What 20 years of teaching has taught me

teach dice ornament on table

This seems like a post I should have written long ago. After all, I’ve been teaching since 2003 so I definitely have a good two decades of experience in my belt to pen down some thoughts about this profession that’s as old as time.

Now don’t worry. This isn’t going to be one of those pat-myself-on-the-back or 20-ways-to-be-a-great-teacher-after-teaching-for-20-years kinda post. If you’ve followed my blog for a while now, you would know I’m always about the raw and unfinished journey of life. Meaning you won’t find any of those pathetic, pretentious, peacock-preening platitudes peppering social media and the world wide web.

So yeah, go ahead. Stop reading now if you’re into quick-fix life hacks on teaching. I don’t mind a bit, since I don’t have any.

Still here? Alrighty then!

“Step into my classroom” please and let’s begin, shall we?

Teaching. Learning. Parenting.

man in black and white polo shirt beside writing board
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No doubt when it comes to teaching and education, everyone’s got a point of view; probably several. So were I to poll say, ten people about the state of teaching and education today, I’ll probably get like 100 responses!

Of course, everyone’s been exposed at one point or other in their lives to teaching. Either as a parent, a boss/colleague, a teacher, or a student. Some might even be wearing all these hats simultaneously.

Like me back in 2012.

Then, I was parenting two kids, teaching in a tertiary institution full-time among colleagues and bosses, and attending night classes two to three times a week for two years while pursuing a Masters degree!

I even repeated the feat three years later in 2017 when I did a year-long night course (twice a week) in pursuit of a specialist diploma.

Gosh! Reading what I just wrote, I could be mistaken for being an over-achiever.

Trust me. I’m not.

My grades were at best mediocre. And I’ve probably forgotten more than half of what was taught!

So why do it?

Good question! Problem is, after 20 years, I still don’t really know. Maybe it was all to help me fill up my tank with more knowledge so I can in turn pass them onto my students?

Well, whatever the reason, I have come to three conclusions about what my teaching journey has taught me.

So far.

1. Teaching is definitely more “art than science

man pointing on laptop screen
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Firstly I learn that teaching is an “imperfect science”. In fact it’s ultimately more “art than science”. Even if the subject is rocket science!

And it doesn’t matter whether it’s done in person or online; if it’s one-to-one or one-to-many; in a nursery or a PHD programme; to the rich or the poor.

Be it the preparation before, the execution during, or the post-mortem and evaluation after the lesson is done and dusted, the teacher has to be the glue to hold all the different elements together.

Elements like curriculum to complete. Differentiated student learning profiles within the class to cater to. Academic standards to set and maintain. Teaching hours to clock. Lesson plans and objectives to achieve. Administrative duties to fulfil. Discipline and classroom management matters to oversee. And on many occasions “cynical crowds to keep entertained”!

And don’t forget the dreaded MARKING!!

To juggle all these elements every time without dropping a single one? C’mon, that’s clearly artistry on display, pure and simple!

2. True teaching is really shepherding

back view photo of shepherd walking his flock of sheep in grass field
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Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not labelling my students as sheep. If so, then I’m certainly including myself too!

But the analogy of the shepherd and the sheep actually captures perfectly the dynamics that play out in nearly every classroom where the teacher understands a basic principle. And again, just to be clear, the basic principle I’m alluding to here is not that the student in the class is a helpless sheep (although I’ve certainly met my fair share of some; and at times been one myself!).

Rather, the basic principle is this: For the time that you the teacher get to have with the students, be it a whole academic year or even an hour, your job ought to go beyond knowledge transference to rendering care to the learning journey of your charges.

This is true especially in an era where any knowledge can be downloaded just by doing a simple Google search. Which explains why some think teachers are on the way outta the classroom, be it the brick-and-mortar or the virtual one!

Instead, just like a shepherd who knows, feeds, waters and guards his flock, the teacher ideally needs to know, impart and protect the learning journey of each student with everything he knows. And whatever resources he can muster!

So with a job description that daunting, is it any wonder fewer attempt it, causing teaching to fall into disarray in this day and age where everything’s become more transactional than pastoral? When, if you can’t put a price tag to quantify its value, then that job really isn’t worth a second look?

