Results day at Pathlight School marked a jubilant end to the roller-coaster ride these two teachers faced in guiding students with autism through the O-Level curriculum.
It was a day of anxiety and excitement not just for the students all over Singapore who received their O-Level results on Friday (Jan 12), but also for the teachers who guided them. And it was an extra special day for two special education teachers, who saw all their O-Level students do well enough to further their studies in junior colleges, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education.
Fiona Loh and Low Teck Yang teach at Pathlight School, the first special education school in Singapore for students with autism that offers the mainstream curriculum. Of the 66 graduating secondary school students in 2017, 14 sat the O-Level exams, and received their results on Friday.
The two teachers told Channel NewsAsia about the challenges they faced guiding students with autism through the mainstream curriculum, the roller-coaster ride of emotions they endured, and ultimately, the pride and satisfaction at seeing their students move on to the next phase of their lives.
It was the desire to contribute to society and practice some new-found skills that led Fiona, a mathematics teacher with 15 years’ teaching experience, to Pathlight almost a year ago.
“I was in a very good school teaching privileged students who were very smart, and then I joined a private tuition centre, also with very good students,” she said. “But I wanted to do more.”
“I had also taken some courses related to special needs when I was in the mainstream school, so I thought, why not use the skills I learnt and practice them?”
Suddenly faced with teaching students with autism the O-Level mathematics curriculum, Fiona acknowledged that it was “a big jump” for her, and found herself not just teaching, but learning as well.
“At first, I thought I would need to really slow down, and talk very slowly for all my lessons, but the students are very smart,” she said. “They are able to understand what I am teaching, and can grasp very complicated and abstract concepts.
“I would say they are on par, if not better than some of my mainstream students.”
The main challenge, she said, was learning how to work with the students individually, and helping them understand concepts that do not come naturally to them. For example, she explained that a new batch of questions in the O-Level mathematics exam requires students to apply their learning to real life situations, which may be challenging for students with autism.
“They’re very rigid, and open-ended questions could be a bit of a problem for them,” she said. “They can’t accept alternative solutions as well.”
“So we need to find questions they can relate to, so they are interested to learn, and they can understand that there is no fixed solution to solve certain problems.”
She also recalled one student who did not want speak to anyone, and in fact refused to speak to her for months.
“If I tried to get him to answer a question, he would give me a death stare,” she said. “I was quite sad, because it was like talking to myself, and I had to be very patient with him.”
“Slowly, I gave him space, and he would start asking me questions. And then I saw that I was probably the first person he’s talked to in that day.”
That, she said, gave her satisfaction. And it is moments like these, along with the day-to-day instances of seeing a student’s face light up with understanding, which motivate her to give her best to every student.
She is now seeing her first batch of O-Level students graduate. But even as she admitted to being “a bit worried” about the outcome, she was worried not for herself, but her students.
“One or two of them have set very high expectations for themselves, and if they don’t get the results they want, they may feel disappointed,” she said. “But we can’t control the bell curve. What we can control is how we feel, how we react and what we say to the students to encourage them.”
“I’m happy for the students,” she added. “They did well and I hope they can get to a course of their choice.”
“The O-Level exam is a milestone that leads to the beginning of another journey ahead, so my wish for them is to continue to work hard and scale new heights.”
Even as results day approached, there were no jitters for geography teacher Low Teck Yang. With three and a half years’ experience teaching at Pathlight and 20 years’ teaching experience under his belt, he confidently told Channel NewsAsia that he is “not worried at all” for this year’s batch of O-Level students.
“They have consistently been performing well, so I’m not so anxious for them,” he said.
And indeed, his confidence in this year’s students was well-placed, and he is happy they have done well. But there have been times, he said, when he worried about his students.
“There are times with certain batches when you know they may not be able to make the grade, even for those who try very hard,” he explained. “So I would naturally be worried.”
“And I was worried for the first batch of Pathlight students I took for O-Levels,” he added. “I think because I didn’t have that much experience teaching students with autism then.”
“It took some time for me to learn what to expect and how to deal with each of them, because they are all different.”
He added that unlike teaching in mainstream schools, teaching students with autism requires him to pay more attention to the individual needs of the students. “I found there were different methods of approaching students, and everyone requires something different, so that took a while for me to get used to.”
“Some of them find exam stress is also a problem, so I have to counsel them,” he added. “I hear them out, lend them a listening ear and give them a work schedule.
“I realised that the students here work better if we do things like that.”
But beyond seeing his students do well academically, Teck Yang also takes heart when he sees students blossom in other areas, like in co-curricular activities (CCA). He highlighted one particular student who received his results on Friday, a boy who started out quiet and reserved, but over the years became a troop leader in the Scouts, a CCA which Teck Yang also oversees.
“We put him through training, and as he went through all the scout activities, we saw that he was slowly starting to step up, so we appointed him as the patrol leader,” he said. “Then he was able to start working with small groups of students, and start leading them.”
“By the time he graduated, he was able to command a whole troop of scouts,” he said.
“It was really satisfying to see him graduate.”
And in all his years of teaching, he described his experience at Pathlight as the "most heartwarming" one he has had. He was previously in a mainstream school, and moved on to a private tuition centre before coming to Pathlight.
“I felt that I wasn’t having a connection with the students, because in giving tuition, they’re just here to pay money, learn and then go out,” he explained. “I was looking around for a switch and I thought I could try Pathlight, because I’ve not taught students with special needs before.”
“We really get to connect with the students here,” he added. “We also get to know the parents, not just as parents, but as friends as well.
“I think I made a good choice coming here.”