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Principal philosophy of teaching: Put kids first

Nanyang Junior College principal Kwek Hiok Chuang is known for talking to students in the canteen during their break, with a glass of coffee in his hand. He believes that when students like the school, they are prepared to do more. Former students have paid tribute on social media to their down-to-earth principal who saw no act of service as being beneath him.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

In 1999, Mr Kwek Hiok Chuang, then a deputy director in the Ministry of Education (MOE), needed to make a choice: stay on in his article, become a bunch superintendent or help set up a new junior faculty within only four months.

Finding teachers, inventing a title for Pioneer Junior College and considering the way to brand it in this brief period was daunting. However, Mr Kwek, now 61, gamely chosen for the job.

“I know it’s hard but I like to be with students, I believe I could help them… that four months was fantastic,” he remembered.

However, the experience wasn’t without hiccups.

Mr Kwek, concerned about the humidity, reluctantly drove into a nearby shopping mall, bought 15 standing fans and constructed them himself – only so that pupils might have a conducive environment to study in.

When students pick a college, they come to us with hope. What’s important is that I muster my teachers and staff to be certain that they will not be disappointed.
He first made headlines in age 33, when he joined North View Secondary School and became Singapore’s youngest principal then. At 38, he led Anderson Secondary School in Ang Mo Kio and, within two decades, it had leapfrogged 11 positions up the ranks to claim 10th place in 1994.

At 51, he combined NYJC, nurturing the institution’s close-knit, affectionate culture to excel academically such the chalk point for the science stream was reduced from 11 to six points over the last ten years.

After cutting red tape to promote innovation, focusing on building a positive learning culture, and most importantly making pupils and staff feel cared for, it’s no wonder that he has left a lasting effect on many of the nearly 22,000 students he’s met in the course of his career.

He explained: “When students pick a college, they come to us with hope. The most important thing is that I muster my teachers and staff to be certain that they will not be disappointed.

“I understand that when someone enjoys a place, they’re ready to do more.”

As a youngster, he loved tinkering with gadgets.

After living in that sort of environment where it had been quite challenging, I believe that affecting the young is quite important, to be certain that they act favorably.”

On the way, the Chinese-educated teacher overcame hurdles, developing relationships with pupils in the school’s worst course by understanding their issues, and improving his mastery of the language to teach courses in English. “If you educate with heart, the students may understand you. I had trouble pronouncing some words, however, the pupils were very forgiving.”

Social networking articles attest to his humble spirit. Former students remember the down-to-earth leader who watched no act of service as being under him. Two decades back, a photograph posted by an NYJC pupil, of Mr Kwek cleaning chairs and tables in the school’s study region after a downpour, went viral.

“I think we shouldn’t make ourselves irreplaceable, and should permit the continuation of the next leader. I spent the previous 11 years making NYJC powerful, and I am convinced the following principal will bring NYJC to higher heights.”

Pupils, teachers and friends will bid him goodbye in a farewell meeting next month, however, Mr Kwek’s job is far from done. Already a volunteer with grassroots groups and the Chinese Development Assistance Council, he might join the company sector or become an education adviser.

“I wish to keep myself occupied, we must continue to function because we’re healthy and still young,” he said.

One comment

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