CHERYL ANN FERNANDO
Public Relations Consultant & Country Director for Global School Leaders
Under Cheryl’s soft-spoken and gentle exterior is a courageous and determined soul. While working in Public Relations, she volunteered to teach refugee children, and it made her realise that she wanted to pursue it full time. “I was much younger at the time, and thought to myself – if not now, then when? So I made the decision to leave PR, much to my parents’ disappointment. I first taught in an international school, and left thereafter to join Teach for Malaysia (a partner of Teach For All, a global network of organisations that expands educational opportunities by enlisting the nation’s most promising talent). At the time, I had just completed my MBA, so my parents thought that I’d pursue a corporate career. I told them I wanted to give this a try, and I had the opportunity to teach in a rural place – somewhere I’d never been before,” she said. “At the back of my mind, I assumed I would be stationed in Kuala Lumpur (KL), so I didn’t worry about it too much. I got my placement later in Pinang Tunggal, Kedah – a very rural area with paddy field plantations.”
Despite her apprehension of being in an entirely different environment, her commitment and dedication to her students never wavered. Her patience and perseverance paid off, and her students, who could not speak a word of English before, won fifth place in a choral speaking competition. “English wasn’t the first, or even the second language for them. It was more like a foreign language, in fact. Many of my students were fearful of the language, and struggled to speak English. That was my greatest challenge.” Cheryl admitted that she struggled in the beginning, and she definitely stood out in her classroom of all-Malay students. “Here I was, this Indian girl, with a strange name, trying to teach them. I was really out of my element there. Also, I’ve lived in KL my whole life, and was always within reach of skyscrapers and comfortable facilities. The house I stayed in costed only RM250 a month, so you can imagine its state! I didn’t even have a proper toilet. My parents refused to visit me because they couldn’t bear the thought of me living under such conditions. Eventually, they came around when they saw how much of a difference I was making.” She looks back on the experience as an eye-opening one, and she learnt to adapt to her new surroundings. “To communicate, I spoke to them in Bahasa Malaysia, but they laughed at me because my accent was so different from their Kedah logat (slang). To teach, I used lots of songs, pop songs in particular, which worked wonders for them.”
Cheryl wrote an article describing her experience while she was a columnist at Malaysian Insider. Word spread like wildfire and before she knew it, she was being contacted by a Singaporean director, Eric Ong, who was intrigued by her story. “I couldn’t believe it was really happening. What was initially intended to be a short film expanded to become a full two-hour movie. My students acted in it and they were so happy for the opportunity,” she recalls with a smile.
Cheryl analysed that changes had to be implemented on a systemic level for our national schools to improve. There are currently so many Jabatans (departments) and Pejabat Pendidikan Daerahs (District Education Offices) – we need to redefine their functions so that they can lead our schools appropriately. And we also want our students to be more holistic learners. We don’t want them to just score straight As. Our policies need to start taking that into account. Right now, we’re just like a factory, churning out students who don’t question or think beyond what they read in textbooks. There’s a lot of spoon-feeding and not enough asking of questions. Teachers need to encourage thinking, and give students enough opportunities to even be wrong, and to learn from their mistakes. There needs to be an entire shift in mindset.” To be on par with international schools, Cheryl suggested reducing class sizes for more efficient and effective management. “Right now there are at least 35 students in a class. The role of a teacher should be to teach, and not be overwhelmed with administrative work. When teachers are caught up with these commitments, they are unable to focus their efforts on teaching. That’ll solve half our problems.”
Cheryl is now currently training principals to prepare their schools’ curriculums. “They’re just like students in a way. I believe the role of teacher is now shifting to become more of a facilitator. I try to keep them engaged, and convince them to take ownership of their own learning. I also go to each school to give one-on-one support to see how they can transform their classrooms.” Aside from her teaching career, Cheryl was appointed as Country Director for Global School Leaders Malaysia. She had doubts about her own inexperience, but the board of directors believed in her and that meant a lot to her. She found out she was pregnant soon after, and was worried that they would retract their offer. But her boss assured her that she herself has seven children, and that she needn’t worry about it. “That made me feel empowered. It was a crazy, hectic time, juggling major responsibilities while being pregnant. But I’m grateful for the experience,” she recalled.
Her knack of convincing people comes in handy for coaching her classes. “I think I can pretty much sell ice cream to eskimos, and I mean that in a good way!”