By Gabrielle Ng (20A01E) and Valerie Tan (20A01E)
These interviews were first featured, in shorter form, in our special Teachers’ Day 2019 Print Edition. Here are the full interviews.
NAME: MS ESTHER LEE
DEPARTMENT: ARTS (LITERATURE)
Ms Lee gets her kicks from books—and from Muay Thai too!
What inspired you to become a teacher?
[takes a breath] Wow, okay, that’s a really difficult question. I wish I could be one of those teachers who could honestly say they’ve always dreamt of being a teacher, but that’s not really me. I think I have several inspirations.
Firstly, my JC Literature teacher. She was really good: she was caring, inspirational… Oh no, I’m using the word given to me, that’s bad! [laughter] But she really epitomised what it means to be a caring teacher—someone who was interested, authentically, in her students’ lives. And I think she served as a model for me to understand what a teacher could be. I mean, I wanted to be like her, so here I am!
Another inspiration would be my dad, who was an English teacher. So I grew up knowing what a teacher’s private life is like. I really admired the way he would talk about students openly and share it with our family, and he would also mention the funny moments that happened in class. I guess it was fun to see from that perspective. I think he embodied what teaching requires, which is to keep learning. So he was always reading, and encouraging my brother and I to read. I think it’s a lifestyle I can imagine myself in, for at least this period of time.
Then at which point in your life did you finally decide to be a teacher?
At the point where I had to find a job [smiles]. It’s very practical, but I think being a teacher teacher presents that possibility of a work-life balance. I think a lot of teachers would laugh at this. But there’s the fact that I actually get holidays! I think really helps to keep me sane. And also, because my dad was a teacher, he could take us on holidays during that period. So teaching seemed like a pretty practical job. At the same time, it’s also an idealistic job because I can make a change in someone else’s life… [trails off; confesses] Okay, sometimes, really, I say this only half-believing in it. I guess that’s because it’s quite an abstract concept; I can’t really expect to change my students? But I do think every interaction I have with someone—not necessarily a student—is always an opportunity to make a little change.
If you hadn’t become a teacher, what would you want to be and why?
[jokingly complains] You’re asking me all the tough questions! [laughter]
This is genuinely such a hard question, but maybe I might have been a librarian? Because I like being around books, and sometimes talking to people is really tiring. So I like the company of things that don’t talk to me, at least not audibly. Audio books aren’t really my thing. I have some friends who are librarians as well; they seem to have such a fun life!
What’s something unexpected about being a teacher that you’ve learnt?
Hmmmm. I went into teaching without expectations. I mentioned I went in from a very practical perspective, so I tried not to have any expectations to prevent myself from feeling disappointed [laughter].
What’s your favourite part of teaching Lit?
The responses I get from students!
I get, like, lots of hilarious responses—I have to keep from laughing sometimes. But I’m also very impressed by the ideas I’ve never considered, which some of y’all give me in class! Especially with unseen poetry. Very often, a poem is meant to be read from or takes into account the reader’s perspective. Because you’re only given this chunk of text (at least for the A Levels), a lot of it is open to interpretation and how you choose to read it given your own experiences.
Do you prefer the poetry section or book section?
Definitely the poetry. It’s always a surprise, and I enjoy that! I like being surprised. [smiles]
If Lit was an animal, what animal would it be and why?
Definitely a cat. Come on.
Because a cat does not belong to anyone, and I think Lit doesn’t belong to anyone. A cat chooses who its person or human is, and even after choosing it is still temperamental. I think Lit also presents that kind of temperamental aspect: sometimes you get the poem, sometimes you don’t; sometimes you like a book at a certain point in your life, and then when you grow up and read it again, you’re like, what kind of fool!, or, was I a fool for enjoying, like… Looking for Alaska?
What do you like to do outside of teaching?
Oh, hm. Depends on my mood really.
But a routine I’ve picked up recently is to spend my Saturdays at yoga. Then after that I’ll sit down somewhere for coffee and read a book. And that’s my Saturday morning! Or if I’m feeling adventurous I might go for Muay Thai. [adds] Also, if I’m feeling angsty.
