew up in, and will also be very different from the world our children will spend their adult lives in. Technological innovations, and global challenges such as economic volatility, terrorism and pandemics, will permanently change the way we live, work and play. What you do now in your schools has a lasting impact on each individual child – whether he can adapt, learn and thrive – and on society as whole. You are each helping to build something bigger.

Growing Leaders Through the LEP

LEP is one of the ways that we grow leaders, so that you can go on to grow more leaders, and grow good teachers as well.
18. International visits are a good way to learn from other countries’ experiences, and discuss how we can take the good things back to Singapore. I understand that the LEP includes a two-week international study visit for its participants in five learning syndicates, each led and facilitated by an NIE staff member. The syndicate that travelled to Ontario observed how the right people were attracted to take up leadership roles in schools and how the system develops their capacity for the challenges by providing mentoring and support. The syndicate that went to Alberta noted how disconnected youths were encouraged to continue studying or acquire work skills to complete high school with the slogan “You are not broken – Finish School Your Way”. The syndicate that went to Finland saw how the education ministry pushes for more and better use of ICT in schools through the development of educational games and new teaching methods in collaboration with research agencies and industries. The syndicates that went to Munich and California both observed how the spirit of innovation and culture of experimentation permeated the German and American societies, which allowed for ideas to be shared openly amongst schools, communities and industries.

While there are valuable lessons to be learnt from each of these education systems, the syndicates also came away from the visits with a stronger understanding that each system was distinct and had different challenges to address – everyone is learning from each other. As we think about creating more pathways for students in schools, and encouraging innovation and enterprise among our young, I am sure that the insights gained from the trips will be helpful in enriching what you would like to do on the ground.

I am also glad that the LEP encouraged us to be reflective practitioners. As part of the LEP, I understand that you use the ‘5-Roles-and-5-Minds’ model of school leadership to reflect upon and draw insights from case studies of leadership and critical incidents in your own journey as an educator. You have learnt that the way we play our roles is affected by the mindsets we bring into these roles. School leaders have to be reflective as they lead their teachers to implement policies that bear fruit amongst stakeholders – often, we do not get it 100% right the first time but need to lead our staff in reflecting on how we may improve, while encouraging them to keep persevering.

Finally, I am glad that the LEP is helping to build a culture of leaders growing leaders. As participants, you would have had the opportunity to be mentored by seasoned mentor principals. Many of you shared that you have benefitted from the mentoring and appreciated their open sharing and responsiveness to your learning needs – some even had daily debrief sessions to discuss your learning! The mentors have also told us that they profited from the experience and welcomed the opportunity for self-reflection and intellectual sparring! I am heartened that the mentoring has been a mutually rewarding experience of learning and dialogue – many thanks to the Principal mentors! As School Leaders, I encourage each of you to pay it forward, and through informal and formal ways take younger leaders under your wing. We all know that being a leader is not easy, and being a good leader even tougher. Find every opportunity you can to mentor, encourage, and build up those leaders around you. Let’s be leaders who grow other leaders.

Conclusion

With that, I would like to extend my heartiest congratulations again to the LEP graduands! Your contribution and dedication to education will be critical in preparing the next generation of Singaporeans for both the opportunities and challenges of the future. Thank you.