When Angels Fall: The Plight of an Ambitious Educator

WONG Jock Onn
Centre for English Language Communication (CELC)

Jock Onn reflects on the challenges of maximising learning in his course while trying to strike a good balance between ensuring fairness and mitigating workload stress for his students. 

Photo by nicollazzi xiong: https://www.pexels.com/photo/four-rock-formation-668353
Wong J. O. (2023, March 29). When angels fall: The plight of an overambitious educator. Teaching Connections. https://blog.nus.edu.sg/teachingconnections/2023/03/29/when-angels-fall-the-plight-of-an-ambitious-educator/

As a serious educator in higher education who believes in empowerment, I spare no effort in unlocking student potential. While, like many of my peers, I focus on student engagement, independent learning, explanatory capacity, and other hallmarks of effective teaching (del Cerro & Ruiz-Esteban, 2020; Devlin & Samarawickrema, 2010) to maximise learning, I often find that student potential is limited by the boundaries of what is prescribed for them in a course. Thus, my purpose tends to be more than what is prescribed by the course I am teaching. For example, while the CELC’s IEM21 programme which I taught only required students to produce a 2,500-word term paper, I provided sufficient resources for students to develop it into a full-length research paper. To this end, I implemented additional learning activities not prescribed by the programme: process writing (at least three draft introductions), writing a reflective journal, and presentations (group and individual) (Wong, 2020a; 2020b; 2022), subsuming them under participation. My efforts produced results, such as published papers developed from term papers (Tao & Wong, 2020; Yee & Wong, 2021), international conference presentations (e.g., by Javan Seow and Kay Yeo), and other achievements by undergraduates (see Figure 1). In a sense, I could be considered an ‘ambitious’ educator.

However, my ambitiousness in doing more necessitates greater effort by students. The students, especially the weaker ones, could thus feel overwhelmed by the heavy workload2 not experienced by their peers reading a similar course taught by another instructor. They could find the workload stressful. This became a pedagogic challenge for me, given that it is just as important to protect student wellbeing (Baik et al., 2019).

former student's achievements

Figure 1, A former student’s achievement.

A good way to address this challenge is implementing an ethic of care (Noddings, 2012). After all, good teachers should “care about students” (Anderson et al., 2020, p. 11), and while there is little literature on “the place of care in university teaching” (Anderson et al., 2020, p. 2), educators can easily find their own ways to create “a climate for caring” (Noddings, 2012, p. 777), like listening, being attentive, and maintaining instructor presence (Barrow, 2015; Cook, 2021; Noddings, 2012). During the pandemic, for example, one might respond quickly to students’ Telegram messages, meet them for online consultation as often as needed, and grant extensions freely. My experience suggests that care can be motivational; I once received a student Weijie’s (not the real name) Telegram message:

Weijie's Telegram message

Weijie attended class virtually despite being unwell and COVID-positive.

However, although care is important, I soon realised that it could not completely address the pedagogic challenge described above. Despite my efforts in implementing care, some students still felt stressed, as some comments in an end-of-semester evaluation showed:

Student qualitative feedback

Weijie expressed similar (albeit gentler) thoughts in his reflective journal:

Weijie's journal reflection

Over the semesters, I further realised that a heavy workload does not just affect the student; it also affects the instructor in the form of negative student feedback and ratings. Obviously, negative student feedback can result in emotional labour (Gkonou & Miller, 2019). It can potentially threaten an instructor psychologically or professionally, constituting cyberbullying (Vogl-Bauer, 2014). In addition, the instructor, feeling harassed by the negative student feedback, may change assignments or teaching, or drop a difficult topic (Lampman et al., 2009). In summary, an ambitious, heavy workload can adversely affect the students’ state of mind, which through negative feedback can also adversely affect the instructor’s wellbeing.

The situation described above thus presents a dilemma. Should an instructor assign students more work to maximise their potential, even if it might prove excessive for weaker students, resulting in negative student feedback? Or should the instructor avoid additional tasks even if they could potentially help more proficient students excel? The crux of the matter seems to be that student proficiency in an academic writing course varies widely. An approach that is beneficial for proficient students might not necessarily benefit the weaker ones, and vice versa. A potential solution might be to apply different approaches to different students within a class, but it might have drawbacks because some students would say it is unfair. This is one dilemma for which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer. Fortunately, there is currently something I could do. A key feature of CELC courses is the one-on-one consultation. Previously, the general rule was that to ensure fairness, every student was entitled to only one consultation session with the instructor. Perhaps a good start is to view fairness in another way; that is, to be fair is to give weaker students more attention and opportunities for one-on-one consultations, which I have started doing in whatever course I now teach.

