Born: Sri Lanka
We’ve spoken to our fair share of teachers here at Friday Best, and each one has given us their own brilliant take on education. We’re now adding Singapore-based Anne Kingsley to the line-up.
Anne was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Singapore with her sister and younger brother and what she calls a pretty strict upbringing. She now has a little family of her own and fifteen years under her belt as a teacher—a career that somehow was always meant to be.
Anne’s story is fascinating to us because it involves a deliberate and in some ways very sudden pause. In 2014 she decided to take a year-long sabbatical from her role as a high-school teacher to focus more on her family. Instead of stepping into a leadership role, as many had assumed, she wanted to step back.
This is Anne’s story about negotiating what people expect of you versus what’s right for you, when to put your emotions to the side and how to have a ripper of a childhood.
You mentioned to me when we were introduced that you feel like you’re right where you’re meant to be. How do you know? And what steps did you take to get to this spot?
When I said that it was largely to do with the fact that I’ve been a teacher a full fifteen years. My family always tells me that I was destined to be a teacher because when I was living in Kuwait as a four-year-old I would come home and go through the day’s English lessons with my dolls. Sometimes when dolls were unavailable I would take unsuspecting uncles and have them be students in my class.
It was a path that I sort of fell into in some ways as well. I was a really good student but when I did my A levels I faired pretty poorly. For the first time in my life my options were very limited. In Singapore you have to do exceedingly well to get into the university courses you want to do. I remember sitting down for the first time to seriously think about what I want to do with my life.
I’m happy with where I’m at; it wasn’t all the things I wanted to do but it is a nice good place to be.
The teaching college in Singapore was one of the options in front of me. I thought I should give that a go because it was something that I had always considered doing. I had the option of starting the teaching college course with a stint at a school and that’s what I did. It turned out the experience was really good. I had really great teaching mentors who helped me along the way and here I am 15 years later!
And when I say that I think I’m where I need to be I think it’s also because I’m married to my college sweetheart [laughs] and I have two wonderful children. I’m happy with where I’m at. I haven’t done all the things I wanted to do but it is a nice good place to be at right now. I think it’s not often that you can say that.
Tell me about the mentors you just mentioned that you met through teaching.
I’ve only had female bosses and although there is this view that women bosses tend to micro-manage, or aren’t big picture enough but that hasn’t been my experience. I’ve been really fortunate to have been mentored by dynamic female leaders.
The Head of the English Department when I was just a beginning teacher, Melanie Martens, taught me right from the get go to have fun with the work that I do. She had a great sense of humour and a nothing-fazes-me attitude. It gave me that buzz very early on to enjoy what I do in the classroom.
To flip that over then, what do you think education shouldn’t be?
Well, we shouldn’t have a system where we’re not invested enough in cultivating good human beings. I suppose I say this because I feel we are generally very result-oriented as educators, which prevents us from from seeing that there are things that need time to develop. Strength of character, innovation and creativity need more of our time, and just cannot be something that we look at through the lens of one-size-fits-all.
I’ve had a mum who in my early years I viewed as not decisive enough, always deferring to my father’s opinions.
I wanted to quickly flick back to your childhood and your upbringing. What values and philosophies do you hold onto from the way that you were brought up?
We left Sri Lanka when I was about two years old, so in the time that we have been away I think my value system, while it has largely remained steadfast, has become a little mixed.
I’ve had a mum who in my early years I viewed as not decisive enough, always deferring to my father’s views or opinions. This is sometimes typical of Sri Lankan women. Women from my mum’s generation tend to always be in the background, and I know this is awful to say, but I remember thinking, Oh, I’m not going to allow that to happen to me.
You’ve got to follow your heart and the things that matter to you. You do know it. It’s always just beneath the surface.
However, as I entered womanhood I recognised that much of the strength and self-belief that I have, I have drawn from her. And the values, you asked me, that I hold: I have a very strong love for God and an unwavering sense of hope in the goodness of others. And I think I get this from my mum.
What other values are guiding you as you make decisions in your life?
For me, a lot of my life values systems have to do with my closeness to my family. [Prior to taking a sabbatical] I looked after staff development and there were many mums that came to me, struggling with that sense of work-life balance.
I remember advising them that you’ve got to follow your heart and the things that matter to you. You do know it. It’s there. It’s always just beneath the surface. When you seek advice from someone else, it’s often just to confirm what you already know you need to do.
People naturally assume no one would want to deliberately stall a promising career to be a full-time mum!
In all honesty—and I know we always say this—no one is indispensable, but I think to your families you always are. There’s no one that can replace you.
One of the dilemmas that I have faced as a woman in the workforce is that people don’t necessarily understand that when people take time to be more present in their families, that it is a conscious and deliberate choice, and not one you feel cornered into or make because of a setback.
I’ve taken this one year sabbatical and people are asking, ‘Well you’ve been teaching for fifteen years, you’re sort of at the peak of your career where you should be thinking about senior leadership roles. Why would you want to take a year off now?’
People naturally assume that no one would want to deliberately stall a promising career to be a full-time mum! [laughs] It’s like something must have gone wrong if you’re making this kind of a decision.
What led to you making that decision?
Oh, very clearly, because my nine-year-old son is struggling in school. I’ve always been fairly relaxed even though I’m a teacher. I thought, I’m going to teach my child to read, because if he knows how to read he’s set! But, you know, it didn’t work out that way. He only started speaking when he was about three and a half or four, so it sort of delayed his development. You wouldn’t be able to tell it if you spoke to him but he’s always trying to play catch up.
