By Matthew Ethan Ramli (21S03F)
Cover image by Clarice Tan (21A01C)
This was originally featured, in a shorter form, in our Teachers’ Day 2020 Special Edition. Here is the full story.
NAME: MR PRHABAGARAN RAMANATHAN
Mr Prhabagaran Ramanathan, or better known to his students as Mr Prab, begins his days listening to heavy metal on his commute to school. Just a little more than a decade ago, he stepped into these gates as a student. Now, he has returned to his alma mater to inspire students about the environment, with 3 Year 6 biology classes currently under his care.
Being the first batch of Year 5s in 2006 to use the new campus, he recalls how the buildings have roughly stayed the same since his student days. Perhaps, the only thing that is different now is how everything has a name, compared with how his batch used to call places in school only by their block letters. Nonetheless, the familiarity with the school has not eroded, with memories of his student life fresh in his mind. Those were the days, he recalls, when Chill was 7-11 and there was a Subway next to the prata stall at the canteen; floorball, the CCA that he was part in, was still only a student-initiated interest group.
Mr Prab reminisces about some of the teachers who have inspired him throughout his journey here. Dr. Rathiga, for example, used to be his General Paper tutor, while Mr Ngan, who taught him Biology, is now his department colleague. When asked about a teacher who particularly fuelled his passion for the environment, he cites Dr. Adrian Loo, who is now a director at NParks, describing him as “highly respected but at the same time funny and down-to-earth, sharing many things outside of the syllabus”. These crucial formative years here at RJC were the first steps of a long journey of becoming a teacher.
Since he was young, Mr Prab had always been interested in biology, and being passionate about conservation, he chose to specialise in environmental life sciences in university. After graduating, he took up a job at an environmental consulting firm, where he advised companies on how to best protect and maintain nature when developing infrastructure.
However, the atmosphere was not ideal, leading him to feel as if environmental consciousness was not well-established there, and everyone “did things for the sake of doing them”. Moreover, being on-call 24/7 to catch wildlife such as wild snakes such as pythons and cobras, when they were found on private property, was one of the toughest parts of the job. He explains that relocating wildlife was less glamorous than what you see on TV, with weekends all burned. Some Sunday nights, he would receive calls to reach a site before seeing that the snake was a small one and slithered away once his team came.
Due to the lack of a work-life balance, coupled with the unsustainable pay, he soon gathered up the courage to quit. Subsequently, he taught tuition on a part-time basis, drove for Uber, and even helped a friend with his coffee-distribution start-up.
Meanwhile, just after National Service, he had met his then-girlfriend, now his wife. She had started teaching at a primary school, and he was amazed at how she remained passionate about how she always strived to teach better, even after tiring days of work. “You know how primary school teachers also have to be the kids’ second mothers and fathers outside of purely teaching? That inspired me to give it a shot,“ he explains.
Being a biology teacher would thus be a good choice to meld his interests and career. After all, if it is hard to change anything about how Singaporeans feel about the environment now, then he could perhaps inspire the next generation. With the conviction to make a career switch, he applied to the Ministry of Education when he was still working at the consultancy. And after training with MOE, he was eventually posted here to RJC and has enjoyed his job ever since.
“Teaching the students in real life is a very small part of the job,” Mr Prab goes on, dispelling the misconceptions that many of us students have.
Be it preparing lesson plans, doing administrative work, marking tutorials, or preparing test papers, there is more than meets the eye in the teaching profession. It is hence easy to lose track of one’s initial purpose among the pile of work, but Mr Prab finds ways to fulfil the mission that he sought to achieve when he first started: inspiring students about nature. In the time that he can interact with his classes, he often shares things that are outside of the syllabus. Currently, the topic of these discussions is infectious diseases, one especially relevant in today’s Covid-19 context. When students show understanding of and curiosity about what they are learning, it brings him a lot of satisfaction.
This influence goes beyond the classroom into the outdoors. As the teacher-in-charge of Raffles Society of Biological Sciences, he frequently takes the students on field trips to learn about the local plants and animals—be it at MacRitchie Reservoir, Sungei Buloh, or other nature parks. In particular, he likes to impart his knowledge about birds, his favourite animals, whenever they are spotted on nature walks, sharing his enthusiasm for them. Educating students this way is part of his larger efforts to promote conservation locally.