In my free time (not necessarily just the weekends) or when I’m commuting, I like listening to music. One of my favourite bands is The National. Have you ever listened to their music? It might be a bit depressing, but there’s a certain quality to that music where, even in its melancholy and depressing… feel? It makes me feel understood, if that makes sense. Also, the melodies are quite catchy. The singer has such a nice voice; it’s very distinctive, this low baritone that’s very soothing. But he’s always singing about heartbreak, and the perils of suburban life.
Do you have any book recommendations?
I recently reread The Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist is so whiny. I used to really identify with him when I first read it at 16 years old. I think this book also has some sentimental value to me because it was a gift from my brother. I remember reading it and being like, yes! The world is so horrible, why can’t we be young forever? But reading it as someone who’s slightly grown up, I found that he’s insufferable. A bit like Joan (Note: protagonist of Saint Joan, a text Ms Lee currently teaches in class), very whiny.
I think there were also some quotes about art that were quite startling. I didn’t remember them when I was reading it at 16, but now I do. There’s this one that I can paraphrase for you. It’s about how he’s dating a girl called Sally, and she’s talking about art, but he feels that she’s really pretentious. And I thought that, yeah, people who tend to enjoy the arts can come across as pretentious sometimes, so I guess I feel a bit like I could have been Sally.
What genres of books or music do you enjoy the most?
Books by women? I know Catcher in the Rye isn’t the best example, and it’s kind of misogynistic, like that Sally example I gave. But I generally tend towards reading female writers.
My favourite poet is Mary Oliver. There’s something very transcendental about her poetry. She talks about the natural world in a way that makes me sit up and look out of the window, and observe the birds flying past and even the flowers; the way the light falls on them and they interact with space… I think poetry that is powerful should move you to do that.
Oh, actually, I have another book recommendation! Have you ever read anything by Sally Rooney? She’s an up-and-coming writer, quite young—two years older than me, I think.
Why did you choose to teach Lit as opposed to other subjects?
Because it’s the only subject that makes sense… [laughter] Okay, I’m kidding, don’t use this! (Note: she later agreed to leaving this in.)
I think it presents a side of humanity that the other Humanities subjects don’t quite get at. And I enjoy Lit for the beauty of language. I mean, with GP, it’s great because it’s about communicating clearly. But sometimes, you need the layers of meaning; ideas that are aesthetic and don’t necessarily have to be about politics or the environment. I also like how Lit is very introspective, and forces me to think about how I view my relationships with other people and with the world at large.
Lastly, how has your overall experience teaching in RI been like so far?
I think I enjoy being here, teaching all of you. I think I prefer teaching older students compared to secondary school… I like teaching at JC level. I feel like I can connect with my students at a different level, I think, more personally. And I think y’all are more mature, mature enough to understand some ideas that I wouldn’t be able to discuss with a younger audience.
NAME: MR LEE KAH HOW
Mr Lee has a wide range of interests from diving to breakdancing, and likens teaching to a theatre performance.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I personally thought it would be very fun and meaningful, so it was a job that I had a lot of information about. Like, every student typically has the most access to teaching as a particular profession as compared to any other job. Also, of course, it was a job that I had the privilege of being under the care of very nurturing teachers—to name a few, Ms Huang Sijian from Hwa Chong Institution and Mr Lee You Zhang from Nanyang Primary School. They were two form teachers who really looked out for me, made sure I grew up in a proper manner, and spent time coaching me on some of the subject matter. So they helped clarify or amend my teaching philosophy.
You notice there are actually a lot of factors. Beyond the typical, “oh I was inspired by a teacher”, I thought it was quite fun, there were also familial factors like my dad, who really wanted to be a teacher, so that also influenced my choice to some degree. My brother also wanted to be a teacher, so now he’s happily in the Economic Development Board. There was also a rebellious element, right? My teachers all told me “Don’t be a teacher, you’ll regret it”. I think a part of me thought I wouldn’t regret it. And that’s why I’m here.
The “teaching philosophy” you talked about, what does that refer to?
