Every Child Can Achieve

Every Child Can Achieve
A letter from Nanda Bandara

Principal, Raffles Girls’ Primary School (1988-1998)
Principal, Haig Girls’ School (1975-1988)
Teacher, Haig Girls’ School (1960-1974)


Coming from a large family of 11 children, I remember that respect and discipline were values always emphasised by my parents. When I completed my O-levels, career opportunities were limited for girls and my father wanted me to study abroad. For the first time, I had to disagree with him, knowing that the family’s finances were tight. Instead, I decided to train as a teacher to ease our financial situation and because I knew there would be many opportunities to plant new seeds of hope in youthful hearts.

On my first day at Haig Girls’ in 1960, I entered my Primary 6 class, watched by 44 pairs of eyes. I was only 10 years older than most of them and wondered how I was going to manage them. My first strategy was to win them over; showing an interest in their strengths and weaknesses. Many of them were weak in Mathematics and English so I went back to basics and drilled a firm foundation before I taught the syllabus. I skipped recess, stayed back after school and sometimes went back during school holidays for extra coaching.

I found out that some of the girls had to help their parents at the coffee shop or marketplace and didn’t have time to rest or do their homework. I couldn’t let this continue. I begged their busy parents to come and see me, emphasising the importance of studies and sufficient rest. We even took pledges to help each other so that their children would at least get a primary school leaving certificate. I was jubilant when many of them succeeded and made it to secondary schools. The beaming faces of their parents affirmed that every child can achieve if given the opportunity.

In the early days, physical and financial resources were very limited. Teaching aids were hard to come by so I had to improvise to get what I needed. I learnt to be imaginative from my dear mother who had a big brood to take care of – she taught us the importance of recycling and being hands-on.

I had set up the Science Garden where we grew plants, fruits and vegetables. When the girls began learning about water plants and animals, we wanted to have an eco-pond but lacked the resources. One day, I saw a big discarded bathtub at my void deck and quickly got it transferred to Haig Girls’. With the help of two gardeners, we dug a big hole and had the pond set up over the weekend, much to the amazement of our students. Now they could observe and note the differences between a toad and a frog, and study their life cycles.

The satisfaction of being a principal does not depend on whether my school is ranked No. 1 but how I have served all my stakeholders.

After 14 years in the classroom, I was made Principal. I was shocked when the outgoing principal dropped the bombshell on me. I had not been prepared for leadership, unlike principals today who undergo a more structured leadership grooming process.

All the principals in the area then were men and very senior in age and experience. They advised me to let my senior teachers run the school but these teachers were understandably upset for not having been promoted.

I prayed hard and plucked up courage to forge ahead. I humbled myself and appealed to the senior teachers to assist and cooperate with me. I shared with them my vision to provide a well-rounded education for every child, regardless of their financial circumstances.

My plans were ambitious and I pushed my teachers hard: I was labelled the taskmaster. Looking back, I wished I could have won the hearts of my teachers, through a softer approach, but I was so focused on wanting the best for my students – to be good all-rounders.

As educators, our profession is to serve others. For me, the satisfaction of being a principal does not depend on whether my school is ranked No. 1 but how I have served all my stakeholders (parents, students, teachers, colleagues and school staff).

On Teachers’ Day this year, I received messages from former pupils and staff. One said: “Thank you for inspiring me to be a better teacher.” I’m glad I inspired her not just to be a teacher, but a better one.

    Nov 26, 2014
    Nanda Bandara
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