Getting a fuller picture
What students often know less about is what our teachers are passionate about outside the classroom: their eclectic variety of hobbies, including gardening and wine collecting, among others.
For Mr Prab, this passion beyond work would be photography. Picking it up a few years ago, he now does this semi-professionally. Given his packed schedule during the term, he indulges in photography mostly on this holiday travels.
“There was once when I went with my wife to Mount Fuji in Japan. We went at the break of dawn but unfortunately the weather wasn’t particularly great and there were some clouds covering the peak. Just as we were about to leave we saw a man fishing in the middle of the lake, sitting on his personal stilt-like contraptions peering through a scope that allowed him to see underwater. I took a picture with the mountain as the backdrop and submitted it to a travel photography competition organised by SONY.”
As he was not expecting to win, he was undoubtedly thrilled to clinch the top prize of a sponsored trip to Yellowknife, northern Canada with a film crew to capture the aurora.
The -40°C days and nights did not faze him, although he could still feel the frost under five layers of clothing. Fortunately, despite his handphone and his computer falling prey to the cold, his camera did not malfunction. To him, it was really a dream come true, having gone to Iceland the previous year to chase the northern lights but having his view obscured by bad weather.
What Mr Prab likes about photography is how it makes one slow down and observe the world around us, encouraging one to consider it through new perspectives. He offers a special tip to take intriguing shots: when what is in front of you is boring, turn around and you will see something you did not expect.
As a photographer in Singapore, where most pictures taken depict clichéd scenes of our landmarks, this creativity plays an even more important role in making your pictures stand out. “I remember the first time I received attention for my work was when I took an infrared-picture of Jewel when it first opened, such that the distorted colours made it seem like the trees were cherry blossoms,” he recounts about a special photograph that cemented his style.
Personally, he adopts a more modern aesthetic in the photography process, often editing the pictures with computer software to present the subject in a different light.
With a thriving community to share his passion with, Mr Prab is one of the many professionals who use photography as an avenue to relax in their downtime. He also co-organises photo-walks around different parts of Singapore, although his teaching schedule limits the number of tours in which he can participate. Nevertheless, he brings his camera everywhere he goes in wait of that serendipitous shot.
Given the difficulty of becoming a full-time photographer—especially finances-wise—Mr Prab plans on sticking to submitting his pictures to competitions and sharing his pictures on Instagram (@thepibz). For those interested, he uses a SONY mirrorless camera to shoot.
Focusing on what matters
Being an alumni of the school, Mr Prab has a special bond with his students, as he understands the complexities of student life in the current age. He frequently checks in with his classes to listen to their problems, knowing that anxiety and depression among other mental health issues are not rare among students this age.
Comparing his experiences as a student in the mid-2000s to the student culture now, he appreciates how there is not as much bullying as before. “When Friendster first came up, there was a lot of cyberbullying, [but now] people understand how to use social media in a more positive way. Teens and young adults as a whole are more empathetic, open and caring than before.”
On the other hand, he observes that students now seem more stressed studies-wise, with the tendency to set higher expectations for themselves. To help them get a sense of perspective, he often shares with his students that if he were currently in their shoes, his grades would be one of the lowest in class, barely passing even up till the Y6 Prelims.
“Even so, life turned out fine, so life will find its own way. What’s important in school is to explore your passions. No matter what career path you choose, if you are not truly interested in it, the job itself will find a way to make you quit,” he shares. His advice: when in school, and after you graduate, do what you love.
This concern about his students’ mental health inspires the future plans that he hopes to pursue. With an acute curiosity about how the mind works, both through the psychological and neuroscientific lenses, Mr Prab wishes to someday delve into educational psychology to implement change in the mental health support system in schools to help students on a larger scale. “But who knows,” he expounds, “you don’t really know what’s going to happen in the next couple of years.”
For now, he is focusing on sharpening his teaching skills day by day, actively reminding himself that “there is always room for improvement”. Expecting his first child soon, he also hopes that he can learn how to be a good father.
Whatever the future holds, Mr Prab remains grateful that teaching has provided him with a stable and meaningful job, especially in these tumultuous times. And every evening as he walks out of the gates despite the long day at work, the understanding that he has touched his students’ lives in one way or another gives him every reason to continue coming back.