I found that my work was getting more and more demanding. I would get home and have about an hour before he went to bed and I’d always be barking at him about homework and what not. And I’d feel so guilty because he is such a wonderful boy in spite of it. There was nothing in me that doubted that I needed to take a year off to spend that time at home. I’ve been helping other people’s children for fifteen years and it felt timely to focus on my own family.
What are you hoping for, for your son and your daughter?
Because my mum was always a stay-at-home mum and my husband’s mother was also around for them, I want to capture some of that great blessing that I had as child growing up with a mum who was there; to come to the forefront when you need to be, and to be in the background so they always have some support.
Now with a family of your own, do you think a close family happens naturally? Or do you really have to work for it?
You have to work at it for sure. We came from Sri Lanka and, while Singapore is still very Asian in its value systems, I did go to a British school. It was hard work for my parents to try and find that balance between the values we held close and the more liberal style of parenting they observed in other families.
I remember things like slumber parties being out of the question and after a while my father would relent and give us some time to be out with friends. There were all these questions like: Do they have any brothers? [Laughs]
We grew up struggling with that but I think because we lived away from Sri Lanka—where all the extended family was—we only had each other. So, my dad and mum worked hard to keep us really close to one another. There was this great sense of interdependence on one another. My dad has always involved us in every decision in the family and now, even when we have our differences, we talk it through. It’s really important because the way the world is going, where people are always in this state of flux, I am glad my kids have an anchor and unwavering support. But it takes hard work to build that sense of security.
I wish I knew that things are going to be ok. You can fail and still make it.
So being in your 30s, what do you know now that you wish you’d known earlier?
I wish someone had told me earlier on that it’s ok to fail a bit, and that not everything has to end in success. It was hard learnt for me. My father built a strong sense of duty in us and a great work ethic, but it meant that even when I experienced small setbacks, I found it very hard to take. I didn’t have the maturity to understand that these falls often lead to new ways forward and great learning, and we’d still be okay.
I wish I had known that things would be ok, that you can fail and still make it.
Exactly! You are always ok, even when things don’t go as you expected. When did you start realising this?
I think it started when I was trying to make my choices about the educational path I wanted to take. For the first time I didn’t have all the doors open to me, and it threw me. I realised later that I needed to take that path for many reasons. One, it sort of took me off that pedestal of yeah, I can do this, this is no problem, and having my life sort of already set out for me. It also forced me to question whether this was something I really want to do, because when you have a very close family there is can be a tendency to let people make good decisions for you but not always necessarily the ones you want to make.
In my 20s I also experienced a setback with students when I was teaching. I was trying very hard to reach everybody and I would be in tears if I couldn’t connect with a child in class that was giving me a hard time. I quickly learned to put such emotions aside so I could genuinely help someone who needed me. It wasn’t about me. I remember that it sort of shifted the way that I taught and I viewed my own students.
I’ve come to this stage in my career where I need to go to that next level. If you don’t take that on you tend to be viewed as less driven.
And looking ahead, what do you hope for in the coming years? For yourself and your family?
In my home I really want my kids to feel that they have a bit more of their mum at the fore of their childhood. In Singapore we have this new thing that we say: ‘Fail fast and learn quickly.’ It’s an adoption of the Silicon Valley mindset. So I want them to feel safe and that it’s ok to fail, and that it is important to pick themselves up quickly and not dwell too long on setbacks.
And for myself, I’ve come to this stage in my career where I need to go to that next level. If you don’t take that on you tend to be viewed as less driven or less capable so I need to decide whether that’s something I want to do.
I genuinely feel happy with where I’m at but if I choose not to go back to the school then I might consider looking at working with kids that have learning difficulties—kids like my son.
We need to be able to nurture the individual. We need to be ok with doing things differently and not just doing more of the same.
It’s such an important role to take up. At least from my experience in Australia, I noticed our education models are quite rigid. It’s just luck if you fit into it. I think we need more people with your mindset.
I really hope so. I’ve met so many parents in this last six months who have similar struggles. It’s uncanny that every other parent that I speak to says, ‘Oh yeah, my child faces the same thing.’ And they don’t necessarily have special needs, they just learn differently. We need to be able to nurture the individual in that way. We need to be ok with doing things differently and not just doing more of the same.
One last question. What should we be talking more about?
I think we accept too readily the fact that our kids today don’t get much of a childhood. We recognise it but we have accepted it as the norm. While our kids in first world countries are privileged, in many ways they’re also under increasing pressure to grow up too quickly. As adults, as parents and caregivers and just human beings we need to do something to make this not be the order of the day.
We need to help people discover their strengths and help children regain their sense of self worth.
For you then, what do you see as a first step to giving back that feeling of childhood? And do you mean a sense of freedom of play?
Absolutely. It’s that that sense of exploration and the ability to try out things. To not feel like you have to run at a pace because that’s the pace everyone else is going at, and feel that if you slow down you’re going to be left behind. I think that we need to help people discover their strengths and help children regain their sense of self worth.
It sounds like you are the perfect person to make this happen.
Thank you, Anne!
Things I Love
Being a mum
The love and support of family is something I have always been blessed with and could not live without but ‘motherhood’ has changed my understanding and appreciation of this in ways I can’t easily express!
The English language
While admittedly not the most elegant-sounding of languages, I have made a career out of discovering the depth of its charms and making others fall in love with it too!
Not just a hobby but something I have grown to love because of its therapeutic value.