THE smell of coffee permeates the air, and as the coffee machine whirrs in the background, a petite lady walks towards me with a smile and her hand outstretched in greeting. She’s clearly pregnant but still manages to look diminutive, almost dwarfed by her large backpack.
As she sips her coffee, I’m thinking that Cheryl Ann Fernando doesn’t exactly fit the bill of a quintessential teacher — at least not the ones I’ve encountered during my school years.
Polite, soft-spoken and really tiny, I briefly wonder how she could command a class full of truculent students. But she does, and she’s come up with a book T For Teacher, chronicling her experience as a teacher for Teach For Malaysia, an independent, not-for-profit organisation on a mission to empower the country through education.
“It was a journey I never expected to be on, but despite the ups and downs during the three years I was there, I’m so grateful I tried,” confides Cheryl.
She was posted to a small rural school in Sungai Petani, and she admits to her apprehension after seeing the school, and the prodigious padi fields which dominated the entire landscape.
She’s never lived away from home in Kuala Lumpur and the move from the big city to a conservative small town tucked up north seemed daunting.
However her can-do attitude prevailed: “I gave up my usual clothes, and armed with a truck load of baju kurung, I drove up there, hoping to be the best English teacher that town has ever seen!”
FROM PR TO TEACHING
After graduating with a Mass Communications degree, the enthusiastic graduate set out to be a successful corporate woman. For a few years, she dedicated all her time in climbing the public relations ladder.
“I went to work before the sun rose and came home way after the sun has set. It repeated like clockwork every day. One day, as I sat in my cubicle, I suddenly felt very claustrophobic. I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way. Perhaps it was a quarter-life crisis, but all I knew was that I needed to get out and do something meaningful,” recalls Cheryl.
In the midst of all the soul-searching, she found time to volunteer as a teacher at an underprivileged community centre in Kuala Lumpur.
Her stint there led Cheryl to discover her latent passion in teaching: “The kids I taught brought a sense of balance to my crazy corporate life.”
It didn’t take long for her to decide, after that epiphany she got while sitting in her office cubicle not too long ago, that she would leave her corporate life behind to take up teaching full-time.
The shift wasn’t without sacrifices. She took up an assistant teacher position at Garden International School in Mont Kiara for a year.
“The salary was lower than my PR position. but I was desperate to get out of that tiny cubicle and run free,” she writes in her book.
Nevertheless, it was a gamble worth taking, she tells me. The teachers there showed her an enthusiasm in teaching which she has never seen before, at least not in the public school where she had studied in the past.
“Seeing their enthusiasm in class made me yearn to bring that into our public schools too. I truly wanted to emulate them. When I heard of Teach for Malaysia, everything just clicked into place,” Cheryl reveals.
ON UNCOMMON GROUND
After weeks of formulating lesson plans and honing teaching skills in the Teach For Malaysia Institute, Cheryl and her friend Constance was posted to Kedah.
She was little prepared for the culture shock and the fact that the first day in class was little short from being a total disaster.
“After all the blogs I wrote of how I was going to make an impact and change lives, I couldn’t even get them to listen to me,” she writes in her book.
“I had a hard time understanding their northern accent. Furthermore, it shocked me to realise that the students’ level of literacy and understanding were just not up to par. They were even struggling to write their names. Some even had to refer to their IC (identification card),” she says soberly.
Her name was strange sounding to their ears, and Cheryl felt almost like a foreigner in her own country. Needless to say, she became an intriguing subject among the students.
“The funniest question I’ve ever been asked over and over again from the students was whether I’m related to Fernando Torres,” she recounts with a laugh.
It was a little uncomfortable at first, but she happily chalks it down as a positive reaction. Her reasoning being: “At least the students are learning something aside from what’s around them in their small village.”
It was a difficult first few months, but gradually, conditions got better.
“I guess the advantage I have of not having any prior knowledge in teaching is that everything I do is through trial and error. And that in turn kept my students on their toes,” Cheryl explains before adding: “It’s not an easy job but when students wonder what I’ll be doing next and get curious, I know I’ve at least won half the battle.”
She points out that teachers should never give up no matter how long they’ve been in this profession, and to always keep the enthusiasm going because the students need it.
LITERACY IS A PRIVILEGE
“I’ve always known that not all schools are the same, but I never knew that there are schools as dire as this,” Cheryl opines, while adding: “The gap between them and students in the city was so wide. And there was a negative perception that students had of English. Worst of all is the sad fact that these students have to choose between coming to school and working to feed their families.”
She grew to realise that her students’ definition of success and doing well veered far from her own perspective. She slowly learnt that successes came in many forms.
“When a student gets it or says: ‘Teacher! English isn’t so difficult!’ I feel very happy. I started finding more ways to entice them to learn the language, such as parodying pop songs and making music. It can sometimes be really hard to detach from the reality of things, but as a teacher, you have to do just that, to keep yourself from spiralling down into depression,” Cheryl reveals candidly.
Nevertheless, there are always silver linings found in overcast clouds. The students, Cheryl describes, exude a geniality and genuine frankness that she admires.
“Our relationship is so real and we hang out together almost every day. Their parents never hesitated in inviting me over for dinners and even sewed me a baju kurung. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever get to experience again. Most of my students still contact me daily and these are friendships I certainly miss in the city,” she says.
Another silver lining came in the form of one plucky student who not only made her work a little easier by usually leading the pack but his audacious way of not conforming to the majority, puts a smile on her face.
“His name is Adnin Zidane, and yes, like the footballer whom his father hopes he will take after, but I believe he’ll end up being an actor,” Cheryl says with smile, recalling how his parodies of famous celebrities during one of her class projects got her students (and her) rolling with laughter.
She says with a touch of pride: “He has a bright personality and an I-don’t-care attitude. It’s probably due to him being from Johor but his courage to break barriers really touched my heart.”
Teaching has been an overwhelming experience, one that Cheryl describes as a whirlwind of emotions which is extremely hard to define. Nevertheless, she professes that her passion for teaching and literacy hasn’t diminished. On the contrary, it has been honed with a more astute knowledge of the education system.
“As long as there are students who can’t read, my work isn’t done,” she says with
a determined look on her face, continuing, “My husband and friends in the education field constantly pushes me forward in finding solutions and I truly thank them for they’ve inspired me to be the best that I can be.”
As our conversation comes to an end, Cheryl leaves me with this final observation: “Sometimes, students can break your heart by not doing what they’re told or not scoring well in exams. At other times, they can really surprise you. All we need to remember is that not everyone is the same and successes should be measured according to the individuals, not as an established whole.”
T FOR TEACHER
Author: Cheryl Ann Fernando
Publisher: MPH Group Publishing
Pages: 215 pages
Available at MPH bookstores
T For Teacher chronicles Cheryl’s three years of mayhem, tears and tiny glimpses of success as a teacher attached with Teach For Malaysia.
These honest and heart-warming vignettes are collected from her blog and columns for an online portal. They are a reflection of someone who gave it her all to make a difference in the lives of her students, despite her lack of experience in teaching.