Learn Your ABCs: A for Annabella Seoh
I went to school with Bella over ten years ago. We were classmates in junior college, and I remember she was almost always late for school, and almost always with a wisecrack of some kind. In school Bella excelled in Geography — a subject she went on to study in university on scholarship, and after, teach at a secondary school level.
I hadn't met Bella in a long time save for the odd wedding dinner over the last few years. She still has the same hearty, generous chuckle-giggle-laugh that surfaces often, and still uses the same offhand sarcastic banter. What I had forgotten — but very quickly remembered once we got to chatting — was her Grey's Anatomy -esque introspection. As a GA fan back in the day I mean this as a total compliment: Bella has this way of making you think harder about life and what you're doing with it — how you're spending your time, how you're building your relationships, how you're making your mark in the world.
From that perspective, it really isn't that surprising knowing she had decided to up and leave Singapore for an adventure around the world. In May 2017, she quit teaching and spent a year travelling in the US and New Zealand. She did field research, worked on farms, had a brief stint in a vineyard, taught in a community school, and used a lot of her free time thinking about her life. She also captured moments on Postcard of the Day, a collection of digital "postcards" addressed to various people, places, and experiences.
I'm so grateful to have her kick off Learn Your ABCs, a series of conversations with people from all around the world. We wanted to start this series to learn from everyday people everywhere, so who better to get us rolling than someone with teaching experience?
Mel You took a year off, right?
Annabella Yeah. It wasn’t meant to be a year. I just wanted to leave my previous job and try something different, but it was very hard to leave school because it has this system where there are bonuses set at different parts of the year, and you just feel like, oh if I leave at a certain time and don’t take my bonus... it’s just a waste.
So I booked an Earthwatch expedition to force myself to leave. That was in Alaska. I joined a group of researchers and scientists to help them collect samples and data. That was fun. Then I had to think about what I was going to do next.
Mel Let’s backtrack a bit. When we were JC kids, I remember most of us didn’t know what we wanted to do, but you knew you wanted to be a teacher. And that sort of never changed.
Annabella Yes and no. Yes because I did want to be a teacher and I’m glad that it was my first job because I learned a lot in that role. But no also because I think if I wasn’t under that scholarship, maybe I would have chosen something else. Because of that scholarship, I just shut my mind off to everything else.
Mel Most of the teachers I know are not happy. Were you unhappy?
Annabella I wouldn’t say that I was not happy, but I was tired. I was tired all the time. And I think you can’t do your job as a teacher well when you’re tired. The things that were making me tired were not about teaching, and I think that’s the frustration a lot of teachers have. They are just stretched way too thin doing a lot of other things. I think that’s what causes them to be very unhappy.
It also varies from school to school. Like, some schools make it easy for teachers to leave at 1.40pm, and other schools you stay there till 5 or 6pm. I think it’s often the neighbourhood schools where the teachers actually work harder, because they know if they don’t stay back after school, then the kids will be out in the neighbourhood doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing. But in the good schools, from what I hear, teachers cannot take up their students’ afternoons because they have enrichment and third language classes to go for. Very atas [high-class], you know?
Mel But you wanted to teach in a neighbourhood school, right?
Annabella Yeah, I did. Because I think in the better schools, even if you don’t teach very well, the kids are going to do well. Your role is not as important in the better schools because they can just mug on their own, you know? But in the neighbourhood schools there are a lot of others things you need to care about, not just the academics. I think that was the thing that made me feel like being a teacher was more worthwhile, more meaningful.
Mel I know you were thinking of leaving teaching for a very long time but you didn’t, and that’s because you wanted to stay for your kids, right?
Annabella Stay for my kids, yeah, but also because I was given a position in my school as Subject Head of Humanities. When I took up that position I wanted to spend some time doing stuff, so I stayed on for another two years before leaving.
Mel You made that position when you were 26?
Annabella 25. I took up the covering position and it was confirmed after six months.
Mel That’s super young, right?
Annabella Yeah. In neighbourhood schools the teachers tend to be new teachers, whereas in the more established schools teachers just stay there for like, 20, 30 years.
Mel Did you enjoy the position?
Annabella Yeah, I did. Mentoring the younger teachers had a lot of meaning to me. And I learned more about organisational management stuff in that position, which I guess is the closest thing to the corporate world in the world of teaching. It was fun and challenging, and that’s why I stayed that extra two years, because teaching alone can get very routine. But when it comes to leadership and management of other teachers then that’s the trickier thing, lah. Working with adults is definitely harder than working with kids.
