NO MATTER HOW MUCH EXPERIENCE YOU HAVE, OR HOW SENIOR YOU ARE, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING YOU CAN LEARN FROM THE YOUNGER PEOPLE.

KOK WAI TONG
PHYSICAL EDUCATION TEACHER

In 1966, when the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) was first established, I was 17 years old and eager to serve the country. I tried to join the first batch of enlistees, but I was rejected because I had been born in Malaysia and after Singapore separated from Malaysia, I was considered “state-less”. They told me the SAF only accepted Singapore Citizens in its ranks. So my entry into the army was delayed until I had attained citizenship at the age of 21. In hindsight, that was a blessing because I was able to continue with my studies and complete my ‘A’ levels.

I was a few months short of my 22nd birthday, older than most of my peers, when I finally went into the army. I made it to Officer Cadet School and subsequently signed on as an army regular. I spent almost 30 years with the army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, before I left at age 52 to become a Physical Education (PE) teacher.

I had given my best years to the army and was scheduled for mandatory retirement in three years. It so happened that there was a recruitment drive by the Ministry of Education for military personnel to join them as PE teachers. I opted for early retirement from the Army, and signed up for my second career as a PE teacher. I felt that teaching was a very meaningful occupation which would allow me to serve the nation in another capacity.

After so many years in the Army, I was worried initially about whether I would be able to adapt to the school environment, but those fears turned out to be unfounded. I like to work with people and I think that was the reason why I was able to make the transition quite smoothly. The only thing which bothered me in the beginning was the lack of a clear rank structure in the school, where a very junior guy could call someone more senior by name – that sort of thing. But I quickly got over it. It’s a question of mindset. I have come to see that no matter how much experience you have, or how senior you are, there is always something you can learn from the younger people. We must never let pride get in the way of our learning.

Over the years, teaching has become more technology driven. I have never been very good with technology but I am still trying to keep up and my younger colleagues have been very patient in teaching me about the latest software. You are never too old to learn.

I am 66 this year and looking back I am glad I made the switch because I have had 14 fulfilling years in teaching. It has been a privilege to be able to share my life’s experiences with the youth. Interacting with young people every day has kept me young, especially in the heart. I can feel myself slowing down a bit in the last two years but I am not ready to retire from teaching just yet. I hope to be able to work until I am 67. I still gain a lot of personal satisfaction from day-to-day teaching and I hope I will be allowed to continue to contribute.

This story is a part of the PME Conversation book, brought to you courtesy of UP for PME.