Do you think it is possible for there to be an English class in a remote outpost in Sri Lanka which begins before dawn light has touched the grounds and students and parents come in total darkness using flashlights. This has been in existence for 20 years.
When Ranasinghe received his appointment to a rural school, persuading the kids to pass the English test at the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level exam was a herculean task. He had to break down many barriers in the form of pre-conceived notions that learning English is tough, or it’s for the high class city kids and it could do very little for the rural folk.
On March 15, 2000, Wilbert Ranasinghe was transferred to Ketawala Junior College. The school had not secured a single S pass for English for many years. By the year 2000 one student was able to obtain an S pass for English. In 2003 Ranasinghe commenced his English programme conducting classes in the early hours of the morning before sunrise in virtual darkness.
Then in 2007 none of the students failed English at the OL examination. From the 10 students who sat for OLs that year, five obtained A passes while three were able to get a B, one a C and one an S. From 2007 to 2015 no student of Ketawala Junior College failed English.
“As an English teacher in Sri Lanka no one else can be as happy as I am,” says Wilbert Ranasinghe recalling his long journey as an English teacher. He was awarded the ‘Best Teacher in Sri Lanka’ five years in a row since 2010 at Guru Prathiba Praba organized by the Ministry of Education. In 2016 he was awarded the Ada Derana Unsung Hero prize for Best Teacher in Sri Lanka.
Five of Ranasinghe’s students are now competent English teachers. “It has not cost them a cent to become an English teacher,” said Ranasinghe. About 10 of his students have graduated from universities in the Arts stream. Ranasinghe on his meager teacher’s salary was also able to fund the university education of 10 of his students. He was able to do that with the money he earned from tuition. He fondly recollected the English educational trips he organized, the expenses of which he bore and is also the teacher who had taken the least number of entitled holidays.
In a telephone conversation with the Nation, his former student, Chalani Shiwanthi Herath recalled that she met Ranasinghe when she was in Grade Four. “He was like a father to me. He loved us as he loved his own doughter. Today I am a graduate with a special degree in Economics from the University of Peradeniya. Throughout my university life he helped me and his assistance is not limited to education as he helped us financially also. Today I am here because of him,” she said.
“Mr. Wilbert Ranasinghe is the best teacher I have met in all my years at school. He was like a father to us. He came to school at around 5 am to teach us English. Before he came to Ketawala College, English was a subject that kids detested. No one could get even an S pass for OLs in English. But he changed all that. Now all the kids are able to speak English. I am happy to say that we were able to show 100 per cent positive results in 2007 for the first time in the school’s history. That is because of Mr. Ranasinghe. He was the person who changed our lives. At present many of his students are in good positions because of English,” said Thilina Nishantha, a lieutenant in the army.
“For me he is like Lord Buddha. It’s because of him we are where we are today. I am now a Cost Controller at a four star hotel in Negombo. I could go to a better school because of him,” says Manoranjan Bandara who considers it a blessing to receive an education under Ranasinghe.
Wilbert Ranasinghe, born on February 26, 1961, received his primary and secondary education at Ku/Meethenwala Maha Vidyalaya and continued his ALs in commerce in Ku/Mawathagama National School.
After ALs, in January 1982 he got the opportunity to sit for an English teaching exam and got his first appointment as a teacher on January 26, 1982 at the Udanvita Vidyalaya, Melsiripura. After teaching there for one year and nine months he entered the English Teachers’ Training College Peradeniya in 1984. After teaching at Pussella Maha Vidyalaya for five years since 1986 he received his next appointment to Ku/Yatiwala Sri Gunanada Vidyalaya in 1991. He revolutionised teaching English at the school with his students obtaining best OL results for English from the Mawathagama Division.
Then on March 15, 2000 he was transferred to Ketawala Junior College, a remote school with few facilities at the time. “The school lacked an environment conducive to education,” said Ranasinghe. “The school had not secured a single S pass for English for many years. My own past is my inspiration. My parents were farmers and I had to undergo a lot of financial difficulties while studying,” he explained.
In 2003 he commenced his morning English programme which started at 5 O’clock in the morning. People did not have much of an understanding about the programmeme at the onset, but later they showed interest. Since then it gradually became a habit for all the students from Grade One to Eleven to start their day with his English programme from 5 am as they trudged to school guided by torchlight through the village.
“Love, affection and kindness are the only necessary tools to get close to children. They will do anything for love. They learned English with a lot of interest,” said Ranasinghe.
He had to face a lot of challenges when launching the programme. “Many tried to influence me,” recalled Ranasinghe. “Especially high class people did not like village kids learning and speaking English”.
Without following the traditional method of basing his course strictly on textbooks, using his own method to teach English with much love and affection Ranasinghe could make English the favourite subject of all the students who took his classes.
As the students made vast improvements over the years, the S pass disappeared from the result sheets leaving only As, Bs and Cs.
But this year Ranasinghe regretted that only 71 per cent of the students got through in English.
He pointed out that students show interest in other subjects because of English. Along with English he was able to improve their morality and encouraged them to study other subjects. After he retired on February 25, 2016 Ranasinghe wanted to continue the morning programme at the school but was not allowed to pursue his passion.
“In Sri Lanka people may dislike when someone becomes famous,” said Ranasinghe. He now conducts the class for students of his former school free of charge on Saturday morning from 5.30 am and charges a tuition fee only from students of other schools. The location has been renamed Win Villa English School. “The children were eager to learn and they really did not want to stop the programme,” revealed Ranasinghe.
He contends that tuition should pay extra attention to weak students. “I am against the present trend of tuition. Today it has become a fashion where the cleverest ones excel and the weakest are ignored. Teachers have made it compulsory for students to attend tuition and if they don’t, students won’t get good grades at school,” he said regretfully.
There are 88 schools in the Kurunagala Educational Division and it is only at Ketawala Junior College that showed 100 percent positive results in English sans tuition classes.
“If students can get such good results for English without tuition then tuition is not necessary for other subjects also. On the other hand students trust tuition more than school,” pointed out Ranasignhe.
He said that the government should pay more attention to teachers and should devise a more systematic method to credit teachers depending on the results they show. “There are schools where no one has passed English though there are many teachers. The government should take action regarding such matters,” Ranasinghe explained.
According to Ranasinghe when an English teacher gets an appointment to a rural school his or her attitude is that those students cannot master the language and such students are not suitable for English.
“These students are like flowers that bloom in the wild. When I got the appointment to this school I was determined that I am going to teach them English somehow,” said Ranasinghe.
With much difficulty he was able to dismiss the notion that learning English is difficult. “Within three days they were able to make a short meaningful sentence,” said Ranasinghe with elation.
He wouldn’t have been able to come this far if not for his dear wife, Ranjani Ranasinghe and daughter Suwimali Surangika Ranasinghe who graduated with a special degree in Physical Science and is now a demonstrator at the University of Peradeniya. “The whole village appreciates our family. In our 27 years of marriage we have never argued over anything. They help me in everything I do,” claimed a proud Ranasinghe.
“Depending only on textbooks won’t do any good for students. Teachers should be more creative in their method of teaching while also being caring and affectionate. A teacher should be able to consider all the students as his or her own kids. Only then would the teaching be effective,” said Ranasinghe.
Pics by Sunil Poramadala