Teachers’ Day 2020: Home Away From Home

By Koo ii (21S05A), Max Chwa (21A01B) and Rachel Ho (21A01B)

These interviews were originally featured, in shorter form, in our Teachers’ Day 2020 Special Edition. Here are the full interviews.

Mr Marie in Alexandra Forest in Mauritius, where he hails from.

NAME: MR DAMIEN MARIE
DEPARTMENT: KNOWLEDGE SKILLS (GP)

What do you call a teacher who’s also a Star Wars fan? Darth Grader.

This teacher is also known as Mr Damien Marie, who joined the school just a few months ago. If he doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because he isn’t─yet.

He sat down with us to introduce himself, sharing his experiences as an educator and an immigrant from Mauritius as well as which Star Wars side he’s on (read on to find out). 

How have you found RI so far? 

It’s been great so far! Everyone has been welcoming: my colleagues have been nice, and even though I started halfway into the year, the transition has been very smooth. My students have been very interesting… but pleasantly so! I feel very grateful that everyone has been very patient and thoughtful in giving me time to adjust.

You joined RI in the middle of the year, so you met your classes for the first time during Home-Based Learning (HBL)! How did that go?

It was weird─for me, at least. HBL isn’t new to me, but this time it was so strange because I didn’t know any one of you. I was worried that it would… not go as planned─after all, first impressions do make a difference (although they don’t last forever)! I shared my anxiety with my colleagues and my wife, who advised me to just do what I do normally and [told me that] if I [needed] to adjust anything, I could always do it later. 

In hindsight, what would you have done differently? 

For a start, I wish I had asked everyone to switch on their webcams! I didn’t insist on it because I thought we would feel awkward. I also would have implemented a more rigid note-taking system online, but I didn’t think it was necessary, especially for our first few introductory sessions, and HBL was about to end anyway. 

With these experiences, though, I have learnt new things as a teacher. HBL might be challenging, but it opens doors to a lot of new opportunities. I had the chance to try new things, like using Nearpod. Even when school reopened, I continued to offer consultations online─it’s way more productive, especially when students go home very late in the day, because they can freshen up and attend the consultation attentively.

What were you up to before joining RI?

I was a teacher at Anderson JC, now Anderson-Serangoon JC. I have taught GP [from] the very beginning, [which was] around 2012 to 2013. I was also the teacher-in-charge [of] the Students’ Council, and then later Basketball, a sport that I… myself [played] when I was still in school. 

I also had the opportunity to do some research papers there, to rethink pedagogies. It’s important to me to grow as an educator, not only in the classroom but also as a professional. You never [perfect] teaching, but you can always get better. For example, teaching is not only about… [the academic aspect], but also what they call “21st Century competencies”, like collaborative learning via technology.

“Throughout my teaching journey, I’ve always believed that everyone can grow and improve, and for me, it’s always about finding what works best for students and getting them to where they want to be.”

Mr Marie

Let’s go back to your life before Singapore─how was life in Mauritius?

It was very quiet – at least back then, [when I was] a teen. It’s a more easygoing way of life. For my final year before A levels, I remember going to the beach and swimming with my friends after school… but after that, I [still] had to attend tuition! [laughs]

On another note, having been in Singapore for most of my adult life, I realised that the Mauritius government could be more productive or prepared for a crisis—take the recent oil spill, for example. We’ve had tourism for a long time, but the recent event prompted questions about what we could have done but haven’t. 

But Mauritius and Singapore also have some similarities. The food is equally diverse, with both French and Indian influences [in Mauritius]. We are truly bilingual too, which is somewhat of a similarity [we share] with Singapore. Most people can hold a conversation in French quite well.

What was it like having to adapt to Singaporean culture?

It was difficult to adapt! 

My first few meals in Singapore were 7-11 sandwiches! I didn’t dare to try local cuisine like nasi lemak and its weird red paste, which I have now found to be delicious, by the way (Ed: for the uninitiated, he is referring to sambal). 

I wasn’t truly adventurous with food until I met my wife, who eats chilli with everything. I just started eating durian during Circuit Breaker: I like the Golden Phoenix (not so bitter) and Old Tree Mao Shan Wang [varieties] (bitter, but the flesh was amazing).  But frog legs and pig intestine soup [are] not [something I am ever] going to [try]. I really enjoy this important part of Singaporean culture; the complexities and variety of food is not seen in every society. 

