The teacher behind Adiwiraku & the woman who empowered her

In honour of International Women’s Day, we caught up with Cheryl Ann Fernando, one of the teachers behind the true story that inspired the film Adiwiraku.

Cheryl portrait cropped

1. Tell us about an important woman in your life, and how she’s empowered you to be who you are today.

My mother. She completed her degree when she was 55 years old! She’s now working towards her master’s in early childhood education.

When my siblings and I were growing up, she placed a lot of emphasis on reading, writing and speaking confidently in public. Together with my father, they spent a lot of time and money buying us new books, and preparing us for storytelling competitions. Growing up, my mum allowed me to speak my mind, and be the person I wanted to be. Even if it meant making wrong decisions, she allowed me to grow and learn myself. She never stood in the way of my choices and very often, she supported and provided me with the confidence I needed to do what I had to do. For this reason, today, I can proudly say that I am who I am because I was empowered by my mother.

Cheryl classroom croppedCheryl left her career in public relations and joined the Teach For Malaysia Fellowship in 2013. She taught English at a high-need school in Sungai Petani, Kedah.

2. #Adiwiraku has been an incredible journey. Why did you feel it was important to share this story with the world? What do you want people to take away from the film?

I am fortunate to have my story selected and brought to life through Adiwiraku. Initially, I wrote columns for The Malaysian Insider because I felt it was important for people to know what goes on in a typical Malaysian classroom. My columns talked about students, teachers and the community at large, and how we can all work together to create a better Malaysia for our future generations.

The film Adiwiraku was inspired by the true story of Cheryl’s students and the unprecedented success of their school’s choral speaking team.

I was extremely humbled to find out that these stories would be made into a movie, and for me, the most important takeaway would be to understand the work of a teacher. Many times, people think that it’s easy, and we are quick to blame teachers when things go wrong in school. Through this movie, I hope that narrative will change and we will see the role of a teacher as crucial for the betterment of society.

3. What do you think is the biggest challenge faced by young women in Malaysia right now? What do you think they need to overcome this? Who can help them?

I think many young women are afraid and almost apologetic for their accomplishments. We live in a culture where women are embarrassed of what they have achieved, and often fear repercussions and what people might think of them if they are successful.

12 LitMasCheryl and another Teach For Malaysia Alumna co-founded LitMas, a social enterprise that aims to help improve English literacy for every child.

To overcome this, I think we need to start by not making excuses for our successes, and instead, celebrate them. It’s okay to do well in an exam, it’s okay to celebrate great achievements in the classroom, it’s okay to celebrate the start of a new business. We need greater role models in the form of teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc. who will show us that it’s okay to be proud of who we are and not apologise for doing well.

4. What role do you see yourself playing in building our nation?

For me, I want to continuously contribute to our local schools, and work in the education ecosystem to help our students, especially those who need it most. I will continue contributing my time to teach the underprivileged and focus especially on providing English literacy for students and communities who need it the most.

Cheryl is currently Director of Education & Learning at EduNation, and is on the Teach For Malaysia Alumni board. Teach For Malaysia recruits, trains and supports Fellows to teach in high-need schools across the nation. Beyond the Fellowship, our Alumni continue to champion education in different ways. To date, we’ve impacted over 44,000 students, working with the Ministry of Education and other partners.

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