Every teacher has their own value system—what they think teaching is about. It’s a very meta thing. They are some ideals and beliefs that guide the way they behave. Some teachers might be very rules-driven, so they feel a moral imperative to ensure that everyone abides by the rules because these rules serve as the stability of any society. Which might be why you find some teachers really dogmatic about particular behavioural elements. Then there are other people who are not that particular about rules, like myself. I tend to appeal to the students’ understanding of the spirit of the rules. So I do encourage bending some rules within reasonable limits. Like, some of my students happily eat in class, and I’m like, as long as you keep the place clean and tidy, that’s not an issue. In terms of attendance, if you’re slightly late on a few occasions, I write it off. These are things that I let go of, because I believe in helping people understand why and how they should behave rather than saying we should do this because this is the way it should be.
If you hadn’t become a teacher, what would you want to be and why?
I’m a very greedy person. Either that or I’m just interested in too many things. I’m gonna list, like, five of the top things that I’m still doing and would have done if I weren’t a teacher. I’d start my own business, but it wouldn’t be a traditional business. It would involve a lot of freelancing.
- Freelance diving instructor. I’m a rescue diver; I’ve done about 30–40 dives to date. The next step forward is to clear my Divemaster course, then clear my instructor course. Scuba diving. I see lots of fishes, tiny creatures known as nudibranch. They’re like sea slugs. Very cute. Very furry. You learn to appreciate the world a lot more; there’s a lot more to see underwater than on land. You learn to control and manage your own fears. I hated the water, but through diving, staring at the calm fish, you start to breathe and become calmer. And suddenly you hear nothing but the sound of the ocean. Which is very peaceful and quiet, and I hope more people can get to see it.
- Breakdance instructor! Word has been out. To be honest, I was very apprehensive because that conflicted with my professional ethos, right? Most people think it’s a very paikia sport. Either way, I’ve been doing it since I was a JC student, so it’s something I’ve quite enjoyed. Most people think it’s about spinning on your heads, but there’s a lot more to it. Right now I volunteer under Bethesda Care Services on Saturdays. I’m part of a team called Elevate the Streets, a group of passionate Bboys (breakdancers) who teach dance to reach out to youth at risk. Even for PW, I did it with Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home as a JC kid. I’ve been doing it for quite a while. I like dancing. It’s very fun. People should let loose and learn to appreciate movement more.
- Open my own cafe! Very corny dream. I like it as a creative space. everyone likes a cup of coffee where they can relax and unwind and do nice things. Barista course is in the works, probably December break when I’m finally done with my school responsibilities, we’ll see. but those are more of pipe dreams.
- Along the creative element, freelance graphic designing. I [designed] my own crew logo, I [designed] my logo for my dad’s business. I like drawing things, I like photography. Anything freelance art would be very fun. I’ve done it for a few friends for their own nonprofit groups, among many things. Making pretty things is very important to me.
- Finally—it’s more of an Econs thing—helping SMEs transform. So, improving their digital presence. It’s no surprise that we are very slow, especially for uncles and aunties running their own business. They’re not sure how to move forward, my parents are one of them. I think the younger generation like us is more in tune with tech, and have an obligation to ensure that this tech transfer happens on an equitable level. It can be very simple acts like helping the elderly know how to use EZ-Link cards, which happens already with the Youth Corps. Or helping businesses have a web presence, get on Google Maps, have their own website, have their own ecommerce platform, so mama shops can be just as competitive as the bigger players. So everyone leads better lives—I think that’s very important for me. (Yes! That is the [Econs] question [the Year 5s] have done! Which surprises me, because some Raffles students have not been to mama shops. Some from my class. And it shocked me. To the core. I was like, “Your homework is to go to a mama shop this weekend.”)
How did you get interested in so many different things?
I’m greedy. This has not ended yet.
