The chasm between parents and teachers


Having come from a not-so-standard path in education, I feel very strongly about the topic, and so it was with some mixed feelings that I read about a Pennsylvanian high school teacher who has been suspended for calling her students “disengaged, lazy whiners”, amongst other disparaging comments. It has been a few days since the news, and the blogosphere is probably abuzz with commentaries on whether what she did was right/wrong, detrimental/harmless etc, but it set me thinking a little about the education system here.

It’s no secret that with the exception of some scholarship holders, many of our brightest generally do not go on to a career in teaching. Perhaps they’ve done some relief teaching before, or heard horror stories about how unruly the kids can be from their friends who have trodden the path. In any case, the exhortation to inspire the children under their charge sounds about as realistic as an army recruitment poster.

And it is very understandable – nobody wants to go in there full of hope and ideals, only to be beaten down by the system that they believe (rightly or wrongly) stifles their creativity and curbs their enthusiasm, or by the children who truly believe the world owes them a living, or worse, by the trigger-happy parents who are only too quick to raise complaints and consider litigation against them for saying something negative about their precious prima donnas. No one wants to enter a system where they feel they’re restrained on all fronts and still be expected to deliver and discharge in good faith all the noble duties expected of teachers.

At a recent gathering, a friend who now teaches in a prestigious school, recounted her experiences in having to sweet-talk and mollycoddle her kids, who would simply refuse to do anything when criticised. Once, when a student got out of hand and was punished by being made to stand, his parents promptly wrote in to complain about the embarrassment and humiliation their son had to “endure”. Certainly, we have come a long way since I had to endure a slap from my teacher for not bringing my Chinese textbook when I was in primary 5.

As Don Mills puts it so eloquently in his satirical post, In praise of young people, they “demand” for all sorts of things while conveniently forgetting the supply side of the equation, and they are very confident, in the euphemistic sense of the word, when they ask for respect while “parading around with dinner plates in [their] ears and chains dangling from [their] nostrils while sporting a plume of underpants…”. There’s more, but I’ll leave it to the readers to discover the gems.

For all the talk and disdain about kids in school, there is a problem we must not ignore. Civics and moral education is part of the school curriculum, the responsibility falls on both parents and teachers alike. The line is not being defined clearly when it needs to be, and even when there is a line, the guiding hand of the teacher is being tied to the chair, effectively killing off the instrumental tool that is needed to mold the environment necessary for the child’s development. Of what use then, is moral education when the teacher cannot even set the precedent for good conduct?

The chasm between parents and teachers is widening, and it is our kids who are falling through the cracks.

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Plug: Betterexplained

Right after I finished writing the previous piece on incorporating foreign phrases, I came across this very neat article on Betterexplained, on concise communication. Verbosity in speech and writing is one of my pet peeves, even if I am sometimes guilty of it myself, but this article really hit the point when it said:

Long-winded diatribes are about the author: listen to me and look at what I know. Effective communication is about the reader: I’ve distilled hundreds of pages to these essential insights.

The verbose speaker is by necessity narcissistic. I should really stop here, but before I go, do visit the rest of the site for intuitive explanations of abstract mathematical and scientific/programming concepts, which is really what the site is about. I wished I had this resource when I was being taught to apply my T-tests and differentiation by rote.

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Purity and perspicuity in writing

typewriterCredit: Papam

I think it is a given that when it comes to writing, concise communication is key to effectiveness. As our old-school teachers would say, ‘make every word tell’. There is another dimension to writing that I would like to discuss today, concerning the use of foreign words and phrases in writing.

There are two schools of thought – purists of yore harking back to Strunk and White would maintain that English writing should be written in English, without being tarred by foreign imports unless they be accepted in their trusty Oxford/Merriam-websters. On the other hand, there are people like me who believe that, properly deployed, foreign phrases augments an essay and in certain cases, relieves it of clunky and cumbersome sentence structures.

Certainly, effective communication entails knowing your audience, and tailoring your writing accordingly. Good communication that gets to the point should be simple, concise and perspicuous in expression. The use of foreign words assume knowledge of a language other than English and overused, leads to the impression that the writer is conceited, arrogant and writing not so much to inform as he is desperately trying to get people to masturbate his ego. However, knowing your audience does not always mean you must water down your writings. If you are writing for an intelligent crowd, knowing your audience also means elevating your writing as well – to indulge them in a level of sophistry that they are very much a part of.

