Friday, September 21, 2018

Life beyond grades... when grades did play a part in defining me

{Long post - approximately 6 min read}

Recently, the internet has been abuzz with a topic discussion that is close to the hearts of many parents – that of grades. This signals that time of the year again – PSLE. I don’t have to spell out the discussion here, you already know what I’m talking about. This topic has been discussed till death, almost every year when PSLE looms. It’s interesting how the discussion seems focused on the PSLE score and not N-Levels O-Levels or any other exams grading. So, these other exams are not high stakes too? So grades from exams other than PSLE don’t define a person?

Anyhow, I’m not here to define the discussion. To each its own, really. Everyone has their own perspectives, and their own stories. It is my opinion that there is life beyond grades. It is also my opinion that my grades didn’t define me, but it did play a part.

Part of what defined me
235. That was my PSLE score. Pretty average, and enough to get me back into my affiliated secondary school. That was good enough for me. Secondary school sailed by and I kept failing additional maths in secondary three, to my mum’s frustration, as I was still cruising along one year before O-Level. After all, grades don’t define me right? O-Level year, and with this all important exam just around the corner, I went to 闭关, literally keeping myself to my room and studied endlessly. Fast forward to results day, and I had a shock of my life. I wanted to only score enough to head to the affiliated junior college, but lo and behold, I scored a single digit, good enough to enter one of the top JCs.

And that was what I did. I performed way beyond my expectations, my head got big, I got complacent, and I thought I could handle it in a top JC. I became over confident in my own ability. Within one year, I went from being at the top, to being at the bottom, failing every core subject. The principal’s message: either repeat or get out of my junior college so you can stop bringing my school’s aggregate scores down. 

Imagine, being told that at 16, that I was not good enough. That chat in the principal's office put such a dent in my growing up years that till now, my mum still remembers it clearly. I was at rock bottom. I felt lost, disillusioned, I just wanted out of the Singapore school system. My parents were disappointed, hurt. Fortunately for me, my parents were able to send me to Australia. At 17, all alone in a foreign country, in a boarding school, I worked hard to pull myself out of the doldrums and regain my confidence. I faced a challenge though – for the first time in my life, I failed English. Yes, English! A subject that I’m usually strong in. I spent a lot of time after reflecting why I scored well in that subject in Singapore, but couldn’t seem to do so in Australia. My failure made me realise the difference – the English we learn in Singapore is generally very functional, while in Australia, it was about self-expression. So my poor English grades in Australia forced me to adapt, and that has moulded my thinking and written expression. And I soldiered on in my one year of college in boarding school. Getting grades good enough to go to a university was the only way I could redeem myself, after my major failure a year prior.

Five years later, I graduated with a university degree, proving to myself, and to the people around me, that I could do it. Not to say that I couldn’t have done this by staying in Singapore. Sometimes, I do think that if I had bitten the bullet and repeated JC1 or gone to another JC, my life would have been very different, I would have been able to keep in touch with many of my friends. But because I left, I also left a part of me behind.

As a nice lady at the Canadian Embassy reminded me (mum was considering of sending me to Vancouver then because she had cousins there, but dad wanted me close by in Australia), does being physically in a different country mean that I can study better and get better results? No, it is all about me and my attitude. And it was my grades that put me in a situation to learn that.

So did my grades define me? Yes, it has played a part. It was a lesson I would always remember – not to be complacent of my own abilities. At the same time, if I’m at rock bottom, I know I can pull myself up again. Like the time I was retrenched and less than two weeks later, my boyfriend of six years decided to end our relationship. Like the time my ex-boss criticised me so much that I began to doubt my own work abilities. Like the time I had a freak accident and lost my grandmother, all within six months. 

And that is what I want to teach my kids. Grades aren’t everything, but through their grades, they can learn a bit more about themselves, how to tackle certain situations, and to persevere.

Grades, results, KPIs…
Grades, results, whatever. They are the same thing, just different expressions. If I only look at grades academically, then I’m rather narrow minded. Sure, beyond academics, there are other interests to pursue, such as piano, dance, sports etc. However, doesn’t progress in these interests also look at grades and results? In ABRSM piano, one needs to get at least 100 marks to pass, and at least 130 to get distinction. Similarly for sports, aren’t there grading systems before one can progress to the next level. Even the very casual roller blading classes that EV and AA joins on the weekends have a ‘tick’ system where they have to get a number of ticks before they can learn a new skill. Even in uniformed groups, such as girl guides where one learns different skills like survival skills, there are gradings to assess one’s proficiency in that particular skill.

Now, in the working world, aren’t there KPIs that everyone has to meet? How about the annual performance reviews? Aren’t these essentially grades or results of our working performance, which determines whether we get a bonus, a pay increase or a promotion? How is this different from grades or results of a child’s learning performance, which determines whether the child is promoted to the next level? 

Living in a results-oriented world
We are living in a results-oriented world, there’s no denying that. As a parent in today’s world, it is more challenging to parent, what with the internet and cyberbullying and so on. Cost of living is increasing ever so rapidly, yet our pay hasn’t, and we are continually fighting to survive. What we can do is to continually get good grades for our working performance, and fight for that pay increase or promotion. Unless we are one of the lucky few who can be a successful entrepreneur and leave an established business to our children Even then, as a business owner, one also needs ensure that the company gets good ‘grades’ in terms of its performance, if it wants to survive.

As a child in today’s world, it is also more challenging. As a student in today’s world, the challenge is greater. It is somewhat right to say that PSLE grades don’t define a person, because…. Wait till you get to secondary school. The learning curve, demands and expectations jump, and some really find it a challenge to tackle the vast change from primary to secondary school. Think of topics like ableism at secondary 2, and questions on consumerism at secondary 4. 

And then there’s the future world, where technology, artificial intelligence and robots are reportedly going to take away many jobs that we know of now. They will not exist anymore and the future job market will be even more competitive than today’s. How will an employer decide on the right candidate for one position out of 100 applicants? I would guess that results would be one obvious deciding factor – academic results, extracurricular activities results, performance in leadership capability and so on.

Teaching my kids to survive
So is there life beyond grades? Yeah, for sure. Yet, it is important for EV and AA to know that they are living in a results-oriented world. Grades may not be everything. Grades may not completely define a person. However, grades are still important. Grades do play a part in defining a person’s growing up journey, a person’s attitude to situations and challenges, a person’s perseverance and ability to bounce back again. Of course, having said that, I’m not expecting them to be studying and doing assessment books 24/7 (yes, like most parents with primary school kids, it’s inevitable to have assessment books, like the photo here shows). No, a tiger mum I am not. They must also have their me-time, time to read, play and do whatever they want.

Grades are part of our everyday life, when learning and working. Grades aren’t going to go away anytime soon, and it is not limited to the educational system, not even Singapore’s (check out Hong Kong’s. There is no national exam similar to PSLE, but grades are still important to ensure promotion to a secondary school). 

My children are living in a results-oriented world, and my responsibility is to nurture them so that they can survive it.

You may agree with me, you may not. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, everyone has their own perspective of this topic, and this is just mine. I think the important thing is we recognise the existence of these different views, and respect each other. There’s no right, there’s no wrong; just different views from parents who all want the best for their kids.

If you are seeing this, thanks so much for reading my story!


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