Ed­u­ca­tion, teach­ing and why I left Guyana

Stabroek News - - Letters - By Deb­o­rah Hamil­ton

Deb­o­rah Hamil­ton worked for sev­eral years as a teacher at Queen’s Col­lege be­fore mov­ing to Canada, where she now teaches.

Re­cently I was fol­low­ing the so­cial me­dia posts of a friend who had re­turned to Guyana to spend the Christ­mas hol­i­days with fam­ily and friends – some of whom were also re­turn­ing from var­i­ous overseas lo­ca­tions. I was happy that she was post­ing all the in­ter­est­ing foods and places she had vis­ited, which al­lowed me to also see what my child­hood friends and ac­quain­tances were do­ing. To tell the truth, she was mak­ing me quite home­sick. I was miss­ing the lively ban­ter, laugh­ter, ex­cel­lent Guyanese cui­sine and hos­pi­tal­ity, the tales of old, the com­pany – truly, there is no ex­pe­ri­ence like a Guyanese Christ­mas.

There were many se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions that my friend shared as she vis­ited and in­for­mally in­ter­viewed friends who played a key role in post-in­de­pen­dence Guyana. I can only imag­ine that the ac­tual con­ver­sa­tions were lively as they were ed­u­ca­tional. In sum­ming up her visit she wrote, “Only with age one would say, leav­ing your roots is a bad idea. We need coun­tries, cities, com­mu­ni­ties that value its peo­ple and in­vest in ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems that pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for all to flour­ish. This go­ing away to study and not re­turn­ing is for the birds. And it’s dis­rup­tive to com­mu­ni­ties.”

This com­ment made me re­flect on my own jour­ney. I was not one who went away to study and didn’t re­turn. I grad­u­ated from the Uni­ver­sity of Guyana, worked for a short while at the Guyana Sugar Cor­po­ra­tion be­fore start­ing my fam­ily, and was mag­ne­tized to teach­ing at Queen’s Col­lege (QC) – lit­er­ally, as I went to bor­row some mag­nets for a demon­stra­tion for pre-school aged chil­dren, and was promptly given a desk and a timetable.

Teach­ing at QC was an en­joy­able and chal­leng­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at first, but I quickly be­came ex­hausted as there was no class size cap, and I was swing­ing from teach­ing bi­ol­ogy to fourth to up­per sixth form classes. There were times that I got to school at six in the morn­ing and left near mid­night with the vol­ume of mark­ing and prepa­ra­tion. I re­call hav­ing a lower sixth form class of one hun­dred and twenty stu­dents and grow­ing, fifth forms of over forty-five stu­dents, the School Based As­sess­ments, lab­o­ra­tory re­ports and con­tent. It was a dizzy­ing as­sign­ment which soon re­sulted in me ex­pe­ri­enc­ing chronic fa­tigue, de­pres­sion and weight gain. My work load also in­cluded that of depart­ment head and some re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of host­ing science work­shops and stu­dents from out­side of Ge­orge­town to do the vi­tal lab­o­ra­tory work for their School Based As­sess­ments.

Se­nior teach­ers and of­fi­cials at the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion were not in­ter­ested in this im­bal­ance in work­load, salary or my state of health. What was I do­ing wrong? I was ded­i­cated, and went above and be­yond to get guest speak­ers, movies, lab­o­ra­tory ex­er­cises, demon­stra­tions, or­ga­nize field trips – all of which a teacher is sup­posed to do, within rea­son. One se­nior teacher told me, “Mrs. Hamil­ton, if you don’t like teach­ing, leave the job!” (She was one who had ac­quired her home dur­ing the time when twenty-five thou­sand dol­lars could build a de­cent three-bed­room home, like the ones in South Ruimveldt). “The prob­lem with you young teach­ers is that you want big money.”

It was this cal­lous re­sponse, or sug­ges­tions to hold ex­tra lessons, that fi­nally prompted me to com­plete and sub­mit ap­pli­ca­tions to leave Guyana. I must also in­clude that I strongly be­lieve that stu­dents should be in school be­tween the 8:30 am to 3:30 pm time frame, and any­thing else should be ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar in or­der to cre­ate bal­ance and pro­mote well­ness and good men­tal health! So, the ex­tra lessons route was against my ed­u­ca­tion phi­los­o­phy.

