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Francis Santa Maria is Malaysia’s longest serving teacher. Photo: Lyn Ong

Francis Santa Maria has lived the moments you’ve read about in your school textbooks. With 62 years worth of teaching experience at schools like La Salle Sentul, La Salle Brickfields, MAZ International School and currently Stella Maris Primary School, you can bet that Francis has many stories to tell. Francis has not only witnessed history – he’s made history too. He is Malaysia’s longest serving teacher, and even has the entry in the Malaysian Book of Records to prove it.

Life during World War II was among the earliest memories that Francis Santa Maria could recall from his childhood. Even though these memories were not exactly pleasant, he spoke of his experiences with no hint of regret, just a sense of fulfillment that he and his family managed to pull through the hardship.

“It was a very difficult time,” he exclaims. “Food was scarce so we mostly ate tapioca every day. I remember my mother had to sell off her jewelry one by one to feed us all.” The war broke out when Francis was only six years old, and he resumed school when he was ten after it had ended. He enjoyed every bit of his student life, and his teachers and peers were a big reason behind this. “I’ve seen some great dedicated teachers throughout my time in school,” he said.

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When asked how he landed himself in this profession, he laughed and said, “I’ve told this story a million times.” For Francis, teaching was never quite part of the plan, neither was it a lifelong dream that he had wanted to achieve since he was young. Instead, he initially only took it up as a temporary job while waiting for his Form Five examination results. “I had to teach every subject back then, imagine that!” he said.

It was not until his results were out that he finally realized teaching was something he wanted to do permanently. According to him, “It was not only instilling knowledge in the kids that I took pride in, I also enjoyed the process of learning through teaching.”

 

“I had to teach every subject back then, imagine that!”

 

And just like any other career, there were many challenges and obstacles that he had to face at the beginning of his teaching journey. He taught during the weekdays while also attending classes on weekends to become a qualified teacher. After he became one, he was entrusted by his headmaster not only to teach primary six students, but also to ensure that they would not fail their Malaysian Secondary School Entrance Exam (MSSEE), a UPSR-equivalent that determine whether or not students get to further their education in secondary school.

Even though the pressure was high, Francis claimed, he was more than proud to recall that he had no failures throughout his time of teaching the primary six students. In fact, his fondest memory of teaching was the year of 1962, when all his students scored As for the exam.

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Francis attributes much of his good health to his detachment from smoking and drinking but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t enjoy the finer things in life. His hard work has enabled him to become a seasoned owner of sports cars and quality suits, a far cry from the turbulent times he endured growing up.

Now 80, Francis has been present for many of Malaysia’s historic moments. Boasting of his impeccable memory, he recounts the days when he was taught in Japanese during the Japanese occupation. Unable to own cars or any motorized vehicle, he was forced to walk back home under the heat of the sun everyday back and forth, only weathered by the company of friends.

But in terms of the progression he’s seen in the education system, he says it’s one of the things that disappoints him.

 

He recounts the days when he was taught in Japanese during the Japanese occupation.

 

“The biggest change was when they dropped English as the main language. That’s the biggest mistake they made because today there are tens of thousands of graduates who cannot get a job. The private sector will not hire them. They must have a good command of English,” he declared, bolstering his argument with recent statements made by Johor’s Sultan.

In previous interviews, he’s touched on his frustration with the lack of racial integration within schools compared to the time when he was a student. “Everybody mixed up. There was no such thing as one race sitting together. We were all together.”

But he admits teachers are given better pay now despite having to deal with too much clerical paperwork.

Six decades after his first, originally temporary, stint as a teacher, Francis doesn’t intend on stopping anytime soon. His commitment to teaching has led many of his students to successful careers, many of whom still keep in touch with Francis. He continues to be a mathematics teacher even now at Stella Maris Primary School. “I’ll know when it’s time,” he wisely says.

Research and interview by Dhabitah Zainal and Syahir Ashri. Photos by Lyn Ong.

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