The interviews and stories in this blog are in many ways stories of clients and friends. If you enjoyed Yeo’s story or even Alex’s story, then you will adore today’s story of a determined woman who didn’t let circumstances get in her way.
Teoh Poh Yew is a teacher, author, entrepreneur, speaker and corporate trainer.
Her area of expertise is in creativity, maths education and training of trainers’ programmes. Besides parents and students, she has wowed corporate leaders, teachers and trainers with her creativity-infused mathematics in Malaysia, Singapore, China, Denmark, United States, Germany and India, among others.
Poh Yew is also the founder of “Creative Maths”, a licensed programme available in Malaysia and Singapore plus the author of 3 books on mathematical magic.
Like the previous interviewees, Poh Yew is a stellar example of someone who is truly doing what she loves and her passion shows in the way she talks about mathematics!
Her eyes glow with enthusiasm. Looking at her now, you’d never know that she was once a secondary school teacher who taught Mathematics for 11 years.
But as always, let me introduce this steel magnolia properly.
I first met Poh Yew at a Mensa Penang event when I was doing my Master’s. I had been introduced to Mensa Penang via its then chairman, Mr PC Sim as I had wanted to do a qualitative study on a few students who were Mensa members.
I started chatting with Poh Yew when Nic went off to take his Mensa test (which he passed and later became a member of this high IQ society).
Poh Yew was truly passionate about mathematics. I didn’t realize that she was an author, a Mathematics educator and an enthusiastic trainer besides being a mother until much later!
At our next encounter, Poh Yew kindly presented me her book and card deck. These two products of hers were used to teach children how to love mathematics and how to make mathematics fun and magical again. (If you want to buy her products, drop by my friend/client’s educational toy shop – Precious Ones – at 56, Lorong Selamat, George Town, Penang.)
Poh Yew says at the onset of this interview that she’s “very fortunate to be born as a self motivated person”.
What made you take the path less travelled?
I wanted to become a teacher since Primary One. Since my Primary School days I’d been observing how good teachers taught and I told myself, “When I grow up I want to teach like them.”
When I eventually became a teacher, I was very “fortunate” to be posted to a school many teachers wouldn’t want to go. My 17 year old high school students could not do multiplications. There was a girl who could not do 13 times 9!
When I looked at the situation, I told myself, nobody wanted to be in this situation. Something had gone wrong somewhere – these students needed help.
So I decided to find ways to help them, I stayed in the same school for 10 years to do my R&D. I started to buy Primary 2 to Primary 6 books for my Form 5 students. I convinced them that they must start from where they had stopped learning.
In 1998 I brought my students to a Mathematics Project Competition. One school performed a Mathematical magic trick – that was the first time I came across maths magic! I was so fascinated and that started my journey in search of recreational Mathematics!
Was there anything in your childhood which influenced what you’re doing right now?
Both my parents were very creative and they were problem solvers.
How do you consistently sustain your love and interest for maths and creativity?
They are my natural talents and passion. Every time I work on them, I get energized! And my passion is infectious… those who come near me will get “infected”, too! (Krista’s note: Yes, this is absolutely true!)
Where do your ideas for books, products and seminars come from?
I attend a lot of international conferences. I learn from the “giants”. I read a lot of books on recreational mathematics. I have more then 100 such books in my collection. I watch a lot of Youtube.
My strength is to connect whatever I see to my work – maths education, teaching skill, parenting skill, training skill and creativity. I always quote my source of references and most of the time improve or create an interesting variation from the original version.
How did you make that transition from being a teacher to becoming a trainer? How was the process?
The first person who inspired me was Mr. Gan Ah Seng, the President of Malaysia Speakers’ Association from 2000 till now. He had spoken in many countries and he speaks in 5 different languages! When I attended his programme in 1994, I was so inspired by his great personality and success that I told myself, “If Mr Gan can do it, I can do it.”
From that day onwards, I started to visualize that I stood on a big stage and many people were listening to me. Six months later, I was invited by another great mentor of mine, Dr. Janchai Yingprayoon, to speak in Thailand. That was my first speaking engagement overseas.
In 2003, I met another important mentor in my life – Mr. KC See. I quit teaching in 2004 and became a professional trainer after graduating from KC’s Certified Professional Trainer’s Course. KC offered me a lot of opportunities to speak in foreign countries. I’ve another great mentor, Mr. Kwong Lok Wah, a Vistage Business Coach, who helps me to push through my comfort zone from speaking to teachers and parents to speaking to corporate clients.
Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
Besides all the names I mention above, my greatest heroes and heroine are the Buddha, Mother Theresa, Gandhi and Maria Montessori.
Gautama Buddha left behind a systematic approach to cessation of suffering. Whenever I face any life problems, I remember his words and I’m fine again. I radiate loving thoughts to my students and all beings through a very systematic approach call “Loving Kindness Meditation” (Metta Bhavana). This practice gives me a lot of energy to love and serve my family members and others.
I respect and admire Mother Theresa and Gandhi because their sacrifices influenced the whole world. Both of them were very gentle yet could inspire the whole world.
Maria Montessori also left behind a very comprehensive and natural education approach which lasted a hundred years. I wish I could also leave behind an effective method of teaching and learning maths that can last a long, long time.
What are your plans for the next 2 years for yourself and your business?
I’m working towards duplicating my work by grooming like-minded young trainers to teach my programme and also converting my programmes into mobile apps so that they can be accessed by the whole world.
In your opinion, why do you think you’ve achieved a level of success that’s so very different from the countless others who teach maths and creativity?
First, I believe that everyone should develop their careers based on their natural talents. My natural talents are teaching, maths and art. My maths lessons are art-based because I love to produce beautiful teaching aids. It helps that my work is my hobby.
Second, identify gaps and help to solve people’s problems. I do what I’m doing not because it can bring me lots of money.
I develop all these different approaches towards maths education simply because I saw a gap between what school teaches (i.e. to memorize formulas, to pass exam, to enter university) versus what society wants (a graduate who can solve problems and come up with innovative solutions to address global competition). When you help to solve people’s problems, rewards come naturally.
Third, do it with love, lots of love. You will get lots of like-minded people who will support your cause. Of course it takes time to prove to the world that you are doing the right thing.
What is it that do you do better than anyone else? (Or what is your “secret success tip”?)
Loving, caring and giving.
What do you consider a breakthrough or life-changing moment? When and how did this happen?
When a group of Professors specializing in Creativity and Giftedness in Maths Education (especially Prof Linda Seffield , USA, and Prof. Hartwig Meissner, Germany) appreciated my work and invited me to speak in their universities. I met them in 2003 in a maths conference on creativity in Bulgaria.
If someone were inspired by your work and would like to follow your footsteps, what tips would you give them? What should they do first?
Serve in the area of their natural talent with lots of love and passion.
Is there anything that makes you mad or frustrated?
I cannot stand people who complain about their situation and do nothing about it.
What makes you truly happy?
I’m happy most of the time. What makes me truly happy is when my work touches people’s life. What makes me truly happy is when my achievements and my children’s achievements become walking examples of what I preach. What makes me truly happy is that I can be so healthy that my mother doesn’t have to worry about me.
Coming up: Yet another teacher follows his heart and lands in the most unlikely of places – the theatre!