The dreadful magnitude 6.0 earthquake that struck Sabah’s Mount Kinabalu, stealing the lives of 6 Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) students, a teacher, and a guide, has undeniably shaken our nation to the core. However, alongside the outpouring of sympathy for the deceased and their families, has been a wave of discontent, and even anger. Many keyboard warriors – not the parents of the children – have questioned Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) and the Ministry of Education (MOE) for allowing said students to go on the overseas leadership trip to Sabah.
Among the hurtful comments: that teachers take on such trips because they are free holidays. Some even said that such trips were organised because of the principal’s or teachers’ “ambitions” and “to meet their KPIs (Key Performance Indictors)”, just to look good for their year-end review.
These Aren’t Paid Holidays
Firstly, this unfortunate and rare incident happened due to a natural disaster, something that no amount of planning on the teachers’ part would have prevented. Despite accusations by keyboard warriors and dissenters that the teachers on the trip were on “paid MOE holidays’, we at the UrbanWire, as students ourselves who have benefitted from such overseas learning journeys, know better and appreciate what teachers do for their charges.
The teachers on this fateful climb up Mt Kinabalu, just like those who have brought us on our own trips, weren’t just educators. They were supervisors, planners, nurses, surrogate parents and role models for the pupils. And when the earthquake occurred, they were saviours and heroes as well, shielding the students from the falling rocks with their bodies.
It isn’t an easy job, being a teacher on a trip, much less a trip where you have to scale a mountain. Even when sleep comes, students feeling unwell in the middle of the night will wake a teacher up. When our editor Manfred Tham, was in New Zealand for a Geography study trip during his Sec 3 days, a teacher had to escort his bunkmate in freezing winds from one hilltop bungalow to the main house further up the freezing hill, just to get tea for his indigestion.
UrbanWire writer, Bryan Chua, then an 11-year-old on his first overseas school trip, was on the long, long drive up Genting Highlands when he experienced a serious case of carsickness. With his face pale enough to rival a sheet, his teacher instinctively offered her own carsick pills and water to soothe his giddy soul (and to save the bus driver from having to get his mop out).
“At that moment, I actually felt being cared for, like by my own parents,” he recalls.
Medical incidences aside, the teachers too ease students into an unfamiliar place – even bravely taking one for the team by exchanging a haunted hotel room with his student..
During a Sec 3 trip to Tianjin, China, our editor Renald Loh and 2 of his friends tried to open an old door at the lift lobby that led to their hotel room. However, the door, which they’d forcefully pushed ajar just a few minutes ago, now wouldn’t open. “We were struck with fear and incapable of holding back our 15-year olds’ screams. There was this impalpable feeling that we wouldn’t make it out of the hotel alive. All we could hope for was our teacher to come to our rescue,” he describes.
They were convinced that the 9th floor of the hotel they were staying at was haunted. “Sure, it sounds childish and a mere comical anecdote of immature adolescents now. But the fear of being in a foreign country is real, especially for us students.” (Despite the presumption from adults that our generation isn’t scared of anything and goes crazy at any chance, he adds).
They ran back into the lift and made their way down to the hotel lobby safely, all the while holding on to their various religious pendants and praying. And then they saw their saviour: “Mr Tan!” A flurry of flustered words followed. #09-01 was now his haunted room for the night. “And we couldn’t be more grateful for his willingness to switch,” says our spooked ed.
Mindy Chia also has her teacher to thank when she felt so homesick on a Primary 4 overseas exchange programme in Johor Bahru, she developed a high fever. “I distinctly remember feeling nauseous and breaking down in the wee hours of the morning while my friends were sleeping soundly around me (embarrassing OMG!). In the end, I called my teacher for help. Till today, I’m really grateful to her for sacrificing her sleep to comfort my frightened soul, and it was because of her guidance that I was able to stay for the rest of the trip.”
Like Charlotte, writer Haneesa Begum also had free & easy time during her immersion trip to Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hong Kong in 2011 with 19 other secondary school mates.
“With too much freedom, it can definitely be a bit risky given it being a foreign country and all of us being just 15 or 16 years old. However, the teachers were kind enough to give us stipulated timings to shop about, which were all cleared during briefings with our parents prior to the trip,” says Haneesa, who was accompanied by 3 teachers. Students were instructed to go about in groups of threes or fours. While there were incidences where a few classmates turned up late or even got lost, her teachers were quick to take action and look for them. “The teachers made sure we all had charged phones and that we were feeling well all the time. It definitely was no easy job. They were so concerned for our safety and also took time to build a rapport with us prior to the trip, with briefings and what not. Thus, we felt comfortable throughout the trip, to know we had them to look out for us as if they were our own parents,” says a grateful Haneesa.
