A father to a thousand sons
“In school, teach him it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat..... Teach to have faith in his own ideas, even if everyone tells him he is wrong. Teach him to be gentle with gentle people and tough with the tough. Try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when everyone getting on the bandwagon...
Teach him to listen to all men; but teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth, and take only the good that comes through.
Teach him, if you can how to laugh when he is sad....
Teach him there is no shame in tears…
Let him have the courage to be impatient… Let him have the patience to be brave. Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself, because then he will have faith in humankind…”
Thus wrote Abraham Lincoln to the Headmaster of his son’s school. A Headmaster of our times who proved the truth of the fine words is A.P. Gunaratna, former Principal of Dharmaraja College Kandy and Ananda College, Colombo. A ‘father’ to thousands of ‘sons’, he was instrumental in pioneering the true concept of adventure in local schools. The Nation met this man of integrity to delve into his mettle…
By Randima Attygalle
Q: Can you tell us about your school days and undergrad days at Peradeniya?
A: I started my schooling at St. Anthony’s College, Katugastota and I was there till the Third Standard. My parents were so keen that I receive my education in a Buddhist environment, they admitted me to Dharmaraja College, Kandy. At Dharmaraja, I was not a very studious type of a student, but rather geared towards sports. I captained the soccer team at Dharmaraja and was also involved in hockey and other House activities. Ever since I was a school boy, I was very keen on hill-climbing and the location of our school, with Mahaweli river and Udawaththa kele, in close proximity, further strengthened this hobby of mine. The school premises were such that all Rajans were compelled to climb quite a lot as part of their daily routine! My father being a very good swimmer, encouraged me and my two brothers to swim in Mahaweli. So adventure was part and parcel of my young life. Life at Peradeniya was no exception. I offered Economics, History and Sinhala for my degree. I captained the football team of Peradeniya University and played rugger and hockey at the same time. Like most other fellow students, I too had my fair share of political experience in the University being a young Leftist! One challenge, we undergrads set among ourselves, was to leave for Siripada during the season soon after dinner. We used to set a target to climb it and be back for lunch next day! Every year we did this as a practice just to show the world our mettle!
Q: Can you name some of your famous contemporaries from Peradeniya?
A: Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala, Prof. J.B. Dissanayake, Dr. Sarath Amunugama and Dr. Michael Roberts are some of them.
Q: What made you take up a career of a school principal?
A: I strongly believe in the thing called destiny (smiles) I suppose some of life’s events are pre-determined. I never wanted to become a teacher. Quite contrary, I wanted to become a Labour Officer because joining the Civil Service was the most prestigious avenue open to new graduates those days. Subsequently I applied for the post of a Social Service Officer. I gave up that also and ultimately ended up in teaching. However, when I did end up as a teacher, I tremendously enjoyed my job. I found teaching to be immensely self-satisfactory. My first appointment was to Maliyadeva College, Kurunegala where I taught Economics and Political Science and I was the Master-in-charge of Soccer. Once I completed my Diploma in Education, I got a post of a lecturer at Teacher Training College, Katukurunda. During this time, I got a promotion and assumed duties as the Deputy Principal of Dharmaraja College in 1971. In 1973 I was appointed the Principal of Dharmaraja College.
Q: What did you feel when you became the head of your own school, Dharmaraja College, Kandy?
A: (Smiling) It aroused lot of nostalgia and at the same time I was so embarrassed to become the Principal, when some of my own teachers were still on the staff! The first thing I did after assuming duties, was to walk into the Primary School and kneel before Jayaratne, my Sinhala teacher and worship him. As I came to Dharmaraja College from St. Anthony’s College, my Sinhala was not up to the standard and it was Jayaratne who taught me the language so well to reach the degree level later in life.
Q: You were also instrumental in launching ‘adventure’ in national schools of Sri Lanka, initiating the concept at Dharmaraja College, Kandy and later at Ananda College, Colombo. Can you shed more light upon this venture?
A: Former Minister of Education, Nissanka Wijerathne invited the Himalayan Mountaineering Climbing team under the leadership of Col. Aluwaliyah to initiate an island-wide adventure project in 1980, and he selected me to be the person in-charge of it. The maiden Everest Expedition was launched at Dharmaraja under this project when a team of ten Rajans were led by Ajith Jayasekera, who was then the Master in charge of Scouting and present Warden of Pedro Scout Centre. With this experience, subsequently several more teams, both from Dharmaraja and Ananda, explored Everest led by Ajith Jayasekera.
