Class act

She also holds a post-graduate diploma in education. – Sunpix by Norman Hiu
Fernando worked as a learning support assistant for children with special needs for a year before joining Teach for Malaysia. – Sunpix by Norman Hiu

‘THOSE who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ is a proverb that could not be further from the truth in Cheryl Ann Fernando’s case.

As if it wasn’t hectic enough to pursue an MBA while working fulltime in public relations, Fernando was also teaching refugee children thrice a week. But having a secure job in the corporate world eventually paled in comparison to the contentment that she gained from the voluntary work she did in the evenings.

With the support from her family, she left her day job of four years to teach underprivileged local students through non-profit organisation Teach For Malaysia (TFM). She was posted to SMK Pinang Tunggal, in the humble town of Sungai Petani in Kedah, where she had to work with a large number of illiterate students.

Therefore, it was no mean feat when her students beat 20 elite schools to win fifth place in a choral speaking competition. When she posted about the occasion, the anecdote went viral and got adapted into a film Adiwiraku, which will show in cinemas nationwide next Thursday.

Today, Fernando is the education and learning director of EduNation Malaysia, an open e-platform that offers the Malaysian school syllabus for free.

Could you share your biggest challenge when teaching at SMK Pinang Tunggal?

I went in with a lot of materials, but I was very surprised to discover that almost half of my students were unable to read or write in English. Some even struggled to spell their name properly.

Realising that I couldn’t use my materials, I had to go back to the basics which was almost kindergarten level. It was then that I realised how serious the education problem is in Malaysia. This school is in Sungai Petani and yet there were students who struggled to read and write. They were also poor and there were a lot of disciplinary problems in school.

What is an important quality that a teacher needs to have but is often overlooked?

Patience. At times, it’s very easy to get very angry either at the students, the education system, or their previous teacher(s). There’s no point thinking of who is to blame; rather, think of what I can do to help you now.

It’s also important to understand that sometimes students act a certain way because they come from backgrounds that are not what we deem as normal. These students come from broken families, and some are either abused or neglected, which makes them very angry and destructive in the classroom. And because they’re illiterate, they have a gap of knowledge so coming to school doesn’t make sense to them.

What is one thing that you would change about the education system?

I think a lot of our policies are implemented by people who have never been teachers or in the education system before. If there is one thing I could change, I would ask everybody to become teachers first – to at least experience six to seven months in a classroom before making a policy for education. Only then you will see how different things would work in our education system.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Although I’m very proud of Adiwiraku and the choral speaking success, this is just the first step towards what I want to achieve in the education system.

I am in EduNation because I really believe in access to quality education for all students, and I feel that technology is one way we can do it. Regardless how rural, they usually have internet access in schools. So if the students feel like they want to do, for example, Ekonomi Asas (Basic Economics), but don’t have a teacher to support them and cannot afford tuition, they can just watch it online. So ultimately, I want to work towards that goal of providing world-class education for all students regardless of where they come from.

TRIVIA

Favourite author:Haruki Murakami

Life motto: Always be kind.

Coffee vs tea: Tea.