Friday, 16 December 2011

Reflection by Wen Xin

Initially it had already been pretty obvious which module I would choose for the EXCEL programme: Chek Jawa’s nature walk, of course! I had not expected, however, the twist on having to lead public guests around Chek Jawa, must less inform them on the panorama that we would see. I had thought that it would merely be an informational trip for myself, which, in many ways, it was still, but part of the lessons I picked up were indeed from being able to help the general public learn for themselves as well!

Indoor Talk

In preparation for the on-the-job training (OJT), Mr Loh helped me to understand what exactly we were expected to do on the trip i.e. guide guests through the nature conservatory, a brief history of the place (though it was not very brief; Chek Jawa, although small, is a little hideaway that’s gone through quite a lot of twists and turns! The very tenacity of the reserve is also part of the mystique that draws the public to itself in the first place) as well as giving me a short summary on the wildlife we would have to find there.
This was, admittedly, a bit of a culture shock for me as, being a non-Biology student, I found myself having to memorize quite a bit of scientific information for the first time in a whole year; the more intimidating thing was having to regurgitate all that information to aid guests in understanding the area, but not doing so in such a way that I sounded like I had eaten a textbook! However, it was a stimulating process due to the fact that I have always been interested in wildlife, and the fact that you CAN find such jewels of nature in a cosmopolitan city like Singapore made me sit up and take better notice!

First Field Trip

The first field trip I had allowed me to test out some of my newfound knowledge on our guests, which included a family with children that were, to my utter shock, so much more informed about biological life than I was! My first fellow guide and trainer was Mr Loh himself, so I had no qualms about letting him take the lead in walking everyone through the area. One of the most important skills I learnt that day that is commonly underestimated in our world was the skill of LISTENING. Really, listening allows you to tune in into the natural world so easily. During both the field trip and the OJT trip, there were many instances in which all we had to do for the wildlife to come to life around us was simply to stand stock still for several moments, and voila! Mudskippers, tree climbing crabs, and weaver ants galore!

Mudskippers that have the best camouflage skills of any animal I’ve ever seen, in my opinion, at least!

A tree climbing crab, with his (not too big) claw!

Weaver ants hard at work sealing themselves into oblivion

Also, listening helped me with regards to the non-naturalistic world as well! Because I was in the same group as another trainer, Pei Yan, before I joined Mr Loh’s group, I had managed to pick up certain useful snippets to bring to my new audience! When Mr Loh tried to explain the significance of the name Chek Jawa, I cheerfully interjected, “It means Uncle Jawa, or uncle from Java! Chek means uncle, anyway.” Then, holding the suspense a little longer before releasing it, I grinned and said, “Nah, I’m not smart, I just over heard the other group before I came over.” A round of laughter greeted my cheeky admission, but I’m sure we all grew to understand just how powerful listening is in helping us to form connections between what we see and what we’ve learnt about the world!

Through the first field trip I was also able to forge meaningful connections with the general public, whether it was through simply looking out for their welfare like I would have looked after the welfare of my House as Captain, or whether it was joining the children in their search for new creatures in the environment around us, or whether it was talking to the adults and appreciating their foresight in bringing their children to Chek Jawa to ruminate on Mother Nature as opposed to letting them sit at home, playing computer games, or going to the arcade or some such technologically inclined pastime. The first field trip allowed me to fully reflect on my role as a councilor in school, and whether what I did both in and out of school were different – would I care for the general public any less than I did my House, or the general student body? I’m glad to say that I didn’t think so, but the next OJT trip helped to deepen said conviction.

OJT Training

This trip, which I remembered fairly better, was more stressful than I thought it’d be! Mainly because this time, I would be doing guiding for real, beside true guides who would be able to pick on whether the information I was giving to my audience was accurate or not. I was so afraid that it wouldn’t be! My fellow guide and trainer was Ivan, one of Mr Loh’s buddies, and I was dumbfounded at the sheer amount of information that he was feeding our guests. He was like an encyclopedia on legs! Which was why I found the skill of listening so invaluable once again – having been through Chek Jawa before, I thought I knew all there was worth knowing about the place, but foolish I was deeply mistaken! This time, I was one with the excited, spellbound guests as we listened to Ivan tell us about durian trees and fruit bats, about monitor lizards and their many “impostors” and cotton-leaf bugs and their “parties” and kingfishers with their bright plumage, as well as hawks with their razor eyesight and reflexes! I picked up nearly twice the amount of information than I had on the first trip!

Furthermore, I thought we were rather lucky on the second trip than on the first – this time, we got to see quite a number of more-than-interesting creatures in the flesh, such as the hornbill (which we missed the previous time) as well as two monitor lizards, toads, and even weaver ants at work! (The nest was right above my head and I hadn’t even noticed!) The hornbill was very much a stroke of luck; we were just turning to leave the hornbill’s nest when all of a sudden, a ‘klaklaklaklak’ sounded and we turned back to see a magnificent male hornbill investigating the perch for his mate! Such sightings of hornbills are rare because they prefer solitude and quiet places where humans will not disturb them, and it was a great privilege to be able to witness one at work.

