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The visionary educationist
by Theresa Tan

The late Dr Ruth Wong, who has been described as a visionary educationist who transformed the training of teachers here, did not set out to be a teacher.

Dr Wong once wrote that "no profession befitted my intellectual capacity better" than medicine. A devout Christian, she also hoped to run free clinics for the poor.

But the eldest of 10 children gave up a scholarship that could have paved the way for her to study medicine. Her father's tailoring business was badly hit during the Great Depression in the 1930s and she became a teacher to support her family.

Her younger sister, retired professor of medicine and cardiologist Wong Hee Ong, 86, said: "Ruth always placed others before herself."

Because of her sacrifice, her siblings were able to continue schooling and many of them became doctors, professors and other professionals.

Dr Wong, who never married and spent 44 years in education, died of colon cancer at the age of 64 in 1982.

She was in her 30s when she won a scholarship to attend Queen's University in Northern Ireland to do an arts degree and she eventually did her Masters' and doctorate degree in education at Harvard University.

She taught for more than 10 years at various schools, headed the Teachers' Training College and when it became the Institute of Education in 1973, she was its first director. The national teacher training institute is now known as the National Institute of Education (NIE).

Professor Tan Oon Seng, NIE's dean of teacher education, said Dr Wong boosted the quality of teacher education and laid the foundation for innovations in teaching in the 1970s. This was a time when Singapore was a developing nation and the focus was on finding enough teachers to teach the growing population.

She saw the need to go beyond training teachers to be proficient in the subjects they teach, to also give them a deeper perspective that would enable them to think critically and understand how children learn so they can teach better, he said.

She reconceptualised the teacher education programme and put in place new ways of teaching, learning and assessment. Dr Wong elevated the status of teachers at a time when teaching was often seen as a job of last resort, her sister Hee Ong said.

She emphasised higher education and sent her staff to obtain post-graduate degrees so they can better train the next generation of teachers.

She also introduced ground-breaking ideas in her time, such as promoting education research, and introduced counselling in schools.

The weakest and most disadvantaged students had a special place in her heart and she would go all out to find ways to help them, he said.

Prof Tan, who knew her as a teenager through church where she taught bible classes, added: "She is the most visionary educator I know of. She was also a very caring and approachable lady.

"She influenced us into thinking that teaching is more than a job, it is a calling that will bring blessings to others."

Dr Wong's sister Hee Ong said she was a caring big sister who taught her siblings subjects such as Latin and Additional Maths.

Last year, Hee Ong wrote a book titled Ruth Wong: Educationist And Teacher Extraordinaire to tell the story of Dr Wong's life.

Dr Wong, who once described herself as "rather introverted" and "frequently tongue-tied", never thought she could teach.

She wrote to the Christian Teachers' Fellowship weeks before her death: "There were dark patches sometimes, but rewarding experiences more than compensated for this. Always the students were loveable and responsive to love. Would I take up a medical course if permitted to live my life again? No."

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