The right teacher can make all the difference in the world
Ms Gamar Abdul Aziz believes that teachers must be whatever their students need them to be
Ms Kirstin Yip has probably accomplished more than you, and she’s only just turned 20 years old.
Though she scored the best possible score of six points for her O levels, she eschewed the conventional route of going to a top junior college.
Instead, she took the road less travelled, opting for the Diploma in Creative Writing for TV and New Media at Singapore Polytechnic (SP) — the only polytechnic in Singapore to offer a specialised creative writing programme.
At the end of her three years in polytechnic, she received one of the highest honours achievable by a student: the Public Service Commission (PSC) Scholarship, an award given to just a select handful of outstanding candidates every year.
But her list of achievements gets even more impressive when you consider that throughout her days in secondary school and polytechnic, she was embroiled in her parents’ bitter divorce proceedings.
“It was a dark period in my life,” she admits.
She had always considered herself a writer — after all, she was enrolled in a creative writing course — but had never once considered the craft as a means of catharsis.
At least not until she met her personal tutor, Ms Gamar Abdul Aziz.
From newsroom to classroom
With her disarming smile and relaxed demeanour, a picture of Ms Gamar is probably what you would find if you opened an encyclopaedia to the article on “nurturing teacher”.
Among various other accolades throughout her 10-year career in SP, she is the recipient of SP’s Excellence in Teaching Award and E-learning Award, and has also picked up a nomination for the Excellence in Care & Guidance Award 2018.
But beneath the 46-year-old’s unassuming exterior is a hard-nosed journalist with a sharp eye for a good story. Before joining Singapore Polytechnic as a lecturer, Ms Gamar spent 14 years in the newsroom, moving from the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, to the Television Corporation of Singapore, and finally to Mediacorp as an editor.
“I loved my job as a journalist,” she says, almost wistfully. “But after learning so many things, I felt that I needed to learn something new.”
So why teaching specifically?
“Initially, the idea never crossed my mind,” Ms Gamar says with a laugh. “I associated it only with primary and secondary schools at first.”
But when she came across an advertisement looking for an experienced applicant to teach television journalism, she knew her search for her next great endeavour had ended.
Having mentored her junior colleagues in the newsroom, Ms Gamar found teaching to be a surprisingly natural fit for her, and she wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity to formally train the next generation of journalists.
“I believe that as a teacher, I’m able to open doors for my students,” she says. “I hope to enable them to be better versions of themselves after they meet me.”
So when Ms Yip walked into the interview room during the Direct Polytechnic Admission exercise, it didn’t take long for Ms Gamar to take notice of the youngster’s keen mind and eloquence.
“Kirstin was always perceptive and questioning,” Ms Gamar says, recalling their interactions in the classroom. “She likes to be engaged and would always leave my class with more questions than answers.
“More than anything, she likes the challenge,” she laughs.
“I guess Ms Gamar pushed me to think in ways I didn’t think were possible before,” says Ms Yip.
“She always made sure that there was learning outside the classroom, like opportunities to report on important events.”
Stoking the fire
Under the guidance of Ms Gamar and other educators, Ms Yip found her stride. She plunged herself into a myriad of school activities, including representing her course during the Jenesys 2016 exchange programme to Japan. She was even appointed the Secretary General of the S Rajaratnam Endowment-Youth Model Asean Conference.
And Ms Gamar was behind her every step of the way.
“She wrote me testimonials, put me in touch with her newsroom contacts for learning opportunities, and even made it a point to talk to my family members so she would know how best to provide support,” recalls Ms Yip.
But most of all, she is grateful to her teacher for helping her heal, especially during the darker times in her life. Even with both of her parents supporting her through that tumultuous period, Ms Gamar was able to help her in ways that they could not.
Thanks to her, Ms Yip was able to express her confusion and uncertainty about her parents’ divorce in a writing assignment, something she credits with setting her on the road to recovery.
“She helped me confront my feelings, at a time when I was very confused and still hurt,” she says. “At the same time, she reminded me that as a journalist, I had to always be accountable for my words, and that really struck a chord with me.”
But if anything, Ms Gamar sees it the other way — that her students have taught her more than she could ever teach them.
“I’ve learnt so much from my students, which encourages me to continue caring for and loving them,” she says.
“There are many times when being a teacher means more than just being ‘that adult in the classroom’.”
It’s a teacher’s job to be versatile, she says. At any time, a teacher must be a mentor, a cheerleader or a cushion, depending on what a student needs most.
“Every child has his or her strength,” she says with a shrug. “My job is just to help them find it, use it and cherish it.”
So she makes it adamantly clear Ms Yip’s success was all her own — “just give her a nudge and she’ll fly”, she says.
“It was clear from the start that Kirstin was capable, sincere and focused. She used her own challenges and turned them into a strength,” Ms Gamar finishes.
“If I had helped in any way, I am truly humbled.”