Why winning isn’t everything

“As a teacher, I realised that what I want for my students is not necessarily for them to win, but for them to develop their knowledge and skills.” – Khor Wei Ken, 2016 Fellow

Wei Ken cropped cropped

Wei Ken is a second-year English teacher at a high-need school in Pasir Gudang, Johor. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Warwick University.

Last year, I introduced a number of students to public speaking, and trained them for competitions – from impromptu speeches to poetry reading. Here are some lessons I learnt from my students as we went through their competition journeys.

Lesson #1: My students are not me

Grace and Tsing were two students in Form 3, who entered an English public speaking competition as a pair.

We focused on pronunciation during training. They read the text, I corrected them. Despite practising a lot, they continued to struggle. “Why do we keep making the same mistakes?” They hadn’t been exposed to a teacher who nitpicked every single word they said.

It wasn’t until Mei Yee (Senior Leadership Development Officer at Teach For Malaysia) said to me “Your students are not Wei Ken”, that I understood that I had to look at things from my students’ perspective.

I asked myself: “What kind of difficulties are they facing? What are they struggling with?”

I had to let go of winning and let them develop their own style, rather than try and change them to be like me.

I realised it wasn’t worth risking everything else for pronunciation – the emotion, the hand gestures, the general style of presentation. So I told them, do it your way – use your own style.

After that, we were in the zone! This time, I asked for their suggestions – what techniques did they want to use to spice up their presentation?

On the day itself, they performed really well and got 4th place. I was really proud of them.

Lesson #2: Let go

Ang was in Form 5, and took part in an impromptu Mandarin public speaking competition. Students were given a topic and had fifteen minutes to come up with a script and present it.

Ang was a very bright kid. She could come up with content in a very short time.

Two nights before the day of the competition, we prepped for 8 hours straight at her father’s restaurantAs a trained debater, I pay a lot of attention to how the logic flows – in other words, I’m picky.

Khor Wei Ken, 2016 Fellow - Teach For Malaysia

In this competition, there is no preparing scripts, so a lot of personal beliefs come through.

The experience was surreal because I got to know her own unique thoughts and opinions. I had a lot of belief in her – she had the potential to go all the way to the national level.

Once again, I realised that pronunciation carries less weight than content in impromptu speaking: “Let’s focus on the content, and if you remember to pronounce something correctly then great – if not, just move on, don’t let it ruin the flow of your speech.”

In the competition, Ang got 4th place. During the process of training, it’s hard to gauge whether you should let go or hold on. I’ve learned that sometimes you can’t control everything.

Lesson #3: Disappointment is part of the process

When I was young I entered a lot of competitions – won some of them, lost some of them. 

As a teacher, I realised that what I want for my students is not necessarily for them to win, but for them to develop their knowledge and skills.

Ultimately the value of these competitions is not the award, but the maturity you gain through the journey – that helps you face whatever comes your way in the future.

That said, I try to instill a sense of competition in them and the desire to learn more. To me it’s essential because they will grow and learn to face more challenges. When they feel disappointed, I tell them that it’s part of the process.

You will exceed your own expectations and grow from your disappointments.

Wei Ken Dragons' DenEarlier this year, Wei Ken pitched Project THOR to a panel of judges at Teach For Malaysia’s Dragons’ Den. The project aims to develop students’ public speaking and higher-order thinking skills (HOTS).

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