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The 'Teachers' of TTKC

Photographs and writing by Phua Li Ling

Co-edited with Lin Shiyun

Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC) was intentionally set up to build an environment of care for children, particularly those who are vulnerable to risks. While the older residents in Boon Lay refer to TTKC as a 'school', the children affectionately address the adults serving at TTKC as 'teachers'. These terms can be initially challenging for the TTKC adults to embrace as not everyone is a trained teacher; Over time, the adults learn to understand and embrace what 'school' and 'teacher' mean in a community setting. Who is considered a teacher by the children? What does a teacher do? While documenting the TTKC community, photographer Phua Li Ling contemplated the role of 'teacher' in this club.


My first encounter with TTKC as a photographer was through the project “This Is What We Eat at Home’, where I played the role of a photography mentor and journeyed with 4 young persons to document their caregivers cooking a meal at home. My second encounter was an invitation to document the environment and the community life at TTKC across its shared spaces that included an art studio, a kitchen, a garden, multi-purpose courts and playgrounds. 

When I taught English to graduating classes for 4 out of the 7 years of my teaching years at a secondary school, I became increasingly aware that a large part of what we call ‘education’ is in fact ‘exam preparation’. Teachers have curricula to follow if students are to know what they need in order to sit for their examinations, and so a lot of effort goes into ensuring curricula can be completed. Students’ behaviours that get in the way of teaching the curriculum hence become distractions that need to be managed so that teachers can get back on track and teach their material.

At TTKC, the adults have no prescribed curriculum to follow. Many of the activities and programmes at TTKC evolve to meet the changing needs of the community of children. At TTKC, it seems to me that the child is the curriculum. A child at TTKC has agency; they have a say in what they want to do, when they want to do it, how they want to do it, and for how long. The teacher at TTKC facilitates this where possible. Where behaviours may lead to problems within the community, the behaviours then become a part of the curriculum, not obstacles.

At my second shoot, I had the privilege of photographing their first community townhall day. Children of mixed ages were invited into TTKC’s art studio that was transformed temporarily into a town hall. Shiyun, TTKC’s founder and Executive Director explained the intention of townhall and handed the microphone over to two community youth leaders who facilitated the session. They invited the children to raise problems that they have encountered at TTKC, then focussed their attention on one - children not going home even after TTKC has closed for the day. Different voices were invited to share their thoughts on the issue. Why might a child want to stay out late? How might parents feel? Has anyone experienced this? We heard from children, as well as a community volunteer who shared her perspective as a parent. There was no shame or blame in that space, but curiosity and understanding. 

Later that evening, that same space transformed into Getai, TTKC’s weekly performative platform where children could choose if and what they wanted to showcase. The excitement in the children leading up to Getai was palpable. Some children practised their choreography, and some busied themselves with putting on makeup, styling their hair and dressing up. When I asked Zay and Rizqil, the resident makeup artist and hairstylist that other children approached for help, how they picked up their skills, they both shared similar responses,

“I just learnt it on my own, because I’m interested in it.” 

When I observe the children at TTKC, I’m reminded of these words by John Holt:

“I believe that we learn best when we, not others, are deciding what we are going to try to learn, and when, and how, and for what reasons or purposes; when we, not others, are in the end choosing the people, materials, and experiences from which and with which we will be learning; when we, not others, are judging how easily or quickly or well we are learning, and when we have learned enough; and above all when we feel the wholeness and openness of the world around us, and our own freedom and power and competence in it.” 

It is with intention, and not by accident, that the teachers at TTKC have created a safe environment in which the children are unafraid to be themselves, and have agency - “the freedom and power and competence” to fulfil their potential. 

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