Oh no, this makes me sound like I only eat! [laughs] I am really lucky that my in-laws have been accepting and willing to involve me [in activities] like going to the temple. I do it out of respect, and also because I want to understand the culture─these are aspects that foreigners don’t usually experience, but instead, judge. 

I do wish I spoke Chinese on top of the little bit of Bahasa Indonesia that I know. But at least I can understand a tad of Chinese that I overhear when buying things.

Last question: Dark side or Light side? 

Always the Dark side! 

In Star Wars, there’s always uncertainty lying between the two factions, but the Dark side is more compelling. There’s good character development: beyond Darth Vader, there were other Siths who really pushed the narrative [from] a new angle. 

That being said, I do have an affinity for Yoda─he had the opportunity to become a Dark-sider, but he knew [that] if he did that he would be highly disruptive. There’s always that appeal to try new things!

NAME: MS SANJEEDA HAQUE MUNMUN
DEPARTMENT: ECONOMICS

What was your life like in Bangladesh?

I grew up in a very small town called Pirojpur in the Southwestern part of Bangladesh. I have very fond memories of growing up in a community where everyone knew one another. The town has not developed much since I’ve left the country, and that’s what I love the most about it. Life felt much simpler and less complicated. 

I still remember my preschool and the punishments I was given if I came unprepared for class. We were taught that our teachers played the most important role in our life after God. They paved the way for us to succeed in every facet of life. Undeniably, my teachers had the most impact in my life even at that young age, and all my fond memories are of the experiences I had in school. 

I grew up with my extended family and was always surrounded by my cousins, aunties and uncles. There were more than 20 of us in the house, and we did almost everything together. Even though I was surrounded by so many people, I still felt free.

Is there anything you still miss about it?

I miss the smell of fresh breeze from the river facing our house in the morning, the sound of roosters crowing at dawn, waking up to a calm, dewy morning, and hearing the sound of call to prayer from the nearby mosque. Surrounded by these sounds, I felt at peace with myself in many ways. 

I miss watching chickens running around because they made me feel that they live much more in the moment than most humans do. I miss observing them and watching them go through the same emotions that humans do. They feel the same bond as we do in small groups, they suffer the same loneliness even when they are surrounded by others, and they feel the absence of other chickens when they go off elsewhere to lay eggs. I miss spending time watching them with my late grandma. She was my friend, my well-wisher and my safety net. 

I miss the rasogollas (syruppy dessert) from the local dessert shop made by the owner himself, Dulal Ghosh uncle. Every time I return to Pirojpur, he still treats me to those rasogollas like he used to when I would return home from school.

What first sparked your interest in Economics?

In college, I had the honour of being taught by one of the best teachers I have ever met in my life. He not only generated my interest in the subject but also taught me the beauty that lies within and behind the philosophy of Economics. He was not driven by the need to complete the syllabus and assess us based on our grades. Instead, he imparted knowledge with all the passion he had within him. 

Economics was more than a field of study to me. It was a source of joy every time I learnt something new. The pursuit of knowledge in this field gave me purpose in life. It was not just a field of study that I chose in order to secure a future but to secure myself happiness and hope.

Afterwards, you pursued your interest in Economics in the UK. How would you describe your university experience?

My university experience was perhaps the best part of my life. It was a time when I learnt the most about myself, who I was, and realised who I wanted to be. I learnt about my strengths as well as my weaknesses. I learnt that I could be all alone by myself but not feel lonely. 

During that journey, I felt the closest to myself. However, I also learnt that I was not sensible in balancing different expectations while being too focused on one thing. In hindsight, I feel like I should have lived a little, been a better friend, and embraced experiences that were only possible back then. I should have taken more risks and been more comfortable with failures and uncertainties. 

I was fortunate to have been surrounded by friends from different parts of the world and communities who were very different from me that accepted me the way I was. I miss the baked potatoes, morning walks to Sainsbury’s, and the warm bread and butter pudding from their local cafés.

After university, what was your career path as an economist like before you joined the teaching line?

I was fortunate to get an offer from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) right after I graduated with my MPhil (Master of Philosophy) in Economics. It was an exciting start to my career as a fresh graduate. While preparing for my MPhil, I wanted to work for the World Bank, but the IMF was a good alternative. My time with the IMF gave me the opportunity to meet new people and learn from them about issues that I felt passionately about.

Why did you choose to become a teacher in Singapore?

