‘We Must Be a Kinder Society.’ Meet the OG of Environmental Education in Singapore

This Teacher’s Day, we want to celebrate Mrs Habibah Ismail, 67, who believes that environmental education is all about the values, comradeship, and leadership formed by her students.

“I don’t want to tell my students that it’s my last day in school. I don’t tell my students personal information about myself. I am a very private person. No one knows my birthday and how long I have been teaching.”

I quickly scribbled down ‘private person’ on my notebook and made a mental note that this was going to be a difficult interview, or so I thought. 

She went on.

“It was pretty scary when I first started teaching. The students were really curious about us (as we usually do not share our personal information). They also wrote personal letters to us to show their affection and support for us.”

With a hard pause, Mrs Ismail continued, “They are troubled kids who don’t have a mother. Sometimes the more time I spend with them, the more it feels like I am their foster or adopted mother.” 

“They have a heart, and I feel very sad that these children had to be segregated (into different academic streams). If you don’t handle them properly, they will become disengaged or disruptive. This is because they don’t feel anyone cares for them.”

When the Normal (Technical) stream was first introduced in 1994, Mrs Ismail volunteered to teach the class in the Upper Secondary level.

Mrs Ismail with her Eco-Club students. Since 2019, the school has gone straw-free.
©Ang Mo Kio Secondary School

“In my first year of teaching, I couldn’t take it when my students failed. In the beginning of my career, it became very traumatic for me when they did not do well academically.”

Even as the debate about the effectiveness of streaming continues, Mrs Ismail believes that such “labelling” could have detrimental psychological effects on both the students and parents.

“In some of the classes that I teach, there are disruptive kids. These kids are actually calling out to you and saying, ‘Help me please’. When they display disruptive behaviour, they really just need someone to talk to. Sometimes I will say, ‘Come, let’s walk.’ As you get to know them better, you are able to influence them, and that is how I can reduce the disruption in class.”

“There must be people who pull you up. If you meet people who don’t care, you’ll always be stuck in the box. You will grow up believing that you can’t succeed. People may forget you are from the Normal stream but you, yourself, cannot.”

In 2019, Mrs Ismail was one of the three AMKSS teachers celebrated by Foundation For Environmental Education (FEE) for incorporating environmental education into the school curriculum, recognising the school’s efforts on sustainability internationally. 
©Ang Mo Kio Secondary School

“I look at students as people who are growing up. You must allow them to make mistakes, develop and grow up. You cannot take it against them, it’s all a part of growing up. Trust me, they don’t know what they are doing half of the time.”

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Collaboration a big part of environmental education

Mrs Ismail has been teaching since 1977 – starting at Sembawang Primary School for two years before spending the rest of her career with Ang Mo Kio Secondary School.

Today, Mrs Ismail has more than four decades of experience teaching Geography and Environmental Education for students aged 13 to 16.  

“I have always wanted to teach. I have a big family, and my mum was a teacher. She quit when she gave birth to me, so I think teaching is in our blood.”

Mrs Ismail grew up in an era where education was very important but there were few opportunities. Prior to her teaching career, she taught her cousins and neighbours in the kampong before joining the self-help group Mendaki. 

Kampong life will make you personable whether you like it or not. Back in the kampong days, if there was trouble in the family, everyone would gather together to see how we could solve the problem together.”

This experience eventually led to a lifelong passion for community-led collaboration that would define the rest of her teaching career, including her belief that environment education should be a part of the school syllabus.  

“Whatever the students are doing, they must have values that include protecting the environment by, for example, having a tidy and clean classroom. This comes first before academic education.”

Helping students to develop real-world skills

If there is one thing that Mrs Ismail is known for by her students and colleagues, it would be how she pioneered the Environmental Club in Ang Mo Kio Secondary School. Even though it is a second CCA for the students, those in the club spend hundreds of hours on it. 

Driven by the mission to provide students with a non-classroom space where they can build real-world skills, Mrs Ismail built the opportunities for her students to propose and execute their own initiatives in school. 

The result was cohort after cohort of fun-spirited students who were able to take charge of exemplary sustainable initiatives in school. Case in point: they held a campaign rally for the school to go straw-free on their own.  

Under the WWF Eco-School Leadership programme, students go through a few weeks of training and become nature guides to members of the public. They learn skills like teamwork, public speaking and project management.

“Many people think it’s a gardening club. But to me, it is beyond that. It’s the values, comradeship and leadership that the students form. That’s what my students miss most about the club.”

“The club has been able to grow because the children are very comfortable with themselves and the goals the club wants to achieve. Note that it’s not my goals, but the goals they set for themselves. I don’t decide or dictate, it depends on them. It is a collaboration between us.”

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For the Eco-Club students in Ang Mo Kio Secondary School, their strength lies in making the school’s sustainable efforts a personal ambition.
©Ang Mo Kio Secondary School

Mrs Ismail explained that she would kickstart an idea by asking the students what they want to do. She starts with their comfort zone and monitors their growth from there.

“I only step in if they tell me that they cannot do something. Sometimes, the children need that kind of modelling. I will challenge them by showing them that it is possible.”

In Mrs Ismail’s absence – either for personal or medical reasons – the Eco-Club students were able to conduct activities such as the school’s AMKsian Showcase and Eco-trail for Secondary One students on their own.

“I like working with WWF because it develops leadership skills like these. To me, student leadership is very important. Nowadays, parents and teachers have more confidence in the students. As I come from a background where student-led initiatives are important, I would love for my students to have these experiences as well. I want them to think.”

Led by Mrs Ismail, Ang Mo Kio Secondary School was awarded one of the first two International Green Flag Schools in Singapore. The most prestigious award given to schools that emphasise on continuous school improvement and culture of environmental awareness, they first attained it in 2015, and successfully defended the title in 2017 and 2019.

“If you give them a sense of purpose and the confidence that they can do it on their own without me, I think that’s what the club is for: to develop children to become leaders and for them to stand up on their own.”

Biggest takeaways from a 43-year teaching career

“Contrary to what many people think about teaching as a half-day job, teachers work long hours. Now, you have to tend to WhatsApp. If you don’t have WhatsApp, you can’t reach the students. They are very busy.”

Mrs Ismail still reminisces about the times when teachers had to work for five and a half days each week. “The teachers used to bond more. My colleagues and I try to keep sane by sharing funny stories in class and laughing at each other.”

“I wake up around 6am every morning, reach school before 7.30am, meet students who need help or catch up with my close colleagues – and I drink tea only if I can squeeze in the time. The later parts of the day are usually filled with meetings and prep work for the next day. I will bring my markings home.”

I also asked her what a good day at school looks like for her (although finding out what she likes to do in her free time took a lot more probing). 

“Every day is a good day since I’ve been in this job for so long, right?” she jests.

“On a more serious note though, I learnt that it’s important to separate work from my personal life. Teachers need to get away during the school holidays to be recharged.”

In her free time, Mrs Ismail likes to explore Singapore with her husband to find new eateries.

On her retirement plans, Mrs Ismail shared that she would like to cook more elaborate dishes now that she finally has the time. “My mother was such a good cook. Growing up, we used to have a whole spread of dishes like chicken and beef when the family came together.”

The biggest question I had for Mrs Ismail after listening to her inspiring story was: given another chance, is there anything she would have done differently?

“There is no point regretting, but if I can change something, that would be removing streaming earlier. I feel we could have lessened the pain of students and parents. These children were born into circumstances that were not within their control.”

“We must be a kinder society and look at things from a broader perspective. Every student has a different niche and ability. Look at what they can do instead of using a common benchmarking to judge their abilities, and how we can measure each person’s strength differently.”

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