Conversations with Mila Ariel

By Reyna Mae Corrales

 Mila Ariel is an English teacher at the enrichment centre, The Write Connection. Since as early as she can remember, she has always been passionate about language: reading, writing and journaling from a young age. After a brief foray into economics and finance, having pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics, she has since returned to this work on this passion of hers. Her work with The Write Connection has given her the opportunity not only to work with language, but couples that with another passion of hers, working with kids.

What do you work as and how would you describe your typical workday?

M: I work as an English teacher in the English enrichment centre, The Write Connection. I work 5 days a week and, on Saturdays, I have back-to-back classes for the whole day. On a typical day with classes, it’s very different.

When I reach my centre, I will prepare for my lessons for that day and the rest of the time is my marking time. After my lesson, it’s also marking time. It’s quite different from the typical teacher’s life because the way we mark things is different. We don’t just mark a piece of composition for spelling errors, tenses or grammar; with every piece of writing that students do, we write a comment sheet and we give them tips on how to improve. For example, if they have problems with forming their own sentences, we will come up with exercises that will help them.

How did you decide about pursuing your career as an English teacher?

M: When I was in university, I did Economics and I really didn’t enjoy what I studied. As an Economics graduate, everyone expected me to work in the finance world. But even then, I already knew that it was not what I wanted to do. Language was always a hobby; I have really loved reading, writing and journaling since I was young. But English was never my forte as far as grades go – it was always pretty average. So, I never thought that it would become something that I would pursue as a career.

In church, I got the opportunity to work with kids and that’s when I realised I wanted to work with kids! So, when I graduated I thought of trying teaching. For two years, I was in the pre-school industry. It was very energy intensive and fun but also a lot of manual work like cutting a lot of paper and doing preparatory work for crafts. With pre-school children, I can teach them very simple things such as phonics and alphabets. But I wanted to teach more than just simple sentences.

After I quit my job in the pre-school, I thought whether I should pursue an NIE degree. The life of a teacher in an MOE school is very hectic and they have to do a lot of things. It’s not just the classroom teaching, they have to do all the admin, CCAs and student development – here, there, everywhere. There are too many things and it’s not focused. I felt that I didn’t want to be bogged down by so many things and risk losing the joy I get from the teaching process.

I tried to find other places but it was very hard because my degree is in Economics. I was quite stuck for a while so I asked myself: what do I really want to do? I enjoy teaching. I enjoy English. I enjoy writing. So, I want to do something that has to do with that.

It was quite funny because I found this company through one of their publicity stunts – an advertisement on a bus. I thought it was quite an interesting company so I went to google them. Then, I realised that they were hiring primary school teachers! So, I sent my resume and they got back to me. The interview was good and the CEO was willing to give me a chance.

What advice would you have given your younger self?

M: To have courage and not be afraid to ask yourself “What do you want to do, really?” As you ask yourself that question, do not be distracted by how your peers are going into other industries. I think it’s important to be true to yourself. Because, even if you get into a high paying job where the prospects are really good, if you realise that you’re not happy, then it’s probably not going to work. You will get tired, burnt out and sick of it. I think the reason why I got into Economics was partly because I was insecure about pursuing what I really wanted to do. There was one point when I just wanted to quit school and enrol myself into journalism, but I just didn’t have the courage to do it.

I think it’s important, especially at such crossroads, to not be scared of what you really want to do or what your passions are. Because every single one of us is created different; we have different interests and passion. Success does not have to look the same for everyone. I think it’s important to not be afraid to pursue you dreams, what you like, and what makes you happy and fulfilled.

When you entered the pre-school industry or children education, did you have any expectations before you started?

M: Definitely, I did. When I graduated, I thought that I wanted to work with kids all my life; teaching young children was my calling; no matter what, I had to find a job in a pre-school – which I did. I pursued that job with that kind of mindset. And I had the expectation that I will truly enjoy it and that I will not get burnt out. Because I really do enjoy spending time with kids.

But as you work or you grow and mature as a person, you realise that you can’t do this your whole life. It’s different when you do it day in day out. It gets tiring. And sometimes you don’t have enough sleep. Especially in pre-school when there are so many children clamouring for your attention. So, there are days where you just snap at the children even though you don’t want to. It’s really not that easy.

How has the experience as an English teacher at an enrichment centre been for you?

M: It’s good. Compared to my previous workplace, this is definitely closer to what I want to do. I’ve been in this company for about four months – still quite new here.

I am definitely more mentally stimulated when working with primary school children.  I do have to keep thinking of ideas on how to get the kids to learn. Content-wise, there’s a lot more content to teach. And there are also skills you need to teach the children. And in Singapore where the kids need to learn two languages, they always cross the rules of language. So, you have to think of ideas and solutions on how you can get them to understand the grammar or sentence structure rules.

There are times that kids will be kids and you just have to be really firm and sound harsh, because there will be one or two who will climb over your head if you are too understanding or nice. You do have to be the bad guy at times where you have to tell them off. Truth be told: no teacher likes to do that. It doesn’t feel good to do that. You have to do so in order for them to have the right attitude, for them to do their work or most importantly, to learn.

What do you like the most about your current work?

M: I think with anything to do with education, what is most satisfying is when the kids finally learn. Students finally doing it on their own. It doesn’t have to be big things – sometimes it can be as simple as spelling a word.