Another writer, Francis Law, had a much less frightening but no less touching experience. His trip to Kuching in 2011 clashed with “one of the most important events of that year” according to his friends: The opening week of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1.
“Personally, I didn’t follow the Twilight series and really couldn’t care less, but some of my friends were huge fans of the Stephenie Meyer masterpiece.” After some of them voiced their fanboy concerns, their Sec 4 teacher not just took them to the cinema, he even paid for their tickets and popcorn. Says Francis: “I was really touched by my teacher’s heart for his students, risking his own sanity and intelligence to a movie that scored 4.9/10 on IMDB and 24% on Rotten Tomatoes”.
Jokes aside, yes, taking care of students on an overseas trip is part of the teachers’ jobs. But many teachers go above and beyond their duties for their students, as these anecdotes (serious or otherwise) show.
Sandra Elizabeth Yim counts her 3 overseas school trips – an exchange programme to China at Primary 5, and choir competitions to St Pertersberg at Sec 2 and Hong Kong at Sec 3 – as eye-openers. Not just from of her overseas exposure, but also from observing her teachers’ role to make these trips happen.
“It pains me to know that people actually assume that the TKGS accident was related to a lack of consideration for the children’s safety. If people think that overseas trips are just an excuse for teachers to go on a paid holiday from MOE, I can assure you that teachers go through a whole lot of stressful planning when it comes to ensuring the safety of dozens of kids,” says Sandra.
“In my experience travelling overseas with my schools, our teachers spared no expense in terms of preparing us for what WE ourselves signed up for. From having briefings to meeting up with our parents to discuss the exact locations that we will be visiting, to informing us about the weather conditions and even covering part of our travel insurance, they certainly made the effort to make the overseas trips as seamless as possible.”
Don’t Cancel Our Learning
Some netizens expressed their opinions that such overseas trips be cancelled and banned. But we’re of the opinion that these trips should stay and in fact, be encouraged (with all due preparation and risk assessment work done, of course).
School trips afford students the freedom to explore and learn on their own. However, it’s tough on the teachers. Freeing adolescents and children from overshadowing parental supervision whilst still exerting a protective influence isn’t an easy task.
During a study trip in South Korea last year, our writer Charlotte Low, was given some free and easy time.
“There were days where we were allowed to roam about the streets by ourselves and had cash given to us for settling our own meals. This gave us a chance to fully immerse in the culture by interacting with the locals,”
Her lecturers allowed them to navigate on their own as the polytechnic Year 2 students were deemed them more than capable of that at their age. But they still kept watch over them in other ways. For example, they ensured that each group of students had a phone loaded up with a Korean SIM card and knew exactly what time and where they should gather.
School-organised study trips benefit students immensely, whether it’s directly related to the chosen fields of study or simply, chalking up life experiences.
For Charlotte, her trip brought her on industry visits, media school visits for extremely enriching and eye-opening experience. Through the study trip, she also learnt to be more independent.
Similarly, Mindy feels that going for overseas trips at a young age “serves as great exposure as values like independence, perseverance and learning to look out for each other are things that can only be learnt best outside the classroom”. She credits her first trip at Pri 4 as the reason that she was able to fare well on subsequent trips in secondary school and polytechnic.
The teachers on the leadership trip to Sabah believed that an education isn’t just restricted to within a classroom and were willing to climb a mountain with their students to prove it. They had admirable spirits that shouldn’t be lessened by criticisms levelled against MOE and TKPS.
“Although there is always a risk for unforeseen circumstances, I don’t think it’s reasonable to stop MOE for allowing such trips,” says Mindy, citing the opportunity cost for character building.
Hence, the outcry and excessive blaming is unneeded and indeed, a cruel insult to the teachers and the children’s parents who had given their consent to let their kids go for the trip. ‘Deeply saddened’ describes all our feelings. But banning all airlines and pilots after one airplane accident doesn’t make sense, nor does it vindicate anything, least of all the value such knee-jerk decisions bring to the world.
We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those who passed on. It was an unfortunate natural disaster that was out of everyone’s hands, which snuffed out the growing flames of 8 young lives. But let’s not forget the teachers who organised such overseas learning journeys before them, as well as (hopefully) after this incident.
Nor should we undermine their efforts and sacrifice, be it time away from their families or even giving up their safety and life as the TKPS teachers did. “The teachers’ efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of their students should never be taken for granted,” sums up Mindy. The UrbanWire team, for one, is grateful. Overseas learning journeys have broadened our horizons, thanks to the teachers who made them possible.