Which makes anyone wonder: what ultimately is the point of teaching in this modern age? Or for that matter, the thankless job that is a teacher?

I think the third thing I’ve learned in my two decades might shed some light.

3. Teaching is ultimately about inspiring

person holding sparkler silhouette
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I’m hopeful anyone reading this has heard the opening strains to this all-too-familiar campfire ditty:

“It only takes a spark
To get the fire going.
And soon all those around
Can warm up in its glowing

For me, that pretty much sums up what 20 years of teaching has taught me.

You see, when I first started out, all bushy-eyed and eager-beaver-like in 2003, I thought I was going to, you know, teach.

I was going to be that sage on the stage, imparting my amazing, breath-taking wisdom. My students would lap it all up like cute, hungry puppies. I’ll walk away after each lesson on cloud nine, proudly patting my shoulders for an exceptional job well done. And in the next lesson, the same scenario will play out again.


Other than the unfortunate NSAs among my teaching fraternity (not the NSA in America please but the NSA in my books, which stands for “No Self-Awareness”), every bonafide teacher would LOL and nod his or her head knowingly after reading that.

It’s just pure, wishful thinking!

And as the world has advanced so much these past two decades, no teacher (not even those in early childhood education) should dream they could get away with that puffed-up but sadly misplaced notion!

But then, if that’s true, it begs the question: where does that leave teachers today?

For me, it leaves teachers where teachers have always been called across the centuries to be and to do.

It calls on us to inspire. To be the cheerleader. The guide on the side. The shepherd.

For as the saying goes, which I’m going to co-opt here for the purpose of this blog post, students “don’t care how much you know, til they know how much you care”!

The journey of learning is arduous enough yet the motivation to press on can only materialise if the learner feels deep within his very soul that it matters. No stick nor carrot will create that yearning within; that spark.

Only the dedication of an enlightened teacher who understands this principle of inspiration can in turn nurture an inspired learner to truly reach outside of himself, learn and savour the journey as much if not more than the destination itself!

As I look back on my own teaching journey and look ahead to what’s on the horizon, I’m definitely still far from this “inspiration mark.” Far, in fact, from all three points I just shared!

Which is why…

…I’m still on this teaching (and learning) journey now!

man facing road
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Wish me well okay?!

7 thoughts on “What 20 years of teaching has taught me

  1. Yes, yes, yes!!!

    “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

    Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life

    1. Thanks for dropping by Diana! And yes, Parker Palmer and his books have been such an inspiration to me. May i remember always the identity and integrity that comes with wearing the mantle of a teacher. Send my regards to Jerry too!

  2. Couldn’t agree more Mr Seah, teaching has never been an easy profession but something that is very much needed and irreplaceable. Being a teacher is far more than just imparting knowledge and helping students to score well in exams but taking care and giving guidance when needed. Honestly am so glad to have been one of your charges 🙂

    1. Awww thanks! I feel humbled. I just hope I haven’t scarred anyone for life!! All I can say is that it’s an unfinished journey that we’re all on; and we could all use a little motivating company. Hope you’re well and have such fellow sojourners on your life journey too! Take care and thanks as always for reading and commenting!

  3. First of all, I admire your dedication in your 20-year education career. Second, I quite agree with your point of view. I also think that education is very important and artistic. Even in this era of rapid development of science and technology, all kinds of knowledge can be searched on the Internet. However, in order to learn and understand this knowledge, teachers must stick together to understand and absorb knowledge to improve themselves. And I also very much agree that the praise and encouragement given to students by teachers are very important to students. Finally, I hope you can continue to stick to your original heart in the next educational career. I wish you good luck.
    Your student: WangLu

    1. Thanks! In an ideal world, it would be wonderful to see teachers ‘stick together’. But whether that happens or not, I think in the end, it’s the need to have a humble and teaching demeanour each time we enter a learning space. This is just as important to a teacher as it is to a student. I hope I won’t forget, especially on my not-so-great days! But if I do, may I have a kind and understanding audience. Thanks for stopping by!

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