KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 11 — City girl Cheryl Ann Fernando, 31, never dreamt that she would one day give up her corporate career to become a volunteer teacher.
Or have a movie made about her time as a teacher.
But that was exactly what happened. Fernando went to a rural school in Kedah and helped them form a choral speaking team which went on to become a top qualifier at a district-level choral speaking competition.
It was a triumphant moment for the school which had never ever won a prize, let alone make it to a top tier in a competition.
(Note: Choral speaking is where a group narrates a poem or dramatic piece.)
In the beginning
“I was a public relations (PR) consultant for four years. During that time, I used to teach students in Puchong and at my church in Sentul. Then I reached a point where I realised I liked teaching more than PR so I decided to leave,” Fernando told Malay Mail Online.
She then joined an international school, hoping to employ the techniques she learnt there to teach other children elsewhere.
“If you look at international schools, it is very impossible for a student to fail there. They are very well equipped there.
“No matter how weak the 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 who will then be based at rural and/or underperforming schools under a two-year contract.
The programme aims to address illiteracy among those with challenging socio-economic backgrounds, and TFM applicants need to go through a stringent vetting process.
“Under Teach for Malaysia, we were trained for eight weeks and during our training, we were taught very different teaching strategies. Like how to engage the students, how to plan and have class games and all that. Those are some of the things I employ in my classroom,” she added.
After her training, Fernando was then sent to SMK Pinang Tunggal, Kedah
The making of a choral speaking team
Despite the smaller paycheck after switching careers, Fernando persevered and went on to assemble a team of students whom she initially saw as lacklustre and polished their talent through sheer grit.
She said the experience was an emotionally charged and physically draining one, as she had to start from scratch.
It also took a hit on Fernando’s monthly wage of RM2,000.
“They had problems with speaking English. We practised a lot. Many times my students would get tired but some of them would persevere. It was difficult.
“There were problems with pronunciation. There was one boy who would struggle with one phrase, some with just one word as 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 and it was so tiring. I told them we cannot give up and we have to do this and kept on soldiering.”
Privately though, Fernando did consider giving up after having a difficult time assembling her 35-student team for the competition.
Many opted out owing to lack of confidence and attendance was just too poor to begin practice but she put her foot down and gave an ultimatum to her students.
“There was another teacher who did it with me. We reached a point where we thought we didn’t want to do it because attendance was very bad, kids were dropping out.
“So 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. I guess I was hard on them because I felt that they can ace this but they need to realise it themselves too I couldn’t get that message across easily. I too got emotional at times,” she added.
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 was also the regular food and drinks which she would supply on days where the practice took a long time. This dented her pocket but gave her much satisfaction.
“One of the ways I motivated my team was I told them that no one is going to look at them at 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. Which they did.
“Of course there were vast differences between our school and the other schools. We were competing for a spot against schools categorised as cluster institutions we had a religious school, Chinese schools. Even the religious school participants were really good.
“But on that day, 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.
How the movie came to be
It all started with a column Fernando wrote for a now-defunct news portal which went viral.
Director Eric Ong said that he was inspired by the story about the school’s triumph in the choral speaking competition.
Ong, a Singaporean, felt that that the story deserved a bigger audience. “Coincidentally I was looking for some good content to make my first movie.
“One day, my executive producer Jason Chong told me that he came across an article on the internet about this choral speaking competition. This happened in January last year.
“Instantly 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? That’s how it started,” Ong said.
Chong then contacted Fernando to get her consent, and the rest followed.
Ong spent over RM600,000 on the production of Adiwiraku, and his novel project also received support from the Education Ministry here.
“She agreed to let us make her story about the students and some other incidents which happened during her time teaching which were very touching, and I think all that should be brought up, especially issues such as social problems, poverty etc.
“Later, we spoke to all the students to pick up as much details as possible. The deeper we dug, I was convinced and assured that this could be a good, inspiring movie,” Ong added.
An actress rediscovers her own love for teaching
In Adiwiraku, local actress Sangeeta 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, Sangeeta helped set up of 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 really good English and they were listening to the latest English songs. I was shocked. It wasn’t what I had read about them.
“She did a fantastic job and turned things around for 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,” she told Malay Mail Online.
“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 this year. It will be screened in Singapore a week after.
What next in the quest to fight illiteracy
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 for various subjects in four languages: Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil.
Fernando also co-founded Literacy Malaysia (LitMas), a literacy programme she and a friend formulated, to help students read and write in English.
The modules were created with help from Fernando’s mother, an English language tutor herself.
“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 are hoping to put all our materials online soon and train more teachers on how to use it effectively in their classrooms,” she added.
Last year, LitMas trained 15 teachers who catered for children with special needs and in 2015, it managed to distribute its modules to eight schools to be used during lessons.
“I love what I do and I am going to keep doing it,” she said.
* Note: An earlier version of this report erroneously reported the actress' name as Sangeetha Krishnasamy. The error has since been corrected.