Purity and perspicuity do not always working in tandem as well. Any construct that depends upon several pillars will necessary find situations in which these pillars are at odds with each other. The ideas of retributive justice and deterrence clashes against rehabilitation in capital punishment, and patient autonomy is balanced against the principle of non-maleficence (“do no harm”) in discussions of euthanasia. So too, when it comes to writing in English.

Let’s take a fairly common example – je ne sais quoi. It is a short, delightful French term that denotes an indescribable quality, perfect for those moments when you encounter a situation, or an enigma that evokes a feeling, a sense of unease and strangeness that you can’t quite put a finger to. English has no close equivalent – to say “it was a certain indescribable feeling that could not be properly described” is very cumbersome and while “can’t put a finger on” might suffice, je ne sais quoi has a slight, whimsical note to it and a good writer, I think, needs to be sensitive to these slight nuances and use them accordingly.

There are also times when there are perfect English equivalents, but where you’ll want to use a foreign equivalent instead. Let’s say for some very odd reasons you’ll like to publicize your sexcapades on your blog, and perhaps it wasn’t one of those quick-and-dirty shtups on a staircase in some dingy building. Saying you had a 69 on the bed in your bachelor’s pad (you dirty dog!) would certainly bring the point across, but it’s lacking a little something, so what’s a rake like you to do?

Once again, French to the rescue! Saying you “engaged in a bit of soixante-neuf on a lazy sunday afternoon before moving on to the main course” adds a softer, coy quality to the description, although it certainly doesn’t make the hypothetical you any less of a douche for wanting to publicize it in the first place. I’m very sure there are better, family-friendlier examples for this, and I am deeply sorry that my impoverished and debauched mind can do no better.

This is not a license to use foreign words with wild abandon, of course. The most important take-home message is to understand that the language is alive, and we employ words, sentences and paragraphs as a means to convey our complex feelings with all its nuances and subtleties. Perhaps in a few decades the rules concerning the use of language may change, and German might replace French as the new romantic language, but the richness and expressiveness of the individual will always be constant. Or as the French would say, plus ça change.

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Back in action!

And I’m back for good :).

Well, I can’t say I’ve bounced back from my low points just yet…if anything, yesterday was possibly one of the lowest points in my life, even though I managed to fare decently as a Table Topics Master* during the chapter meeting in Toastmasters yesterday.

I will be doing some amendments to the “About” page as well, but basically it boils down to this:

1) This was a blog meant for practicing my writing skills, but it’s also meant to entertain, hopefully draw a crowd and who knows, perhaps a writing gig far into the future that nobody can see.

2) To do that, it’s got to be updated on a constant basis. Holding a full-time job while attempting to juggle co-curricular activites, volunteerism and Toastmasters means updating on a daily basis is out of the question. But if you don’t update constantly, you lose readers, so my compromise is this: Updates every tuesdays and fridays. Maybe I’ll have to pare it down to just every tuesday, but we’ll see.

3) The caveat to point 2 above is when I’m traveling. I remember reading somewhere that there’s a “timed-post” function in wordpress, meaning you can write a post and set for it to be published in the future. I’ll try to figure that one out but don’t count on it.

4) Plugs, book reviews and other miscellany could come on other days. Tuesdays and Fridays and strictly for articles and essays.

5) I’m fairly new to this, and the blog is a constant work-in-progress. From time to time you might see me experimenting with stuff, but I think it’s safe to say I’ll keep the categories to a minimum, and put the topic under tags. So anything about health, condoms and why I hate my neighbour’s dog will just come under the broad umbrella of “Writing/article”, but you’ll see stuff like “neuroscience, contraception, murder fantasies” under tags, which makes searching for specific articles slightly easier. Yes, there is a search box to the right, where you can gather evidence of my psychopathic tendencies.

And now, on to our next article!

* – Toastmasters meetings are fairly structured and organised. The “Table Topics Master” refers to a specific role in which a member comes up with a set number of topics and calls on fellow toastmasters to make an impromptu speech of about 2 minutes in length.

