089: How I Handled A Devastating Piece of News?

A Terrible News

If you receive a devastating piece of news from the school, what would you have done?

Several weeks ago, on the day that my sixteen-year-old son, Cairn, was supposed to attend his school graduation ceremony, he was abruptly removed from the list of graduates! Instead of receiving his certificate in robes like the other graduating students on the stage, Cairn was told to sit among the audience to applaud the achievement of others.

Out of concern for Cairn’s feelings, his class teacher kept a close watch on him and assured me that he was unaffected. I was told Cairn cheered enthusiastically for his friends who went up the stage.

“Class of 2020” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

When Cairn arrived home from school, all I got from him was a sealed envelope containing a letter that said his application for admission to a senior high school for students with special needs was unsuccessful.

The rejection letter carried big implications. Cairn would remain in his current high school, and make another attempt for admission to the senior high school the next year. But if he were to be rejected again, his special school education would end the next year in the current school as eighteen is the cut-off age. That is tantamount to an off-the-cliff ending to his adult education.

“Off the Cliff” (WordPress Photography)

The biggest headache at hand was we were clueless about the reasons for rejection. By all measures, Cairn had always been held as an exemplary student in his junior high school. We were under the impression from both schools that Cairn would certainly be accepted because he had met all the stipulated requirements. Without knowing the reason, we would not know what could be done to improve his chances in the next shot.

I felt indignant for my son as unpleasant memories surfaced. All the these years, Cairn had put in so much effort in everything he did. But not all his efforts paid off. For instance, last year, Cairn won his first swimming competition, but was bizarrely disqualified. The ridiculous reason was he swam a lot faster than the timing submitted before the race. In the spirit of participation, we cast aside our disappointment and did not pursue the matter further. But this time, the issue is more than dealing with disappointment, Cairn couldn’t graduate despite his good performance at school!

“Touching The Wall First!” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

I lamented to my wife, “Just when we thought that everything is moving smoothly for him at last, this has to happen!”

My wife was visibly upset as she spoke, “They gave us hope, then took it away! ”

I told her with resolve, “I’ll settle this.”

“An angry fist” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

Take Thoughtful Actions

I thought hard about the content of my appeal letter to the school principal of the new school. After I drafted the letter, I showed to my wife and fourteen-year-old son, Conan.

My wife seemed pleased that I had backed up my appeal with strong arguments and proof. Conan, however, remarked, “Dad, shouldn’t you preface with some niceties? After all, you want to work with the new principal.”

I took his advice and edited the letter accordingly.

Dear Principal,

Sorry to take up your precious time. I need to consult you regarding school admission criteria. I am also writing to appeal for my son, Cairn Tan on the following grounds:

Cairn has met the two key criteria for school admission: the WPLN ( Work Place Literacy and Numeracy) Assessment and the independent traveling requirement.

Moreover, Cairn was graded “excellent” in Housekeeping. In addition, Cairn has actual retail work experience. On a daily basis, he has been operating his snack vending machine for nearly a year since December 2019. The operation includes the checking and replenishment of stock; and changing the prices and items. Cairn can do all that independently.

“Tending To A Vending Machine” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

Cairn also knows how to key in data of inventories and keep account of daily sales in excel spreadsheets. In addition, he is also responsible for proper packing of goods ordered from our e-commerce website, for delivery to respective customers.

“Packaging his merchandise” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

Recently, we even discovered that Cairn can memorize the value of pi up to 20 places, and do square roots and indices of two and three-digit numbers mentally! That shows the boy has much more potential than we imagined!

“Solve square roots of 4 digit-figures mentally” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

To prepare Cairn for the transition, we have also trained Cairn to travel independently to and from your school. See attached pictures.

“Taking a bus ride myself” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

During the admission interview, we were told for certain that Cairn will be offered a place in your school because he meets the admission requirements. The only purpose of the interview was to find out which vocation is most suited for him.

Even his current school was under the impression that Cairn will be moving on. That was why they had him participate in the graduation ceremony rehearsal. But only today, we were told that he had been taken off the list of graduates and denied his spot at the graduation ceremony. Despite working hard to qualify for your vocational programme, Cairn will be retained for another year!

As a parent yourself, can you imagine the big disappointment to our family to receive the rejection letter? As the reason for rejection is not stated, I have no choice but to seek help directly from you.

“Help me!” (WordPress Photography)

I believe that as a respected school leader, you will help us in this matter. We have been looking forward to Cairn starting a new chapter at your school. And we are very supportive of school efforts and are most willing to work with you. Please call me to arrange a meeting ASAP.

