There are always bright spots in the darkening sky. That's how we see metaphors in constellations, Orion in the scatter of stars, Ophiuchus from disparate pinpricks of light.

We see meaning in what that may be essentially meaningless. Random clusters of rocks are imbued with myths. Within stars, there is an archer, a lion, the snake charmer.

We are meaning-making creatures, prone to see colours in drifting leaves. Apophenia: that's our tendency to attribute meaning to perceived patterns between unrelated things.

Sometimes, it's easy to be disheartened by young people, how they lose their temper for what may be trivial reasons. That vulgarity, that arc of marker across the classroom, that defiant tilt of the chin.

How easy to see patterns in these acts, a constellation of why not to be. How easy to forget the oft printed call to make a difference.

Much more challenging to remember the laughter within the classroom, the easy smiles along the corridors, the unexpected gifts between lessons.

There are many people to leave behind, many reasons to leave. How then to perceive the network of light to stay for, to remain for.

A Reminder On Why We Teach


Sometimes, it's easy to forget why we teach. There are exams to set, students to counsel, stacks to mark, meetings to attend, parents to call... There's a litany of activities, one after another, a frantic rush.

The key point, of course, isn't grades. It isn't about the number of passes, the percentage of distinctions, the mean subject grade.

It's about sitting down and talking to students and explaining your point and raising your voice when you have to and softening your voice when you have to and trying to grow with them, beside them, alongside them. It's a balance that's impossible, given the sheer number of individuals we try to help.

It's easy to be swallowed by the rush, to forget.

Today, during assembly, the principal shared about a call she received. Usually, these calls are complaints about students not moving to the back of buses on their morning trips. I was ready to nudge students into paying attention.

"A seventy-five year old uncle called me last week," she said. "He was on his bicycle when he made a turn and fell off. Two of our students went past, paused and offered help. He told them that he would be fine, just let him rest on the ground. Our students said, "We cannot leave you in the rain." This was the line which touched him: "We cannot leave you in the rain." They helped him to the bus stop and wanted to call for an ambulance. But the uncle said that his wife was waiting for him at home. So they helped him home and even called him regularly to ensure that he is well. Turns out that the fall had caused a fracture and he needed a surgery to insert a metal plate into his hip. Our students help were invaluable."

It's incidents like this, that reminds us of why we teach.

The warmth, it's akin to swallowing a mug of hot chocolate. 

Day at the Flower Dome

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I rushed into the staff room with a box of orange files and a fistful of papers. There was a need to prepare them - files and forms - for checking by some colleagues. It was the last day of the first week of June holidays and I simply wanted to rest.

In the neighbouring cubicle, there was a little girl playing with Lego blocks. My colleague's daughter.

'Hello, girl girl. Do you still remember my name?' I smiled, hopefully in a non-creepy way.

She mumbled something. 'Sian Yoo.' For that, she deserved and got a bottle of Vitagen drink.

'Girl, you must be polite and say thank you loudly,' my colleague pointed to me. 'Do you call him Kor Kor or Uncle?'

The child looked at me, paused and said, 'Kor kor.'

It was a sweet glorious moment.

After a while, my colleague wanted to bring her to the washroom. She came back up and whispered, 'Uncle, I'm going off to visit the forest today.'

Look at her. She's not cute at all. How could she call me an UNCLE?!
We were going to the Gardens by the Bay, to meet up with a group of elderly and show them the myriad of flowers. It was strange, every interaction with such elderly seniors, their vulnerabilities and ours, all exposed.

I wondered if I would be stuffed into an old folks' home next time, deprived of possessions, a living thing waiting for death.

My colleague and I were paired with a 76 year old lady. She kept reminding us that we were fortunate to receive an education and to be paid decently for the work we do. At the end, she reminded a nurse to buy 4D for her.

Some of these old ladies told another colleague - very forthrightly, perhaps too forthrightly - that she should lose weight. 

There were many flowers in the dome, all resplendent and cheerful. Their colours were a promise; their youth, a harbinger of rot. 

There were many orchids as well. Some look so different from others that one could scarcely believe that they were grouped into the same sub-genus.

All in all, this was an interesting trip - the intersection between the faded, the fading, the blooming and the just-blooming.

Where we are, the multi-generational fabric is fraying. Threads unravel, everything falls apart.

Through this trip, we remember the whys of our existence.

Comical Moments In Class


1) Was standing in front of the classroom while going through a newspaper article when I spied a cable twisting towards a charging point. 'W h o i s c h a r g i n g y o u r p h o n e? o w n u p n o w.' The class went silent before starting to giggle.

It turned out to be the school's air purifier which was installed since last September.

2) A group of hyperactive students went past the room. I casually remarked to the three students right in front, 'these sec ones are so cute. so bouncy and mini. you know, you were like them last year.'

They swivelled their heads, looked out and said, 'cher, they are prefects, not sec ones, and they are old.'

3) Under the subtopic of human circulatory system, students learn that valves are present in veins to prevent backflow of blood.

'Valves only let blood go in one direction.'

There was a studied silence.

'Valves, blood, one direction. One Direction, get it? One Direction.' Their groans drowned out my little One Direction hum.

4) 'From food to faeces, from ingestion to egestion.' It was the topic on the human digestive system.
'In fact, Disney wrote a song about how our digestive systems end. Do you know which one?'


'It's about the excretion of waste materials. And it has a line like this... ... Let it go, let it go, can't hold it back anymore, let it go...'

5) Probably something of an equivalent nature will happen tomorrow.

