How a principal quit school to learn from the poor


Stephen Saw, assistant coordinator, LaSalle Learning Centre, coaching a student

By Alvin Ung

In January 1965, Bro. John D’Cruz, recuperating from a bout of measles, walked into a Form One classroom at St. Georges Institution, Taiping, and a placed a box on the table.

“This is a Question Box. You may put any question – any question – you want in this box,” John announced to his young charges. More than thirty years later, the students in the class grew up the become high-accomplishers, including doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and CEOs of multinationals.

During occasional get-togethers, John’s students still remember the Question Box. They reminisce about how John played football, taught them baking, visited them at home when they were sick, and played in the orchestra. Today, as adults, all of them were struck by how John D’Cruz was able to build deep bonds with his students. He never told them they were stupid, or asked them to shut up.

“He was not just a school teacher in the classroom. He participated in our lives. He aroused our curiosity for learning,” said Dr. Samuel Ong, a cardiologist at Sunway Medical Centre.

“Brother John is one of the best teachers I have come across,” said Lim Soon Heng, who became an award-winning high school teacher in the United States before returning to Malaysia to work as an editor, general manager and radio broadcaster. “My school days were a joyous time. Thanks to Brother John, I realised that I cannot care for my academic subjects if the teacher doesn’t care for me. He reached out to me not in an intellectual way, but in an emotional and relational way. He was my friend.”

Brother John was already at the top of his game in his first year of teaching. and he relentlessly improved his teaching skills, rising to headmaster. As the years went by, he realised something was very wrong with his profession. The poor students weren’t benefiting from school, and he didn’t know why.

So he quit as principal. For five years, he lived among the poor in a flood-prone area in Penang. He rented a room in a house occupied by twelve other families. Everyday, he  observed how children in poverty lived, worked and studied (if they did). He asked himself unusual questions: “Who is the student in front of me? Is he afraid of me? How has his life been so far? What kind of things has he learned from his home? From previous teachers? What kind of knowledge does he need? Does he have the skills to learn by himself? Can he mix well with his classmates and cooperate with them? Can he relate to me?”

The questions spurred him to befriend and build deep bonds with the families. That experience upended his entire philosophy of teaching. To teach the poor how to learn, he no longer believed in the concept of teaching. He no longer believed in the concept of students. He no longer believed teaching school subjects. He no longer believed in rows of desks and chairs with the teacher up front.

Instead, by synthesizing the best theories of learning (including left and right brain research, the multiple intelligence theory by Howard Gardner, and much more), he developed a new approach for learning called the La Salle Learning Centre. Here, there are no teachers and students. Here, everybody is a learner.

“To teach John math, you have to know John,” insisted John D’Cruz. His basic hypothesis was simple: people make huge strides in learning when they know they are deeply cared for.

Over the next twenty years, John’s efforts in developing learning centres have borne fruit. Thanks to two-hour coaching sessions at the centre in Penang, primary school students who flunked all their subjects started passing. Many have become life-long learners. Most notably, John D’Cruz ignited the students’ ability to learn by building deep bonds with them.

John’s lesson in building deep bonds as an extraordinary leader is transferable for us, no matter what we do. Extraordinary leaders can – and must – build bonds with anyone, including angry bosses or back-stabbing colleagues or powerful enemies. “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles, but today it means getting along with people,” said Mahatma Gandhi.



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