William WK Tan

Shortly after, the principal replied with warm and encouraging words, expressing delight to receive updated information about Cairn’s ability to travel independently. A week later, the good news came. Cairn’s appeal was successful!

Immediately, I wrote another heartfelt letter to Cairn’s current school’s principal. A few days later, Cairn’s class teacher called me up cheerily to inform me of the school principal’s decision to arrange a make-up graduation ceremony for Cairn! I felt so thankful to the school leaders and teachers in both schools.

All things ended well at last.

“I have graduated!” (William WK Tan’s Photography)

Parents, what’s your takeaway from this story? If anything, I hope you pick up the following steps about how to be an effective advocate for your child:

Be An Effective Advocate For Your Child

Step 1: Do not get emotional. Think about the real issue you want to solve.

Step 2: Know your child’s rights and strengths.

Step 3: Organise your thoughts with supporting evidence.

Step 4: Seek support from stakeholders.

Step 5: Show appreciation and a strong intention to work together.

Children with special needs are often incapable of speaking up for themselves. They need their parents to be their voice. Therefore, we need to learn how to speak up on their behalf, rationally and passionately. Don’t you agree?

“Be An Effective Voice!” (WordPress Photography)

William WK Tan

28 December 2020

078 How To Choose Schools Wisely?

A Grave Mistake That Parents Make

On the 21 November, the results of the this year’s Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) were released. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to chose a suitable secondary school for the children.

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/psle-results-2019-primary-6-students-secondary-school-express-12113634

As the school-posting system is entirely based on the merit of academic results, many parents tend to make their decision around their children’s PSLE score.

But I know one of the gravest mistakes parents make is to allow their decision to be dictated by their children’s PSLE score.

Four years ago, the good news of a friend, AP’s son’s admission to a premier school turned into a story of hectic struggles for the family. They even moved house to be closer to the school to make life easier for their son. My friend reflected, “The first year was rough. My son did not expect tests to cover stuff that the teacher didn’t teach in class. Over the years, he is coping better, but his self-esteem was somewhat dented. I started to question if it was a good decision.”

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Another friend, BQ lamented that her relationship strained terribly after she influenced her daughter to change her choice of school to a premier one where she had few friends. She was heartbroken one day when her daughter made an outburst in tears while struggling with her school work, “You made me choose this school!”

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And there was this friend, CR who revealed, “I resorted to emotional blackmail and tried all ways to make my son choose the school I thought was in his best interest. My boy stubbornly refused. Now, looking at how he has blossomed in the school he chose, I am embarrassed to admit that my son’s judgement was better.”

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Over the years, I have become convinced that it’s prudent to look beyond the cut-off-points of schools, and ask ourselves one question: what kind of school suits my child best?

Know Your Child’s Personality

Last year, I had to confront the same question as my younger son, Conan took PSLE.

Conan’s score of 270 could get him into any school of his choice. It seemed like a no-brainer to choose the most sought-after premier school, the Raffles Institution (RI), that accepts only students scoring around 260 and above. His school teacher also suggested Conan choose RI like the other top boys.

Source: http://www.ri.edu.sg

But my wife and I reckoned RI would attract the top students from most primary schools. A fiercely competitive environment like that might not be a good fit for Conan’s personality.

We saw what he was like in the last three years when he was placed in the GIfted Education Program (GEP). The boy loved to be in the company of his smart and boisterous GEP friends, but dreaded being repeatedly told by his teachers to work harder in some subjects like Maths which he paled in comparison to others. Subsequently, he even dipped in Science at Primary five, a subject that he used to excel in.

Conan knew what worked for him. He said, “I thrive better when I am not compelled by others to do their bidding. I do best when I pursue things at a pace that I enjoy. What’s the point of getting good grades if I don’t enjoy the subject and would give up eventually anyway?”

So, we eliminated the obvious choice that everyone thought we would chose.

How To Reach A Consensual Decision?

More important than the decision itself is the decision-making process. My wife and I agreed that Conan must be involved in the decision-making. But we were hesitant to let him have the final say.

So, I set the rules, “You can have a bigger say in the choice of school. But you cannot make a unilateral decision on a matter that may affect the whole family. So, it has to be a consensual decision that everybody agrees as one family.”

Conan agreed. But he had his mind set on only one school — River Valley High School (RV), a reputable school in the furthest western part of Singapore. His rationale was that RV is co-Ed, offers the Integrated Program (IP) that allowed him to study up to senior high school level in six years, and the school was clearly not the choice of fiercely competitive top students.

