In this interview, Barbara Hong, PhD, pours out her heart about her early childhood in Singapore and how pedagogy needs to change if teachers are to make any meaningful impact in a students’ life.
Is a single empathetic teacher enough to change the course of a student’s life?
In Dr Hong’s own words about her book, “I hope Failing Up gives readers a first-hand perspective on what life is like growing up in a harsh, unforgiving culture of stigmatization, marginalization, and humiliation when it comes to academic performance.”
A statement that millions of students worldwide can relate to. It’s time we listened to our students – the future citizens.
Now, we listen to Dr. Hong.
Tell us about yourself :
I was born and raised in a family of six in Singapore government housing or what US called projects. My mother is illiterate—she can’t write her name—and my father was an alcoholic and gambler. None of my three siblings finished high school—the equivalent of US 12th grade. My goal, from as early as I could recall, was to be the first one to finish high school.
We never had any books around the house except the distributed telephone book.
I did not learn to read until I was about fourth grade and still, that was not fluent. The biggest dream my mother had for any one of us was to be a clerk so we can work in an office with air condition.
My home was basically a sweatshop. Every day, when I get back from school, all I did was snip thread off brand-named clothing. Each dozen we snip, we get 30 cents. My father did not make enough as a taxi-driver or second-hand car dealer to bring home one meal a day. If anything, he spent more on his alcohol and gambling habits than feed us. I drank a lot of water to fill myself up most nights.
I was a failure before I was even born.
During the 1970s, Singapore had a national campaign for family planning to “STOP AT TWO.” If families had a third child, by accident, they could ask for a pardon, but not for a fourth. At seven, my mother tried to register me in the same school as my sister but I was not accepted, simply because I was the fourth child. I was to attend whichever school that would take me after all the others have been taken.
This was the beginning of my failure. My mother made it a point to reveal to me, and continued thereafter, that she attempted to abort me more than twice, even at her last trimester. She went to some back-alley snake-oil man who gave her acidic substance to drink. Well, it didn’t work and I was born. From then on, each time I did not do well in school or even tried to study, my mother would remind me that my brain was already damaged and that I was not capable of learning. Hence, if I were to push myself too much, my brain might explode.
Growing up, that was all I ever remember about my abilities because it came from my own mother.
My teachers were quick to write me off as well. I was constantly being told I was stupid, dumb, and retarded. Teachers find every means possible to embarrass me. It is a “cultural pedagogy” that if I’m humiliated enough, it might motivate me to study harder.
I was named a failure even before I had a chance to learn. I didn’t know who I was or what I was capable of. I was convicted even before I was tried.
What is failure? At any point in your life did you consider yourself to be a failure?
To me, failure is not having the opportunity to demonstrate what you’re capable of, something I experienced all throughout my school. I was numbed to failing and didn’t care about passing anything, but something happened in 10th grade.
I flunked the major national Cambridge exam, equivalent of the SAT. I was embarrassed and angry at myself. I knew that passing this exam was critical, but I didn’t even bother to try. I scored ABS for the math portion—ABSENT! I don’t know if I was more upset with the teachers for allowing me to fail or the fact that I didn’t even try. Basically, I gave up even before I gave myself a chance.
I have to make an important decision now. I could either drop out of school completely at 10th grade or repeat that grade. Repeating a grade is the most humiliating thing in an Asian context because all of your peers would have been wearing a brand-new uniform, but you would still be in your old one. I chose the latter.
For the first time, I had to learn how to overcome my sadness and anger and disappointment. I came up with a plan. For any heartaches I life, I would only allow myself to cry for 24 hours, 365 days. I took advantage of this formula and told myself this was either going to be the longest or shortest 365 days of my life. I vowed I was never going to allow myself to feel this awful ever again. It was hard but I tried not to be overly conscious of what others think of me, but what I could prove to myself instead. I would not allow failure to fail me. I was going to make every minute of 365 days count toward turning my life around
What was THE defining moment/event in your life?