It seemed that there was no in­ter­est in the health and wel­fare of teach­ers, or the qual­ity and de­liv­ery of ed­u­ca­tion to stu­dents, or even the men­tal health of the school pop­u­la­tion. Trade unions did not raise the is­sues of work­ing con­di­tions and pay, and a job that was ex­cit­ing soon be­came bur­den­some. Dur­ing this time, I should note that Botswana, the Turks and Caicos Is­lands, North Amer­ica and other Caribbean is­lands ben­e­fit­ted from the hun­dreds of teach­ers who left by the plane loads. Frankly, we all felt as if we were in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship with our gov­ern­ment and chose to mi­grate.

Of­ten, we were told that we were the high­est paid pub­lic ser­vants and that we should be grate­ful for what we had, and that we got the paid long school hol­i­days. I sin­cerely be­lieved that the prob­lem with wages for ev­ery­one was the re­sult of a se­ries of de­val­u­a­tions in the Guyana dol­lar in the mid-eight­ies, and there was not an ad­just­ment fac­tor to cor­re­late with the in­fla­tion rate as was prac­ticed in some coun­tries. How could we be fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent when our salaries could not af­ford the ne­ces­si­ties for sur­vival? My rent at that time was forty-five thou­sand dol­lars for a three-bed­room house in Gar­nett Street, Kitty, while my net in­come was forty-seven thou­sand dol­lars. I could not af­ford my mort­gage for the home I loved in Repub­lic Park, or the twenty thou­sand dol­lar per week gro­cery bill for ba­sic items for the home. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. Then there were other fac­tors like

safety is­sues and hav­ing to pay school fees for my two sons.

We left Guyana in 2001 for Canada. It was a huge ad­just­ment for us. We had no fam­ily and ev­ery­one we knew lived a great dis­tance away. The ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem pro­vided a va­ri­ety of op­por­tu­ni­ties for our sons to ex­pe­ri­ence many learn­ing styles. Field trips were ex­cit­ing. Ski trips, swim meets, mu­sic fes­ti­vals and a va­ri­ety of sports and cul­tural events helped to move the school year along. One son seemed to fit in quickly with the sys­tem, while the younger one pined for his Guyanese cul­ture, his roots, his peo­ple, his mu­sic. It was this that we lost. While I tried my best to cook all our Guyanese food, tell sto­ries of our child­hood, and keep in touch with friends, the soul of our peo­ple was miss­ing in this cold en­vi­ron­ment. As my late younger son summed it up in one of his writ­ings, “Canada is a cold, cold place”

I de­scribed teach­ing in Guyana in terms of the con­di­tions of work – not the best for one fi­nan­cially or men­tally. It is quite dif­fer­ent here in Canada. There are school boards, pub­lic schools, in­de­pen­dent schools, Catholic and Jewish schools as well as First Na­tions schools. Get­ting a job with a school board is highly com­pet­i­tive and quite a long process, with mul­ti­ple lev­els of in­ter­views. I taught at two in­de­pen­dent schools be­fore I started sup­ply teach­ing, and even­tu­ally got hired at my school board. While in Guyana I taught bi­ol­ogy from forms three to up­per sixth, in Canada I taught el­e­men­tary and mid­dle school science, math, lan­guage, his­tory, ge­og­ra­phy and re­li­gion. At the high school level, I worked in an al­ter­na­tive set­ting, which took me well out of my com­fort zone teach­ing math, science, and fam­ily stud­ies. I took cour­ses in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion as I was try­ing to fig­ure out my younger son – so lots of psy­chol­ogy and a wide va­ri­ety of spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion ma­te­rial deal­ing with phys­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual pro­gram­ming.

This spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion train­ing led me into work­ing with autis­tic and de­vel­op­men­tally de­layed youth – lots of ad­min­is­tra­tive pa­per work and a to­tally dif­fer­ent world from bi­ol­ogy. Guid­ance and ca­reer ed­u­ca­tion led me into teach­ing some so­cial science cour­ses in fam­ily stud­ies. Un­like teach­ing in Guyana, there are some guide­lines around class size and work­load. The lo­cal union rep­re­sen­ta­tive is al­ways avail­able to dis­cuss such is­sues, and there is some ef­fort to set a com­fort­able work en­vi­ron­ment.

