Three Reflection Points From Brushing Teeth

Primary school was a wonderful experience for me. It was wonderful in that I made some friends, got to understand myself a bit better, and develop some habits along the way.

Like brushing my teeth.

I recalled this experience recently when I visited an exhibition in the National Museum. Titled Home, Truly: Growing Up with Singapore, 1950s to the Present, the exhibition displayed the different historical narration of Singapore’s education, economy and culture, amongst other themes.

A picture of a student going through dental check (Source: Home, Truly exhibition in National Museum Singapore)

It was at this exhibition that I chanced upon the photo above. Reading the stories tagged with it, my daughter asked if I also had the experience of brushing my teeth along the drain during schooldays.

Of course. That was one highlight of my primary school life.


Our teacher showed us how to brush our teeth in the proper way during these sessions. We were each given a toothbrush and a plastic cup. After recess we took turns to squat along the drain, trying to brush our teeth the same way our teacher showed us. It was a fun time. While brushing teeth, we will also talk to each other as well. Anything to be out of the classroom!

Dental Health Is Not A Given

Dental health is important for obvious reasons. I think most of us prefer to interact with people with good dental hygiene. With a good set of teeth, eating, speaking and drinking is so much easier and enjoyable. You have a full set of teeth to work on too.

I was born in a family I guess is typical of the Singapore of the 1970s: a nuclear family with two children living in a government built apartment, in one of the new towns set up by the government. My parents are blue collar workers who do not have much education, and who have to work to make ends meet.

My sister and I have only each other to depend on. Although my mother worked from home, both of us were very much left alone to play with each other. We don’t understand much about good life habits, since my mother equipped us with basics but left much of education to school.

Which was why learning to take care of dental hygiene would not be natural. Someone had to teach me, otherwise I wouldn’t know what is good dental hygiene. The government realised it at that time, and hence embarked on a dental education programme (which still exists today) to inculcate dental health habits in children.

A good set of teeth enhances the visual appearance one brings to the workplace, whether you realise it or not.

What I Learnt From Brushing Teeth

Correct techniques aside, this programme also allowed me to learn about other things too:

1. Small Things Add Up. I didn’t know then that spending a bit of time on something regularly, like brushing after eating, can yield powerful results. All I know was I had about 5 minutes daily squatting along the drain doing some brushing, and having some fun along the way.

Since those days, I keep to a habit of regular brushing. This habit helps me maintain a full set of teeth. No decay, no cavities. This is the power of habits. Small things do add up.

That applies to all other things in life, of course. There is power in taking small steps when working towards a goal. Start with a short run and you may end up running a full marathon. Read for 5 minutes daily and you can possibly finish a book in one month. Save and invest a fixed sum of money and you can see the sum grow over time.

2. Role Model At Work. I don’t know what my teacher thinks about this aspect of teaching she had to do. But I know she took her role seriously. From holding the model and showing the technique with a toothbrush, to walking around and checking on how we brushed, and checking that we had our cups and brushes, she was as thorough as how she taught us English and Maths.

My teacher didn’t see this role of teaching dental hygiene any less significant than teaching English or Maths in the classroom. Neither did she see not befitting in supervising kids to brush teeth daily. Having good work ethics means displaying and carrying them through in all your work duties. As one of my perm secs used to say, nothing above us, nothing beyond us.

The reason why children attend school is so that they get to learn something they otherwise may not have the chance to. Education cannot be boxed up into neat categories or areas. You need teachers who know the importance of what they work with the children, and convey that in either explicit or subtle ways.

3. Create Experiences For Learning. I am an introvert, and knew from young that is my preference. The interactions I had with classmates during such moments were hence valuable times for me to pick up relating skills. If not for such experiences, I wouldn’t have a reference point to start my conversations, and I wouldn’t be able to hone my speaking skills.

Learning cannot take place in a vacuum. Some assume that learning happens when a teacher teaches. Actually that is wrong. Learning is an act that lies on the part of the learner too. How well a person learns reflects not just the ability of the teacher to impart, but also the ability of the learner to learn.

Nevertheless, the learning experiences a teacher creates will be important. You don’t pick up conversational skills from being in the classroom alone. You pick up and refine them when you practise under authentic settings. It’s the same in the workplace. You become proficient in your work skills only if you have the chance to practise them.

Back to brushing teeth. While children no longer brush their teeth after recess in school today, they have access to dental checks annually and are given advice how to take care of their hygiene if needed. I do wish this practice can come back, because I notice my own children do not pay as much attention to this as myself when I was young. It helps that my wife and I impressed on them this habit, so that provides some form of intervention.

Children have other learning moments though. Today they have show and tell sessions to talk about their favorite topics, go out for community projects to reach out to strangers and put up performances to strengthen their communication skills. More opportunities mean higher probability of improving their mastery of skills.

Education can progress. As educators we need to keep in mind the learning objectives we want our students to achieve even as we keep up to date with the latest. Don’t be fixated with the tried and tested, but also be prepared to bring back past practices if they can benefit students in some way.

I am sure each of us has fond memories of our childhood and schooling days. What do you learn from them?

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