Nevertheless, despite the challenges, there has been a silver lining. Weijie, who belonged to the last batch of IEM2 students that I taught, wrote the following excerpt in the final week of his reflective journal:

Weijie's final week journal reflection

Because of such student reflections, I felt somewhat relieved and vindicated regarding my ambitious efforts to maximise student learning in my courses.


  1. IEM2 stands for “Ideas and Exposition Module” Tier 2. This course has since concluded its run.
  2. For my IEM2 course, I estimate that the additional workload translated to around eight to ten hours more than what was required of the programme. 



Anderson, V., Rabello, R., Wass, R., Golding, C., Rangi, A., Eteuati, E., . . . Waller, A. (2020). Good teaching as care in higher education. Higher Education, 38(4), 674-687. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00392-6

Barrow, M. (2015). Caring In teaching: A complicated relationship. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 15(2), 45-59. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1576596.  

Biak, C., Larcombe, W., & Brooker, A. (2019). How universities can enhance student mental wellbing: the student perspective. Higher Education Research & Development 38 (4)Singapore: Springer. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-2481-8

Cook, M. (2021). Students’ perceptions of interactions from instructor presence, cognitive presence, and social presence in online lessons. International Journal of TESOL Studies (Special Issue “ELT in the Time of the Coronavirus 2020”, Part 3), 3(1), 134-161. Retrieved from https://www.tesolunion.org/journal/details/info/1MTAzdLmM5/Students’-Perceptions-of-Interactions-from-Instructor-Presence,-Cognitive-Presence,-and-Social-Presence-in-Online-Lessons.

del Cerro, J. S., & Ruiz-Esteban, C. (2020, May). Teaching quality: The satisfaction of university students with their professors. Annals of Psychology, 36(2), 304-312. https://doi.org/10.6018/analesps.335431

Devlin, M., & Samarawickrema, G. (2010). The criteria of effective teaching in a changing higher education context. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(2), 111-124. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07294360903244398

Gkonou, C., & Miller, E. R. (2019). Caring and emotional labour: Language teachers’ engagement with anxious learners in private language school classrooms. Language Teaching Research, 23(3), 372–387. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1362168817728739

Lampman, C., Phelps, A., Bancroft, S., & Beneke, M. (2009). Contrapower harassment in academia: A survey of faculty experience with student incivility, bullying, and sexual attention. Sex Roles, 60, 331–346. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9560-x

Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford Review of Education, 38(6), 771-781. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2012.745047

Tao, J., & Wong, J. (2020). The confounding Mandarin colour term ‘qing’: Green, blue, black or all of the above and more? In L. Sadow, B. Peeters, & K. Mullan (Eds.), Studies in Ethnopragmatics, Cultural Semantics and Intercultural Communication: Minimal English (and Beyond) (pp. 95-116). Singapore: Springer. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-32-9979-5_6

Vogl-Bauer, S. (2014). When disgruntled students go to extremes: The cyberbullying of instructors. Communication Education, 63(4), 429-448. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2014.942331

Wong, J. (2020a). Peer review: a cultural adaption. SoTL Matters. Retrieved from https://blog.nus.edu.sg/macadresources/2020/04/19/peer-review-a-cultural-adaptation/

Wong, J. (2020b). What goes into an introduction? SoTL Matters. Retrieved from https://blog.nus.edu.sg/macadresources/2020/08/03/what-goes-into-an-introduction/

Wong, J. (2022). Reflection in student learning in a semantics and academic writing module. In M. Brooke (Ed.). Integrating Content and Language in Higher Education (pp. 211-227). Singapore: Springer.

Yee, T. B., & Wong, J. (2021, August). Japanese first-person singular pronouns revisited: A semantic and cultural interpretation. Journal of Pragmatics, 181, 139-161. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2021.05.025


WongJO profile pic

WONG Jock Onn is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC). He has taught semantics and academic English in the Centre for many years. A linguist (more specifically, semanticist) by training and an educator by vocation, Jock has published in both areas, and in areas such as pragmatics and intercultural communication. As an educator, he believes in maximizing student potential, and publishes with his undergraduate students and provides opportunities for some of them to be the first author. He also subscribes to an ethic of care.

Jock Onn can be reached at jock@nus.edu.sg.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email