“Why Are You Outstanding?” A Former VSO Volunteer’s Account Of Teaching In Sri Lanka

Former VSO volunteer Barry Arnold, who taught English at a technical college in the town of Trincomalee from 2003 to 2005, was kind enough to share his experience with the TEFL Logue in the following piece: Why Are You Outstanding?

‘Why are you outstanding?’ asked Mr Marrikar, my elderly Muslim colleague, as he dismounted from his motor bike and splashed through the driving rain towards me.

After two years in Sri Lanka, I wasn’t deceived by the question.

‘I’m locked out,’ I answered, ‘and I’ve got a class in 10 minutes. Where is everybody?’

‘Nobody here today’ he said, ‘the Tamils have called a hartal, a strike, I’m only here to pick up some papers. Last night a Sinhala bus driver knocked down a Tamil boy, the blood is bad in town. Go home and relax.’

The town was Trincomalee in north-east Sri Lanka, where I taught English for over two years until December 2005. The civil war that had so divided the people and caused 60,000 deaths in 20 years had lain quiet for nearly four years and people were hopeful.

The town and districts were roughly equally divided between Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim communities, with a sizeable smattering of Christians, too. Over 100,000 mostly decent and intelligent people, living close together, trying hard to live better lives.

My classroom replicated the make-up of the town, equal numbers of young men and young women, all ethnic groups and religions sitting and teasing and joking together, happy to be taking their National Certificate in English for Commerce, Industry and Further Education under the guidance of a genuinely English English teacher.

For me, I appreciated the dedication and success of Mr Marrikar and his local colleagues, who had achieved so much at Trinco Technical College for so many years with such scant resources: textbooks a rarity, paper and pencils supplied by students, blackboard and chalk.

Eventually, the college got used to me and I got used to them: the saris and shalwar kameez, the bare feet and glassless windows, the old-fashioned respect and all-round friendliness, the ceiling fan and the college dog that used to lie and sleep contentedly on the classroom floor while I droned on about the present perfect.

After a few months, a plea to Head Office in Colombo, 200 miles but 7 hours drive away, produced a small grant from VSO and I was able to buy a second-hand photocopier and equip every student with a textbook. The students were ecstatic and felt privileged.

When I left I had taught three annual intakes of students, their marks compared nationwide had been excellent . Many students had gone onto good jobs with government and NGOs or further study at university or training colleges.

But then politics intervened and the old enmities resurfaced. The random killings and the relocations, the suspicions and the segregations. Education was put in its place.

I went back in February this year, to visit old friends and familiar haunts.

The college had always been located in a difficult, contentious area area, neither Tamil nor Sinhala, volatile and, in bad times, dangerous, although I personally had never felt threatened in the slightest.

The few staff remaining were delighted to see me, the college dog bounced around dementedly, but there were few students, most classrooms were closed and the grass and vegetation were reclaiming lost territory.

The textbooks were gone and Mr Marrikar retired.

“Why are you outstanding?” I never thought I was, but I hope I made a small difference, only time will tell.

Find out more about volunteering with VSO in general and in Sri Lanka in particular at www.vso.org.uk.