“How do you measure a year in the life?” echo the song lyrics from the award-winning Broadway musical RENT. How do you measure the worth of a man and his life’s work? Professor S. Gopinathan shares his thoughts on his life in education.
Professor S. Gopinathan is considered by many to be a pillar of teacher education in Singapore. When asked how long he has been in education, he replies: “A very long time.”
From being a student in the 1940s, to a school teacher from 1966-1968, an educational publisher and organizer of annual book fairs in Singapore thereafter, and a teacher educator since 1974 – all in all, it has been over 60 years in education.
“It’s been a long but very meaningful and empowering life in education,” he surmises.
“I am fortunate and grateful.”
Prof Gopi’s journey in education may be summed up in three words: passion, commitment and people.
A Passion for Education
Prof Gopi has not only seen the Singapore education story unfold, he has lived it and had a part in writing it.
“The Singapore education story is actually a successful narrative; in Minister Mentor’s terms, a four-decade transition from a Third World system to First World. No system is perfect, but it’s a better and, importantly, a more inclusive system now, and I think we have all made it a better system.
“I can quite honestly say that I played a part in this; and if you play a part in something that’s growing and respected, that people admire, you feel good. I benefitted from the system, I had a role in making changes happen, and I had a role in writing about it.”
Writing about education – and publishing and disseminating his works and his peers’ – is Prof Gopi’s other passion. To describe his list of research publications as extensive would be an understatement. Prof Gopi has over 140 published titles to his name, not counting numerous other papers he has presented at conferences.
“I’ve been publishing actively since 1974. I was editor of the Education Journal, a publication of the School of education where I did my Master in education in the mid-1960s, and was actively involved in Pendidek, later the Singapore Journal of Education, and the Asia Pacific Journal of Education in the Institute of education and NIE respectively.
“I am proud of my role in initiating and co-editing Education in Singapore: A Book of Readings and Language, Society and Education in Singapore. These are standard texts in NIE’s initial teacher education programmes and in language in education courses internationally.
“I believe it is important for Singapore’s education scholarship to respect context, be available to students and be credible internationally.
“I look back now and I’m glad I persisted because there’s a body of work which explains to people, who are now very interested in Singapore education, how we did it – why it is the way it is, what policies and practices are central to it, and what other systems might learn from it.
“In a way, it is a tangible legacy.”
A Commitment to the Work
Long before “lifelong learning” gained currency in the education discourse, Prof Gopi was living it.
“Every period of my career was marked by something I enjoyed doing. There were many milestones in my career. I enjoyed the 35 years in teacher education. Because policies and practices change often, there were new opportunities to research, to reflect and to develop new programmes within teacher education.
“I was closely involved in Singapore’s first undergraduate programme in teacher education, the Bachelor of arts/ Science (education) programme launched in 1990. As dean, I initiated NIE’s first cost recovery programme in counselling, school leadership and ICT in education.
“When we started the centre for research in Pedagogy and Practice in 2003, and when we started ‘exporting’ NIE programmes to the Middle East – they were entirely new enterprises. So as late as 2003, at the tail-end of a 30-year career, I was still doing new things, in new lands!”
Even now, after taking a step into retirement, he works tirelessly to document the education scene and to help others in their education journey at home and abroad. Not one to rest on his laurels or let life pass him by, Prof Gopi is now a Professorial Fellow and teaches part-time on NIE’s postgraduate programme.
What keeps him going?
“I believe in being committed and passionate in whatever you do. Whatever you do, do it well and do it with an eye to how it will benefit others as much as it will benefit you.
“A former student of mine advised me when I was contemplating life after retirement: ‘Revisit and re-energize the values that have guided you this far.’ It was good advice.”
Placing People First
Prof Gopi lives by the same principles he imparts to others. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Go the extra mile. Plant a little seed. Be generous. Bring some happiness, if you can.
“Basically, honour others as much as you would like them to honour you. Nobody is too insignificant, nobody is too junior, nobody is too undereducated for you not to spend your time with them.
“You may think you are a great teacher; you are fulfilled because you are widely regarded and respected. But do your students see you in that light? Because you can be happy and contented, but others might say it was nasty being in your class. I want them to be able to say, ‘Well, it was good.'”
What makes the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher? “Certainly not skills,” says this veteran teacher, “skills can be learned.”
“It’s definitely got to be relationships. It’s basically wanting to be with your students, wanting to nurture them, scaffold them, hold the safety net beneath them, inspire them. This is the sort of disposition you need to bring to teaching.”
So, how do you measure a lifetime in education? For Prof Gopi, we would say it was good – all good!