By Aaron Tan (19A01B), Varun Karthik (19S06A), and Nicole Chan (19S05A)
Photographs courtesy of Mr. Tan and the Raffles Photographic Society
In this teacher feature, we speak to Mr. Tan Mian Ou—PE teacher, Rugby teacher-in-charge, one of the current year heads for the Year 6 cohort, and an old boy. In this interview, Mr. Tan shares with Raffles Press stories of his schooling days, his unusual entry into the teaching industry, his life as a teacher, and some advice for us all.
This interview has been edited for concision.
We know you are an old boy from this school, so would you like to share about your student life at Raffles and the memories of your time here?
Most memorable experiences as a student? My school days weren’t all glorious, to be honest.
I may be biased because I am a rugger, but my most memorable experience was how the entire school would come down to support us in the finals. That is a far and distant dream nowadays, (because we can’t even get to the finals—at least for the B and C divisions). It was very memorable because the whole school would turn up for our finals without being asked.
You would also see a big number of teachers at games, not just the CCA teacher-in-charge, and this was true even for the group stage games as well. And so that was one of those things that stuck with me, and to be honest, I always thought my teachers were invested in doing this, not just being with your students in the classroom but supporting them outside the classroom as well.
I am just telling you the good things—I had many naughty moments too. I’m not sure if it is safe to, but I’ll tell you all this good story which I rarely share. When I was in Year 4, I was the appointed captain of the team because the captain had been injured pre-season. We were training 6 to 7 days a week, even coming back to school to train on weekends.
There was this particular Sunday where we trained till very late in the evening. The first two blocks on Monday mornings were assembly, where either our headmaster or various people would come and talk. We decided to skip assembly, sleep late, wake up and go to Bishan bus interchange to have a nice breakfast.
Lo and behold, when we were trying to come in, we were caught by the head prefect who was at the gate. Let’s just say he let us through. But we did not make it to our classrooms and were caught by another teacher. Let’s just say that that teacher was a nice lady and also let us through.
We basically point-blank lied to our teachers that we overslept because we were training on Sunday and since my house was at Sin Ming, we all went to my house to sleep over. The alarm clock broke and we all woke up late. The teachers either bought it or they knew something was up and chose to take it at face-value.
But it eventually came un-done. One of my teammate’s form teachers was a little sharper than that. Since he was also my little (Year 2) brother’s History teacher, he told my teammate, “I’m going to ask him if it’s true.” And that guy broke down and confessed.
And so, the 8 of us were summoned to the headmaster’s office. There was a fake fireplace set up with two lounge sofas, the headmaster’s desk was this huge oak table and it was all wooden furniture: really posh and well done. I was one of those few students, other than the head prefect and other important people, who had seen the interior of the headmaster’s office (and that was awesome and memorable).
We were told off and, in fact, the headmaster (Mr. Tan Tiek Kwee) had decided that he was going to suspend us. That was a Monday, and we had a game on Wednesday. The next thing he asked was how many of us were on the first team. It was all eight of us. Amazingly, the punishment was downsized to informing our parents and I had to go up to apologise in front of the whole school.
That was a totally different experience. In the old days, assembly and flag raising was at the hockey turf. The principal and head prefect stood on the second level (the semi-circle) and the head prefect would make announcements there. It was humiliating standing there, seeing everyone down there and apologising for having gone for McDonald’s breakfast and not assembly.
It wasn’t glorious—but it was memorable.
After your schooling in RI and RJC, you career trajectory was not, I assume, what most of your peers had?
Yeah, yeah, I get what you mean. I took three years to clear my A levels because I got retained in my first year after doing terribly in promos. When I was in J1, I played a whole lot of Rugby and I was involved in many competitions. So, it was all Rugby, and I would come to school and sleep through the lectures, of course there was a little bit of wanting to be cool, I confess. Obviously, by the time promos hit, I got straight Fs. I was one of three from my cohort who got retained.
In any case, that was how it was, and I think, to this day, that was the best lesson I learned in my life. If there is no effort, it means there will be no reward. Which is why they have that term: return of investment. It’s a financial, economic term but it applies, really, to everything—no effort, no investment, no return. Absolutely nothing. If you don’t invest anything, you get nothing back. There’s no risk involved in this when it comes to studies, so just get down to it. Listen, don’t sleep.
But, yeah, it was devastating for me. For someone who was used to, you know, pulling rabbits out of a hat, I must say it really did wake me up. For me it was another year-long journey of coming to terms. In fact, my entire repeat J1 year, I didn’t do very much better, but I did manage to scrape past the promotional requirements. It was what I would consider a social-emotional rollercoaster.
So, I guess I bumbled along, but eventually graduated, went to the army, and then… personal circumstances happened. In any case I had no notion of what I wanted to do back then. The family finances were, well, somewhat in dire states so I when I entered the army, as I progressed along, I realised that maybe I should take the option of signing on. So, I went to sign on first, there was no promise of a scholarship but I pulled myself in the army, eventually, from a sergeant and then I worked my way through the OCS, and then after that, they gave me that scholarship.
But that’s how it turned out. So, I was not one of those who was there for “duty, honour, country…’’ I did not start off really wanting to be a regular soldier, but it happened that way.
And those were really great years.
So ironically, it was a tough decision to leave. The reason to leave was really quite simple, I had reached a stage where I was so, in love with the job, it was really consuming, and I spent so much time on my job even—I mean, we had duties on weekends as well. Paradoxically, it was hard to leave the job that I so liked and which I did not begin with wanting to do.
And therein lies that second part: what was I going to do with my life? I had no idea. No inkling. No information. I hadn’t started off knowing what I wanted to do. I took this up because of circumstances and now I was choosing to leave it.
