By Calista Chong (18A01A)
In conjunction with Teacher’s Day, Raffles Press has collaborated with the 37th Student Council’s Teacher’s Day Committee to bring you a series of articles featuring several teachers in Raffles Institution. In this instalment, we feature Mr Gavin Swee, a History tutor.
Mr Gavin Swee is an alumnus of Raffles Institution. In his time here, he was a member of Raffles Players and helped to organise the first Bone Marrow Donor Drive at Raffles. He began his teaching career at a secondary school, before returning to RI at the start of this year as an International History tutor.
An intriguing memory a student of Mr. Gavin Swee would have is one of him humming Chinese songs whenever there is a prolonged silence in the classroom. A Press writer fondly recalls an exultant Mr. Swee showing her class a video clip of his favourite Chinese orchestra, and he transfers this degree of passion to the discipline he teaches.
How would you describe your experience as a student at RI?
I was having a conversation with a dear old friend from my time here, and the unfortunate conclusion we reached was that we came to school for CCA, and tolerated the academics. I guess I could say that I was not as devoted to my studies as I should have been, compared to you folks as students now these days.
But I had a whale of a time in CCA, and I did also find the academics to be fulfilling, even if my subject tutors didn’t necessarily find me a rewarding student to teach! One of the most enduring things which stuck with me all this time, is that taking the subjects that I did really taught me to think and write critically. Because of this, I developed a writing style that has grown over the years.
What made RI memorable for you, as a student?
I guess it would be the sheer amount of activities I involved myself in, though it was at the cost of what Mrs Perry called “academic rigour” and sleep! For Raffles Players, I was Student Producer for almost all the productions in my time: Drama Feste, a charity Haunted House attraction, our SYF play, and the annual College Play! Our Year 6 College Production was a double bill—I was assistant director for the SYF play, had a minor role in the second play, and was also the overall producer of the double bill! As it turned out, one of our cast members was the grandchild of a Very Important Statesman, so I remember first being in my front-of-house crew attire to welcome the VIP and usher him to his seat, then rushing backstage during intermission to put on my costume and makeup so that I could be onstage for my part! I almost gave the makeup artist a heart attack!
There was also the Bone Marrow Donor Drive which I helped start at Raffles, together with my classmates, our CT Mrs Nicola Perry and our PW teacher, Mrs Jasvinder Dhillon. It coincided with the official opening of the Bishan campus of RJC. We got over 900 donors in one day! I was the secretary, and in charge of volunteer recruitment and deployment. On that same day, there was also Raffles Players’ Haunted House, which we used to raise funds for the Bone Marrow Donor Programme, as well as a showcase for our SYF play at the Black Box. I remember scheduling my day into 20-minute blocks! (laughs)
If you were to pick the most iconic thing you have pioneered or done, what would it be?
If I could crystallise what I am singularly proudest of in my two years at Raffles, I was the first to draw a computerised seating plan and label the seats in Lecture Theatre 2—and the subsequent year, for the Performing Arts Centre. We had just moved into the Bishan campus and were settling into the spaces, so I had to do this in order to sell tickets for Players productions! I remember the then-Estate Manager, Mr Chris Han, asking me to share with him the plans which I had drawn!
How is teaching at RI different from other schools?
In a “heartland” school like my previous posting, a teacher is like a father, mother, subject expert, counsellor, social worker, coach and mentor all in one package. It is so much more emotionally taxing to teach in a “heartland” school, and the amount of sacrifice a teacher has to make is significantly greater.
In my previous school, I would constantly feel bad that I had not found the time during the school day to reach out to a student to check in on her family situation, sit down with another student to make him complete his corrections, or mock-interview a student in preparation for his polytechnic admission interview.
Therefore, I think that as a teacher at RI, I have sometimes taken the kind of students we get here for granted. That’s not to say that my previous students were awful (quite the contrary), but it was a bit of a reverse culture shock to experience the efficacy of class reps and CCA leaders, for instance. The extent to which our students are self-directed, responsible and reliable, is something that perhaps [teachers] forget to appreciate.
Another way teaching at RI differs from my previous school is probably the fact that it is less of a struggle to get “buy-in” from students. The implicit faith in authority isn’t something you can expect all students to have, and for that I’m very grateful to have students who largely want to learn, and who usually hold themselves to very high standards! But it also explains why building rapport with my students is very important to me—it was a survival tactic in my previous school!
I’m also struck by how very well-resourced we are as a school. The fact that we—teachers and students included—are not struggling to stay awake in a tutorial at 3pm in a non-air-conditioned classroom—that has an impact on my ability to teach well and your ability to perform in examinations too.
What do you find most fulfilling about teaching?
I think most teachers will tell you that if you’re teaching in Singapore for tangible career advancements and pecuniary benefits, you will be in for a rude shock. This is a very unsustainable [source of] motivation. I love being in the classroom and the LT, and with the students in my CCA—as I get to tease them, and deliver witty remarks! But on a more serious note, the ability to shape people to become more empathetic, compassionate and sensitive to the world around them, that’s the most important and fulfilling thing to me. I hope that ultimately, honest work and human decency are seen to be more valuable than conventional markers of success, like the money we make or grades we achieve, for example.
Would you like to leave us with a quote?
In the long run in life, what matters is effort, and if you fail, try and keep trying. The ability to do well is determined by your motivation, and how dogged your determination is.