Mel When you left, were you frustrated with the system?
Annabella To be honest, no. At least not at that time. I wrote a Facebook post when I left and I remember writing in that post that it wasn’t the system or the stress or the pressure, or even parents that made me want to leave. I don’t think it’s the system because I think schools have a lot of autonomy to create their own culture for teachers. And teachers can adapt and decide on the kind of culture they want to set in their classrooms. I was lucky to have good leaders in my school and I think my colleagues especially have the heart for kids.
But having spent some time in New Zealand working with some of the schools there, I do feel like there are actually problems in our education system. For one, we emphasise the skill of listening rather than speaking. In kindergarten and primary school, what we want our students to do is just sit there, not move, and listen. And if they were to say anything it’s just to repeat whatever the teacher has just said. The problem with that is that we’re nurturing kids to just listen and not know how to speak up. And therefore when you want to hold a conversation with Singaporeans, we struggle. That’s something I learned only when I interacted with the kiwi kids, because the primary school students I spoke to there can speak better than my secondary school students here. And it’s not about how fluent the words come out, it’s about the depth in their thoughts.
I don’t know if [the kiwi students] were deliberately taught to question, but I think they were always encouraged to speak up. The environment allows them to speak up. Like in kindergarten there, they set up stations and ask them what they want to do today. They actually have a choice. But for us, it’s like, ok everyone, we’re doing this today. And if you don’t want to do it, look at everyone. Everyone else is doing it so you should be doing it as well.
There’s that whole conformity thing in Singapore, and as a result, we’re just like, oh let’s just go with the flow; let’s just do what we’re told to do. I think that’s a problem.
Mel Do you think there’s been an evolution of the education system from when we were in school?
Annabella When I compare the more senior teachers with the younger teachers, I do see a difference in the teaching style. I think it’s got to do with the trend that MOE or NIE is trying to encourage, and that is trying to get students to discover and arrive at their own conclusions rather than us force-feeding information.
It is harder — it takes more time to plan such lessons, and time isn’t a luxury for teachers because there are too many other things to entertain. I feel like there’s a lot of paperwork that we have to do as teachers. Just bringing them out: we have to come up with a form to ask for permission, consent forms to let the parents know, a lot of red tape to get one thing done. These things wear teachers out.
Mel Would you say you were burnt out?
Annabella I think that’s part of the job. I think all teachers will burn out in the first three years of teaching, but I feel like we don’t protect the beginning teachers enough. They’re just thrown into the deep end and they struggle like crazy.
They’re meeting students for the first time, they’re trying to learn how to teach, they’re creating their lesson plans, sometimes from scratch, and all secondary school teachers have to teach two subjects. Sometimes they’re teaching both lower and upper sec as well so they have four syllabi to look into. They also need to catch up with all the administrative work that their school is doing.
It’s very stressful mentally and emotionally because the whole time — especially in your first year — you’re asking yourself if you’re doing this right. Am I teaching properly? Am I helping these students? Am I letting my mentor teacher who was previously teaching this class? And when you see their results you’re like, oh my gosh, this is me. I did this. It must be me because I’m a new teacher. It’s very stressful and demoralising, and I think all teachers go through that in the beginning.
Mel Let’s talk about New Zealand.
Annabella So I worked at three farms — one was just like a retiree who had a little garden at the back of her house, and she uses those crops to sustain herself. The second farm was a more modern concept happening in New Zealand where these people have their day jobs and farming is a hobby for them. They do it because they enjoy their lifestyle but they have their day jobs to sustain their income. The third farm I went to was a large commercial farm so their income depends entirely on the farm — that’s the one I learned the most from because they have animals and agricultural stuff. I enjoyed that one the most.
Mel What exactly did you do?
Annabella I helped the farmers, like a farmhand. So at the first farm, I would collect the chicken eggs and feed the cows in the morning. That’s the same as the second farm I was at: feed the rabbits, feed the ducks.
It also depends on the season. At one of the farms it was going to be spring, [and the farmer] needed her trees to start blooming and fruit, so I would do mulching, which is taking leaf litter and wet soggy hay and putting it around trees. It’s a lot of manual work and a lot of things that we never think would be required to do.