Also, the trip was a good chance for me to put my improvisational skills to the test! Many a time I stumbled when it came to remembering specific figures or facts for my designated OJT parts, so I gave educated guesses to my audience on the spot – Ivan did not interrupt during these times so I assumed they weren’t that inaccurate or too far off the mark! Also, I found myself guiding parts of the trip that WEREN’T part of my OJT, such as when we passed the seagrass meadows and I found myself asking the audience, “What animals do you think feed on seagrass?” It was supposed to be Ivan’s job, but he was content to let me take over for some of these periods, which I found extremely encouraging, because it does take courage and quite a bit of faith to venture into such murky territory, especially when you are an ex-biologist who has not touched any Bio material in ages. I was grateful for Ivan’s guidance and gentle prompting when it was needed! And also, I was grateful for being able to improvise on the fly n order to making my guiding interesting to the public, such as when I started off my section on killer litter by saying, “All right folks, let’s take a look over here at this endangered species of jellyfish.” I pointed into the shallow water by the boardwalk and the guests laughed when they saw that it was a red plastic bag! It was an engaging hook to draw my audience into the magic of Chek Jawa and I was so inspired by the whole experience of it all!

Finally, being able to see the smiles on the faces of my tour audience really was the best part of the package. It was an unbelievable motivational boost when one of the elder women in the group, a lady that reminded me of my grandmother, turned to me when we were about to dismiss the group and said, “Thank you so much for guiding us, Wenxin.” She even remembered my name! I didn’t expect her to because I was simply tagging along for the ride as well, as Ivan had done most of the talking, but it made me realize that I had made a small difference in her life on a sunny Saturday at Chek Jawa, and that the difference had been significant enough that she would thank me for it. It really instilled in me the importance of my work as a councilor, and the obligation I had to the student body, especially my House, who knew me much better than these strangers did, and to whom I owed so much more: of my duty, my allegiance and my every single effort.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Reflections by Alvin

After experiencing first hand what it feels like to be a guide, or a guide’s assistant in my case, I have understood the intensity, rigor and spontaneity required of one. Despite the significant amount of effort required for the job, the sense of satisfaction received when one basks in the beams of smiles from the people whom you have guided will more often than not overwhelm all traces of fatigue.

The group that I was tasked to guide had approximately 13 people, if my memory serves me well. Although we travelled as a group, it was evident there existed 2 factions, consisting of 4 friends and a family of 9.

We started our walk by introducing the wells and cemetries of the vicinity, the visitors were engaged and all was well, until it was my turn to introduce the broadwalk. It was a nerve wrecking experience for me, not because I was not used to public speaking, but rather because I was not used to guiding a group of people, who seemed to know Chek Jawa more than I do, around Chek Jawa. The initial stages of my introduction of the broadwalk were staggered, to say the least, but as I got used the presence of the group, my explanations became less incoherent and the group was beginning to exhibit hints of interest. It was stunning the difference confidence can bring to the table, it was akin to the much needed inertia to move a heavy load: it took a lot to get it going, but once it did, it was impossible to stop.

As quoted from myself, the true brilliance of leadership lies not in one’s ability to lead, but rather one’s ability to relate to his subordinates. I cannot stress the importance the above as a leader who cannot connect with his subordinates can only exercise his power of leadership to a miniscule extent. Therefore, I made it a point to engage the younger generation by talking about their topics of interest, which may not necessarily have anything to do with the walk at all. Once you managed to forge ties with your group, leading it becomes an easier task as a whole. The lesson derived from thus is to actively engage your audience, while your primary focus should stay on the guided tour, it is beneficial to engage the group in conversations that is to their interest. In this way, it is likely to strike a temporal sense of camaraderie between the guide and his group, which makes the entire trip that much more enjoyable for not just the group, but for the guide as well.

Efficient leadership must focus of 2 different aspects: people and task. While the task focuses on getting the objective met and the mission accomplished and things of the like; the aspect of people puts welfare as priority and that is also important in leadership. Obviously, if one focuses too much on either, the other aspect would be neglected and it is also technically impossible to achieve both at the same time. Thus, the only reasonable approach would be that of a balance. It is important to remind my group to regularly take rests at shelters and also to rehydrate themselves to prevent premature termination of the walk, which is undesirable to both the guide and the group.

I have learnt much from the guided walk and it has been an eye opener for me and also hopefully for the people whom I guided. 

Reflections by Jessie

Both options for the EXCEL programme, the community exposure module and the environmental exposure module, were interesting. Initially, I was more drawn towards the community exposure module as it involved observing Meet the People’s Sessions, going for Block Visits and community exposure events, all of which I have not experienced before. In the end, what compelled me to join the environmental exposure module was the environment itself. I was a volunteer for another project on Pulau Semakau which involves the shores of Singapore as well, and the environmental exposure module allowed me to apply what I’ve learnt and observed, and to spread the message of conservation even further through guiding.

