By Nicki Chan (18S03C) and Ashley Tan (18A13A)
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 Christopher Selvaraj, a Project Work tutor.
There are just some teachers who possess that je ne sais quoi – a quality you can’t quite verbalise or fully explicate, but is distinctly extraordinary. You somehow feel compelled to lap up every word of wisdom they have to offer, before storing it in a safe crevice of your mind, because you want to be able to retrieve these nuggets of percipience on a day when you will need it the most. You find yourself walking out of their class feeling somewhat pensive, challenged, or even “shooken”, but also profoundly inspired.
Mr Christopher Selvaraj – more commonly known as Mr Chris – is one of those teachers. Known for his penchant for aesthetically appealing Powerpoint slides that he spends “way too much time on” and his unabashed claims to the “Bad Speller” title, Mr Chris is a deeply insightful individual (though he will never admit it!) whose self-effacing humility warrants even greater respect from his students. His ability to introduce laughter to the otherwise stifling atmosphere of the lecture theatre during Project Work – arguably one of the most toiling subjects any Year 5 student has to endure – spurs many of us to take our hats off to him.
If there is one axiom that best encapsulates the incredible human being and teacher that is Mr Chris, it would be this: The best teachers are those that show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see. In this interview, Mr Chris shares his insights on teaching and its relationship with learning, and explains why life should never be taken too seriously.
How and why did you choose to go into teaching?
I never really saw myself as a teacher, and I’m really a teacher by accident. My wife (then girlfriend) wanted to be a teacher, and she was really passionate about it. And because she was so passionate about it, I was certain that I would never make the cut because I was sure I did not have the sort of passion she had…
But the way things turned out was that when she went into teaching, it was very challenging for her, so I wanted to see what was going on in teaching and joined just to see what it was like, so that I would also know about what she was passionate about. So I guess I really started teaching because I wanted to see what it was my wife was so passionate about and that I didn’t understand.
If you ask me, did I think I’d become a teacher? Nope, no way. So why am I still a teacher? I have no clue. (chuckles) But that’s what makes it fun.
Was there a specific teacher who inspired you to step into this profession when you were a student?
I’ve had some great teachers along the way. The two that stand out the most are my Secondary 4 literature teacher, and my JC biology teacher, Mrs Yeo. My literature teacher in Secondary 4 was so passionate about literature, but my biology teacher in JC was so passionate about us, and she really believed that we could be better, or that we could aspire to be more than we were. To me, that’s what I remember them for. I wouldn’t say they made me want to go into teaching, but now that I am teaching, I take a lot of reminders from them about what’s important.
My dad is also a teacher, but he’s a physics lecturer and lectures on thermodynamics. […] He once told me that the core to being a good teacher is to love to learn, and the reason he loves teaching is because he loves to see people learn. That put things in perspective, because we always think teaching is about teaching. But it’s not really – it’s about looking at how others learn, how others change their mind, how others see something new, how others are confused, how others are not sure, how others get better. So that’s the thing that drives him, and I guess it’s what drives me now. It’s not so much the teaching part, but the learning part.
If you weren’t a teacher, which career path do you think you would have undertaken?
I did reasonably well in school, and I did pretty well in university too. I was all set to go and pursue my PhD in sociology and history and try and be an academic because it allows you to think about things in an original way and that was what I really loved. I mean, that’s the idealistic part, because it’s not always like that in reality. I remember one of the things they told us in school was that you must study hard and become useful… But I didn’t just want to become useful. I really wanted to have original ideas, and I wanted to learn from other people. So I’m not sure academia would have been the best place to try and get all this, but I probably would have tried to become a professor of sociology.
But I didn’t just want to become useful. I really wanted to have original ideas, and I wanted to learn from other people.
Why did you choose to study sociology in university?
Honestly, it was because sociology classes ended the earliest. When I first applied to university, I applied to study chemistry. I was pretty good at chemistry…Then I switched to do literature, then history, then political science. The Dean of Arts told me I had to choose, and that I couldn’t keep switching majors.
So I picked the subject with the classes that ended the earliest. That’s the thing – sometimes when you look at it, I’m not a good role model when it comes to making life decisions. I chose my job because I wanted to see what it is that my wife likes. I chose my university degree because I wanted to go home early. These are not the best reasons to make such enduring choices, but it’s amazing how it all turned out. I’m probably going to make many more strange decisions for many more strange reasons, and I wonder where they will take me.
How do you think your background in sociology has helped you navigate the world of teaching?
One of the things I love about the social sciences is that there are no easy answers to explain anything. When you look at teaching and learning in the class, it gives you a very illusory sense of what goes on. I stand at the front – you sit, I teach, and somehow learning is supposed to happen. But most times, the learning that goes on in your mind has very little to do with the teaching going on in class.The relationship between teaching and learning turns out to be hugely complex and it can get very intimidating trying to think things through. But the social sciences also teach you that just because there are no easy answers, it doesn’t mean you should shy away from trying to get an answer. It takes a lot of courage to hazard an original explanation for something in the social sciences, just as it takes a lot of courage to stand in front of students and suggest that there is a new way of looking at something.