Source: https://m.facebook.com/River-Valley-High-School-Singapore-Official-352563478111277/

But we had a practical concern— it would take nearly one and a half hour to commute between home and school.

We explained, “The school hours in secondary school are longer. And the workload is also heavier. It will be dreadful to spend so much time on the road, depriving you of your rest time, personal and family time.”

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But the boy was not easily persuaded. He argued, “Travelling time is not a problem to me. I can always find something to do on the move.”

Then he changed tack and made a pitch,

“Dad, didn’t you always want me to be better in Chinese? As RV is very strong in Chinese language and culture, it will be good for my Chinese studies.”

I replied in laughter, “That’s a good sales pitch! But I am not falling for that. Long commute time is a real concern, especially during the rainy season and the exam period. And it affects the quality of your school life more than you believe it matters.”

So I decided, “Let’s keep an open mind to consider at least one more school. Meanwhile, we will travel with you to RV by public transport for the next few days to experience how it is like.”

Who Played Into The Hands of The Other?

On a Saturday morning, our family travelled together to RV. Along the journey, I told Conan anecdotes of students who are studying in RV that I gathered from friends and the chat room of RV students. And we discussed the other schools that meet his requirements of co-ed and IP.

Conan agreed that National Junior College (NJC), which takes 30 to 40 minutes lesser time to commute, is a viable alternative. And the school offered unique and interesting programs like the compulsory 4-6 weeks annual boarding school program.

Source: https://nationaljc.moe.edu.sg

But Conan still insisted that RV was his first choice.

On the second day, during our commute to RV, I shared my thoughts with Conan,

“Both RV and NJC are good schools. But I think the ethos in NJC may be a better fit for you because the principal of NJC spoke more about their values and the uniqueness of their programmes , while the principal of RV emphasised on their scholastic achievements and results.”

Conan listened thoughtfully but he did not say a word.

On the way back, I remarked, “The journey is tolerable without the weekday crowds. But you may not find seats during peak hours and have to stand all the way for ninety minutes.”

Source: https://medium.com/mozzer-expressions/the-art-of-standing-up-on-a-bus-dcbf85a20e37

Having stated the disadvantage, I threw in a carrot,

“You know that I don’t like to give monetary reward. But since you did so exceptionally well this time, and I have not figured what to reward you.. I will give you a monetary reward of $500 if you choose NJC.” Then I feigned regret instantly, “No, it’s not right. Forget that I suggested it.”

His mum intercepted and said to me, “No way! How can you retract your words to your son so quickly?”

Then turning to Conan, she suggested, “Since it’s the first time that your Dad is so generous, get him to give you more!”

Conan took cue from his mother and said, “Dad, I can take up NJC, depending on what’s your best offer?”

I laughed, “You are opportunistic. $200 more, that’s as far as I am willing to go!”

“$700. It’s a deal!” Conan laughed heartily. And his mother joined in with laughter of triumph.

“Are you two in cahoots?” I looked at them with suspicion. The mother and son laughed even more.

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Conan said, “Actually, I am fine with both schools. Just wanted to see how generous you can be. You must keep your words now!”

“Okay. A deal is a deal.” I nodded, “But your old man is a poor man. I can only give you in instalments of $100 per month over seven months.”

To me, it was just an extra amount I would probably have to fork out as his allowance anyway. To Conan, however, he told me later that he was actually fine to make NJC his first choice by the second day, so the $700 incentive was actually an extra windfall.

Somehow till today, however, I cannot help feeling that both of us had played into the hands of someone else.

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Important Considerations

Nonetheless, the decision turned out good. Fast forward one year, Conan has made new friends, continues to do well in his studies and has enjoyed the boarding experience at NJC tremendously!

To parents of PSLE students who are finalising on the school choices before 27 November this year, hopefully you find my personal anecdotes entertaining and meaningful.

Find a school that suits your child best. Making a wishful decision can turn a good news today into a nightmare, whereas a good decision can turn even a disappointing news today into a blessing in disguise tomorrow.

Think again:

(1) The kind of school environment – Will you be comfortable with the type of students and their family backgrounds?

(2) The rigour of their curriculum – Will your child’s self-esteem be adversely hit when they are compared to their peers?

(3) The travel time between school and home – Will the child become too tired?

(4) The school culture and ethos – Find out reviews from friends with kids studying in the schools you are choosing.

A good decision is made when your child feels good in his or her new school, not when everyone else, ironically except your kid, thinks that the school is good.

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Bear in mind, children are the ones going to study in the school you choose for the next 4-6 years. Parents, please set the rules, listen to them and find consensus!

All the best!