From the talk Ria gave us at the very beginning when we first embarked on this programme, we already knew what we were in for. Some might question, why the environment instead of people? While it is true that when countries are in sticky situations the people will be prioritised first, we cannot disregard the environment just like that and treat it as a mere resource for our own consumption. It’s an uphill battle trying to convince authorities of the value our environment has. But at least it worked in 2001 when the government deferred the urbanisation of Chek Jawa (a biologically diverse shore on Pulau Ubin), which would have meant the end of the teeming wildlife found on those shores. What environmental activist groups such as the Naked Hermit Crabs (which is a Non- Governmental Organisation that our school has partnered for this EXCEL environmental exposure programme) have been doing is to conduct guided tours for the public on the Chek Jawa Boardwalk, to introduce them to the sights that can be seen on our shores, and to raise the awareness of the existence of such wildlife in Singapore. Even though it might seem futile, at least they are trying to do something to make a difference. And as leaders, that’s what we should be emulating as well.

My first official field trip to Chek Jawa with the Naked Hermit Crabs was in August, and it was indeed a memorable experience. Here’s an excerpt from my blog when I blogged about the trip back in August:

Actually interacting with the public was an amazing experience. Though Mr Loh and Daniel did most of the talking, I actually talked to the people in our group too! It felt really nice when I was telling them about the creatures and the shores, and why I love doing such things. Though I was a bit shy at first and unsure of what to say, it was alright after awhile. The kids were really smart and their eyes are sharp. And they run around everywhere haha.
Learnt a lot from the trip, especially that the more you know about guiding, the less you know about it. Sounds confusing?

It really made me inspired to do something once again. I really admire the people who have so much passion for something, and are willing to dedicate their time and effort just to do that thing. It’s really inspiring.

Here’s a photo of the group Mr Loh took (and I tagged along):

As we were in the midst of preparing for our exams, the field trip to Chek Jawa was a respite. And the lunch after the walk was good!

For me, there was an extremely long interval before my next trip to Chek Jawa for my OJT (On the job training) in December, and I was rather worried I couldn’t remember anything to tell the group I will be guiding. I was actually quite stressed out over the OJT as before that I was (and still am) very busy settling stuff for our Senior High Orientation 2012, studying for SAT and other matters. All those took up my time and left me with only the night before OJT to prepare, and it didn’t help that we had an activity that day which left me quite tired. It all turned out well on the actual day though, as like what the other guiders told us, the key was in the connection, not the content. So I decided to just go for it and enjoy myself.

It was a bit more special for my case as I was paired up with Janet instead of the adult guiders, so I felt a lot more comfortable and could guide easily. As we two were students and not as experienced as the older guiders, we wondered what we would do if there was no other guiders around us and we couldn’t answer the questions the public asked. Surprisingly enough, we managed to guide the group through the boardwalk without much problems! Getting to know the people under your charge and connecting with them is a skill that leaders especially need to know, and understanding what the public needs and wants are is vital in achieving this connection.

But first, here’s a picture of the entire group of visitors!

This month’s group was large and we had about 80 people due to December being the holiday season and it being the last guided walk for the year. There were a lot of families with a lot of kids. Ley Kun (our Mama Crab) arranged for Janet and I to take a smaller group of 10 people (5 kids, 5 adults) with more children so it would be more comfortable for us. Thank you! As our group had 5 children, 4 of which were wearing matching hat (all girls), I decided to bring out my hat and wear it too haha. This is called getting down to the ground.
From the previous field trip, I realised that if the group has more children, it will be better to focus your attention on the children, as that will be what the parents do as well. Hence, if you manage to engage the children of the group, the adults will be happy as well! One way to engage them is to challenge them to do things, for example finding the most number of mudskippers, guessing what the material the boardwalk is made of..I even made them count the number of fishes when we saw a school of fish at the coastal boardwalk! Drawing parallels to leadership, a leader has to involve the audience in the process as much as possible so they don’t feel disengaged, and will in the end take more ownership in matters.

Here’s another picture of 2 of the kids from my group! They are the ones on the left with the pink hats:

From the guiding experience, I realised that it is easier and more effective for others to join your cause or understand where you are coming from if you manage to  establish a personal connection with them. This will invariably aid in communicating with them and gaining their support. I feel that a leader’s most important tool that he or she has is influence. All of us have a sphere of influence, and how we use our interpersonal abilities to influence others will be a indicator of progress in leadership. Being more personable and relatable will help in gaining support, which is vital for a leader. The word ‘lead’ itself is a relative term, where it requires someone to lead, and someone to follow. Without followers, leaders are nothing.

And of course, as leaders we cannot just lead, we must follow as well. Accepting and recognising others as leaders is important as it enables other people to grow and become better leaders. Taking a step back from the limelight is not necessarily bad, it gives others a chance to shine. As what Tom Peters said before, “Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.”

I think I have rambled on for quite a bit and deviated from the topic. But all in all, the environmental exposure module was one that I did not regret signing up for, and it taught me a lot that can’t be found in textbooks. I’ll want to continue guiding even after the programme ends!

Signing off, Jessie.

P.S: Thank you Mr Loh for the photos! All photos in this post were taken by him.