At the same time, explanations for everything in the social sciences are always contested and challenged because there are so many angles to social phenomena. So you’ve got to be humble, because most of the time, you don’t have the answers. That same disposition applies in the classroom. I might be the teacher and I hope I’ve given students something to think about along the way, but I think I’ve learnt a lot more from my students than they have from me.
Why did you choose to teach PW?
Actually, I started off teaching General Paper (GP). I switched to PW after some time because I started to see the subject as a space I could use to get students to see that problems can be framed in so many different ways, and that each frame you settle on brings with it a different way of tackling the problem. It’s not as if you can’t do that with GP, but I think the idea generation part and process in PW matters a lot to me. It’s a terrifying and exciting thing to conceive of new solutions to enduring problems, and I guess I want to be with students when they are doing that.
What is your favourite thing about Raffles?
One thing that I really love about the school is the size of the cohort and the diversity that it brings with it. It’s a strange thing to say because the school is so big, and I know a lot of people will look at it and say, “Oh, it’s difficult to make a difference, to have friends, to know everyone.” But I guess from where I see it, there’s so much diversity in the school, and while the uniform makes it seem as if everybody’s the same, that couldn’t be further from the case. While I will never know the whole batch, and will only get to know those in the Governance and Civics Engagement Programme (GCEP), or Council, or in the classes I teach, there is so much diversity, and people are so different. Some people are so talented at things and in ways I cannot even begin to imagine.
For instance, I had a student two years ago who was an accomplished pianist. I’m always in awe of musicians because I had to learn the piano growing up and I hated every moment of it. This student had synesthesia, which means that she can taste music when she plays it because her aural senses are tied to her taste. That’s incredible.
And then there are others who are struggling with all sorts of things and trying to do the best they can. There are those who wear their hearts on their sleeves and there are others who are so stoic you’d be hard pressed to guess what they are feeling inside at any given moment. Two years in JC is a short time, but the sheer number and diversity of students always reminds me that there are a million ways to experience the two years. While I might see batch after batch and after some time, the school year can seem repetitive to me, the experiences of each student are not the same and I count myself lucky to cross paths with the few I meet.
The soul of the school is really the students. Sometimes, I consider it to be a privilege to actually witness this as you all are growing up in this very important phase of your life. What’s become very important to me along the way too, is that because I see you grow, I remember that I can grow too. That’s very important because I always tend to forget that. That’s what I love most about this school.
What’s become very important to me along the way too, is that because I see you grow, I remember that I can grow too.
Do you have any memorable anecdotes from encounters with students?
One of the most important things I learnt, especially after being a teacher, is how appearances often don’t reflect who people are – especially for students. Students will always surprise you. We make so much judgement based on how people look and yes, to a certain extent, that’s fine, because we can’t all stop doing that. But what amazes me is how you’re able to witness people grow from the start of the year to end of the year.
I remember one year, there was a girl in my PW class who was very quiet. I thought, “She’s not going to make it through the Oral Presentation (OP).” But, at the end of the year, her OP was one of the best! I told her, “I didn’t know you could talk like that, you are such a good speaker!” Then she told me, “Oh it’s not me…I had to train myself.” And I thought, “That’s even more inspiring because it’s not natural.” She made herself into something she thought she couldn’t do! I was so inspired by it. But when I looked at her at the start of the year, I was judging her and thought she wouldn’t be able to do it. I love when our preconceived notions of people are shattered.
What’s a secret pastime of yours that we may not know about?
It’s only been about 2 years since I became a dad, but I already can’t remember what it was like to have free time, much less what it was like to have a pastime. I spend most of my “free time” playing cooking with my daughter. She’s got the most amazing dishes in mind: fish with ice-cream, bread and tomato sauce… The list goes on. I love seeing how creative she can be and how thrilled she is when I tell her that I’ve never had watermelon and croissant before, but that her dish is the best I’ve had. I also used to play a lot of floorball when I was younger, but those days are long, long behind me!
What is your life motto/favourite quote?
My favourite quote is from a short story I read when I was much younger titled The Remarkable Rocket. It’s from Oscar Wilde’s collection of short stories, and it’s hilarious. In a nutshell, it’s about a rocket who is blinded by his arrogance to the very end (read the story!). The quote is, “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.” This quote always reminds me that as clever as you think you are and as good as you think you are, you can’t take yourself too seriously. It’s that little bit of good-natured self doubt that keeps you humble and that’s very important as you grow and get better at a lot of things…
You should be serious about your work and I don’t think it’s wrong to have expectations of yourself, but if you don’t learn to laugh at yourself along the way, life is going to be terrible. Laughing at yourself gives you permission to look at yourself in the mirror when you fail or when you make mistakes, and be vulnerable and ask, “What on earth was I thinking when I did that?” I’ve failed so many times and in so many spectacular ways (the classes I’ve taught will know about some of these moments); but if I can’t look back and shake my head with a smile, then I’ve got nothing in the future to look forward to.