miss tan, teacher extraordinaire

She slipped in the toilet, hit her head and died. It sounds tragicomic but let me assure you, it’s not.

That’s how my Primary Five and Six form teacher passed away.

This morning, Mum smsed me: “Is Joyce Choo’s maiden name Tan Wan Keng?” I gulped. Why would she want to know her maiden name?


No, couldn’t be. She’s still young, in her early 40s or so. She had battled cancer, and won. We – 6B (a.m. session) 1989 – knew her as “Miss Tan”. She was one of a new breed of teachers. We had dedicated teachers before, but she was more than that.

I replied that I didn’t know her chinese name but we did know her as Miss Joyce Tan. She’d married a few years after we left primary school. Calling her Mrs Choo always seemed weird.

Primary school classmates. How to contact them? How to confirm it was her? There were about 40 of us. A disparate bunch to say the least. A few of us ended up in Saint Joseph’s. I only kept in occassional touch with one of them – Edwin Kheng. I swear I had his mobile number on my phone.

Apparently not. Not in my Palm. Not in the ICQ info. We’re supposedly living in the connected age. I sent off an email and ICQ msg in the hope he’d reply.

Mum said the photo in the obituary looked like her. Still, I wanted to be absolutely sure. I wanted one of my classmates to confirm it.

Until then, I was in denial – something I’ve seemingly become quite adept at doing recently. Can’t be. Absolutely cannot be.

I went to Uni, smiled my smile, talked my talk and hid the disbelief, the denial and the pain.


Saint Anthony’s Boys was a small school. Sub-standard by Ministry of Education declaration. Things never seemed to change. The same teachers were there year after year. You always knew who’d be taking over your class the following year. There were only two classes per level per session (or four per level total).

Miss Tan came into our lives much to our surprise. I can’t recall specifics, but I think we knew very early on that she was different from every other teacher we had. She was attractive, young and full of energy. I’m quite sure more of my classmates had crushes on her than they’d dare admit.

She was big on writing. And not just compositions. I remember the term “creative writing” being introduced to us very early in the year. To a Singaporean primary school kid used to writing almost template-like essays, creative writing was a radical idea.

Write ANYTHING you want? Poetry? Prose? Dialogue? I remember my gems: poems on chicken wings (i had yet to discover drumlettes) and roti prata. She was always encouraging. Correcting grammar when necessary, and helping those who knew the rules to break grammatical convention.

Everything we wrote, she valued.

She also set up a letter box. Miss Tan told us to feel free to write anything we wanted to her. Once again, another radical idea. Writing to your teacher?!? We caught on, and ended up telling her more than we told our friends and our parents. I still have her replies, kept in a box at home.

Yes, she replied to every single letter.

I remember her advice on BGR. Advice I would take years to implement. Hormones were raging a bit early with me. But I was shy. (Still think I’m shy actually.) Really! I remember her putting me in my place, telling me not to smirk so much, that other teachers had noticed that I smirked… a lot. I was smart, but not that smart. I remember her giving me advice on leadership. I remember her words on my ambitions: don’t be a lawyer, eventually, you’ll have to lie as part of your job. Or at very least, not present the truth. Not in those words exactly but something along those lines.

I’m not a lawyer, nor training to be one.

She was principled, and she was unabashedly Christian. Miss Tan was clear on how God worked in her life, and she wasn’t afraid to share her faith. She never once attacked the Catholics in class, nor any other religion. Her faith was truly amazing. And her faith would one day help her get through cancer, as some of us found out during a little reunion gathering some years later.

Her lessons were thoroughly innovative. I never recalled doing experiments for science until she came along. She made sure our library corner was well-stocked, and she introduced us to Roald Dahl.

We had class outings DURING semester. We’d always had pointless trips to places like the Botanical Gardens at the end of semester but never one that was used as part of the lesson plan. I remember the trip to the Fire Station. That was so… cool! And we did so many class activities based on that visit.

She got us to sit in groups based on ability. This may sound like a bad thing, but it gave her time to help the ones who needed help. The smarter ones helped themselves with minimal input from her. She challenged everyone to perform beyond their ability. We wanted to, for some reason or other. I guess it’s because she valued our work. More importantly, Miss Tan valued each one of us. She was a master motivator.

Miss Tan also implemented fines. 10 cents for every time she heard someone speak in something other than English during her classes.

What do you know? Our class performed better overall. No need to mention the English language grades.

At the end of both years, she helped us produce a class magazine, which contained the best of our work, personal profiles and photos.

Despite all this effort, we angered and disappointed her. I remembered her storming out of class in tears a couple of times. Bad memories – I don’t remember why she left the class, just that she did.

And now, she’s left us for good.

I could go on but I still wouldn’t do her justice; I still wouldn’t be able to fully quantify or qualify her effect on our lives.


The day passed, and I came back home. No reply from Edwin. I smsed Mum to ask her to scan and email the obituary. She called me and confirmed that it was Miss Tan. My brother, who attended Asher (a tuition/day-care place she had started up), confirmed her demise.

Aunty Joyce, the staff said, had passed on. Mum told me how she died.


Dear Miss Tan,

I know you’re in heaven now. I wish I had kept in touch with you. Asher was literally across the street from home. I’m sure you’re looking down at me, seeing my tears. I’m so sorry…

I hope that you’re proud of who I’ve become. You are one of my biggest influences. Who and what I am today, is partly because of you. I am proud and honoured to have been your student. Thank you, Miss Tan. I love you.

Damn it, I’m crying in my room and I know you’ll never be able to reply to this. I can’t write any more.



7 thoughts on “miss tan, teacher extraordinaire

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  3. That’s the beauty of mission schools, methodist or catholic. They seem to create a normal human being and you still see that in that person many decades down the road. When you look at a stereo-type govt school student, the contrast is obvious right through many decades later. I swear to that.

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  5. Thank you for your beautiful piece on Ms Joyce Tan. I too am sadden by her passing. Although she never taught me, I could tell that she is a very dedicated and caring teacher. Definitely a new breed of teacher, different from the “old school, strict disciplinarian, no hesitation to melt out corporal punishment” kind.

    With no disrespect to Lawrence Koh (who is an excellent teacher as well), many of my 6A classmates were seriously jealous that 6B got the young, pretty lady teacher. 6B seem to have so much fun that we didn’t have.

    I’m happy to know more about Ms Joyce Tan through your writings. It does bring back many fond memories of SABS and our teachers. Although our (mine & Ms Tan) paths only cross for such a fleeting moment. I will forever have her image in my memories.

    Cheers to Ms Joyce Tan’s life and to the many lives she has touched.

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