Mr Johari is both a lifelong learner and a lifelong teacher. Starting out with only an ‘O’ Level certificate, he racked up other qualifications along the way, all while teaching full-time. Even as a retiree, he has not left school — he continues to nurture the next generation as a part-time school counsellor.
Armed with the equivalent of an ‘O’ Level certificate, Mr Johari Mohamad Rais found himself preparing secondary school students for the same exams. Feeling that he was “just one chapter ahead of the students”, the young teacher resolved to take a higher qualification — an early step in what became a lifetime of learning.
He had not thought so far ahead when he decided to become a teacher after his own secondary studies. It was 1964, and Singapore was doubling its teaching force to realise its vision of a well-educated future workforce. Becoming part of Malaysia also meant a need to expand the Malay-language stream and hire more Malay teachers.
“Jobs were very scarce,” recalled Mr Johari, now 70. “You either become a teacher or a policeman… Those days, you didn’t have industries like now.”
He and other young teachers were hired based on their preliminary exam results. After they received their actual results, they were sent for part-time training at the Teachers’ Training College. Chuckled Mr Johari: “It was sort of like ‘mass production’ of teachers, in those days.”
He taught in a primary school for one year before joining a secondary school. There, he realised he needed to gain more knowledge to teach confidently. He took the Higher School Certificate — equivalent to today’s ‘A’ Levels — followed by an external part-time degree with a university in London.
Balancing a full-time job, raising a family and studying for his degree was not easy, and Mr Johari often stayed up till 2 am at night to study.
Mr Johari Mohamed Rais with his grandson. Image source: National Library Board
Work brought its own challenges. The Malay stream had previously stopped at Primary Six, and “when it was expanded to secondary school, they were not ready for it, they didn’t have the books”. In the classroom, he translated from English textbooks on the spot, using a Malay-English terminology book.
In the 1960s, there were no teaching aids such as computers or tablets, observed Mr Johari: “So we taught them hands-on… When we learned science, we really went to the pond and watched the tadpoles grow into frogs.”
“I still believe that students need to learn more outside the classroom,” he added. That was how he himself learnt when he was a pupil in Haig Boys’ School, going on nature rambles and catching frogs. As a teacher, he hoped his students could experience that same delight: “My aim is to make them enjoy schooling. Then they value learning, instead of ‘torturing’ themselves.”
After ten years as a classroom teacher, Mr Johari went on to become a sports secretary, a senior teacher, a vice principal and then a principal. He retired at the age of 56 — because he had been invited to join Madrasah Aljunied, which wanted to tap his experience running a secular school. The Government had just introduced compulsory education, which meant that religious schools had to teach secular subjects as well.
As a principal, Mr Johari found that the best way to connect with his students was outside of the classroom. Image source: Mr Johari Rais
After four years teaching in a madrasah, he and other former principals were invited by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to take a diploma in counselling to become part-time counsellors — so he did. Then came an offer to run an Islamic school in Australia based on the Singapore system; and followed by a private school in Bandung, Indonesia.
When Mr Johari eventually returned home, he soon found the quiet life was not for him. He decided to go back to work and took up a job as a part-time counsellor.
His experience abroad showed him that “youngsters are the same everywhere”, he explained: “They face the same problems, they have the same stress levels… So I thought that (counselling) is something where I can do my small part to contribute before I call it a day.” Teachers must be able to relate to their students both inside and outside the classroom, he added.
His students, too, remember him fondly. Mr Johari recounted a visit to a private clinic where the doctor greeted him by name: “I thought he had just read my details… Then after some time, he said, ‘Mr Johari, you don’t recognise me? You taught me science, you know.’”
On another occasion, he was passing through customs and immigration and the officer, who was a former student, started to question him.
“The immigration officer pretended not to know me, asked me a lot of questions, then said, ‘Sir, I’m joking.’”
Upon seeing his young charges now all grown up, “there is this sense of satisfaction”, Mr Johari said.
Asked if he had any words of wisdom for today’s youth, he offered: “Work hard, work together, and always have a vision for yourself. Because that will be translated into a vision for the country also.” As a ‘lifelong learner’ long before that phrase was even coined, Mr Johari himself has led by example — the way any good teacher should.
Written by: Josephine Chen
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign