A profession like Ms Koh Eng Guan’s is always a good conversation starter.
As a nutrition and food science (NFS) teacher at Loyang Secondary School, she never fails to attract perplexed looks and assumptions of her competency in domestic affairs when she tells people what she does.
Previously known as home economics, NFS imparts culinary skills as part of the curriculum — but it is much more than that.
Says Ms Koh, 31: “Besides cooking, I teach students to think critically about issues surrounding food, health and nutrition so they can come up with creative solutions to real-life problems.
“I try to inculcate in my students planning, research, execution and evaluation skills, as well as help them to develop competencies such as decision-making and the application of scientific theory in evaluating problems.”
Inspired by the dedication of her form teacher in Gongshang Primary School, Ms Koh’s desire to teach started out as a childhood ambition.
Nevertheless, like many others with varied job opportunities, upon her graduation from the University of Leeds in Britain with an honours degree in food science, she explored other career options.
Her first job was at an established food company, where she was involved in the processes of quality control, and research and development. The environment was conducive, but she still clamoured to do something more meaningful.
“Something wasn’t right,” Ms Koh recalls. “Although I was given opportunities to climb the corporate ladder, there was no motivation for me, and everything quickly fell into a routine. Work was not in the least satisfying.”
It was then she decided to pursue her old teaching dream.
NFS was an obvious choice, given her background in food science, and the passion she had for home economics as a student.
“It was my sheer interest in the subject and the passion to educate students that spurred me to choose and continue teaching,” she says with conviction.
Having taught for six years, Ms Koh knows teaching is no bed of roses. Her day is long and often fraught with challenges.
“Being a teacher is not easy as it is an art of precision. To handle students, you have to balance the various elements —compassionate at times, yet steadfast at others. You have to be funny and approachable at times, yet authoritative at others,” she says.
However, the satisfaction she gets from seeing her students learn and succeed is priceless.
Says Ms Koh: “A few years ago, I had a very challenging graduating class — the students were rowdy and had a defeatist mentality. They thought they were going to fail right from the start.
“From ground zero, I guided each of them personally, communicated with their parents, motivated them through positive strokes and made them believe in themselves.”
She recalls delightedly: “Exceeding all expectations, their results in nutrition and food science were above the national average, and this really boosted their self-confidence.”
As a teacher, she also goes on overseas field trips like a recent one to Java, where she had an enjoyable time learning about Javanese culture while forming strong bonds with her students.
Her previous job has heightened her appreciation of her current one. “Now, with a clear purpose, I am motivated to achieve my goals, and I feel a deep sense of fulfilment. I am also more appreciative of the school system and the support from my school and the Ministry of Education,” she says.
A dedicated teacher’s legacy cannot be underestimated. Just as she was inspired to teach by her teacher, she hopes to inspire her students to teach too.
“Being a nutrition and food science teacher is a meaningful career that enables you to help your students become informed consumers of today’s society. Being sensitive to health issues and being able to critically evaluate current food affairs are important life skills,” says Ms Koh.
She adds: “Certainly, teaching is not an easy job. However, knowing that you are equipping students with life skills that will make a difference even in the long run, makes it all worthwhile.”