Authentic — that which is real, worthy of acceptance, authoritative. When I interviewed Mrs Belinda Charles not long after her official retirement after 39 years as an educationist, I felt I was in the presence of the real thing; a bona fide Principal who embodied the principles of an educator. Mrs Charles started her career in 1971 and in the last 20 years she has headed the St Andrew’s Junior College and then the St Andrew’s Secondary School.
When she retired, some of the SASS boys serenaded her with the school song. And her famous last words as a Principal are ‘You have left such an imprint on my life that I would like to end by saying I am a Saint!’
Below are excerpts of the interview with Mrs Charles:
How did you get into teaching?
It was totally unplanned. Looking back this is how God leads me. I never wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to do so many other things. God showed me that I had no aptitude for other things. Then the Principal of my alma mater, Marymount Convent, asked me to do a spot of relief teaching. When I went into the class room, I really liked it so much that I just knew this was what I wanted to do.
That was how I began a lot of the things in teaching. I never went in very sure of what I wanted to do. I would take steps and see where God was leading. Management people are very surprised. They think I must have had a clear plan as now we can see the results. Maybe that shall be my next field — new management theories a la Belinda Charles.
What were your guiding principles?
As I grew to know more and more about the schools, I was guided by what the child needed. Then it became the direction the school should go in. Most of the things I have done was because either the child, or some of the children or a large number of children needed it.
I learnt that when you need to set goals for students; set a certain standard and they can reach it. If you set it higher, they will aspire to reach it. If you set it lower, they will reach that. When I was in a secondary school early in my career as Principal, I was upset with the minimum standards by which students could get promoted but I could not change that as that was the official policy. And I was thinking — how do I change this? I brought these thoughts to SAJC. And I found the same problem even though I was dealing with the top 25% of the student population in Singapore. That is what the SAJC teachers, if they were fond of me, it would be because of this. I set higher standards and they could then tell the students that was what was needed. It was set for the whole college.
I also learnt the importance of communication; needing to set the perspective for the student and teachers. I had to see from their perspective of ‘What do I do get from this?’ and to communicate the big picture.
What are some career highlights?
One thing I learnt is, how to fund raise and build a school. At SAJC, when I was interviewed for the job, the Board never said a word. Then they told me at the first board meeting that there was this building programme. I did not know how to and what to do. It was a big learning curve; I learnt the difference between an electrical engineer, a quantity surveyor, what a project manager did and a structural engineer or a clerk of works…But it was God’s timing.
The second is the move to St Andrew’s Village and bringing together the St Andrew’s family. The JC started out as a common Christian JC for Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians and others. After 14 years, the St Andrew’s Old Boys’ Association suggested bringing SAJC together with the Secondary and Junior Schools.
Another is steering SAJC up the rankings. Initially, you could pass Year One with a low minimum. I raised the bar and added a supplementary exam. If the child still failed to make it, I would meet with the parents. I would spend a week meeting every parent whether at 6.30 am or 7 pm, I was there. This traumatised the child because at 16 or 17, they had to bring their parents to meet the P. I told them, ‘Then pass. Come to my office and study. Same with the boys in SASS.’
Who are some of your mentors?
Mdm Lau Kan Howe from Henderson Secondary School is one. She must have taken one look at me and said, ‘This is one will mess up big time, better take her in hand.’ I knew her through our professional association which was the precursor of the Academy of Principals. I had lunch with her every week. She taught me how to handle gangs at Bukit Batok Secondary School. I was very green and did not know how to identify a gang or gangster.
My own spiritual renewal began when I joined SAJC due to Canon James Wong and also because of his son Revd Jonathan Wong. There was an overall sense of protection because Chapel of the Resurrection was there and praying for you.
What would you have liked to have known when you started out?
That you need people! Many more people. When I started out I thought I was good at my craft and mixed only with MY TYPE of people. I would say now — Never think you can live with your own kind. Life is so much richer mixing with all kinds of people.
How has teaching evolved?
Teaching has moved from process of transmission (How you teach) to reception (How the student hears or receives the lesson). In the mid 90s, it became about how the students are hearing you. If they haven’t learnt, you haven’t taught. The biggest obstacle is that not enough teachers realise that you need to address the question, ‘How are you scaffolding your teaching so that the children can learn?’
What are your observations on Anglican schools?
There was a cohort of senior educationists who had forged a definitive character for each school. We are now moving into a new era and we need to replace and find a new and viable identity. Perhaps it is an inclusive one as no one is here by chance, everybody is God given.
"St Andrew's Secondary School benefitted from a Principal who not only had years of experience but who also was already very much a part of the St Andrew's community having served at the Junior College for 11 years. Mrs Charles understands and values boys. She has both an intuitive understanding as well as a sophisticated educational repertoire honed over years of research and practice. She, therefore, has been able to lead the teachers in deepening their understanding and their craft with respect to boys' developmental needs. Mrs Charles also values people and this is where I hope to grow to be like her as a Principal.
She built the school up through spotting, developing and encouraging the talent in the teachers as well as the school's partners — our old boys and parents. No one could pull a fast one with Mrs Charles! Finally, I believe Mrs Charles' faith in God gave her a disposition of thanksgiving and hope that made it possible for her to work in a way that was gracious, open-minded and good-humoured!"
Mrs Lucy Toh, Principal,
St Andrew's Secondary School
Download the April 2011 Issue of Diocesan Digest in PDF here