PETER TAN is 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 due to a genetic eye disorder called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), spoke with us for a very special interview ahead of Teacher’s Day, answering five burning questions that we sourced from educators currently in the teaching service.
“Recently, there’s been a lot of unhappiness experienced by teachers regarding their work experiences, hours, salary and more. As a Christian teacher, how do I respond to these challenging work conditions? When should I be speaking up, and when should I just be putting my head down and working through these difficulties?”
A question I always ask teachers is this: do they consider teaching a job or a vocation? There is a difference.
If it is just a job, I do what I must do for what I am paid for, and if something better comes along, I leave for that job.
If it is a vocation, then I have a higher purpose and calling to what I am doing and pay.
Things like working conditions become secondary considerations because there is a higher calling and purpose to be in this vocation.
For teachers who are Christians, I hope their response to the question would be the latter.
These days, teachers are paid well and working conditions are much better than when I joined the teaching service in 1984.
Older teachers I knew shared that things were even harder then.
I thank God for them as many of my favourite teachers showed love, care and consideration for my classmates.
It was only later that I understood they sacrificed much for us, their students.
These days, all staff rooms are air-conditioned and teachers are paid fair wages. Development prospects are abundant and there is much consideration for teachers’ well-being and mental health.
Teachers do work very hard during term time, and some even during school holidays (there is “protected” time for teachers during school holidays when they are not expected to return to school).
I often quip with my teachers that they are about the only ones with a certainty as to when they can book an overseas holiday.
… a little less focus on ourselves and more on the ones we serve makes a huge difference in our attitude.
Sure, there are stresses in the vocation/job, but what vocation/job has no stress?
Teachers are supported with various people and avenues they can approach for assistance or counselling, and these are totally confidential.
I have always maintained an open and honest relationship with my superiors and I feel that is best.
If I don’t sound sympathetic to those complaining about pay and work conditions, it is because I know of many Christians in the teaching vocation who have it far worse.
I think of my teachers who taught me; their conditions were harder, but they persisted.
I know of Christian teachers in the vocation overseas whose pay and conditions are even more challenging, but they do it with joy and through gritting their teeth at times.
That is why there is a difference as to whether teaching is a vocation or a job!
Christ showed the ultimate way. He loved us so much that He came to our world to sacrifice His life for our sake.
Teachers are not called to give of our lives; a little less focus on ourselves and more on the ones we serve makes a huge difference in our attitude.
How do I know if I’m called to be a teacher?
First, ask yourself if you enjoy teaching and engaging with young people, particularly children. If you don’t, teaching is not for you.
Second, try it out. Teach in a Sunday School class. Volunteer with a VWO and ask to teach their community engagement classes with young children.
Can you explain concepts and ideas? Do you enjoy being with them? It can be challenging, but do you look forward to the challenge and want to make a difference? If not, find another career.
God would not call you into a career that He has not built the interest, passion and abilities in you for.
Take time to seek Him and hear Him. Take feedback from your students and other adults working with you. In His word and through people, He will guide you.
Reflect on Luke 14:25-33, because teaching is a sacred vocation as we are taking on the same title as our Lord Jesus Christ!
How do you shine your light as a Christian teacher in a secular workplace?
Consider Matthew 13-16 as a Christian in any work place. Lead an exemplary life in all you do. Do not expect favours, only choose to do what is right.
Consider Daniel and his 3 friends, devout Jews in a pagan world. They were exalted by God and the king, choosing to do the right thing in all situations, honouring God and men.
God will never fail us; I rather do the right thing to honour God than to do what may save my own skin.
I recall that when I was doing National Service in the late 1970s, the environment in the unit I was in was frequently peppered with use of vulgarities.
As a NCO, I refused to subscribe to that, and I treated my men fairly. This gave me opportunity to share my life with the soldiers I had under my command at their request, to understand why I was different from the other NCOs.
I never pronounced my faith or walked about with a Bible, but they would seek me out to speak with me, which gave me the opportunity to share my life of faith in Christ, leaving them to consider their own life and relationships.
This has been my approach in life, to let my actions speak louder than my words.
I do this so that the people I work with can experience the love, care and compassion of Christ – just as I have.
How do you know whether it’s time to stay, or whether it’s time to leave the service?
After every five to seven years, I have always taken a view to spend extended time with God to seek Him about His direction for my life.
Each time I do so, I spend much time to pray, read Scripture and hear from God whether to stay or move.
We must develop a practice of quiet before God, and allow Him to speak with us.
Sometimes, the answer comes quickly. Sometimes, it takes over a few days of walking and waiting on Him.
When you have learnt to hear God, you know that you know. And then you move in that direction He tells you.
Our God is faithful and He has never failed to guide me by His “still, small voice”!
What are your most precious lessons in your 40 years of being an educator?
Leaning on God for strength and guidance is key in my life. My regular practice of reading and meditating on His word, first thing in the morning, gives me the compass for my day.
I take this time to bring to Him my concerns for the day and trust as He says in Jeremiah 29:11 that He will guide me in the plans He has for me.
I am assured as His word in Psalm 33:11 says: “But the plans the Lord stand firm forever, the purpose of His heart for all generations.”
I can be assured that God will fulfil His purposes in and through my life and I go with His strength, not mine.
I have also learnt to persevere in tough times.
I always tell my students: “Tough times don’t last, tough people do!”
I have been through many tough times, challenges and uncertainty. I thank God that I have a personal relationship with Him that allows me to approach His throne of grace and draw strength from Him.
My regular practice of reading and meditating on His word, first thing in the morning, gives me the compass for my day.
Some of these challenging situations are short, but some go on for months or years.
I must thank God for my dear wife, Stacey, who has been my confidante and support both in good and hard times.
Without God and her, things could have been very different.
Despite the sentiments in the first question and rumblings we read in the newspapers and social media, I feel very blessed and fortunate to be part of a very excellent education system in Singapore.
We are clear about our vision and mission for education in Singapore, with good leaders at the Ministry of Education HQ and schools who truly put the interests of students front and centre.
I have had the blessing of good superiors and colleagues who have journeyed with me these 40 years.
As a teacher and principal, I have had the good support of many parents and students, some of whom have become very good friends.
It has always been my joy to be invited to the weddings of my students, as they celebrate the most important day of their lives. I am honoured to be included in their celebrations.
So, I guess, building relationships that last, is probably one of the most important lessons I have taken with me – I have been so enriched in my life for them!
Be grounded on values. If we are not grounded on our values when doing anything, it then stands on shifting sand that can easily cause everything to tumble.
When an organisation is clear about its values, and I act based on these values, I am on firm ground as these are foundations we agree upon.
My clarity on the values makes decision-making easier for me and my staff.
Stay creative and nimble. Never be afraid to experiment and try a different approach. Of course, think it through carefully and have good, sound reasons for doing so.
Experimenting with class size arrangements, teaching approaches and practices, signal to my teachers that they should always be thinking about how they can do things better for the sake of our students.
Sharing about these experimentations with like-minded friends and colleagues creates the opportunity for thinking deeper and looking for better ways to make things happen to benefit our students.
Life is an adventure that God gives to us. Enjoy each day as it comes. Sometimes there are dark clouds. However, these same dark clouds give the opportunity to see beautiful rainbows.
As an ACSian, adorned on the schools’ walls is the verse from Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.”
Whatever I do, I believe in doing it to the best of my abilities and resources I have.
I want to live as excellently in God’s plans for me as I can, and when the time comes to return to my Saviour, I hope to hear Him say, “Well done, faithful servant!”
So continue to do your very best for the glory of God, and you know where the next phrase comes from – The Best Is Yet To Be!