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This is a fairly new blog with low readership, so I don’t really know why I am doing this either. I did intend to update fairly regularly, but things have not been too good on my side. In fact, I’m going through a really rough patch right now.

Last week, I overreacted to my girlfriend, and although I was very upset at that moment, I was alright the next day. So the first thing I did was to apologise, and I asked her not to ignore me. Very early on we’ve already established that we shouldn’t ignore each other in a conflict – it’s simply immature and I really saw her as the girl I wanted to settle down with. For one reason or another she refused to respond, and I waited until past midnight for her, by which time my patience was really wearing thin. I’m really big on communication and promises, so it was getting somewhat annoying that she didn’t respond.

I continued waiting well into the 2nd day, which then stretched on to the third, and forth and so on. I sent her sms-es, saying I really had enough and I wouldn’t sms her anymore, but I still did. First, to tell her of a blog post. And second, to tell her of a starbucks discount that happens monthly where I work, because I remembered she was sad I left her out of the December one. No response.

I continued going through the entire week, doing things like Night Cycling with the Youth Exec Committee gang, altering pants, passing by shops while thinking all the time, “how nice it’d be if she…” or “Oh there are so many elderly people, she’d sure like this place”. Still, no response. On saturday itself, we were supposed to meet, having not met for the whole of January. That saturday came and went without so much as a response from her either. I started to wonder if something untoward had happened to her, and then on sunday I saw her online for the first time at night.

I was filled with incandescent rage. Anger, that she chose to forget all the promises we made together. Anger, that in her pettiness she chose to forgo that one meeting that would have made January bearable. Anger, that she chose to selfishly hurt others through her silence, and instantly forget every single milestone in our relationship. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t tolerate the fact that she would willingly shut off all communication channels, without so much as to allow an apology, or a chat, to heal the relationship, to move this relationship forward. My heart was filled with much rage and disgust.

Just this morning, I finally broke my silence yet again and sent her an email, noting that my blog has not been read since I told her about it. Even there, a chance for me to bare my soul, tell my side of the story, was denied. And I made it clear: I won’t stand for it, and I will not forgive her, if forgiving simply meant her saying sorry and continuing her old, selfish ways. I also made it clear too, that beyond a certain point, I will not take the ignorance anymore, and I shall move on. I have to. Would you ignore your boyfriend for months on a whim and expect everything to be lovey-dovey once more on a random lazy sunday afternoon?

I met H for coffee in the afternoon, and told her about the incident because I was so frustrated. Besides being chided for unkempt appearance, she basically told me I should just move on; if I wanted to make something out of my life, relationships weren’t a luxury I could afford. I should be thinking about how to finance my education, where to go how to make it etc. If I settled down too early I’d just be tying myself down and limiting my options and possibilities. She also said I shouldn’t have apologised because there is nothing to apologise for; there is only so much dignity you can throw away.

I thought at that moment that perhaps she has a very skewed way of seeing relationships, and didn’t tell her that very early on I told my girlfriend about all this, and said I was prepared to cut off those options if it meant being with her.

Later that night, I had a social gathering at toastmasters, and kept checking my email to see if she’d replied. I went over to Karaoke with the gang and went online while the sessions went on. I saw her online and finally, I threw away said dignity and broke the silence, once more. I was still angry, because no matter what, I kept taking the initiative, and I asked, after all those smses, blog posts (which she didn’t read at all) and finally email and now msn, you’re still not bothered to even care about it? I waited 15 minutes only to see no response.

I got the message very, very well.

My dignity trashed in an instant, I returned to the karaoke session. This is it then. That, because of one singular little insignificant event that I was ready to apologise for and learn from the mistake to become better, I am now forever barred from the opportunity of even speaking to her. All the dinners, the letters, the visits to my house, the outings with my mother, the mementos of love and all my other instances in which I put her above everyone else, it just couldn’t compare to that single incident in which I overreacted. I’m too worthless to apologise. I’m too worthless to even communicate with her.