The defining moment in my life was when I completed high school (12th grade) and was awarded the Best All-Round Student of the Year! This was the first time I knew what I was capable of, what it felt like to win, to be good at something, to be confident, and to be at the very top.
Even then, my parents did not say a single word to congratulate me. They were just looking forward to me finishing high school so I can start working. There was no thought for furthering my education.
Being that Singapore only had one higher education back in the 90s, I’d have to be in the top 5% to get admitted, and of course, I wasn’t. The more important question is how did I get to this point from failing and repealing 10th grade?
I did not do it by myself…(see the next question)
What is the importance of an understanding teacher?
“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Anonymous
An understanding teacher opens up hearts. Without the heart, there is no reason to open up the head.
Mr. Yap was such a teacher.
In 10th grade, he taught the class of 30+ repeaters. Of all the subject, math was his thing. Not only did he know his math well, but he was also effective in delivering the content…to me at least. He has an uncanny way of explaining things that I totally get it. Then he was ever so gentle in nurturing my confidence that I can DO IT!
I credited him in my book for being the first teacher who got through to my head by going through my heart. I doubt Mr. Yap ever realized what he did back then, but he simply applied two key formulae—know WHAT you’re teaching and to WHOM you’re teaching it to. He was willing to walk in my shoe—an embarrassed teenage and grade repeater. I called this Empathetic Teaching.
How can a teacher identify a student in need of individual attention?
A teacher must know her students. What I mean by “know” is almost encompassing. The teacher knows what triggers this student, what makes him laugh or cry, excited or nervous, anxious or cautious, and connect or disconnect. A teacher who knows her students is half-way there in making meaningful connections, not only in learning the content, but also in building a relationship of trust. Why should anyone listen to you if you don’t care to listen to them?
No knowledge or behavior is so important that it overshadows the students’ internal needs. We all need attention, one way or another, one time or another. Why not a child, a teenager, even a parent? A teacher who KNOWS her student is better at handling any situation, positive or negative, and in providing a way to have a higher moral ground in conflict resolution than a teacher who merely knows her curriculum, no matter how good she is at the subject area.
It should never be about the rules or what’s best for the larger class. In all my years of teaching (20+), the one lesson I’ve learned is that Everyone Matters. The more the teacher get to know each student, the better the learning, the environment, the engagement, and the behavior will be.
Is teaching an art or a science?
This has been an age-old argument for educators, politicians, parents, and even students themselves. The real question is can we afford teaching to only be one and not the other?
Teachers must know what they’re teaching. PERIOD. They must know their contents, the curriculum, goals and objectives, and the assessment of students’ learning outcomes. That is usually classified as the science of teaching. But what about the science of learning?
For decades now, neuroscientists have revealed about the cognitive science of learning, and yet teachers are still not up to speed about how to engage students to learn. One prime example is the myth of learning styles. It has been debunked for more than two decades that learning styles do not exist, yet in every school I’ve visited around the country and the world, teachers are still talking about how to teach to “students’ learning styles.”
Teaching can also be conceived as an art because it’s about how the teacher designs the lesson, delivers the knowledge, develops creativity, generate excitement, builds relationship, and so forth. What I find most amusing is that teachers often focus too much on how to make a class “fun” that she neglects to check on the science of evidence for learning.
The “enjoyment” of learning should be a byproduct of a well-planned lesson that meets each student’s learning needs and challenges them to think beyond the lesson. When a teacher spends more time packing Oreos to teach about the phases of the moon rather than pays attention to gear up her knowledge, there is a disconnect between the art and the science of TEACHING and LEARNING.
I’m not saying the science of teaching should always come first. What I’m saying is that teachers must know their content and their students, then they can go about designing the lesson in a meaningful, engaging, and well-connected way such that the “fun” part of learning naturally occurs and each student has a holistic learning experience, long even after class is over.
The truth is not about how teaching is intertwined as an art or science, but when and why. When includes knowing the timing of event. The why is the reflective rationale behind the decision.
Why did I set a time for this activity? Why did I pick one student out of the whole group? Why did I give five and not seven questions for homework?
