The accidental teacher
Senior Academic Mentor Kwa Lay Ping, one of the winners of the President’s Award for Teachers 2017, shares her recipe for success
Serendipity. The word sums up Senior Academic Mentor Kwa Lay Ping’s 20-year journey from an accidental teacher to being the first lecturer from a polytechnic to receive the President’s Award for Teachers last year.
She never thought she would build a career in this field, especially when she loved to challenge her teachers by deliberately asking difficult questions in class.
Ms Kwa says: “Teachers needed to establish their ‘street cred’ with me first. I was an avid reader so when I needed to learn things, I would do it on my own.”
When she was a master’s student in communications in the University of Southern California in 1999, she took up the challenge when her professor asked if she wanted to help teach a class.
Ms Kwa says: “I realised then that teaching is one of the toughest jobs, and developed a respect for teachers.”
When she returned to Singapore, she took up a lecturing job at Singapore Polytechnic in 2000. She taught media-related modules.
Taking on challenges
The first module she taught was “Mass Media Research”, an introductory research methods class.
“Even before the class started, hearing the word ‘research’ turned the students off. They called the module ‘Mass Murder Ritual’ instead. My student feedback score was terrible that semester,” she says.
Undeterred, Ms Kwa worked harder to improve the learning experiences of the next batch of students.
She says: “I tapped into all my ‘unhappiness’ as a student. I used my critical side as the starting point for lesson design to connect the learning to the students' real world experiences.”
It took a while before she got better at teaching the module. For instance, to teach a topic on content analysis, Ms Kwa got the students to analyse the different ways profiles are written on online dating sites.
The students had a lot of fun. Some insights took the students by surprise, and they started appreciating the importance of research.
Ms Kwa does not spoon-feed her students. She believes that students need to learn to be comfortable with discomfort, and sets the bar high to challenge them.
She says: “The learning activities are deliberately structured for students to take more ownership of their learning. Only then will they go beyond surface concept learning to effective problem-solving and hence deeper learning.”
Ms Josin Chee, a third-year student enrolled in the Diploma in Media & Communication, says: “Ms Kwa starts lessons by going through the content that we need to understand before letting us try things out on our own. If we require help, she would guide us without disclosing the answer.
“She promotes the culture of learning from others. The class is often divided into groups to research certain topics before we present findings to our classmates. She would also probe us to explore these topics more deeply by asking tough questions.”
Ms Kwa’s tough love also extends to preparing her students well for the working world’s demands. Tight deadlines, honest feedback and problem-solving are part of what her students are expected to manage.
“I won’t be doing them any favours by spoon-feeding them. Reality can be tough on the students’ egos so they need to be ready for any challenges,” Ms Kwa added.
Resilience, effective teaching and the amount of thought Ms Kwa puts into her work through the years have made her an award-winning lecturer.
Despite her tough reputation, Ms Kwa enjoys a strong rapport with her students. She takes an interest in their lives, and stays actively connected with them through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.
“Some of my current students and ex-students who are now media professionals will still message from time to time to catch up with me. They will also share any interesting findings with me and I am always happy to learn and exchange ideas with them,” Ms Kwa says.
Especially with the rise of artificial intelligence and other new technologies, she believes “you need to keep learning, so you won’t become irrelevant, especially in the ever-changing media industry”.