We were sitting inside the staffroom of a school about twenty minutes away from the Rosie May Home. Spending my mornings here, I had been preparing them, and myself, for the influx of volunteers I would have in the next few weeks. I got to know the staff well and had some hilarious and unforgettable times at school, including the day one of the teachers brought a cobra in a drinks bottle to show his class. He told us its bite would kill within three hours, so the obvious move when discovered in his garden, was to force the deadly snake into a small plastic bottle, and subject it to hours of shaking and tapping at the plastic. On this particular day, we were having our break time cup of tea, and learning about a teacher's impression of the Sri Lankan education system.
While 85% of the population of Sri Lanka live in rural villages, it is the town schools that consume most of the money and attention of the government. These rural schools wither and struggle with few facilities and students who are often pulled out of school, or unable to attend at all, to help their parents earn a living. My own experience suggests that the supposed 1:17 teacher to pupil ratio is widely inaccurate and the students too poor to afford exercise books simply go without. With government focus on Sri Lanka's place in the international community, attention has been taken away from the vocational training needed by these rural students, and towards gaining good O levels at a national level. A University education may be free in Sri Lanka, but with so few able to attain it, or even finishing high school, this lack of vocational training seems to leave the majority of Sri Lankan youth with no easy future.
On one Friday night, as I said goodbye to a group of volunteers that had become good friends, we went to our favourite beach side bar, but found that alcohol was off the menu as the day was some kind of nationwide detox. 'Drugs and Alcohol Awareness Day' was an incentive brought by the new president to try and tackle the alarmingly high rate of drug related problems that face the country's hospitals and prisons. It's not a big leap to link the lack of educational future of my own generation, to a stagnation and sense of hopelessness, leading to alcohol and the 'brown sugar' that felt like a creeping shadow behind the poverty.
While there is no easy answer to the startling drug problems that hide beyond the beach and just behind the train tracks, there was something amazing coming out of this school that gave me hope for the education system in Sri Lanka. I've been working here on and off for three years now, and what I find truly amazing is that no matter where you go in the world, you can find such magical teachers, committed to giving students the best future possible. In a classroom inside this very school, I found my latest source of inspiration. A male teacher in his late forties, he taught his students in a way that made him extraordinary in the Sri Lankan system.
To explain why I found him so fascinating, it would probably help to explain a little about teaching in Sri Lanka. From my experience, English teaching is a very stiff procedure, at least in the rural schools I have worked in. Copying sentences 'I go to school', 'I wake up,' into their notebooks, with very little spoken practice, the lessons are far from my privileged experience of learning a language. I am not a qualified teacher, and therefore do not believe I have the right to lead a class, but I am happy to help them practice their spoken English. A key problem always seems to be that due to a lack of funds, few staff, and even fewer books, the clever and keen students thrive while others fall further and further behind, copying others' English notes, while never learning to read, or understand our tricky language.
Out of the confusion and struggles with English, this man found new and interesting ways to keep the attention of his students, and get them all to think creatively and learn without even realising they were doing so! Teaching is an incredible thing to watch; the inexhaustible ability to transmit knowledge despite the adversity caused by a lack of books, or a classroom full of leaks in the monsoon.
With education, then, an obvious antidote to poverty, it is teachers like this that become unsung heroes due to their ability to keep children engaged and learning the skills that will empower them. In one lesson, our protagonist got his students to each imagine that they owned a magic object, and explain in English what this would allow them to do. With magic beans, they could study all night, and with a magic pen they could ace every test. This type of individual attention is far from the usual exercise in the text book that doesn't really stretch the bright kids, or engage those less able.
He told me about the problems caused by the lack of vocational training, and the honest worry for his students, along with the humble gratitude to have western volunteers willing to help, inspired me in the same way he inspires his students. However, he is far from remarkable in this respect - the world is full teachers, however they choose to teach, that continue to fill their students with magic. My mother is one of these people, and I am lucky enough to meet them all the time; from the shy Jaffna women who taught me about life in a refugee camp, to each volunteer who joins the continuing effort to get the best for the girls at the Rosie May Home. After all, it is the millions of teachers worldwide like this man who inspire their students everyday to lift themselves out of this poverty, and to help others do the same.