“Why follow the tuition culture?”
For many years, this was Teo Pau Lin’s approach to her daughters’ education. A big believer in “not following the crowd”, the former journalist-turned-baker made a conscious decision not to send Noelle and Kate for extra lessons after school. As far as Pau Lin was concerned, getting “B”s in their exams was absolutely fine.
“I just didn’t want to overload them with tuition every day,” she says. “It was important for them to have a childhood—to have time to nap, play with neighbours, paint and read for fun.”
Only when Noelle, her elder daughter, began to struggle in mathematics and science in Primary 5, did she send her for tuition. While her classmates had tuition for all their subjects, her mother believed that “if we prayed and she put in hard work”, Noelle would do well in her PSLE.
“The night before each paper, instead of making her do final-hour revisions, we would spend time worshipping as a family.”
“I believed that as long as we did our part, He would send her to a good secondary school,” she says. “So, no need for us to overdo it—just doing enough and having faith in God’s love and plans for her will suffice.”
Even in the weeks leading up to the PSLE exams, Pau Lin would allow Noelle to take naps during the day and watch Netflix movies on Friday nights. After all, Noelle had done well in her preliminary exams—good enough to get into a decent secondary school.
“The night before each paper, instead of making her do final-hour revisions, we would spend time worshipping as a family,” recalls Pau Lin. “We wanted to soak in God’s presence and enjoy His peace. Again, I wanted to be counter-culture.”
So it came as a big shock when Noelle did badly in her PSLE exams. Her score not only ruled her out of getting into the best schools, but also closed doors to any second- or third-tier secondary schools. “We basically had to look into schools we never knew existed before,” Pau Lin remarked frankly.
Pau Lin and family in 2010.
Struggling with Regret, Wrestling with God
Noelle, of course, was devastated. Pau Lin and her husband, Ivan, rushed to comfort her and assure her that they still loved her. However, Pau Lin’s greatest anguish was that of deep regret. She wondered if she had gone about her daughter’s education all wrong.
Was I wrong about being counter-culture? she asked herself. Should I have followed conventional wisdom and sent her for tuition for all her subjects? Was I wrong in letting her have so much down time? Was it my fault?
And the most painful question of all—Have I ruined my daughter’s future?
Disappointed and humiliated, she felt as if God had abandoned them. She couldn’t help but ask Him: How could You put her in danger’s way? How could You place her in a school where bad influences abound?
Even worse, Pau Lin began to wonder if God was to blame.
For a whole week, she says, her faith in God’s goodness went into a “tailspin”. Disappointed and humiliated, she felt as if God had abandoned them. She couldn’t help but ask Him: How could You put her in danger’s way? How could You place her in a school where bad influences abound? God, I am so disappointed in You.
Receiving God’s Answers and Comfort
Despite these questions, Pau Lin was determined to continue with a devotional that she had been reading. And in that same week, she found passages that spoke straight to her heart every single day.
One came from Psalm 24, which promised God’s blessing and presence to those who sought Him:
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.
They will receive blessing from the Lord
and vindication from God their Saviour.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, God of Jacob. —Psalm 24:3–6
Another passage that gave her great comfort was Mark 5:21–43, on the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter. “It struck me that the girl was 12 years old, the same age as my daughter,” says Pau Lin. “And Jesus had said to Jairus, ‘Don’t be afraid. Just believe’.”
God also showed Pau Lin that He was aware of her daughter’s efforts. A week or so after the PSLE, she received a letter from their constituency congratulating Noelle for her “good progress” and rewarding her with a cash award. “God was telling us that He sees her efforts,” she says. “And the $150 was a huge deal to her because it translated to at least a year’s supply of bubble tea!”
Pau Lin adds: “God is good, He always is, and He has something exciting up His sleeve for us.”
Pau Lin and Noelle in 2010.
A Surprising Turn of Events
Pau Lin would soon discover that God had more surprises in store. As she began the process of enrolling Noelle at a nearby secondary school—a “neighbourhood school” that she knew nothing about—she received more assurances that God was in control of her daughter’s future.
When she went to the school website to find out more about it, she found herself encouraged by the principal’s message. “I was immediately struck by his warmth and uplifting words. I found out later that he was a godly Christian and a very well-respected educator who was known for being an advocate of prayer groups in schools,” she says. “I felt immediate peace that this was the school for her, and perhaps God had had the plan to plant her there all along.”
At the same time, however, well-meaning friends told her that the school used to be a “gangster school”, which sent her “oscillating between hopefulness and sheer anxiety”. She just couldn’t figure out if it was good for Noelle to come under the covering of a godly principal, or bad for her to be possibly influenced by her schoolmates.
While she had prayed for Noelle to be placed in a class with godly friends and good influences, she ended up with the rowdiest of the lot.
God gave her another comforting passage:
Who, then, are those who fear the Lord?
He will instruct them in the ways they should choose.
They will spend their days in prosperity,
and their descendants will inherit the land. —Psalm 25:12–13
After Noelle was accepted by the school, God had one more surprise for Pau Lin.
While she had prayed for Noelle to be placed in a class with godly friends and good influences, she ended up with the rowdiest of the lot. Yet even in this, Pau Lin witnessed God’s wisdom and divine plans.
“Somehow, it has brought out a certain boldness in her that I’ve never seen before,” she says. “She stands up for herself and her classmates, and has unearthed a drive to do well in her studies and to aim for leadership positions.”
Not only that, she says, her husband has also found opportunities to get involved in their daughter’s school. He began volunteering in a mentorship programme, and found the weekly sessions a highlight. Says Pau Lin: “I marvel at how God has opened up an avenue of service to Him in such an unexpected way.”
Noelle studying for her PSLE in 2019.
Learning True Faith and Submission
Pau Lin’s journey through her daughter’s PSLE has taught her many lessons, not just about parenting, but also about her own faith.
She has learnt, for example, what true faith and surrender really means. “I thought my approach towards my child’s future was one of faith and submission, but it was revealed to be otherwise,” she says. “While we had prayed throughout the whole PSLE journey that God’s will would be done, I had a very narrow idea of what this was. I wanted what I wanted. Deep down, I was no different from many other parents: I, too, wanted a famous school for my kid so I could look good.”
“I thought my approach towards my child’s future was one of faith and submission, but it was revealed to be otherwise.”
But God showed her that His ways are always higher. For many years, she had prayed for her daughter to grow up to be a godly and positive influence in society—and He answered it by placing her in a school where she could learn to engage with friends from all walks of life, races, and religions. “He is answering my prayer,” notes Pau Lin. “But can I accept it?”
Her conclusion was: God’s ways are not always our ways. “We may think we know what is best for our kids, but God sees the whole picture and has a plan that doesn’t always make immediate sense to us,” she says. “He loves our kids more than we ever can, so we should trust and believe that they will turn out excellently.”
“We may think we know what is best for our kids, but God sees the whole picture and has a plan that doesn’t always make immediate sense to us.”
She adds: “I’m excited and super curious about God’s purpose for my daughter’s life because He’s taking her on a path that is so different from what I had planned or envisioned. It must be good!”
The PSLE experience has also taught Pau Lin that parenting requires nothing less than a day-to-day dependence on the Holy Spirit, which in turn is based on the secure knowledge that God loves all of us—and our children.
“I am in the season of discovering the father heart of God towards me,” she says. “Knowing that I am His child, I don’t think I will ever doubt His goodness and plans towards me and my children. Ultimately, our kids belong to God—we are to steward them for a short time only. So, we nurture them, cover them with prayers, and leave the result to God. He is the One who is in control of their futures.”