Head to Head

Leading Change

Pak Tee Ng
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore



A teacher who cares seizes every opportunity to teach his students.
An education system that cares seizes every opportunity to build its teachers.
(Pak Tee Ng, 2017, p.156)

Hello! I am Pak Tee Ng (“Pak Tee” is my name and “Ng” is my surname), a Singaporean educator. Thank you for inviting me to share a few thoughts about leading educational change. This sharing is definitely not a comprehensive discourse about change leadership. For me, while I teach some theories about it, I grapple with its practical aspects because leading change is so dependent on the context.

Many people ask me about Singapore’s secret of educational success. In 2017, I published a book with Routledge, called “Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes”, which explained the Singapore story. Actually, my book does not tell the world to learn some ‘secret formulae” from Singapore. Instead, it brings to the world the learning from Singapore – what we have learned from half a century of continuously trying to improve our education system. One of the things we have learned is that while education is key to navigating our future as a country, school leaders and teachers are key to bringing quality education to our children. In my book, I explain that we hope to achieve four dreams in our education system:
•    Every School a Good School
•    Every Student an Engaged Learner
•    Every Teacher a Caring Educator
•    Every Parent a Supportive Partner
Even with a great policy that articulates great dreams, it is the people on the ground who give ‘flesh’ to the dreams and breathe life into the system. We need good teachers in school to care for students and good school leaders to lead improvement. Think about it: how can we expect inspired learners among children if there aren’t inspired teachers? How can we expect a community of inspired teachers if there aren’t inspired leaders to show the way?

There are many good theories about how one can or should lead change. Share a compelling vision! Build a coalition for change! Invest resources in the new goals! Support people in the right direction! But the reality is that leading change is always easier said than done! It may sound easy in theory. But in practice, leadership is often about dealing with the many different demands from different stakeholders and making tough choices. Leaders cannot please everyone. Given any decision, even if the majority of the people are happy with it, there will be some disgruntled people.  Therefore, when it comes to critical decision-making, more importantly, we have to reflect deeply about ourselves to know who we are and what we really stand for. Then when the going gets tough, the tough has what it takes to get going! Sometimes, we are overwhelmed by good but conflicting advice from people around us simply because we do not really know what we are thinking. We are torn apart because we are not sure what decision we can really live with. Of course, that does not mean that we should just insist in having our own way. It is critical to work with people to find the best way forward. But once in a while, it is good for us to take time away from the daily grind to do some soul-searching. Such a practice can be very helpful to leaders in leading change without losing themselves in the change.

One can learn some theories about leadership from books, but the practice of it is refined often through fire! Educational change is usually a long and contested process. If we hope for fast results, we will feel very disappointed. Psychologically, to lead in a sustainable manner, be prepared for long-suffering! We are working with people. So, it takes a lot of patience and persistence.  The other thing is to take care of ourselves. Sometimes, we spend so much time taking care of others that we succumb to fatigue. Therefore, as the aircraft adage goes: put on your oxygen mask first, before attending to others. You cannot take care of others (at least not in a sustainable manner) if you are not taking care of yourself.

Another area of challenge is communication. Quite often, in our attempt to be comprehensive, we flood others with information and lose them in the details.  I suppose the adage here applies: keep the main thing the main thing! Keep the message simple and straightforward. Remember also that what appeals to a leader may not make sense to someone else who is working at a different level. What sounds exciting to a leader may sound like ‘torture’ to a staff member! So, remember to communicate in such a way that your message becomes sensible and appealing to the other person, not just to yourself!

In my book, based on Singapore’s experiences, I offered some questions that educators from another education system could reflect on (Ng, 2017, p. 189). Let me adapt some of them here as reflection questions for you as you contemplate change:

•    As leaders, shall we commit our time and effort towards helping teachers improve teaching and helping students become more engaged in learning?
•    As leaders, shall we commit our time and effort to bring different parties to work together to achieve greater coherence and synergy in school?
•    As leaders, shall we help to make education a much more positive and uplifting narrative, not just in our school but regionally and even nationally?
•    As leaders, shall we encourage our teachers (and indeed ourselves) to see our roles as nation builders, and not just as deliverers of curriculum?
In Singapore, the spirit of education has always about ‘paying it forward’. One generation pays the price of change to benefit the next. Educators rally together and bite the bullet of change for the children under their care. Therefore, whether in Singapore or elsewhere, we will rely on the courage, spirit and tenacity of educators to navigate the challenges of change to shape our collective future. Take good care and all the best!

Education is the human enterprise of paying it forward.
One generation pays the price so that the next generation has a chance in life.  
Someone paid for us.  Now it is our turn to pay it forward.
(Pak Tee Ng, 2017, p.87)

Ng, P. T. (2017). Learning from Singapore: The Power of Paradoxes. New York: Routledge.