Decisions After N Levels

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There are many pathways available now that you have received your N level results. Let’s take a look at some of them:

1) Promotion to Sec 5N(A)

Must get less than 19 points in English, Math and three other subjects (ELMAB3) and at least a Grade 5 for these five subjects.

Will sit for the O level exams in the same school.

2) Direct-Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP)

Must get less than 19 points in English, Math and three other subjects (ELMAB3) and at least a Grade 4 for English and Math and Grade 5 for three other subjects.

Will attend the Higher Nitec course at ITE for 2 years, and if the minimum score is achieved, will get into a corresponding poly course.

3) Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP)

Must get less than 11 points for ELMAB3.

Will study for a 1 year curriculum related to a diploma course and then proceed to that course.

4) N(T) students can go to ITE and if they get A for Eng and Math, and B or better for one other subject, they can apply to 4 N(A).

5) Those who cannot or choose not to go through the aforementioned options can opt for the Nitec courses at ITE OR repeat the N level exams.

6) Those with the means – time and money – can opt to study for a private diploma/ degree.

Now that the options are all laid out, let’s have a discussion on what suits you better. The following points are based on my experiences and discussions with colleagues. Please consider them with your own teachers, counsellors and family members before coming to a decision that will be satisfying or at least cause minimal regrets.

1) Many students will be tempted to take the O level exams. They may wish to spend another year with their classmates or their parents want them to avoid ITE. The peer pressure and social stigma can be overwhelming.

The truth is that a student who gets a 1 for N level is expected to get a B4 for O level. This is the general trend. Are there exceptions? Yes. Are there many exceptions? No. There is a sudden and huge leap in curriculum demands between N and O level exams. A student who gets 4 for a N level subject will most likely get a D7 for O level. 

For example, my younger brother was a top N level student in his school. He achieved 9 points. After spending an extra year at school, he sat for his O levels, failed badly and could only qualify for ITE. If you are sure that the 5N(A) students with whom you will be in class with are diligent, you may benefit from this choice. If your form and subject teachers hint that you should return, this choice may be apt. If you had the option of choosing between N(A) and Express streams after PSLE and decided on the former, you may benefit as well. If a school has a very strong 5N(A) team of teachers with a commendable track record, you may benefit from opting for this choice. It takes a great alignment between many different factors for N(A) students to do well at O levels.

The truth is that O level exams are more competitive because there are many more people taking them. There are, of course, former N level students who did well for O levels. Based on experience, however, most should avoid this option as they tend to fare poorly at O levels. 

2 and 3) Direct-Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP) and Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP)

If you meet the academic prerequisites, you should opt for the DPP and PFP. The truth is that the O level exams are centred on generic knowledge not very useful in real life. Being able to calculate differential equations and balance ionic equations would not be useful to most. Why not spend that extra year learning skills and acquiring information more aligned to your interests?

Do note that not all courses are available for the DPP and PFP. If you already know what you wish to study in polytechnic and are certain that these courses are not available at the DPP/PFP level, then you may have to consider option (1).

4) N(T) students can go to ITE and if they get A for Eng and Math, and B or better for one other subject, they can apply to 4 N(A).

As with all other options, consider your natural inclinations and decide on a most suitable pathway. Do note that the N(T) curriculums are vastly different from the N(A) ones and be prepared to make necessary efforts to adapt to steep academic changes.

5) Those who cannot or choose not to go through the aforementioned options can opt for the Nitec courses at ITE OR repeat the N level exams.

Between these two options, the first one of going for a NITEC course seems more appropriate. You get to pick up new skills though you may have to face a certain social stigma. The truth is that many students who choose to spend one year and repeat their N levels end up with the similar grades. Unless you are certain that you will put in a much greater deal of daily effort, it may be more realistic to go to ITE and learn new skills.

A side note: school fees can be heavy for foreign students. It may be a economically sound decision to sit for N levels again and try to get into a polytechnic course in as few years as possible. 

6) Those with the means – time and money – can opt to study for a private diploma/ degree.

Many people do end up taking degrees at private institutions even if they were to attend polytechnic courses. My cousins, my own brother, many relatives. For some of them, having a degree opens up certain job opportunities. For others, not at all. I will not rehash tired arguments about the value of a degree and relative academic prestige of various institutions.

If you have the money and are certain that a private diploma course will be useful and am willing to learn more independently, you may wish to consider this option.  

Again, please note that these opinions are derived from observing batches of students. THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS – a N level student can do well at O levels – though most are not exceptions – a N level student usually do poorly at O levels. Consider carefully if you can be one of these exceptions and make sure that it is not just wishful thinking.

Also, note that academic grades are not everything. One is more than the sum of one’s N/O level grades. If you were to run your own business(es), grades are not important at all. However, if you were to choose more traditional career pathways, grades may have an outsized influence. 

Lastly, a less appropriate decision may set you back by a year or two as well as incur an expense of time, money and opportunities. BUT it is not a life-or-death decision. Different  openings will present themselves whatever your decision.

I shall end with this disclaimer: the following points are based on my experiences and discussions with colleagues. Please consider them with your own teachers, counsellors and family members before coming to a decision that will be satisfying or at least with minimal regrets. Bear in mind that there are exceptions to academic stereotypes though not many. After all, these stereotypes exist because they have been proven true often enough. Either way, there is no easy option in choosing and in life.

All the best and choose wisely! Enjoy the break while it lasts.

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Sycophany/ Self-preservation

Romance of the two wisdom teeth

Art Appreciation 101