When the Ministry of Education launched the Full-Time School Counsellor Scheme in 2005, many teachers decided to take a step from education to counselling. For Vincent Chia, this turned out to be a bigger step than he imagined.
Vincent Chia flips open his appointment book and checks his schedule for the day. It seems that his entire morning is free but he’s no stranger to unexpected visits.
Since his midcareer shift from teaching to full-time counselling in 2006, Vincent has had students referred to him for reasons ranging from disruptive behaviour to skipping school. And in spite of 8 years of teaching under his belt, responding to students and their problems has been a whole new ballgame.
For Vincent, becoming a counsellor was simply the end result of a series of events. He entered teaching not because he was passionate about education but because it allowed him to work with young people. Unfortunately, this became increasingly harder as he developed his career as a teacher.
“As a new teacher, your focus is mainly on classroom teaching so you have a lot of time to be with students,” explains Vincent. “But as you become developed as a teacher, you have more responsibilities. It’s more about interacting with vendors and your colleagues than the students.”
Eager to find the time to be with students, Vincent took on a position as HOD for Discipline – a job he held for 3 years. Then, the Ministry of Education implemented the Full-Time School Counsellor Scheme and he decided it was worth a try, “I thought it would be a good change from my usual role of discipline. It’s the other end of nurturing a student.”
What most of us don’t realise is that counselling is not about giving “expert advice” but talking to them in a way that will help them understand and solve their problems. “The nature of counselling is not directive,” explains Vincent. “There’s a balance we have to strike, whether to direct the students or have them take the lead in coming out with their own solutions.”
Now in his third year in Henderson Secondary School (now merged with Bukit Merah Secondary School to form Bukit Merah Secondary School), Vincent still remembers the difficult period of adjustment during his first few months as a full-time counsellor, when he had to catch himself from falling back into his role as HOD for Discipline. “I struggled quite a bit. At times, I would see students not behaving well and I don’t know if I should point it out.”
Vincent is also unsure of whether he can really put counselling theory like Carl Rogers’ client-centred approach into practice. “When kids come to me and they step out of line, I correct them,” he admits. “They cannot scream and hurl vulgarities then expect me to accept them as it is. For the time being, it’s not something I can do yet.”
And yes, Vincent does miss some aspects of being discipline officer – whether it be the clear-cut boundaries, defined scope, or its black and white nature. A lot of students face issues which are rooted in relationship problems with parents, peers, and family. This means that Vincent has to engage not only the students but the people around them as well.
“You seldom have parents who refuse to have their kids go for counselling. But when it comes to the parents themselves going for counselling, very few are willing,” he says.
The bottom line
As a former teacher, Vincent is well aware of the difficulty of managing a room of 40 students. However, he makes sure to remind teachers of his own limitations as a counsellor – mainly, that they cannot expect one counselling session to change a student’s attitude. “Sometimes it takes me many sessions just to get the student to talk. Not even to talk about the issues, just to talk!” he laughs.
As a result, Vincent is nonchalant about counting his “success stories”. And in a way, perhaps this attitude is exactly what helps him do his job: having a real understanding of the problems his students face and the belief that his role as a counsellor is not to provide a solution for everything.
So what keeps counsellors going on with their jobs? For Vincent, it’s his Christian faith and perhaps, the simple objective of showing students that the school can be a safe place for them too.
“As long as the child knows that he can come to school and find some care and concern, we might be able to help them get through these years,” he says. “No matter what problems they have, we just have to make sure that they will still be willing to come to school.”