Recently I went to Bedok reservoir and saw mulching being done for all the trees and I was like, oh my gosh, someone did this? This is exactly what I was doing in New Zealand! But if I had never done mulching before I wouldn’t even have noticed that this requires work to be done.
Mel Was there anything you did that you didn’t like?
Annabella Maybe not so much a job I didn’t like, but I realised a lot of the work I was doing was manual labour, and so my mind would start to wander: [I would think about] what I used to be doing as a teacher, how my friends and colleagues are doing. I felt very tired at the end of the day but my mind hadn’t been challenged in any way. So that’s one aspect of manual work that I feel is not for me, lah. I feel like I need to be challenged mentally if not I don’t feel that job satisfaction.
Mel You were away for a long time. Is there anything you learned about yourself?
Annabella Definitely. There are so many things. For one: money. Money was something I was limited by. I didn’t plan to do this for one year, so I actually didn’t save enough. Because of that, my entire lifestyle had to change.
I think the environment of New Zealand is so different from Singapore in the sense that it doesn’t encourage spending for us to be occupied or happy. I came back to Singapore for two months last year and immediately I could see a difference in my spending. It was so hard to not spend in Singapore, because what is there to do if you don’t go meet your friends or go to the mall and spend time with your family? Like, how do you spend time with your friends and loved ones in a non-commercial setting in Singapore? It’s pretty hard.
In New Zealand I learned that you don’t really need to spend money to occupy your time or find satisfaction because there is the outdoors in NZ. That’s one thing I learned and want to bring back with me back home: to not go back to that lifestyle of shopping and eating. I want to save more money so I can spend it on experiences rather than things.
Having this gap year gave me time to ask myself what I really want to do, and I guess that’s something we don’t really ask ourselves in Singapore. The environment just compels us to spend and therefore we feel like we need to continue at our jobs to sustain that. It’s a vicious cycle. But having the outdoors and nature and freedom of time and space made me think about what I want to do with my life. Doing this, I think, also made my friends think about their own lives: what they’re doing, where they am. It’s not about travelling; it’s more like looking at where you’re at and asking yourself, is this really where you see yourself being productive in life?
I think I learned the most about myself when I did tramping. Have you heard of the term tramping? It’s basically trekking + camping. I had never done trekking before; I am not an outdoors person at all. But the friend I was with is a PE teacher doing her Masters in outdoor education and said that New Zealand has so many trails and treks that we have to do. And I said, I’m ok with going for a walk but you want me to camp out there?! That just sounds crazy. Who does that?
We started with the easiest two day one night trek, and just doing that made me realise being in the outdoors is totally different. You have to be totally self-reliant, self-sufficient. Doing that trek was very uncomfortable for me and my friend couldn’t understand why I was so frustrated with myself. Now that I’ve done several treks, I am shocked at how much I have grown. I’m now ok in the outside environment just walking non-stop for six to eight hours, but then I was questioning myself: why am I doing this? Why are we walking for six hours? What’s the point of doing this?
Mel This thought process is going through my head right now. What is the point?!
Annabella Right? But during the trek it’s really a very nice feeling. It’s hard to do in Singapore, to be out of touch with civilisation. You’re marvelling at all these natural landforms, but at the same time you’re talking to yourself, thinking about various things. It’s a nice feeling when you’re not distracted by anything at all. It’s just you in the outdoors being self-sufficient, and I think that’s a feeling of independence that I had never felt before.
I remember on my last tramp that I did, it had rained like crazy the night before and so we got to some river crossing, which we didn’t expect. We asked ourselves if we should just go back, but then we saw this kiwi family with kids that are smaller than me, and when they saw the river they were like, yay river crossing! So fun! And I was like, what on earth?
Mel Are you ready for the next phase of your life?
Annabella Yes, because there were times in the past one year when I felt so unproductive. It took me some time to settle in New Zealand because I was still so used to a hectic schedule. I would plan my day and ask myself, what am I going to do today to make sure the day is spent meaningfully? I was still not used to that kiwi time where everyone winds down at 5pm. I had to learn to just take it slow, but after one year I’m ready to get back to work and be more productive in life. And I need to earn money — I have no more money!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Annabella Seoh is the first interviewee of Learn Your ABCs, an original series by Public Culture. Illustrated by Giulia Venturelli.