British Council

Madrasah Al-Ma'arif Al-Islamiah is a full-time private Islamic education institute in Singapore operating since 1936. This year the school embarked on a professional development journey in Emotional Intelligence when they partnered with British Council on three courses: Resilience and Grit in the Classroom, Happiness for Schools and Empathy for the 21st Century Learner. This interview with the Principal of the school, Mdm Nafisah Mohd Ma’amun Suheimi, explores the school’s experience with explicit training in Emotional Intelligence. 

Many schools are concerned about the pressures of delivering the curriculum. Why choose to spend so much time on skills that are not explicitly being tested?

As a school, our core values are Respect, Adaptability, Resilience, and Empathy. We put equal emphasis on content and values because we believe that students with these character traits will not only perform well in examinations, but also in the more important tests of life.  

We have frequent conversations about what we value and regularly ask ourselves, “How do we embody these values by what we choose to focus on in our teaching and learning?” We want to make sure our values and our actions are aligned and that these aren’t just words on a wall. 

We saw an immediate link between our values and British Council’s Resilience and Empathy courses. Then, we decided to include the Happiness course as well because who doesn’t want to be happy? 

Continuing Professional Development often throws a light on areas of our practice that perhaps we haven’t considered before or recently. What conversation did these courses spark amongst your staff? 

What really struck us was our conversations on resilience and on the growth mindset. We started thinking, “What barriers are we unintentionally putting up to developing a true growth mindset?” We realised that streaming students by ability was a major barrier for us. A student’s success depends very much on how the teacher sees them. If we see them as of “lower ability”, they will conform to our expectations. It occurred to us that maybe we weren’t giving our students much space to grow. 

Our P1 and P2 classes have been at mixed ability levels for a few years now and students are being holistically assessed; so, as a community, we had already been considering the idea of moving away from streaming students by ability. The course gave us the common language and courage to make some tough and bold decisions. 

In place of streaming, for English, Maths and Science, we have decided to move to a school-wide subject-based banding system, after first piloting this approach for the P5 and P6 grades. 

Across the school now, there will be three levels for each subject  Level 1 progressing to Level 3. Each level will have its targets, and students will be placed in the appropriate level based on their readiness. When students have achieved the targets for that level, they would then move up a level in consultation with their teacher. I think this reflects our understanding that we all have unique strengths and gifts and are not one-dimensional. 

From our pilot run, we already have many success stories. One example of how this system values the individuality of the child is Siti* . Siti was unmotivated and wasn’t performing well. Her Maths and Science skills were at Levels 1 and 2 respectively, but her English was a Level 3. When we were working within the parameters of streaming, it meant that to put her in the right level for Maths and Science, she didn’t get challenged in her strength, viz., English. With the change to subject-based banding, she has started to flourish. She is one of the top students in English now and she has moved up to a Level 2 in Maths. Recently, her teacher thought she was ready for Level 3, but Siti replied, “Can I stay in Level 2 for a while? Give me another month and I think I’ll be ready for the challenge.” 

With examples like these, we see that giving students more autonomy and ownership of their learning motivates them to grow and take on challenges. In the old system, students were focused on how their performance compared to someone else’s, but this new system encourages students to reflect and to work on improving themselves. We want our students to understand that learning is a process and that mistakes and failure are a natural part of learning.  We want them to be more concerned about growing and less about being perfect. We want to focus not only on the result, but also on the process. 

In these conversations about our values, we have also decided to remove the ranking system. We have realised that it wasn’t healthy for students to be comparing themselves with one another. We want to encourage students to measure their own growth, and in a way to perhaps compete against themselves rather than with their classmates - and ranking students was contradicting our message. 

Were there any other takeaway points from this training? 

 Even though “ukhuwah” - a sense of collaborative, community spirit or togetherness - is something we value highly, we were surprised to discover the importance of relationships, especially in regard to our resilience. We learned that close, supportive relationships are a balm for us in difficult situations because they connect us to a common sense of humanity and remind of us who we are when we are at our best. Through the activities in the Resilience course, we re-established our sense of “ukhuwah” and realised that sometimes the adults in the school do not make the time to tend to our connections with each other because we are so focused on the children.  

We did an activity called five fingers where we thought about people we reach out to in a time of need. The trainer gave us a picture of a hand and asked us to write the name of a person we go to for support and how they support us on each finger. The image of a hand was a powerful reminder of how important it is to have a support network. Some of us aren’t working with a full hand! When we realised we were missing “fingers”, this made us reflect on how it can be difficult to ask for help because being a teacher is being in the position of the helper. 

This idea was also reinforced when I attended the Compassionate Leadership course with British Council’s Professional Development Centre. I discovered that I can be hard on myself and don’t have much self-compassion. That was a wake-up call, making me realise the importance of self-care for teachers and leaders. In order to help others, we must take care of ourselves as well. We must also allow ourselves to be human, to make mistakes and to show resilience, and in that way to model a growth mindset to our students. 

I was surprised and delighted that you attended all the training sessions alongside your teachers. This is the first time in my training career in Singapore that I’ve had the Principal in multiple training sessions. Why did you feel it was important for you to be there? 

We like to make decisions about our work together as a community. I want us all to be in the same boat and rowing forward together.  I think it is important for the leader to be there with teachers and I’m glad that I was. These courses allowed me to step to the side a bit and connect with teachers in a new way as a co-learner - we learned a lot about each other and are closer as a result. 

Who would you recommend these courses to?

These courses help you consider the person in front of you in the classroom and how you can use that awareness to help students grow. I would recommend these courses to educators who want to get workable approaches and ideas that can be easily implemented in the classroom. I also think these courses would be useful for parents to use at home with their children.

To find out more about British Council’s Emotional Intelligence suite of workshops, please visit our Teacher Development Centre page.  

More details about these workshops can be found in our catalogue under the titles and page numbers below:

  • #11 Empathy for the 21st Century Learner
  • #18 Happiness for Schools
  • #27 Mindfulness for Schools
  • #33 Resilience and Grit in the Classroom

*name changed for anonymity

Written by Leslie Davis, Training Consultant at British Council Singapore

Leslie Davis has been an educator for a decade in a variety of contexts – as an English teacher in an international school in Turkey, a Literacy teacher in public schools in the US, and teaching EFL to adults in New Zealand.  Before coming to Singapore, she worked as a teacher mentor for Primary teachers in Sarawak, Malaysia. 

Leslie is passionate about supporting educators to find solutions for issues in their classroom.  Through Master Classes and workshops, she has focused on Subject Literacy, Oracy and Encouraging Personal Response. 

Leslie is also an Emotional Intelligence Practitioner (Six Seconds Singapore) and has recently developed a suite of workshops aimed at supporting teachers and students with strategies to establish positive relationships and handle challenging situations effectively, both inside and outside the classroom. 

She also has a Literacy Specialist qualification from the University of Toronto and has designed courses to support Secondary teachers with developing reading and writing skills.

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