I hate that I have to move on if she still doesn’t reply by a set number of days I have in my heart. I hate that we’ll soon be breaking up because of a trivial matter. I hate that she is so selfish she can’t even bring herself to understand what love means and what relationships need. I hate that for the past week I kept opening my msn window to see if she was online. I hate that I threw away all my dignity to text, blog and email and finally message her and she doesn’t give a flying f***. I hate that I keep thinking about her when I encounter good things I want to share. I hate that I went down to MCYS to collect 4 movie tickets to a movie that actually screens tomorrow, hoping that she might actually turn up. I hate that I think about her so much and ditch all my friends to keep a weekend free for her.

And I hate that even now, I still care enough to blog about this, that I still love her.

Regular postings will resume next week…I’ll endeavour to make this the first and last emo post anyone will read here. Tentatively I’m thinking of a update every tues/fri or wed/sat. Shall keep you guys posted. Take care, and till next time, tell your significant other how much s/he means to you.

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My thoughts on Amy Chua

Credit: Heikki Siltala

My last post was on Monday; looks like I spoke too soon. It is quite the struggle, I must say, to maintain work, relationships, friends, toastmasters, and debating all at once. But yes I am finally free again in the wee hours of a monday morning to write about a controversy, long after it’s been talked about.

In case anyone’s been hiding in a cave, a dichotomy sprung up between “western” and “Chinese” parenting recently, as a result of Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s new memoir,Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother as well as a Wall Street Journal piece containing excerpts, and quite strikingly titled “Why Chinese mothers are superior”. The seemingly brutal methods of pushing her kids to excel and emphasis on academic excellence led to outbursts and cries of child abuse and oppressive parenting, although there are supporters.

Then there was David Brooke’s article denouncing her as a wimp, for being too soft by not letting her children learn applicable, real-world soft skills such as group work and social dynamics. It’s been published in many papers, I believe, but I honestly think that article was absolutely trash. David, you’re trying way too hard to be a contrarian. Threatening to burn all your children’s stuffed toys and denying her food and bathroom breaks for a piano practice is far from wimpy behavior.

In the end, most settled for a “middle way” approach, stating the obvious that this dichotomy shouldn’t have to be, and I tend to agree too, tending towards the “chinese” side of the scale. Fundamentally, the question to consider is where do you draw the line at their freedom of choice.

In trying to seem more humane, we talk very loosely about letting the child do what she wants, or allowing her to have that sleepover and school recitals. Somewhere along the line, self-esteem gets thrown into the mix and somehow, we make the connection that the child’s self-esteem is essential to his mental well-being and choice, and if we were to deny him this, it would be paramount to stunting his development and by extension, hurting his self-esteem. This would be the extreme version of the “western”, permissive-parenting where the child is pretty much left to roam and explore, like free association in a psychotherapy session.

We must remember, however, that children are irrational agents with diminished capacity. There are definitely kids out there who are wiser than the average 25 year-old, and many a woman would readily attest to their partner’s sporadic regression to adolescence (usually when asked to ask for directions or soccer is involved.), but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. That’s why most countries have laws that draw arbitrary lines for various major decisions, like consensual sex or driving. It’s also why we don’t take our kids seriously when they say “I want to be a gay porn star”.

If Malcolm Gladwell’s magic number of 10,000 hours is to be believed, then not only can we not trust our child to make the right decision, she may also not be wise or driven enough to put in that time to practice. That’s where parents come in. Does it sound cruel to force the kid to practice? Maybe, but it’s necessary. It is not so much that you want her to complete her Grade 8 Piano Exam or be a Violin maestro like Vanessa Mae, but more of the value you’re imparting, specifically, the value of tenacity. Anything you commit to entails certain responsibilities. When you make a “wrong” decision, there are consequences and you just can’t walk away simply because you got bored. There will be many situations in life that you can regret, but not walk away from as soon as you’d like – from picking the wrong school or major to the wrong career in a economic downturn. Learn the grit necessary to survive these hardships and bide your time for a better opportunity – this is something I definitely want to pass on to my children.

What about group dynamics? What about self-esteem? Well, of course these are important, and should be balanced with academic excellence. I would think that so long as you’re not threatening to burn dolls, and do have the occasional year-end holiday treat, group dynamics shouldn’t be too much of a problem, and there are no shortage of enrichment courses meant to foster confidence in social settings, from drama to Toastmasters (they have satellite programs called SpeechCraft and Youth Leadership for kids). Maybe I can afford to be this optimistic, since I’m not a parent yet.