A part of me always wanted to teach because my teachers have had the biggest impact on my life. I also aspired to do the same. 

“I wanted to make a difference in someone else’s life, even if it’s in a tiny way.”

Ms Haque

However, the biggest push to become a teacher came when I was teaching at ACS (Independent) as a relief teacher while waiting to start my MPhil. I realised that the best part of teaching is the students. They give us energy to look forward to each day, they teach us patience, they teach us the beauty of forgiveness, and they teach us to be better teachers. They inspire us to continually learn new things from them from our conversations and class discussions. They teach us to see things with different lenses which we would not be able to do on our own. They give our calling a purpose by letting us know that we are needed.

How has living in Singapore been?

Singapore has been an interesting journey for me. Perhaps it’s not the best place [for everyone] but the people in this country have changed my life, from my best friend to my colleagues and students. Unfortunately, I have never felt like I belong here in spite of all the amazing people that I have been blessed to be surrounded by.

What do you appreciate about each country you’ve lived in (the UK, Singapore, etc.)?

I like being in places where I know very few people so that I can be myself without many facades. Perhaps I felt like I was more in tune with myself in the UK than I am in Singapore. In Singapore, I feel like everyone is rushing to complete something and that forces me to do the same. In the process, I feel like I have not been able to appreciate my surroundings as much as I did when I was in the UK. In the UK, I could choose the pace at which I wanted to live, but in Singapore, there is always a fear of being left behind. This fear steals those precious moments that are far more valuable than the end itself.

How did you adapt to the different cultures in each country?

I don’t have anything to adapt to. I have been blessed to be accepted by everyone around me regardless of where I go. I see the differences around me as beauty rather than things to be afraid of. Every time I go somewhere new and different, I want to be a better version of myself, and that helps to make everything around me better as well.

How have these experiences helped you adapt better to the changes brought about by COVID-19?

Being a Bangladeshi, I feel we are born with a lot of resilience as a community. Coming from a humble background and having taken on many responsibilities at a young age as many Bangladeshis do, COVID-19 seems like another phase of my life. Growing up, I faced a lot of uncertainties in my life that I thought I would never be able to overcome. I was never comfortable with changes and spent most parts of my life trying to make sure I had control over everything. However, change is the only constant in life and has made me the person that I am today. 

The changes brought by COVID-19 helped me see life and those around me with a different lens. It taught me to be more empathetic, take on new challenges that I have not explored before that I feel are far more meaningful, take time to work on my mental health in small ways that I have neglected for years, and draw inspiration from the strength demonstrated by those close to me. The changes brought about by COVID-19 inspire us to have faith in the human capacity for resilience and transcendence. These changes offer us experiences that celebrate the grandeur of life and, at the same time, recognise the fundamental human reality that is called suffering.

Change seems to be a constant in your life. Do you have any advice on how others should face it?

I feel like life is like a book—there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Many of us fixate on the end and want to do everything in our power to have the ending that we desire. We want to control the end as if it is a Mathematics or Physics problem where there is only one right answer. In the process, we don’t allow the universe to write the story that will help us grow the most, meet the people we are supposed to meet along the way, and make us a better version of ourselves. Instead, we spend our lives in the driver’s seat, thinking that by controlling all the variables and factors, we will be able to write the ending for ourselves. 

“Life is like an Economics essay where joy comes from the journey of arriving at an answer by looking at different point[s] of views and not from the ending itself.”

Ms Haque

We tend to forget that the beauty of life comes from the uncertainties—the uncertainties that lie with meeting new people, going to new places, learning new things, experiencing new challenges, and finding ourselves in the process. This uncanny sense of uncertainty gives us opportunities to celebrate a nuanced outlook on the contradictions and ambiguities of life. 

I am in no place to give advice to others, but I would like to leave everyone with one of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems that conveys the importance of valuing moments and experiences in life that are considered to be the least important by many of us during our lifetime:

‘Last Curtain’

I know that the day will come
when my sight of this earth shall be lost,
and life will take its leave in silence,
drawing the last curtain over my eyes.
Yet stars will watch at night,
and morning rise as before,
and hours heave like sea waves casting up pleasures and pains.
When I think of this end of my moments,
the barrier of the moments breaks
and I see by the light of death
thy world with its careless treasures.
Rare is its lowliest seat,
rare is its meanest of lives.
Things that I longed for in vain
and things that I got
—let them pass.
Let me but truly possess
the things that I ever spurned
and overlooked.

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