When should I give a written assignment compared to an oral presentation? When should I use peer-partnering for an activity? When should I pause and ask a question about the story?
Hence, teaching ought to be an art and a science simultaneously, consistently, and evidentially.
Why special education?
People often think I’m in special education because of my negative experiences in school, but that’s not the case. I simply needed a job. As a sponsored student at Brigham Young University Hawaii, part of the requirement is for me to work 20 hours per week so my tuition, housing, and food would be paid for by the church.
On the first week of school, I stumbled onto an ad to hire a research assistant to help establish the special education program. I didn’t know anything about education, let alone special education or what disabilities entail. I also didn’t have any computer skills, letter-writing skills, or telephone conversation skills. But after some persuasion, the professor offered me the job!
For the next year and a half, I had to learn everything about special education—read every book in the library (no internet back then) and watch every video tape about disability—and got the program fully accredited. I became so passionate about the subject that I decided to major in it. From then on, this field has been the blood and passion of my life…all because someone was willing to take a chance on me and offer me a job.
How successful have you been with your work?
When you say work, do you mean my career or my book?
If you’re referring to my career, it has taken me to more places in the world and conversing with high ranking officials and key stakeholders than I had ever imagined. In 2014, I was appointed by the US Dept of State, Bureau of International and Information Programs, as the Speaker Specialist and Expert on Disability.
I have also been awarded the prestigious Senior Fulbright Scholar award 3 times, something quite rare given that only one award may be given in one’s lifetime.
In 2011, I was recognized as the Teacher of Honor by the International Education Honor Society and also received the University Exemplary Faculty Award for outstanding teaching, research, and citizenship. More about my career can be found on https://barbarahong.com
If you’re asking about my book, it has been surprisingly more well-received than I had anticipated, especially given the fact that this was my first book and I had never written a memoir before (though I’ve published over 40 research articles). The best source of testimony about the success of my book is on Amazon reviews and Goodreads.
Failing Up also received the Kirkus STAR Review, one of the toughest book critiques. This award is reserved for the most distinguished books in the industry. Later in the year, Failing Up was recognized as the Top 100 Best Indie Books of 2018.
The most touching reviews of all was the day I got an email from a high school girl, Bana, in Erbil, Kurdistan: (no edits)
“i am forever grateful because your book made a difference in my life, i finished your book in less than four days … excuse me if this is not very nicely written or if it is too long. i didnt even wait a second i started reading right away for the first few chapters i was very saddened but as the chapters went on i saw alot of similarities between my life and yours surely not in detail but in the emotions you were feeling for i have often felt them too, in one of the chapters you wrote something along the lines of why had god put me here in this place or in these situations, your book has affected me greatly is by giving me hope because until i read failing up i had never imagined studying in some place like America sure places near me like turkey and those places but America or Hawaii were like dreams i didnt dare to dream but ever since i finished you book not only was i dreaming i was also hopeful of it becoming a reality so i want to thank you for writing this book for giving me hope i have much much more to say about this book, i hope one day i could meet you for real and get an autograph on the book but most importantly to tell you how much I appreciate you, i hope you write more books because i will be there to read every one of them. i will finish this by saying i hope i’ll get to see you one day in the future you as my teacher and me as you student. “
Bana a new fan from far
Is there a greater issue in modern educational systems that society is not willing to talk about?
If there is one issue I feel that society is avoiding is how poorly prepared our teachers are. The talk is often about teacher retention and recruitment, teacher union, teacher salary, challenging students, even special education, but hardly about the quality of teacher preparation programs.
Over the decades, different reports have shown that students who major in education are often not the “best and brightest.” They typically scored in the bottom percentile of SAT. Some researchers argued that there has been some improvement in these averages, but US teachers are still below the 50th percentile rank of all SAT and ACT test takers even if these scores are an imperfect measurement of academic ability.
Then when it comes to higher education preparation, it is another haphazard way of manufacturing teachers like a supply chain because school districts are demanding a fulfillment of orders. Why don’t we examine where the major leakage is first instead of scrambling to put chairs on the deck while the Titanic is sinking?
