(A previously published work in D’Hour) by Crystal Chang & Thiang Hui Ning

Our DM-turned-Vice Principal, Mrs Dayna Chia, talks about fashion, music and DHSConfessions.

So we’ve heard that this your second year in Dunman High?
May 16 would be two years. Yes, I remember the actual date as I suppose it was quite an important day for me, as I was away from teaching for 3 and a half years at the MOE headquarters. Dunman High is my first school after being away from the school environment for a few years, so I suppose I made an effort to remember that date. –chuckles-

Were you in another school before going to Headquarters?

I was at Raffles Junior College (at that time it was known as RJC) for 8 years actually, then I went to the headquarters. But there was a year in RJC when I was away to do my masters overseas.

They didn’t post you back to RJC?

No, it doesn’t work that way. Experienced teachers have a chance to apply to the school of your choice, assuming the school has a vacancy. There was the temptation to go back to Raffles since I was very happy there for 8 years. However I felt that I needed to challenge myself and I tried Dunman High instead, which was a very different environment for me, but at the same time, I wanted to remain in an IP school and continue teaching A level History. There wasn’t any vacancy or anything, I just wrote into the school and asked if they would have me –chuckles- and they were very gracious about it. I came down and had an interview with 符校长 (Dr Foo) and as they say, the rest is history.

So, how has Dunman High been for these past two years?

I must say it has surprised me in many ways. Not that I’m expecting a challenge-free and peaceful time, but there were many friends who said “Huh you’re going to Dunman High? Oh so you’re taking care of Student Development? Huh you’re the DM? Aiya nothing to do, all the kids very guai!” At the headquarters, it was about looking at the different strategies to teaching A level History, but once you’re back in the classroom, it’s a different ballgame since you actually have to TEACH it. –chuckles- So that was pretty challenging.
Another one that I enjoyed very much was interacting with the teachers and students over discipline issues and seeing how I can strike the balance here in Dunman High. Discipline is important in all schools, but particularly in 德明 since the emphasis is on discipline and character-building. I like to joke that I am a 外人–chuckles- I wasn’t an alumnus, I didn’t teach in Dunman High, so I am like a foreign import, -chuckles- But there’s value in being in another environment for some years, then seeing how I can add value in areas that matter. I don’t want to undo the traditions of the school, in fact I think that’s very important and one of the reasons we’re so respected as a school.

Which is why it is called the Code of Conduct instead of Rules and Regulations?

Yes, but that is controversial , as is the Confessions thing which I am sure you will ask me about later on. –chuckles-

Did you choose to be Discipline Mistress?

-chuckles- The honour of being the Discipline Mistress comes with the Student Development portfolio .–chuckles- I didn’t know, until my predecessor Mr Teo Chor Howe told me. I was actually very surprised and worried! When I was in my previous school, discipline wasn’t really on my menu of things. But now that I am the DM, I have to step up. I think all of us bring a certain style to what we do, I cannot try to be my predecessor, nor will I try to be someone else that I am not, but bring my own style and flair to it. (which you have.) Thank you very much! I hope in a good way, yes.

From your time in Dunman High, were there any incidents of being the DM in our school that were memorable?

I suppose two incidents are kind of edged in my memory. One would be the Confessions thing, though when the Confessions thing took place I was technically not the DM, but I was still very much involved.

I don’t know whether I should say this, but I actually caned a student. When a student commits a very major offence, the DM actually has to do the caning and it really saddened me. Once you’re at that point, it’s not about punishing the student, you just want to make sure the student is alright and moves on. Just imagine, the 8 years in Raffles, I was not overtly involved in disciplining students, then I went to the headquarters to do really conceptual work, then I come to Dunman High and I am the head of student development and the DM and there are certain roles and responsibilities of a DM that you must adhere to. If a major offence is committed, the caning is actually also managed by the DM. That was something that actually affected me quite a bit. I can respect the rule behind it, but it’s not easy to actually bring down such a heavy punishment on a child, because it’s your student at the end of the day, whether you teach the student or not. Everyone is part of the Dunmanian family.

So is everything okay with the student right now?

Yes yes, I mean you still see him/her around school. Actually we don’t cane females, only guys – yes, it’s a rule. The reason why I raise it is because the role of the DM is not just to enforce or impose rules, there is also a lot of heart work involved, as cheesy as it sounds. I remember the fateful day that I had to carry it out. I was very quiet in the morning, which is quite unlike me because I’m quite a loud person. But it had to be done, you have to be professional and most importantly, you have to help the student move on. That’s why the explanation part is important.

Was it hard for you to reconcile your personal opinions about discipline and what you actually had to do in general?

That is a very good question. For me, I was in a convent school all the way where discipline wasn’t in black and white and when I went to RJC, the emphasis on discipline was very different from Dunman High (DH). It was a bit challenging for me when I first came, because I couldn’t understand certain things, like how much we emphasized on shoes and hair but I have since appreciated where the school is coming from. It’s not just about having white shoes or short hair. Once I was kind of lamenting about how we were spending a lot of time just talking about what constitutes proper shoes and then Dr Foo told me that it’s all about training our students to be sensitive to the context, “No one will tell them or teach them when they grow up.” You are going to go into a very competitive environment where people will most probably take even the slightest edge they have over you. In my career, I have seen how people sometimes do get bypassed because of appearance. So, what he said struck a chord with me and I began to learn where DH is coming from and why they value this so much.

Away from discipline issues, many students have complimented your dress sense. Do you think you dress well?

