Unteachable

Unteachable is uplifting and at the same time dispiriting as it shows our education system striving to be meaningful and empathetic but hampered by how it defines success. The documentary follows Meixi as she introduces the Tutorial Relationship pedagogy in Singapore. The pedagogy seeks to bring back a love for learning in students who struggle academically, by co-opting them into the teaching and learning process. 

After an Inter-school Teacher Conference, a principal of a local school offers Meixi a chance to pilot a programme using the pedagody, in his school, with students from the Normal Technical Stream. As the documentary follows Meixi, who functions as trainer as well as a relief teacher during the pilot programme, we see her having to manoeuvre between support and reservation. 

Before the school year starts, the camera lens shows us the teachers actively embracing the pedagogy in Tutorial Relationship teacher training workshops and earnest feedback discussions. It also captures the ever present resistance as a few express their doubts about continuing with the pedagody beyond the pilot programme with the plea to be “realistic” as since it is not fitted into the timetable, it requires extra time to in the workday and at the end of the day it may “not [be] worth it. 

The students shine whenever they are on the screen. Their body language show confusion when dealing with Math but their faces light up and their voices are expressive when they discuss their lives outside of school. They are endearingly frank and open. After a tiring coaching session, Damian, one of the students who is the central subject of the documentary, says he finds it hard just to teach 1 student, and yet the teachers have to teach so many. Yet as they immerse themselves in the programme, brow furrowing intensity give way to relaxed dialogue they gain greater ease with the process of learning and teaching.

Director Yong Shu Ling also captures scenes that will remind its local audiences of our experiences in local schools. The sharp, strident tones of a teacher scolding students, the celebration in class and birthday cake for the same teacher who scolded the students, the dismissive look on a teacher’s face as he tells a student his work is wrong, a photo taking session with a big heart-shaped card from the students to thank Meixi before she leaves the school after the pilot programme.
The documentary continues to catch up with the students periodically and it accompanies them as they receive their N levels results, giving us another chance to hear Damian’s reflection on his school experience and his results – “Exams are just a small test. The big test is actually outside in the society. If you work hard in the future, then … it’s OK.”. The maturity of his thoughts truly remind us that when we label anyone “unteachable”, the rock is just hitting the wrong target.

Contributed by:

Lindy