KUALA LUMPUR — City girl Cheryl Ann Fernando never dreamt she would one day give up her corporate career to become a volunteer teacher, or even inspire a movie production.
The 31-year-old went to a rural school in Kedah to help them form a choral speaking team which went on to become a top qualifier at a district-level choral speaking competition.
“I was a public relations (PR) consultant for four years. Then, I used to teach students in Puchong and at my church in Sentul. I reached a point where I realised I liked teaching more than PR so I left,” Fernando told Malay Mail Online.
She joined an international school, hoping to use the techniques acquired to teach other children elsewhere.
“If you look at international schools, it is impossible for a student to fail there.
“No matter how weak students are, they cannot fail in that environment. Then you look at our national schools… there are so many challenges there,” she said.
In 2013, she joined Teach for Malaysia, a non-profit NGO that sources and trains volunteer teachers for rural and under-performing schools, for two years.
“We underwent eight weeks Teach for Malaysia training. During training, we were taught different teaching strategies… how to engage students, to plan, have class games. Those are some of the things I bring to my classroom,” she said.
After her training, Fernando was sent to SMK Pinang Tunggalm in Kedah.
Despite a smaller pay cheque, Fernando persevered and went on to assemble a team of students whom she initially saw as lacklustre and polished their talent through sheer grit.
“They had problems with speaking English. We practised a lot. Many times my students would get tired but some of them would persevere.
“There were problems with pronunciation. There was one boy who would struggle with one phrase, it was very difficult to get the pronunciations right as they were used to conversing in the Kedah dialect.
“They don’t say a lot of ‘s’ but English has a lot of that, so that was my biggest challenge with them, but we practised even through the fasting month. I told them we cannot give up.”
Many opted out for lack of confidence, but she put her foot down before giving her students an ultimatum.
“There was another teacher. We reached a point where we didn’t want to do it because attendance was bad.
“I called them and told them if they were not serious about this then I don’t want to waste my time and then they began to buck up.”
The team was made up of students from Form One up to Form 5, some of whom hail from rural villages and had no transportation to and from the choral speaking practice sessions.
But Fernando volunteered to chauffeur some of the students to motivate them to turn up. There were also the regular food and drinks which she would supply on days where the practice took a long time.
“One of the ways I motivated my team was I told them no one is going to look at them in the competition as we were going up against 25 schools. I told them they had to make heads turn and that’s how they are going to make things work.
“On that, my students shone. I saw the reaction on the judges’ faces and they were all like: Wow! This is such a good school! I never thought we would get the placing but we did.”
SMK Pinang Tunggal won the fifth spot in that competition.
It all started with a column Fernando wrote for a now-defunct news portal which went viral. This caught the attention of Singapore director Eric Ong who was seeking material for his first movie.
“I was attracted to the story of a group of village students, fighting against all odds to achieve something in life. Isn’t it so inspiring?” Ong said.
Ong spent over RM600,000 on the production of Adiwiraku, and his novel project also received support from the Education Ministry.
“She agreed to let us make her story about the students and some other incidents which happened during her time teaching which were touching.
“We spoke to all students to pick up as much details as possible. The deeper we dug, I was convinced this could be a good, inspiring movie,” Ong said.
In Adiwiraku, local actress Sangeetha Krishnasamy, 31, was selected to play Fernando. During the course of the movie’s 15-day shoot, the law graduate and model rekindled her own love for teaching after working with her young co-stars: The original members of SMK Pinang Tunggal’s choral speaking team.
Before she became an actress, Sangeetha helped set up a local private college where she also taught underprivileged students from the Indian community as well as A-level students.
For her, Adiwiraku is her tribute to the many teachers out there who go to great lengths for their students’ future.
“The beauty of teaching is that you don’t just get to their minds, you get to their hearts. I think Cheryl made teaching so interesting there.
“I don’t know how she lured them but by the time I went to do this movie with them, they were speaking good English and they were listening to the latest English songs. I was shocked. It wasn’t what I had read about them.
“This is what teachers do. Teachers have so much impact on our lives. My English teacher is the reason why I can speak good English, probably the reason why I got the job too… and so I started to miss my teaching days.
“I think I would still go back to teaching if you ask me. Teachers have such a big impact,” she added.
Adiwiraku is set for release nationwide on March 9, and in Singapore a week later.
After her contract with TFN ended, Fernando joined EduNation Malaysia and became its head of education and learning.
EduNation is an online platform which offers free tuition on various subjects in four languages: Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil.
Fernando also co-founded Literacy Malaysia (LitMas), a literacy programme to help students read and write in English.
“We offer our modules to anyone who wants to use it,” she said, adding that LitMas also trains school teachers to use its modules in their classrooms.
“We hope to put all our materials online soon and train more teachers on how to use it effectively in classrooms,” she said.
“I love what I do and I am going to keep doing it.”
● This article appeared in Malay Mail on Feb 12 , 2017