By Adri Faris (18A13A), Ashley Tan (18A13A), and Chung So Hyun (18A13A)
Some of us recognise him as the “Caucasian teacher who’s in good shape for his age”. Some know him as the International History teacher who had to endure the incessant chatter of opinionated Arts students for sixteen years. But to his students, he is most fondly known as “Mr Rolly”, the teacher who inspires and motivates in the best ways. Next year, Mr Michael Rollason will be leaving Raffles Institution (RI) in search of new and exciting expeditions as he traverses around the world, with packed bags and a lifetime of unforgettable memories from RI in tow.
Before bidding him a final goodbye, Raffles Press managed to catch Mr Rollason one last time for an interview. In Part 1 of this feature, Mr Rollason shares with us his reasons for leaving RI and some future plans he has.
Press: Why are you leaving RI, and why now?
Mr Rollason: Ah, two questions in one. For the ‘why right now’ part, it is partially because of the timing. My kids have all grown up. My last kid, Joe, had his final year in Singapore last year and he just started university in the UK this year. So with “free-er” children, we don’t have to continue or finish their education in Singapore anymore. That partly explains the immediate timing of leaving.
But the wider question is: Why I am leaving RI? Well, for me, because I’m a foreigner, it’s not just leaving RI, but it’s also leaving Singapore, and they’re part of the same thing. I guess it took a lot of soul-searching. It was quite a difficult decision actually, because I am very fond of both RI and Singapore.
But I think the main main reason is that as much as I feel guilty about leaving my students halfway through, I think it is because I desperately needed change. I have been in the same place doing something very similar for too many years, so I just really, really needed the change.
It was a very difficult decision to make on so many so many different levels. But for years and years, when I come to see my students leave, and you’re all going off doing these fantastic things – and you will, as you will – you’re off to starting this new chapter in your lives. On the other hand, I’ve been dwelling on here; I’m staying, and staying, and staying. But I like moving and I like the change, so as much as this is hard, I’m moving into a new chapter of my life which I’m quite excited about.
Press: Are you retiring?
Mr Rollason: No, we don’t use the R word! You’re supposed to say, “You’re far too young to retire, Mr Rollason!” I am mildly sensitive about the R word, but no, I’m not retiring. I tell you what, at the very least, I’m looking forward to taking a break. Whether it’s a break from teaching or going back to teaching, or whether it’s going to something different, I don’t know… But certainly just a break.
Press: What do you plan on doing after leaving RI?
Mr Rollason: I’ll be moving to Sri Lanka for a couple of years! I have no immediate plans and neither does my wife, though we would probably kill each other within about 3 weeks… But I’m vaguely hoping – you’re not allowed to sneer at me here – to get in contact with some NGOs and see if I can do anything on a voluntary basis. I’m going to get in contact with some of the local schools as well. I don’t know what I can teach, I don’t know what I can do, but, even if it’s just teaching basic English, I’d be glad to do it.
One of my slightly guilty feelings about my career is that I’ve always taught privileged kids. I was always very left-winged as a student, and I would have never taught in a private school. I’m not even sure I’ve ever taught in an equivalent of a Raffles school in the UK because I thought it was unfair… So going to Sri Lanka, I quite like the idea of maybe doing some voluntary work in a deprived area. This might sound incredibly naive and – in fact, listening to myself now it does sound incredibly naive – but I’m hoping I could do something. And the rest of the time, I’m planning to have quite a nice time. (Laughs)
Press: Why did you decide to migrate to Sri Lanka?
Mr Rollason: Well, one of the main reasons would be boredom of staying in Singapore for too long and practicality. Sri Lanka is a place where foreigners can actually buy land without complications, and it’s incredibly beautiful. It’s also really complex, which I like, because I’m very interested in politics. In fact, my first job was in Africa, and I felt completely at home in Kenya. Even though developing countries are a little bit crazy and can drive me mad, I quite like all of that. But ultimately, Sri Lanka is just a beautiful country to explore and, if I’m being honest, I’ve always thought I would spend most of my adult life living in a place like Sri Lanka. I can’t speak Sinhala or Tamil, but one of the other things I’m planning to do is to enroll in a course and try to learn Sinhala.
Press: How did you end up in Singapore, and then at RI?
Mr Rollason: I’ll give you the backstory first, because that might possibly help you understand.
The teaching jobs in the UK all used to be advertised in the Times Education Supplement. In those days, it used to come out as a hard copy newspaper every Thursday, and all the jobs were advertised on the back. I used to buy the Times Education – though I never read any of the articles on education because I had no interest in those – but I would go straight into the job section. I remember in the year I was just qualified as a teacher, I turned to the job section and saw that there were teaching jobs in London, in Manchester… Then there was this little bit at the end which said, “OVERSEAS”, and I thought, “Wow!”. I applied for a job in Kenya and got it, and then after that, I went to Hong Kong, and I got a teaching job in Singapore.
Actually, I went to Portugal before I went to Singapore as well. The Ministry of Education (MOE) was recruiting, and while I was living in Portugal, they gave me a ticket and said, “Come over to London for an interview”. I thought to myself, “Oh, I have a free weekend in London!” So I went to the interview, which lasted about fifteen minutes… MOE asked me a few questions, but the only two I can remember were “What were my attitudes to discipline in the classroom” and “What were the exam results of your students like?” I told them, “I am very firm in the classroom,” and I could’ve said anything about my exam results – which were, by the way, very good – but it was an interesting experience just because every interview I had been to in the UK lasted about an hour. In the UK, you’re brought up to think that if your interview doesn’t last an hour, you haven’t got the job. So, if your interview is over in fifteen minutes, you’ll be thinking, “They’ve clearly decided that they’re not going to hire me, and there’s no point.” I came out thinking, “Oh that didn’t go well.” It was very, very disappointing for me, because I had practised and thought about many questions that they could have asked. (laughter) But I ended up getting the job, so it all worked out!
