By Bryan Chua 14A01A
23 years. That’s how long Mr Geoffrey Purvis has been a member of staff at Raffles Institution, from way back in 1990, joining the school from Anderson JC. Since then, as a tutor of over 2 decades worth of Rafflesians, he has become (and perhaps has always been) one of the most renowned, respected and perhaps even revered teachers the school has ever seen. With his plethora of aphorisms, Mr Purvis has definitely been one of the most memorable teachers for those he has taught, and till today some students still recall his melodic voice in their head whenever they re-read their ‘A’ level texts.
As he departs from the school (and Singapore) and into the land of retirement, Raffles Press sits down with Mr Purvis to find out his views on teaching, the school and the world around us.
Why exactly are you leaving?
I’m leaving because my son is in school in the UK and my wife is there, too, looking after him. And I don’t want to stay here without them.
Because of my age, the MOE offered me another contract on significantly reduced terms. It became the push factor to add to the pull, if you see what I mean. I found it quite frankly insulting after so many years working here.
I’m looking forward to what will be a huge change after 27 years in Asia. I know my former students will find this hard to believe but I’m looking forward to giving up the classroom, stopping the ranting and raving, and going to live in the country with my wife and son. I want to enjoy what George Eliot calls the “happy animal life” – with my soon to be acquired dogs and my two cats.
So, that’s it: I’m retiring for family reasons. My son has started an on-line tee-shirt business called Taste Clothing. Check it out on Face book. Buy a ‘tasteful’ tee shirt and contribute to my retirement fund!
Why do you think Literature is important?
I don’t know how anyone goes through life without reading a book. I think it’s a useful form of escape, of correction too – you get your ideas corrected by reading, it gives you a different perspective on things, and I think it’s also enriching. That’s a bit of an old-fashioned word these days. I don’t really think the modern mass media is an enriching culture. You need books for that. And I’ve got a lot of respect for people who can write far better than I can ever dream of doing. I need their words to put my ideas into.
To you, what constitutes ‘good literature’?
Style is very important to me. The language has to be of a certain quality. That’s why one of my long-time favourite writers has been Edith Wharton. I also think a really good book has to show some empathy for fellow human beings struggling to come to terms with a world that often disappoints. So, good literature for me helps us to enjoy life, and endure it – that’s a quotation from Philip Larkin.
Why did you choose to teach literature?
Originally I taught Religious Knowledge because I didn’t think I was good enough to teach Literature. It’s why I didn’t take single honours literature at university – I didn’t think I was good enough: this, despite winning a prize at school for my A level work – the William Lucas Prize for Literature (he was an old headmaster of the school).
I gave up teaching religious knowledge (it was too tough) and turned to literature. So you could say I started teaching one book then moved on to teaching many more.
One of your most memorable quotes is that “you teach, hoping someday you’ll get it right.” Looking back on your career, do you think you did? Has this been your inspiration to continue teaching all these years, or does it stem from something else?
This is actually a Philip Roth quotation. He says that what keeps him writing is the hope that one day he’ll get it right. I also link it with George Orwell ‘s amazing assertion that “every book I’ve ever written has been a failure”. I don’t think I have ever achieved the perfect lesson either, because I set really high standards for myself. I’m always disappointed after every lesson – I always think of ways and means I could’ve done it better.
I think what’s also kept me going has been the students at Raffles. It’s the stimulus that they’ve provided me and the appreciation they’ve shown for what I’ve done – that’s spurred me on. I remember asking the great Peggy Pao why she never said anything in class despite being a top-class debater. Her reply astonished me. ‘Because I’d rather listen to you,’ she said. And I thought that was a massive compliment from someone whose brain I admired so much.
What kind of a teacher do you think you are, before and after teaching at Raffles?
Before I came to Singapore I taught in what were called ‘ inner city comprehensive schools.’ These were large ‘neighbourhood’ schools with students of all kinds of ability – and interest!
I’ve taught A Level since I started teaching in 1971 – which is unusual, for a probationary teacher as I was then. I can remember the class now – a group of girls. I remember asking one of them if she liked a poem we were reading, and she said yes. I asked her why and she said, “Because it makes me cry.”
My life has been spent since then trying to move people on from that simple statement of emotional response to a more intellectual and critical appreciation of just what a poet has done with words and structure etc. to make you feel like crying.