As life would have it, my wife was a teacher at the time. She was like, “Eh, why not try?” So, in my last year in the army, I applied to MOE. [I was] not really convinced that I was able to do a good job. So, I went for an interview, and I was lucky enough that they would have considered me. So, I was posted to Maris Stella.
I swear to you, the first two, three months, every morning I wondered why I was doing this. Because I went from such an adult-centric, operation-driven, “let’s get this thing done”, real-life operation scenario to dealing with lower sec kids. I’d be teaching basketball and they’d be playing soccer with the basketball […] Those three months, I told my wife every day, “I’m not cut out for this” and applied to MFA for a foreign service job. So, as it is, perhaps again karma or serendipity, they never got back to me.
[Mr. Ortega and Mr. Mike] were both my teachers and Mr. Mike J was the PE Head of Department when I was a student. So, they remembered me. I was a rascal, right? At the time, I had joked, “Sir, maybe I become PE teacher lah. Can I come back to RI?”
I remember he was telling me that “you sure? You serious?”
“Maybe lah,” I said, but he had remembered. Word had gotten around eventually that I was at NIE, so we spoke about the possibility of my posting to RI, but it wasn’t a given that I was going to come back; it was dependent on whether there was a vacancy. And that’s how I ended up back here. That was how it was, largely. So, it’s ultimately not by design, but I’ve had no problems thus far…
So as a teacher, what would you say are the very rewarding things that get you going every day when you come to school to teach?
I tell you, that’s not a difficult question to answer. Again, it’s two-tiered. To be honest, I think most students enjoy physical activity: it’s separate from being in a classroom. So first off already, the energy that we get from the students in PE is a different thing altogether. And that’s one thing that keeps most of us, if not all of us, going—something we look forward to. Coming to move with the kids, play games with the kids, to hopefully help teach something.
We’re supposed to teach skills, values, but it doesn’t always come in a concrete form; you don’t get it lesson to lesson. There are just some lessons where you’re just going to be trying to figure out how to do the overhand smash, the drop shot, and all that. Those are skills, and we do insist on us being able to deliver that. I tell you, one of the few things that I’ve learnt that has impacted me most is that when I walked into this department, I was told by some of the more senior teachers that there is no teaching unless there is learning. You cannot say, “I’ve taught a class today” when they have not learnt anything.
But the learning does not mean that it has to be something that’s very big. They could have just learnt how to pass better. And even if not everyone got it, someone has got it, or a few, or half the group has got it. Then you have to contend with how you want to bring the rest up to speed, so on and so forth. So, I look forward to that kind of engagement. That’s what keeps me coming back.
And to be honest, as an ex-student here… I think I kind of understand the pulse of Rafflesians as a whole. I wouldn’t say it’s been easy per se, but I haven’t really found any situation impossible to contend with. Like I say, I mean, we were all once students before, you know? I was a student here and I know exactly how it is, how kids in this school would think about things.
But really, the engagement with the kids [is extremely rewarding]. And very often, I tell my classes that yes, I am your teacher, but I’m also your senior. Talk to me. But maybe more so in the rugby stands, in the rugby domain. It really is senior-junior. Man, I feel for where we stand, and we’re in a bad place, man. *laughs* Let’s get better, you know? But that’s what drives me as well. So, teaching, PE, the CCA, which I know is a big part of why I decided to come back in the first place, to try to steer us back on the upswing. It’s going to take a while, but we’ll get back.
Also, the congeniality of this department. It’s a wonderful experience to now be colleagues with my former teachers, and this PE department is almost like a second family. And when you have that, coming to work is not a chore. It’s not like coming to work, we come and then we have fun all day long. That’s how we feel about PE.
What advice do you have for the many students who have no idea what they’re going to do after they leave JC or after they leave the army?
Don’t rush into choosing. Don’t rush, but if you do make a choice, don’t be afraid to make changes down the road. Because in the whole scheme of life, nothing is wasted. Even after you’ve committed resources, time and effort into one thing or profession, it doesn’t mean that you cannot start afresh.
You know they make a big deal of “if you have a passion, go pursue it”, right? Yes, if your circumstances allow you to. Because the truth is, when you have liabilities, and I mean it in a positive sense, like you got a family, you got kids, you’ve got a mortgage loan, you need a car, those things that come when you’re at that age, right? You make those decisions, so same principle, you make the best of what you have.
And really, that governs it. Some people go through their whole lives not really knowing what they want. Some people have no strong inclinations towards a certain aspect of life or profession, per se. A job, after all, offers you a chance to make a living, self-fulfillment if you can get it, which is rarer, but less primary. Truly, don’t be afraid to make changes. Nothing is lost.
For many of my cohort mates who ended up lawyers, some of them decided this is not what they wanted after many years of being in the profession. One of them, my cohort mate and teammate, is now running an afterschool service care for latchkey kids and underprivileged kids. He runs a service like that—took a massive pay cut from a well-paying legal job.
But he felt that was what he wanted to do, because he wanted to contribute to society in a different way. It’s a big change. And many of them have gone on to do other things, F&B (food and beverage) industry and all that. If circumstance allowed them, they did without their financial reserves. I knew doctors who decided after years of medical service that they weren’t going to be in the private practice, where they were earning great sums of money, and they decided that they would go to far flung places like Kathmandu just servicing the rural poor. Engineers who never did a day of engineering work, graduated with an engineering degree and then went to the banks. Banker who after eight years of investment banking decided that he’s going to sell pancakes in a coffee shop.
And that’s really one thing—that my generation, people from my era, were a little bit more… what’s the word for it? I guess we weren’t really afraid of making changes, as long we knew that we would be able to make the best of what we had, at any given time of our lives.