Self-esteem takes a bit of explaining. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that you should always encourage your child and provide a positive environment, don’t use negative words like don’t and no and couch criticisms as “areas for improvement”. Conventional wisdom is wrong, or at least the way we go about it is. I read from long ago (read: I lost the link) that there had been a psychological study conducted. Two groups of students were asked to do a simple test, and excelled. One group was praised for being “smart” while the other was praised for “trying their best”. Surprisingly, the “smart” group didn’t then want to do more challenging tests compared to the “tried their best” group.

(This applies in seduction too, apparently. It’s better to say something bad about your potential date, something really minor, but then follow it up with an uplifting compliment. Remember, something minor, not “Christ, look at that amount of food you’re eating! What are you, a war hog?”)

So yes, this has been a longer than usual post, to make up for the lack of posts for the past week. While I don’t believe that academic results is a direct function of parenting ability like Amy does, I’ve done badly enough in school to be presented with a set of challenges that made me realise how many more doors academic excellence opens for children. It’s unfair, but we all know how much lip service we’re all paying when we lambaste paper chase and wax lyrical about holistic education. And this is the problem: if we don’t firm up and teach our children through slightly cruel methods, they grow to depend on the system (education or government) to provide for them. So make them take mandatory piano, and score their As, and slowly let out your grand plan. As they turn 18, transcript in hand, tell them that the doors are now all opened, and it’s time for them to take matters into their hands, design their lifelong curricula and blaze their own trail.

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Colour, Psychology and Money?


I realise I haven’t posted in a very long while, even though I’ve committed myself to posting at least every other day! Honestly, though, the past week has been nothing short of hectic, beginning with a long overdue catch-up session with my Final Year Project Supervisor and lecturer, whom I admire a lot for his calm demeanour, patience (of which one will certainly require a lot when mentoring me!) and his endless wealth of knowledge on just about everything outside his specialty of Physical Chemistry! Following that, work picked up pace and in between debating I’ve also started on a book project with a friend (everything’s still in the planning stage, though!) and of course, my 2nd meeting at the Youth Executive Committee at Kampong Kembangan CC. Finally, just today, I had my second toastmasters meeting at Sheraton Towers, and delivered my maiden impromptu speech for which I won best table topic! But let’s not digress too far from today’s topic.

The psychology of colour has always been a fascinating subject to me. To be more precise, I’ve always had an interest in personality profiling and have read up on the many different methodologies. The Myers-Briggs Test Inventory, based upon Psychologist Carl Jung‘s work on archetypes, will probably be familiar to most, categorising people by Introversion/Extraversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling and finally Judging/Perception. Some companies might also have paid for you to do a DISC assessment. Then there’s the more mystical sounding Enneagram that divides us into 9 types and depending on our function and stresses, we may shift from one number to the other. The theory and tests available are quite interesting and I’ll just give a link here if you are so inclined to do the tests and find out about your personality. As far as I know, there are several criticisms of these models and by far, the one that has had a higher reputation for validity is the Big Five test, which can also be done in the link above.

And then, there is colour. The psychology of colour is not a new topic, and several psychologists have probably tried to map meanings to certain colours, such as the common notion that red is a warm colour that symbolises energy, confidence while blue is a state of calm and tranquility and so on. Perhaps some of you would have done a test whereby you were asked to select coloured cubes, in order of most liked to least liked colours and gained insight into your mental state at the point of taking the test. This is largely due to the work of Dr. Max Lûscher and the website in question can be found here (though you need to pay, I think).

Just today, however, I came across this in my e-mail and I found it very interesting. It’s called The color of money. The title is a little bit misleading, I must say. I thought my preference for colours would indicate how risk-prone or risk-averse I would be, or perhaps where I might stand to earn big bucks (maybe by writing for a living?), but it’s actually more a test of how you work, and playing to your strengths. I did mine, and was quite surprised to learn some new things about myself.

Perhaps no test will ever tell us for sure who we are, and I do think we should make use of this free will that has been given us to make our lives fulfilling, living out the character we want to be in this life and not letting an inventory decide and compartmentalise us. However, life is too short to be taken seriously all the time too, and as a recreational digression, why not do a test or two?

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