Ahead of this month’s Thir.st Youth Night that’s all about education, we sat down with PETER TAN, a four-decade veteran educator who has served as a principal for 24 years across schools like ACS (Junior), ACS (Barker Road) and Queensway Secondary School.
Peter, who is also legally blind, shares what it means to have a godly perspective on academic excellence, rest, and how children and parents can redefine success.
As a principal, how do you see grades? And how do you think God sees grades?
It is important as a principal to do my best to give students a good education. But a good education isn’t about grades. A good education is about what people become after school.
Grades are just a part of the process; the programming in a school that helps a student become a better person is what’s more critical. The ability to think, to take responsibility, to care, to show respect for people — these are important too.
At the end of the day, grades are just grades. It only gets you to the next station. If you get wonderful grades, you have more options. If you don’t have wonderful grades, you have fewer options.
A good education is about what people become after school.
From a Christian perspective, sometimes that’s how God guides each of us.
You may not get the best grades, and so you have fewer options. If you had much better grades, you would be choosing the wrong course that God does not want for you.
It’s all about where God wants us to focus our eyes on.
I was terminated from the teaching program, and I had to appeal to stay in my course to be a teacher.
I was really feeling very down because I thought I knew that God wanted me to be in education.
I went home that night, and I prayed. God, why? And God said nothing to me — though the number 40 kept appearing in my mind.
I thought about the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 14:34), and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11).
I told God, I cannot be a teacher after waiting 40 years. But 40 days — I could wait!
40 days later, and the results of my appeal still hadn’t come. I began to think I had heard incorrectly.
But then, this guy comes in at about 5:30pm. He had one letter, and the one letter was from the Institute of Education (now known as the National Institute of Education).
That letter allowed me to go back to classes, but they would not give me any allowances because the wage base then was not big.
But still, God came through for me. 40 days.
So, I got by with limited money.
And then on Christmas Eve, I got a second letter from them: they said that they decided to allow me to go back to the Institute of Education and that they would also pay back my old allowances!
Today, I’ve been in education for 40 years as a teacher and a principal for 24 years and it has really come full circle.
We think we can plan everything. think we can do it with our results, with the best plans our parents have for us — but everything is in God’s hands. God ordains everything.
As people of faith, we need to just trust that if God closes the door, He opens another one. And we just have to walk through the door He opens for us.
So, results are just a means for God leading us to where He wants us to be.
When you look at a student, how do you determine if they are successful or not?
I am reminded of a student who failed his promotion criteria and had to see me with his parents. He had only passed one or two subjects.
I looked at his grades; his parents were anxious that repeating a year would ruin his future and desperately wanted him to advance to Secondary 4.
I told them: “We are going to live till we are 70; it’s not going to kill him if your son needs to repeat to get onto the right track.”
He was not thriving in Pure Sciences and in Mathematics despite being very hardworking, so I suggested that he change his subject combination from Pure Sciences to Pure Humanities when repeating the year.
They accepted it reluctantly, but repeating was the best decision because that was where this boy found God. That year, he became more involved with the worship band in AC Barker and wrote worship songs.
Today, he is a graduate of King’s College London with a first class honours in philosophy (which is incredibly difficult to study and excel at!).
I would urge students to work to their best. It is not God-honouring to be a slouch. As a student, your vocation is to do well.
If you can do well academically, then do well academically. If you can do well in CCAs, do well in CCAs.
Schooling is the best place to find out your strengths and abilities, to discover who you are.
Sometimes people pursue the wrong things because they have been searching for the best grades.
When I was a student in the United States, I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner by a person whose ministry involved serving Christian students in the universities.
This person had a spread of food which stretched out to 10 metres. He cooked that entire meal by himself, which was so much that it could feed us for five days!
Before we started eating, he told us: “I invited you all because this is my last day as a lawyer. My desire is to be a chef, and you are the first people to taste my food.”
As a student, your vocation is to do well.
Becoming a lawyer was what his parents pushed him to do; he promised his parents that he would be a lawyer until 40 and then he would decide what he wants. So he kept to his promise and honoured his parents.
His role as a chef became a ministry to him; he would cook and invite university students over for a meal and share with them about Christ.
So, God uses us for different things for different purposes at different times.
I push my students to do their best to try their hardest.
I set up night study sessions for my students and partnered with churches to help me, and their church’s undergraduate students would come and tutor the kids.
My prayer is that these students will find genuine friends in that space and to demystify what a church is like and to see them more open to the Gospel.
“My parents have my whole academic route planned out for me, and we even moved houses to make it happen. They demand more than I can manage from my studies, and I feel I cannot mess up.” How would you speak to parents like these?
That is toxic. This mentality breeds a lack of reliance on God… does the parent carry a biblical perspective or do they trust their skills over God?
When parents tell me such things, my question is, whose plan is this? Is it God’s plan or is it yours?
Christian parents would be very angry with me for saying this, but we’re seeing a lot of brokenness… a lot of Christian youths see their parents believe in one thing and do another. It creates a lot of dissonance.
What God wants for your family is more important than what you want for your family, and that is hard for Christian parents.
Too often, the child simply becomes a trophy for parents to boast about or used to create the image of a perfect family. I’ve seen it too many times.
Parents need to trust God and allow their children to follow His call; they should also know the state of their child’s walk with God.
As a principal, I rather a child find their identity in Christ rather than in their parent’s choices because God’s plan has a vision far wider than what we can see.
It’s far more important to go where God leads you.
What would you tell students who are trying their best, but feel their best is not enough?
They need to take a chill pill. You’re pushing yourself for what reason? Can you really do better than all A1s? You could go wherever you like.
It was important for my students in the Night Study Programme to encourage stronger students to teach their friends. They go to night study not because they need it but because they want to help their community.
That’s where the mental disassociation occurs: children are told to please God and yet their studies do not reflect God is in control.
I had a student who was brilliant, but he has to use crutches to walk and he needs a guardian at all times. I was worried if the other students would bully him, but to my surprise — they embraced him.
He was so generous and gentle and would ultimately excel at the O-Levels, swiping all the subject prizes. So, teach your friends if you have good academics.
Go have a life, have some balance. And you will get closer to becoming the more complete version of yourself that God wants you to be. I hope parents would teach that to their children.
The Sabbath is needed. And yet when exam season comes along, it’s all about mugging at home and more tuition classes.
That’s where the mental disassociation occurs: children are told to please God and yet their studies do not reflect God is in control. It becomes relativism.
And so, it takes a lot to trust and surrender to God’s plan.
Words of wisdom from a man who’s been in the teaching service for 40 years… Well, there’s a lot more where that came from!
Join us for our upcoming Thir.st Youth Night where Peter will be sharing even more about education and what excellence is in academia — full details below.