Also, interaction with students. You realise that you do care for them and they do reciprocate, and they do respect and listen to you as well. It does feel good when you do your job well or when everything is ticked – you do feel satisfied.

But I think the defining thing is when the students learn or when you have a connection with the kids and they like you, respect you, listen to you and they want to learn. That’s when you know it’s worth it!

What do you keep in mind when working with children?

M: One thing that I keep in mind is to be honest. When I interact with the students, I would want to be as authentic as possible. I don’t believe in knowing it all just because I’m the adult. Yes, I am the person of authority but it doesn’t mean I can’t say “sorry”. For example, if I spelled a word wrongly, I will admit that. If there is a question that I don’t know the answer to, I will tell them honestly and promise to look into the solution so that I can get back to them on it later. I think it’s important to be authentic – in fact, especially so in all these daily interactions.

The second thing is encouragement. As I mentioned before, I’m also someone who is very open and candid. I think as teachers, we do get tired. It’s very easy to get in that mode of not caring or giving up on the student. But I think I have to keep reminding myself that they still can be molded. They are still young and there is still time to make an impact. I want to encourage this person to go forward from where he or she is. Especially in Singapore, a lot of my students are scared to be wrong and are waiting for me to give them the answers. I have to give them pep talks – 10/10 may not be the most important thing. Sometimes, as teachers, we do have to undo the teachings that parents have already inculcated in them. I always encourage them not to be scared of learning.

Speaking of parents, how do you work with them?

M: I think the most important thing about parents is that you have to communicate with them. I mean it’s easier said than done. I myself, get scared and have difficulties. I think communication is key. Parents need to know that we teachers are not there to bring their kids down. As a teacher, we are here to partner with you. Sometimes we have to bring them down to grow up.

Parents always come in with expectations and expect them to improve in miracles. But they don’t just happen, kids also have to work at it. In our company, we don’t rely on memorization. A lot of kids come in with a database with what they have memorised like good sentences or phrases. Kids are forced to memorise big words and sentences. Sometimes we have to undo these things because they just insert these words and phrases into their writing – but, often, it does not work like that. Sometimes, we teachers are the ones who must talk to the parents and help them to understand. For the kids to write well, they have to do the right work and that is not memorising. Let kids read more and not be afraid to express their ideas. Yes, sometimes it’s awkward but we can always work correct that afterward.

Are there entry requirements and qualifications needed in this line of work?

M: The best would be to have an English or Literature degree. But I guess it depends from company to company. My CEO is quite accepting of degrees from other disciplines – just that you should be able to speaking fluently and articulately. You should have some knowledge of literary devices like metaphors. During the interview, there is also a teaching segment where you have to teach something that has to do with English.

Truth be told: I was quite insecure because my English credentials were not very strong. But I’m someone who is very honest and I will try not to mask or be someone I am not. If you try so hard to be good when you are not yet at that standard, you may end up struggling and realise that you’re not a good fit. So, I’m usually very open, honest and candid during job interviews such as recognising how I didn’t have, at that time, a strong track record in English. The CEO who interviewed me is someone whom I respect a lot because of her core values. The way she views people is not just based on what she sees on a piece of paper.

What are the professional competencies you would consider most important or relevant to your work?

M: Adaptability is definitely important. Especially in education where you are always working with people, with students. The make-up and dynamics of every class are different so you really have to adapt to them. For some kids, you may need to change the way you run the lesson, on the spot.

Energy is very important! Because kids need energy. If you are going in with a dead voice, they will not respond.

Developing others because you are not there just for yourself. You are there to educate, teach and develop students.

Follow-up is really important as well. I tell them to improve on this and the next week you work on it. If I don’t follow up, they will not truly learn. Following up with parents is also very important.

For us teachers, Applied Learning is important. Sometimes we can read a lot of personal development articles or books but if you don’t adapt it or you are stuck in the same way of doing over and over again, then you are not learning. Then, the kids won’t move to the next step either. I do have this problem, especially as a new teacher. I have to keep reminding myself to use what I learnt in the classroom.

Risk-tasking is actually quite important with regards to yourself. You cannot keep relying on a tried and tested method as if it’s the only option. Sometimes you have to challenge yourself to try new things. Then, you realise it’s quite effective or it works. And also to inculcate in the children that it’s a safe environment to try. Even if you’re wrong, it’s okay. Everyone learns.

Information monitoring is important too. You need to know what you don’t know and take steps to fill in the gaps. Especially because I don’t come with a background specialising in education and pedgogy.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years with regards to career?

M: It’s a really hard question because I’m not the type of person who always knows what my next step is. I’m not saying that I don’t know what I want to pursue… It’s more of being open to different things. I’m not the kind of person who has one set goal. It doesn’t help that I have a lot of interests. Honestly, I don’t really know where I would be or think I would be in five years.

I hope that I will have more time to myself to write. I always have dreams of being a writer but I don’t know when or how that can ever happen. Maybe it’s the next step. I hope that I will have my own time where I can write my own articles or books even. I hope to teach, maybe not only just kids but even older kids to challenge themselves. I would want to be able to teach youth to get them to not be afraid of their real interests and identity. I see myself as being able to instil that heart of not being afraid of expressing one’s self through writing.