So I grew up in a bicycle shop. It’s a very humble family background thing. So my parents went through a few transformations and business models. It was a toy shop, it was a bubble tea shop during the bubble tea craze, then the bubble tea bubble popped. (Yes. I love that pun, it should totally be included.) Then it resumed being a bicycle shop, and it is shaky. My dad was a property agent before all these, so of course the housing bubble also popped. So it moved from lots of bubbles to not so bubbly parts of life, and I got to see quite a lot in the process as a child. My dad was quite adamant against letting us students do much of the business stuff, but even from a young age like JC, we did their Facebook business page, their own website, all that stuff, and I think that’s when I saw potential. Even for students to get involved in a very practical and productive fashion, digital transformation is not out of reach, and I think everyone in Raffles has a good grasp of the tools and expertise.
Other things like diving I did when I was doing an internship with the Asian Development Bank in Manila. Before becoming a teacher, I felt obliged to do as many things as I could—part of the teaching philosophy thing again. So when I come to meet my students, I can say even though I’m quite young, I’ve tried many things, and whatever you want to pursue or achieve, let me help you take the first step.
So you did all of this to inspire your students?
No, not really, it’s more of a selfish thing. I like these things. It just so happens that I can help give them some advice if they want to pursue any of these things.
What’s something unexpected about being a teacher that you’ve learnt?
I found that the most surprising element is that it’s a lot more performatory than we expect. I think a lot of students don’t realise it. Performatory in the sense that teachers have to put on a persona and maintain a certain energy level—no different from you watching a play. There must be certain highs and lows, climaxes that are pre-planned, points of audience engagement. In fact, my favourite teaching philosophy is experimental theatre, where there’s no fixed, concrete block, and it changes based on interactions with the audience. I did not think of teaching this way before; it just so happened that I’m a very bored person, and I realised that most students are also very bored, and they want to be entertained, that this whole teaching approach has changed. Kind of surprising, but at the same time, it seemed very intuitive.
What’s your favourite part of teaching Econs?
Even though the core elements are static—so the syllabus hasn’t changed very much in the past 30 years or so—every day I can comfortably incorporate examples. (Which is why [the Year 5s] went through the torture of my Grab question [in the CT]! It is my brainchild. Among other things.) The examples are live, industries are changing, we’re encountering new phenomena. So the challenge for Economics is: while keeping to the core principles and subject matter, how do we adapt is such that we can help students make sense of the world? I see that as the fundamental challenge.
So you can bring Marvel in to teach financial economies of scale and how they auction off the rights of certain characters to ensure survival. Economics is still well and alive, and we can learn to understand very fundamental shifts in what’s happening in the world today. If students, through Economics, can have a better understanding of how the battle between Disney Plus and Netflix plays out in terms of non-price competition, product differentiation, and stuff like that—yes, can see the haunting smiles on people’s faces—then I think we have succeeded, independent of your grades. Just having a good idea of how the world works.
My favourite lesson was actually completely unrelated to the lesson material, when students asked me abt how to use collateral to explain the 2008 financial crisis. You saw collateral as a term in your CT, right? A lot of people couldn’t understand that collateral is linked to financial EOS, so I took that as an opportunity to explain a lot more. That’s my favourite part—every day I add something, pull them back and show them that Econs is alive. People get excited, and I feel like I did something meaningful.
If Econs was an animal, what animal would it be and why?
This is an Econs joke—it’s animal spirits, haha. But only Econs teachers will understand this. It’s about base passions and how people act on impulse.
I would say it’s a cat. Because it’s accorded social status and prestige—remember the Egyptian times? When we worshipped cats. Even today, we see Econs as a subject that promises pragmatic value, that you can get good jobs if you study Economics. But at the same time it’s something we don’t understand! We don’t understand cats and we still worship them anyway, even though they do the weirdest and strangest stuff beyond our expectations like squirming in boxes and being absolutely irrational when we try to pretend that cats are perfectly rational and worthy of worship. I think it’s a great parallel. It’s certainly not a dog; it’s not the most obedient subject. It proves us wrong time and time again, but we still believe in it. Just like cats.
Is it true that Econs promises pragmatic value, or is it just a myth?
It’s a myth. It’s like any other bubble in Economics. It’s severely overrated. there are certain predefined paths, and maybe people conflate finance and Economics, so they assume an Economics major is a great way to earn money. But truth be told, if you’re not flexible or nimble on your feet, whatever major you’re in there’s no future.