A level classes were fine. No problem there but with classes of lower ability it was tough – it was a different kind of challenge; to make literature interesting to people who didn’t want to read it. But I must have been able to do it (or at least keep them from wrecking the place) as I managed to become Head of English in England before coming here.
I came here because I wanted to travel and didn’t want to become a Vice-Principal; didn’t want to become a Principal either – even though I think I’d have done a much better job than many of the Principals I’ve worked for! Most of them were dull and sparkless. I think a Principal should inspire his/her staff, fill them with a passion for what they do. Many students tell me when they come to the end of their time here that it is precisely this quality in me that kept them going. I infected them with my enthusiasm for literature, made them want to read it, made them see its connection with life outside of school. So then that’s the kind of teacher I am, it seems: an inspirational one.
I think students go to my lectures and come away with an impression; they don’t come away with a body of knowledge (even though that’s my intention when I start off behind the lectern!) However, the moment my passionate momentum takes me out from behind it I know I’m finished with the solidly prepared lecture and off talking about life. In defence of my aberrations I can only say that these are the bits that students seem to enjoy the most. After all, it’s boring just plodding through Power point stuff, isn’t it?
This is the same before Raffles? You taught for 3 years in Anderson right?
Yes. And I loved it at Anderson. Loved it – the main difference between the students at Anderson and the students at Raffles is confidence. Raffles people have confidence because they’re told everyday they’re the leaders of tomorrow – we didn’t talk like that at Anderson. I loved the staff; it was a great experience and a wonderful introduction to Singapore. I’m glad I went there first. It helps put Raffles in perspective.
How do you deal with/manage people who may not necessarily take to your teaching styles? How has your teaching style evolved over the years?
I have had students complain to me yes – I had one girl in particular who used to tell me off for some of the things I said – she’d come to me after a lecture and say, “you shouldn’t be saying these things… you shouldn’t be taking advantage of your position to challenge people’s beliefs in such an aggressive way”.
And I used to be mortified because I never wanted to really hurt people by what I said and sometimes I did go too far. But that said, I still felt the need to make people think. And the only way to make people think is to provoke them; so you provoke them by being outrageous and force them them into responding in some way to defend their cherished beliefs/
And I liked this girl very much. I admired her courage for speaking up as she did. At the end of the course, she bought me a book as a present so I can’t have been as much of a demon as she made me feel.
I came under the influence of my colleague Howard Clements with whom I worked for about 10 years plus. His approach to literature had a big effect on me. I was Boswell, to his Dr. Johnson. No teacher I’d had at school or university taught me as much about my subject as he did. I think I talk like him now – even imitate the way he would take off his glasses and put them down on the desk in readiness for the lesson’s big moment. He also had a very sharp wit whereas to be frank I’m just funny.
I think my original Grammar School English teacher, Mr Grey, had a big influence on me as well. He had a tremendous passion for the subject. And thus he was something of an eccentric. He was a keen bird-watcher (the feathered kind) and I remember him teaching me onomatopoeia by doing the call of the kittiwake as he swooped towards us flapping his academic gown in bird-like agitation, squawking at the top of his voice: ‘KITT EE WAKE!! KITT EE WAKE!!.’
Have you always taught in the same way?
I think so though perhaps lately I’ve become a little too opinionated and something of a self-parody. I’m a bit like Tom Crick, the teacher in the novel Waterland who doesn’t stick to the history syllabus but talks about his own history instead. If people use that as a criticism of me then I’ll accept it, because it’s true – but all I will say is that I’m my own biggest critic. I don’t need to students to remind me of my flaws – I’ve got a wife who can do that! I try to imagine her being in the corner of the room and shaking her head when the delirium breaks out.
Do you think your teaching style would work anywhere outside of RI?
Oh yes. My teaching style developed out of the hard times working in the UK comprehensive school. You had to work hard to make Shakespeare relevant. All of Literature is irrelevant to a kid who doesn’t want to read, and so you had to find ways and means to make it interesting. So you focused on the key ideas that would hopefully spark an interest in the book.
So I adapt to the students and whatever class I have – I don’t have a teaching theory or a teaching methodology that I stick to no matter what, come hell or high water – I adjust to the class. Whatever the class will take, whatever the class won’t take. If the class needs to be treated firmly, then I’ll treat them firmly; if the class needs to be encouraged then I’m a pussycat – I’m a very pragmatic teacher.
It all depends on the students. I adapt my approach to fit the students, I don’t make students fit my approach.
Do you think it’s important to do that, as a teacher?