I had known about Singapore because I’d visited Singapore before as a backpacker and stayed in some seedy little hotel down north on Bencoolen Street. But at that time, I had no idea about the Singapore education system. But I came anyway, and when I first arrived, I didn’t teach in Raffles. I taught in Jurong Junior College for six years, and then I received two or three phone calls from Raffles asking me to come over. It just didn’t work out the first couple of times for whatever reason, but I eventually came over in 2002.
So, to sum it up, I came to Singapore because it was advertised, but I came to teach at Raffles because the school got in contact with me.
Press: Why did you choose RI and stay with RI? What are your favourite things about RI and its students?
Mr Rollason: Some of my favourites? Gosh, where to begin?
One of the best things about this school is that it has always given teachers their professional space. They let you do your job as long as you work hard and you do it well. They never interfere. And it’s always been like that. I think it’s not like that everywhere in Singapore – and it’s not like that in the UK either. I think there’s this kind of professional trust which makes this school such a great place to work. It largely explains why I’ve stayed in the same place for so long – there’s very little interference and people trust you!
You probably won’t believe me but one of my favourite things about RI is actually the classroom. It really is the classroom. I’m going to let you in quite a little secret here: quite often when I’m walking across to J block, I do get a little bored and I’d think to myself, “Okay… Here we go again.” But then I get into the classroom, and I just forget everything. I think the moment I step into the classroom, I become someone quite different, really, quite like a lot of teachers. Being a teacher requires you to adopt a role and I think I do adopt that role, but not always in class. I think the person that I am outside the classroom is quite different from the person I am inside the classroom. Quite a number of people have said that! I’ve been told a few times that I’m very different when I’m with my students than when I’m with my colleagues.
Press: In what ways are you different?
Mr Rollason: I think I’m more forgiving with students. I’m more tolerant. (Smiles)
Anyway, going back to the main question, I really enjoyed working with very bright and well-motivated students who are on intellectual par with me. I don’t have to talk it down or whatever it is. I enjoyed the interaction I’ve had with my students, especially during the school trips where you’re talking to them just about anything else, not just about history. I quite like the nonsense we talked about – about everything and nothing outside the classroom.
I really do enjoy the classroom experience in Raffles. I love my subject. I think one of the differences between teaching in Raffles and elsewhere I’ve taught is that I can relate to students here as an adult. I always thought that if I treated my students like young adults, they will behave like young adults. And so, I can have young adult conversations with them.
I am seeing former students at the moment, and it’s going to be like that until I leave. In fact, I was out last Saturday and I saw my former student from Portugal (I used to teach in Portugal in the early 1990s). He’s 38 now! He actually came to Singapore before I did. I’ve seen him a couple of times subsequently. A few of my old students are now in the region working. I’ve also seen a lot of my former students from Raffles – and it is a bit of a cliche but it does feel a little bit like a family. You know, I’m not unique that way; I think the other teachers can also say the same. We’re still in contact with a lot of our former students and it’s lovely.
Of course I really enjoyed working with my colleagues too. I had a fantastic bunch of colleagues! It’s a shame that there are still many good friends and colleagues here but you know some of them also have left the school. I’ve had a fairly distinct humanities team a few years ago and they’ve also died off and I’m the next one. (Laughs)
Press: What are some of your least favourite things about RI?
Mr Rollason: There’s not too many things that I don’t like about Raffles.
But if I had to say something, I think my least favourite thing about RI has got to be those instances when the technology is not working! You know when you go in a classroom, ready to start a class, and your heart misses a few beats because you’re standing there thinking, “Is it going to work? Is this projector going to start?” I must say there have been quite a few of those occasions where I’ve wasted lesson time or have to abort what I’m doing just because the technology couldn’t work properly!
There really isn’t anything much more than that, to be honest. I think I wouldn’t have stayed in Raffles for so long if I had too many things that I didn’t like about this place.
Press: What was your most memorable moment as a teacher in RI?
Mr Rollason: That’s a tricky one, because I think there were lots of memorable moments.
I’m going to sound horrendously elitist here, but I think every year when you see kids who manage to go to a universities of their choices, it’s a wonderful feeling. Another memorable moment was landing in Bhutan for the first time during our Humanities trip. That was pretty pretty special, because it was a country that I’d never been to before, and never thought I would go to. I think it was just a sheer collective enthusiasm, with the excitement of 35 people. All that anticipation of landing in that little airport in the middle of the Himalayas was pretty wonderful.
Press: What will you miss most about RI when you leave? Would you – in all honesty – come back to visit?
Mr Rollason: I would come back, but there’s some hesitation because it’s a little strange visiting a place where the people you know aren’t there anymore. It almost seems a little pointless since by the time I come back, you would have left, and the kids whom I know would probably have left too. Many of the teachers I know might have left too. But yes, I’d like to come back to Singapore and RI, but with the caveat that the people whom I know are still here.
In fact, I did go back to my old school in Portugal in June – it was lovely. But then again, I’m looking at the kids, and I don’t really know them, since I taught there 25 years ago. In fact, one of my ex-students now has kids at the school, and I know a few of the teachers. But what was really, really nice was that two of the cleaning ladies who were there recognised me, and they were asking about my children because my two daughters were born when I was still teaching there. That was particularly sweet.
So if I do come back, I’d definitely see if Mrs Perry is still here. Also, I’d definitely see the fruit stall vendors. Before I leave, I’m definitely going to say a proper goodbye, and the cleaning lady who works in our lounge here… She’s really nice too.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Raffles Press’ interview with Mr Rollason.