Nanda Pethiyagoda, in Island, 4 January 2020, where the title is “Dr. Goolbai Gunasekara Wins the Life Time Achievement Award in the Field of Education“
The moment I heard that Goolbai had won this prestigious annual award presented by The International Schools of Sri Lanka ( TISSL) at its Annual Conference at the Marriot Hotel in Weligama in November 2019, to mark her lifelong and significant contribution in the field of education in Sri Lanka, I felt I had to write about her. I got her permission and thus this article from what I know, and telephoned and emailed questions and answers. Goolbai is one of the friendliest of persons, accommodating, and with whom one need not be in constant contact to maintain a friendship which in my case is heavily enhanced with admiration and affectionate regard.
I first got to know her when I was on the teaching staff of Buddhist Ladies’ College, Colombo 7, in the 1960s. Deshabandu Clara Motwani had founded the school with Mr Mohandas de Mel and Goolbai had just begun her teaching career under her illustrious mother. That’s when my admiration for her began. She extended friendship to me. While Mrs Motwani, to me, was rather distant and a strict disciplinarian, Goolbai was very approachable and friendly. Thus my first question about whether it was her mother who inspired her to take to teaching which led her to posts of principal and at management level, she replied: “Undoubtedly. She taught me how to be a Principal. Every problem I encountered when Asian International School (AIS) began, I had already had a sort of ‘Rehearsal’ under my mother since she encountered the same bumps along the road as I eventually did. I was therefore well ‘tutored’ so to speak. For instance how to handle the Staff; how to deal with parents; how to correct students without being harsh (not always easy).”
Career: She has now retired to a well deserved period of leisure and becoming a stay-at-home wife, mother and grandmother.
One of my questions about this phase of her working life was: “As the Founder-Principal of a new international school what initiatives did you take that were unusual?”
Her answer: “Here again there were a number of methods of teaching I tried to employ that did not cause strain on younger children; my theory being that even examinations must not seem like testing. I would have delayed those annual promotion tests as long as I could but parents demanded them after Grade 4. Another thing I started was titled ‘This Is Your Life series” when I got people like Rohini Nanayakkara, Sumi Moonesinghe, Dian Gomes and other icons of Colombo to speak to our students giving them perspectives outside their privileged schooling.”
Another question: Did your career bring you fulfillment and happiness?
Her answer: “Enormously so. I loved teaching and continued to do so for many years even after I became Principal. History was my subject as you know since we were colleagues as teachers for many years! Happiness and fulfillment comes in many ways. In the academic sense – success of students, of course. When one sees the blossoming of children you have had under you since nursery school, satisfaction is great. Again, when a child writes a book and dedicates it to you the compliment is so appreciated. Or when a parent tells you that you have been a really great Principal. Such moments are the golden moments. But believe me they are offset by many contrary opinions too!!
“Recently an alumnus of AIS won the Gratiaen Award. (Arun Welandawe-Prematileleke in 2018). He gave the school a great deal of credit for his success because he was a boy who marched to a different drum beat from the beginning. Yet he got on famously at AIS wherehe was given space to develop in his own way. There have been many others. We have sent students all over the world to some of the best universities in the world. Contemplating their success is happiness for any teacher and Principal.”
I know that Goolbai has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances and is much in demand on all sorts of platforms, even the purely social. So I asked her whether the fact that she had to actually start a new school took up all her time.
Answer: “Yes, for the first few years it did. I used to love playing bridge but naturally no longer had the time. I used to be in school by 6.30 am to make sure everything was ready for a new day and every one (staff and students) were on time!. So today, sleeping late in the mornings is an absolute pleasure!” To which I add: “Oh my goodness, this time of leisure is absolutely hard earned and well deserved.”
Other interests: To me this imposing, expansive (meaning relaxed and genially frank and communicative), high principled, clever woman with a strong personality cannot be confined in one field. Proven! She has been a very successful and much read author. I remember she had a column in the Daily News on Kit Kat (granddaughter) in which she mentioned her incompetence as a cooking, cleaning, ordinary housewife. From there she moved to being a regular contributor to local journals, the longest and most read being her monthly contributions on various aspects of teaching and education to the LMD journal. She is a clever writer with an easy style, with spice of humour, who however, gets much valuable content into her articles. She has published many books of varying topics, not always on education.
Questioned about other publications, she replied: “Yes I have even written a boring textbook of History for the use of English medium students in the Middle School. Books like “It’s the ‘Principal’ of It” sold well as it was a collection of articles written for the LMD over a period of years. Also Nirmali Wickremesinghe and I worked for Rajiva Wijesinha in writing texts for the British Council on topics to interest the graduates of our Universities whose medium of instruction was not English.”
My final question to Goolbai was: “This is not the first ‘Life Time Award’ you have received, is it?”
Her answer with evident modesty: “Well in 2016, The Professional and Career Women selected me as one of their Gold Award winners. I don’t think that was a life achievement award! It was worded: ‘Inspirational Woman of the Year’ which was flattering but not necessarily true. Then I won the Zonta Award for Woman of the Year in Education some time ago. In this I followed my mother who was one of its first winners.”
Goolbai acknowledges the many friends she had among the Principals of International Schools – David Saunders, Principal of the CIS and Ralph Alles, Founder of Gateway Colleges, were great personal friends. Elizabeth Moir and her husband helped her greatly when AIS first began. “Principals like me were regularly in contact with each other as we learned the intricacies of British Exams and compared notes!”
I end this article which gave me immense pleasure to write with a quotation I found: “If you put as much effort into enjoying your retirement as you have all the years you’ve been working, you’ll have an amazing, productive, dynamic and long lasting retirement. You deserve it!”
And I say: as one chapter in your life ends with awards, praise and thanks, another begins. I know you will make the most of your new found freedom for yourself and your family.