Q: What were the challenges you encountered in this venture, specially concerning the risk involved?
A: As far as the risk was concerned, I had to take the sole responsibility of it because naturally, parental concern was there when sending young children on an expedition of that nature. However, the support I received from the Minister of Education, Nissanka Wijerathne, Sunil Jayaweera, Former Director, National Youth Council and Director in charge of Sports, Ministry of Education and the Old Boys of both Dharmaraja College and Ananda College was magnanimous, giving me all the confidence to take up this challenge. I was positive that we would succeed and eventually we did.
Q: How fulfilling was your tenure of office as the Principal of Dharmaraja College Kandy and Ananda College, Colombo?
A: Oh they were very fulfilling years. I was fortunate to achieve a lot for these two prestigious institutes of learning in the country, with the help of numerous individuals. I must admit that I was one of those fortunate Principals, around whom the staff, students and past pupils rallied around. During my 13 years at Dharmaraja College, I got the fullest support of the staff and the old Boys to boost the image of the school. I remember when the centenary of the school came about, we didn’t have much funds to celebrate it on the scale that a school of that caliber should, and when I appealed to the Old Boys Association, everybody rallied around me and it was a tremendous success. During my term of office at Dharmaraja College, I received numerous scholarships to various parts of the world and I’m ever grateful to my alma mater which made me a man and which gave me opportunities to prove my mettle as a Head.
When I took over Ananda College in 1987, I received the same co-operation. Acquiring a three-acre land for the swimming pool and the sports complex, setting up the Principal’s quarters within the school premises and initiating several new buildings with the help of Old Boys and numerous other individuals are among the collective achievements during my stay at Ananda. As I said before, I was fortunate indeed to have witnessed many milestones during my tenure as the Principal of these two leading schools in the country.
Q: How important do you think is the component of ‘adventure’ in a school set up?
A: Education is adventure, nothing else. From Pre-school onwards, the student and the teacher is involved in adventure unconsciously. It is the responsibility of the teacher to cultivate a ‘positive sense’ of adventure in the child. The teacher taking the child out of the classroom and asking him to count the number of trees around him is an adventure itself. Gradually the child will go around the trees and play. The child who observes his surroundings will develop a sense of adventure in him. It will help him take risks and challenges in life which will mould his personality.
Q: What do you think is the secret behind a successful Principal?
A: It’s his ability to become a good manager. A principal should not be an administrator, he should be a good manager, a person capable of going beyond the class room. He should have a correct instinct to delegate work to the correct individual. At the same time, he should be capable of taking a risk. Risk-bearing is almost non-existent today. But we cannot put the total blame on the Principals. There should be more opportunities given to them by the Ministry, to initiate things, to go beyond the routine school work. In a Principal, the entire institution should have confidence. You got to live up to the expectations of the staff, students as well as past pupils. The Principal must always remember that a school has its own vision and it is his duty to mission it in such a way that the vision is ultimately accomplished. Having rules and regulations displayed all over the school in big black and white letters or parading with a cane in hand would not make a successful Principal. It takes much more than that. The integrity and the image of the Principal are paramount.
Q: What was the dictum you were abided by as a Principal?
A: Optimism and self-confidence. I have taken many challenges as a Principal, in the best interest of the school. When I took the decision to initiate a Beat Group at Ananda for instance, some of the Old Boys were very critical of me. I insisted that this new Beat Group (brass band) play at the ‘Colours Night’ of the school and it proved to be a success because I showed that unless we initiate that type of activities, we cannot compete with other schools.
Q: Can you tell us about your family?
A: My wife is Sunethra, a retired teacher of English. She too taught at Dharmaraja College and Ananda College. Our son Daham is an old Anandian and he has just completed his studies in IT in the Westminister UK anh he is working presently.
Q: What were the projects you were recently involved in?
A: I was requested by the Ministry of Education to develop a criteria for the accreditation of International Schools, to bring about uniformity among them. I have submitted the basic proposal already.
Q: As a ‘father to thousands of children’, what do you think the greatest gift life had given you?
A: (smiling) It is the love and respect I have earned over the years. Where ever I go, so many students of mine flock around me and I’m so proud of ‘all my children’ who are men of integrity today, doing well in their respective vocations.