There’s so much more to address here. We should do a separate interview for that. We need to examine the pedagogies of higher education faculty as well as the state of special education and current policies.
What changes do you propose to make institutions and/or teachers more accountable for the future of their students?
Accountability is a multidimensional synergy. Not only should institutions and teachers be held responsible, parents, policy makers, and stakeholders should also do their parts.
As the African saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” so it is literally and ethically the role of each adult in the community to do THEIR part and stop blaming poverty, school standards, teachers, funding, or policies for their child not succeeding in school.
People often talk about accountability as a cliché because it makes the leaders “look” good and the subordinates “feel” good. What we need to ask is what are we measuring; how can we measure them; and why are we measuring them. If we cannot respond to these in a constructive and observable way, then we may feel good and look good about our accountability status, but in actuality, no one knows what’s going on.
How did your family react to your success?
In terms of my book, no one in my family has read it yet; not my mother, sister, or brothers. The last time I told my mother about this book (summer 2018), she was upset that I aired the family’s dirty laundry to the public. She was embarrassed that I even wrote the book, let alone sell it to the public.
In terms of my educational success, no one came to my graduation when I got my doctoral degree. To date, they still don’t see why I spent all these time and money getting more education.
From your experience, what is the best way to convey your message to the general public?
I hope the book gets out there to the public in as many media forms as possible. The best would be TV appearances but I know that is hard to get. But more importantly, I hope parents will read it and then share it with their children. I hope schools will make it a reading for each teacher and counsellor, and a classroom discussion for those who are struggling in learning and in life.
Beyond country or ethnicity boundaries, the message I wish to convey is don’t write your children off too soon. Your words matter. Different is NOT less. Teach your children to embrace failures with faith, hope, and love.
Let’s talk about your book. What was your inspiration for it? What was the greatest challenge you overcame when writing your book? Are you satisfied with the end result?
Extracted from, the Prologue:
I avoided my past because I was ashamed. I never wanted to put myself in the narrative. I just wanted to move on and embrace my present and the future. Then one day, an undergraduate with a drinking and drug problem called me out, “You’re an Asian! You’ll never understand. You had a good life because your parents are wealthy, you’re smart, and you went to a big-name school.”
What! Why would he think that’s my life?
It turned out that he was not the only one with such stereotyped perceptions of Asians. Many of my colleagues and students, too, have this preconceived notion that Asians are born into a prepackaged life, filled with milk and honey
and wealth. Somehow, it is thought, everything always turns out the way it is supposed to be; perhaps due to our work ethic or some natural genetic endowment.
I decided that it was time I stopped hiding behind my own shame. I wanted to make sense of my past. There’s no shame in being broken. I’ve been broken over and over again (not by my choice nor by anyone intentionally). Nevertheless, the struggle of the “fixing” process has strengthened me; not ruined me. Vance Havner poignantly describes this evolution I experienced:
It takes broken soil to produce a crop,
broken clouds to give rain,
broken grain to give bread,
broken bread to give strength.
It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume.
The events described in this book are taken from my journals, which I have kept since I was twelve. Each account is based on my perspective of things at that point in time—some mature, some naïve, but all are intuitive recollections of events as I experienced them. If I describe moments that seem commonplace, it is because I am living a prescribed line, and for virtually all my life, that line has been defined by poverty, mislabels, abuse, and ridicule.
The one thing that remains constant is my teachers; some from heaven while others from hell.
When I ask my students why they chose to become a teacher, their unanimous answer is often: “A teacher touched my life!”
There seems to be at least one teacher in everyone’s journey that makes an indelible mark on us, for better or for worse. That teacher somehow shapes the way we view the class subject, what we believe about ourselves, the way we choose our career paths, and the way we view learning.