Hmm, how do I put this, I will be upfront and say that I do make an effort to dress well. Of course, when you go into a classroom, the students shouldn’t be just focusing on what you wear, like “OMG I love your shoes Mrs Chia” or “your blouse is very nice!” I mean, it shouldn’t be that, but it’s a form of respect. You take the time to dress up for your students. At the same time, you’re modeling in a professional context, so you should make the effort to look your best for the people you interact with. This is a bit funny but also a bit rude: at my previous school, I used to have this colleague that had a fixed outfit for each day of the week and after that the cycle would repeat. I think it’s fine, but I feel that you must have that sense of wanting to look as professional as you can. I don’t take it lightly that I stand on the podium. I take that seriously, not because I want to do a runway or fashion showcase –chuckles- but again, you have the privilege of standing in front of the entire student population, so I think that it’s only right that I dress very appropriately in respect of the students. That has always been my guiding principle, but I have changed a fair bit. In Raffles I was much trendier -chuckles- But in 德明, I have learnt to accept that again, different schools, different culture, different context, you can still be stylish but you don’t have to be flashy.

The theme for this issue is Melody and Movement, so are you musically-inclined?

Okay, I used to sing in a band. This is quite embarrassing…, but I kind of retired for some years. I come from a very musically-inclined family, so my cousins are trained musicians and my mum has cut albums in the Christian circle. My brothers are musically-inclined too. So I would say yes, I think I am musically-inclined, I can hold a tune, but it’s just that I haven’t done so for some time… But last year, Mr Gan and I sang for the Year Sixes during their farewell, together with Ms Chen. So that was the first time I sang after like 4 years of not singing. That was a very memorable experience for all of us. (so we can ask you to sing for us again when we graduate?) –chuckles- yes yes yes we are quite excited about it actually, we have self-invited ourselves to sing for your batch –chuckles- , now it’s just to find the right song for each batch.

So can you play any musical instruments?

Not well not well, I can play the piano very …. I think no, scratch that, I don’t think I can qualify as playing no no –chuckles-

So now we the part you might dread: DHSConfessions. So what do you think about the recent Confessions?

-Makes dramatic sounds- Bring it on! When I knew I was going to come for this interview, I tried to prepare an answer, then I realized it wouldn’t work. Maybe I’ll try to look at it from my own perspective, stepping away from the school a bit. It was a very good experience for me, both as an educator and as an individual. As an educator, it taught me that we constantly need to be sensitive to the needs of our students. But with that being said, the challenge is where to draw the line, simply because you cannot possibly allow everything and give everything the students want. At the end of the day, we also hold that responsibility of protecting not the school per se, but you guys.

I know in DHS, the students want a voice and they want a platform to be able to express themselves and when you think about it, the Confessions page was very clever idea, especially for a school with a culture like Dunman High where the students aren’t very forthright about saying what they feel. However, a wise colleague raised this point: As a school, we must be careful that our students learn to express themselves without putting themselves in a vulnerable position. That was what worried me about the Confessions page, you can never really verify if they’re really Dunmanians but we don’t want to force them to come out either, because that defeats the purpose. I don’t want to do that, it’s not my style. I feel Dunmanians deserve respect because you are a bunch of reasonable and sensible kids. So I decided I had to respect the student instead of “witch hunt” who did it.

We were more worried than angry actually. We just wanted to make sure you weren’t vulnerable when you post things outside. I’ll give you an example from the Junior High Students: I have had incidents whereby someone asked them to prove something quite stupid and they will literally do the deed, take a photo and post it. I kid you not! And when we asked them, they will reply very earnestly that it is because someone dared them online.

A good learning point I gained from this was to not get so defensive about things. Especially when you work with teenagers, sometimes we tend to think we are right, that we know the best for them. But I think there may have been certain times when I thought I could be more sensitive or probably explain things to them more. I instinctively feel the need to protect the students first and do justice to the school. Like the email I sent out, some were very encouraged by it, but some felt that I should have immediately addressed the kid out there who was self-harming. But in my experience with children who self-harm, they are very discreet people. They can be very vocal in class but very private when it comes to this matter. So usually they will not risk putting themselves on a platform where they can be identified. But that being said, I’m not saying that the comment was fiction. We were more troubled about the fact that our students put a lot of information out there. If you’re not careful, people can actually use that information and prey on you.

We didn’t expect you to write the email. We were heartened by it because you did not reprimand us, but instead remind us of the school culture.

I felt very sad, call it emotional, because the night before, a group of teachers were helping this student who really needed it. And then in one single day, one single post, it cleaned out what the school has done through the years in people’s eyes. That night I just couldn’t sleep and I told myself I needed to write something to encourage the school, that it [the newspaper] does not represent who we are. You can be in an environment where everyone is so caught up and competitive that the needs of the individual are ignored. Dunman High does not have that type of culture. The students have a sense of solidarity with each other and that’s something I really liked about the school. That’s why when the time came for me to apply, I applied to a variety of schools, but I hoped I would get to come here.
I have had the opportunity to work and interact with a few solid teachers who taught here for a number of years. Miss Yvonne Lai, Ms Selvie Krishnan, Mr Chiang Ky. I have to say Ms Krishnan is a mentor to me. And we’ve swapped places in a way, she being in Raffles and me in Dunman High. I hear from my ex-colleagues in Raffles that she always speaks so well of Dunman, so they ask me, are you always talking about Raffles? Well, yes and no, because there is always something you can learn from them, but no. My memory of Raffles is fast-fading I must say. ‘Cause I think when you are in a place with newfound happiness, the memory of the past seems to fade much faster. You still remember it, you recall it fondly now and then, but you don’t hug back to it all the time. That’s how I feel being in this school.

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