William W K Tan

25 Nov 2019

065 Time to Clean Up Our Act

A Boy Who Thinks Cleaning Is Somebody Else’s Job 

One Sunday, a ten-year-old boy interrupted the swim coach, SC, who was giving my son Kyan individual coaching.

“Yucks!  Coach, there is tissue paper in the water over there.”

The coach replied, 

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know. It’s so dirty! That’s why I tell you.”

Coach SC told him, “I am teaching now. You think of a way to solve it yourself.” 

The boy looked surprised. He probably thought that it was none of his business after alerting the coach. But, within seconds, he came up with an idea, “I will complain to the Management Office!”

SC looked at me with a helpless smile.

Thinking that a teaching moment had appeared, I suggested to the boy, 

“Why wait for someone else to solve it? Since it disturbs you so much, just pick it up and throw it away!”

“No way! I am not a cleaner!” The boy protested loudly. Then he added, “Anyway, my mother will not allow it!” before swimming away.

I felt troubled by the boy’s words. What kind of young man would he grow up to be if his attitude remains unchanged?

A Young Man Who Refused To Clean Up His Mess

The boy made me think of a real-life story a friend NS told me. 

NS, a science teacher in a secondary school, spoke of a student she remembered vividly,

“From the first day of lesson in the laboratory, I have told all students, ‘We are dealing with all sorts of chemicals here. If you have made a spillage, clean it up yourself immediately because no one else knows how hazardous it could be. Simple and clear, isn’t it?’

Yet, there was this young man who refused to clean up the mess he made no matter what. He looked at the mess and said, “That is the job of cleaners!” And he even added, “At home, all the cleaning is done by the maid.”

I was mad inside me, but decided to teach him the right thing.  I moved close to his ear and whispered gently in a very soft sweet voice, “Bring your maid with you the next time,” before saying firmly, “But today, your maid is not here, so clean up!”

The young man relented and cleared up quietly, to the surprise of everyone. 

NS smiled triumphantly, a tiny dimple playing at the corner of her lips. 

Perhaps, we can learn a thing or two from this plucky young teacher in her early thirties. 

Schools and Families Must Come Together

Schools are finally doing what they were supposed to do long ago. When the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to make it compulsory for all school-going children to help out with cleaning responsibilities in schools two years ago, many parents gave their thumbs up.

Photo: Straits Times Dec 12, 2016 “All schools to have cleaning activities daily from January”

I asked a secondary school boy, JC, about the cleaning duties he has to do in school.

He said, “Nothing much really. We have a duty roster that assigns us our duties which mainly involve cleaning the whiteboard and sweeping the floor.”

“That’s good. Everyone plays a part to keep the classroom clean.” I continued.

“Teachers just leave it to us. It doesn’t matter if you do it or not.” JC remarked.

“Did you do your duties?” I enquired, half expecting him to say he did.

“No…” He smiled sheepishly, “Many people did not do either. ”

“Teachers should check on you guys,” came my rebuttal.

“No. What is the point of having teachers  to check on us? It boils down to home training. It wouldn’t work if children are not expected to do the same at home.”

I mulled over his words. Yes, the boy is right. Double standards won’t work.

Lost Opportunities

Parents must play our part too. While most of us are generally in favour of imparting good living habits such as cleaning to children, some see cleaning duties as a distraction or burden.

Photo: WordPress Photo Library

Concerned that their children may be overloaded with school homework, and outside school activities such as tuition classes and sports, parents are reluctant to involve their children in housework.

A friend SM, who is a full-time home-maker, told me in a mix of resignation and jest, “My children used to help out more when they were young. It has become much harder to get them to do housework now. I have become the maid for the entire family.”

I laughed, but I am no better in getting my children do housework. Like many working families with young children in Singapore, we have a stay-in domestic helper who does all the cleaning and other household chores. The opportunities to impart values to children through housework become lost.

Be Considerate Towards Others

Perhaps, many parents and teachers missed the point about the value behind teaching cleaning responsibilities–to be considerate towards others.

Many years ago, at the end of a public seminar I conducted, I found a Japanese colleague KS going in between the rows of seats to pick up used plastic bottles and rubbish that were left behind by the participants. Embarrassed by the littering habits of fellow Singaporeans, I followed suit to clean up the place.

Source: http://www.zerowastesg.com

Later, KS told me, “Japanese are taught since young to think about others when we do cleaning at home and in schools. Imagine how the next person would feel and think if we do not clean up.”

Be considerate towards others — it’s such a simple and beautiful reason. Don’t you agree? 

William WK Tan

17 May 2019