I hope Failing Up gives readers a first-hand perspective on what life is like growing up in a harsh, unforgiving culture of stigmatization, marginalization, and humiliation when it comes to academic performance. In this memoir, I hope to shine a personal light for educators and parents from all walks of life: A light that will encourage readers to reflect upon the effects their words and actions have on the lives of children and their future. And for everyone who has ever failed or who are failing now in any capacity of your life, I hope you’ll take shake off the shame and embrace failures as a way of finding who you are and what you are really made of. Perhaps in time, you will discover, like me, that failing can be some of life’s most meaningful blessings you’ll ever experience.
I started writing when I was living in the Middle East for my first Fulbright in 2011. Ironically, this was the time when the Arab Spring was happening and Osama was just killed. In the midst of all these turmoil, I sat in my apartment, alone and without my children and husband, and started this manuscript on my personal turmoil. It took me seven years to finally complete and publish it.
One of the biggest challenges in writing a memoir was explosing myself so transparently to my students, colleagues, friends, and families. I would stop for weeks and months at a time before mustering enough courage to go back and read my manuscript again. Writing a research paper would have been so much easier!
I am forever grateful that I kept a journal since I was twelve. All the accounts were derived from these keepsakes and the perspective I had while growing up. I used the first-person voice to speak more authentically to my readers and applied present tense to convey a more vivid experience.
As it turned out, many readers have shared with me that they found my story to be so relatable to their lives. That’s what really makes this book so satisfying is that my story cuts across cultures, ages, educational backgrounds, and upbringings.
How satisfied are you with the reception your book received?
I was pleasantly surprised when I read the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads how this book has touched their lives. I did not intend for it to go this far. I have educators, principals, students, the Mormon community, Asian parents, and BYUH audience reading the book and sharing with their friends. It has opened doors to dialogues about issues in teaching and teacher preparation programs, exchanges on how best to help students who are struggling or bored, and conversations about how success ought to be redefined in school and in society.
What are your plans for the future?
People spend their whole life avoiding failures, thinking that is the way to success. On the contrary, I see failures as a GIFT in life. That is my next project. Beside writing my next book, I like to be a motivational speaker to students, teachers, and parents around the world.
Parents and teachers often ask me, “What’s the secret of your success?” “How can we help out children to be like you?’
The truth is there is no secret. Successful people are (1) not afraid to fail; (2) dare to pick themselves up and become more self-aware on what they need to do differently; (3) consistent until they reach their goals…and set the next higher goal. They do not let failure define them nor society’s grade tell them who they are and why they ought to follow the standard path. They dare to take risk and inspect themselves within. Once they find a way to do things well, they stick to the plan undogged until they reach their goals, blaming no one and finding no excuses.
I want to help educators and parents to teach their children to become successful through developing attributes of persistence consistency, determination, grit, audacity, self-regulation, initiative, adaptability, and reflectivity.
I set a goal to start the first word on Jan 1, 2019. Wish me luck!
Do you have anything to say to adults who were mentally or physically abused in their childhood?
Adapted from one of my favorite quotes growing up:
The past with all its sadness,
Can destroy you if you let it.
Learn to embrace from your past;
and then the past,
Extracted from the last chapter:
I did not begin my odyssey with an education in mind, but along the way, caring teachers, friends, and even strangers taught me to love myself, love others, and love learning. The footsteps of this expedition have not always been mine alone. The imprints before me, behind me, and mostly beside me have left indelible marks of faith, patience, and fortitude. Likewise, the foundation of my upbringing may not have been all that stable, at times difficult, at times unpredictable. But it was the very caring of those around me that lit up a path I never knew existed.
I didn’t have the foresight into what my life was going to be like when I was ten, twenty, thirty, or even now. Sometimes I make it at the first shot, sometimes at the fifteenth shot. But most of the time, I stumble through unknowingly, bruised and battled along the way, not understanding why my expedition is exceptionally onerous while everyone seems to breeze through like a walk in the park. All I know is that if I keep failing forward, lifting my head up towards God, somehow a caring hand will come along the way and lift me up.
And today … I land on both feet.
I adapted this quote from online by adding the stars. I believe there is a star within each of us.
Don’t compare your life to others.
There is no comparison between the sun,
and the stars.
They shine when it’s their time.