Oh yes. Crucial. Absolutely crucial.
At the same time you have to keep a bit of distance between you and your students. A mistake a lot of young teachers make is trying to be friends with their students. I think is a huge mistake. What you want from students is not love, but respect. If my students respect me I’m delighted. Having the respect of your teaching colleagues is even better. My younger colleagues such as Ms Lye call me Mr Purvis as a mark of respect. I tell them not to because it makes me feel old, but if they insist I let it be. I take it as a genuine acknowledgment of my experience. And that’s very sensible of them because in teaching, experience is everything.
When you’re a younger teacher you can make a lot of mistakes, but you learn. At my age, when I walk into a class I’m very aware that 40 years’ experience comes with me. So the lesson ought to be good. Shame on me that so many aren’t! I’ve no excuse.
How did you end up here in Singapore?
I came because I always wanted to travel. I was going to go travelling with a friend of mine in my 20s, and then he backed out because he was going to get a job in Zambia. So I kind of put it on the side because I didn’t want to go on my own.
And then I became head of department in the UK – I did that for 3 years – it was ok, but it was tough dealing with teachers. Awkward sods to a man! The next step up was to become a V.P. then a P. But I didn’t fancy either of those positions of so-called authority because at that time I thought they had all of the responsibility but none of the real power. I never had a ‘career plan’ of any kind. I prefer the other definition of the word ‘career’ as a verb: ‘runs out of control’!! I loved teaching and had made it to Head of English. That was enough for me.
There was a lot of negativity surrounding teachers and teaching at that time. We were blamed for every social blight then afflicting the UK so I decided to leave. I saw the advert for Singapore, and applied, then got cold feet, backed out, then I applied again, they rejected me, then I applied a 3rd time, and I landed Christmas 1985.
I remember arriving at Changi and having the same reaction as everyone else seems to have – Wow! Look at this, look at the bright colours. That’s what’s striking at first. Heathrow’s very grey, dry, miserable, functional. Changi made me think, ‘And this is just the airport!!’ I went down Orchard Road, it was Christmas time, spectacular – I was in the English Language Centre next to the Shangri-la Hotel, (the story of my life…I have seen Shangri-La but never quite made it there!)
I was hoping I’d get a JC – if I had not got a JC I wouldn’t have stayed. Because the class size in secondary was what 40 or 50 – that’s my idea of hell. I loved Anderson.
Anderson was lovely; I still have very fond memories of the place.
I think that affects the way I deal with students who come in from other schools – I tend to look out for them and try to look after them. Raffles is an intimidating place when you come in from outside. I also tell them, now they are at Raffles, never to forget their alma mater, because that’s important. One boy from Anderson, who’s now a teacher, contacted me recently and told me that he still remembers me teaching him Coriolanus. I tried to make that rather awkward text relevant by telling them that Coriolanus was in fact an early Lee Kuan Yew!! It means a lot to me that he still remembers me after all these years.
What do you think of teaching as a profession? Is it an occupational hazard of teachers to be insecure about what they do or what they say?
I think teaching breeds emotional insecurity I think all teachers, I don’t care who they are, I don’t care how confident they appear to be, are often victims of this kind of anxiety. It’s because you’re standing up in front of teenagers every day and you have to be both informative and interesting.
That’s a tremendous demand to place on somebody day after day, week after week. I think that’s why there is a tendency for teachers to become a bit eccentric, to develop these striking idiosyncrasies. You are, in a sense, on stage all the time in front of a very critical audience.
I like to remind students that the person in front of them is a human being, not a machine. And one of the things all human beings like to have is a sense of being appreciated. I can’t stress this enough. Let me say to one and all now: ‘If you can read this, thank a teacher!’
I think students don’t realize that someone like me, who seems to them very cynical about Teacher’s Day, is not cynical about it at all. OK some of the stuff that goes on is naff and self-serving bullshit but I think there should be more emphasis on Teacher’s Day, not less. The more people are made aware of how much they owe to that human being who stands up there every day, knowing that he’s just one voice among many you will hear that day, and he has to make you remember what he says more than anyone else, the better it’ll be. I think people ought to have it drilled into them to value their teachers. In the UK state schools we’ve lost that completely, I think. No wonder no one wants to teach any more.
I made a reference on Facebook to what Elvis Costello said was the worst pop lyric ever written: “Hey teacher, leave those kids alone. All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Costello. The job is hard enough without anyone making it harder.