Class­rooms usu­ally have com­put­ers, over­head pro­jec­tors, Wi-Fi ac­cess, in some cases in­ter­ac­tive Smart Boards or Promethean Boards. There are com­puter labs which can be booked. Fund­ing for field trips, guest speak­ers, sta­tionery, var­i­ous arts and crafts and build­ing ma­te­rial, TED-talks and YouTube videos com­pli­ment power-point pre­sen­ta­tions. Stu­dents have ac­cess to text books ei­ther in hard copy or the on-line ver­sions. There are elec­tronic test banks and many on-line teacher re­sources and tools.

In prin­ci­ple, teach­ers are en­cour­aged to sup­port stu­dents in ad­di­tion to aca­demics, so if a sit­u­a­tion is iden­ti­fied – for ex­am­ple, fi­nan­cial hard­ships, abuse, ne­glect, etc., we need to work with the guid­ance depart­ment, so­cial work­ers and other part­ners to as­sist this stu­dent. This is the spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion part.

To be sure, there are many types of schools de­pend­ing on the so­cio-eco­nomic lo­ca­tion in the city. This means that some schools may not have ac­cess to all the sup­port men­tioned above. There are very aca­demic schools with high func­tion­ing, self-mo­ti­vated stu­dents who pos­sess strong lead­er­ship skills, and there are schools with a healthy mix of every­thing. I teach at an adult learn­ing cen­ter – cater­ing to youth be­tween eigh­teen and twen­ty­one years old. This pop­u­la­tion of­ten faces sev­eral chal­lenges, and there are quite a mix of is­sues to deal with in­clud­ing fi­nan­cial stress, sub­stance use and men­tal health.

Even within this very wealthy en­vi­ron­ment where re­sources seem to abound, there are man­age­ment de­ci­sions that are mostly po­lit­i­cally driven, and not al­ways in the best in­ter­est of the stu­dents. Un­like Guyana, where the prin­ci­pal is the man­ager of his/her school and makes the bulk of the de­ci­sions on the way the school is run, On­tario schools have su­per­in­ten­dents and school board trustees for the var­i­ous dis­tricts who in turn re­port to the di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion and the min­istry. A very top-heavy sit­u­a­tion, where it be­comes a game of num­bers and cost of run­ning pro­grams ver­sus the real need and ap­pro­pri­ate mod­els to suit the in­di­vid­u­als. The pol­icy mak­ers of­ten look at the rate of at­tri­tion or suc­cess with­out study­ing the chal­lenges and the learn­ing strate­gies needed to pro­gram for the group. The fund­ing for­mu­lae of­ten trumps spe­cific needs. The prin­ci­pal usu­ally must lis­ten to his/her su­pe­ri­ors and not to the teach­ers who work with the youth.

My de­par­ture from teach­ing in Guyana has of­fered many rich ex­pe­ri­ences in ed­u­ca­tion. At first, I was in­tim­i­dated as most of the teach­ers at the first school where I taught spoke five lan­guages flu­ently, had masters or doc­tor­ate de­grees, par­tic­i­pated in a va­ri­ety of ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties en­abling them to coach and which cer­tainly gave them the edge in terms of em­ploy­ment. I soon found that these ex­cep­tional skills were lost on stu­dents who did not learn through lit­er­acy or numer­acy strengths (or lack of!). There was a group who re­quired a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to learn­ing. As­sess­ment and eval­u­a­tion would be dif­fer­ent for them – per­for­mance-based learn­ing, or prob­lem-based ap­proaches that did not re­quire lots of writ­ing or speak­ing. While it is nec­es­sary for stu­dents to com­mu­ni­cate ef­fec­tively, there were other skills that were as im­por­tant, and for these stu­dents so­cial, time and self­man­age­ment skills re­quire more fo­cus be­fore the other lit­er­acy and numer­acy skills can be ad­dressed.

I to­tally en­joyed teach­ing Guyanese youth who are hun­gry for ed­u­ca­tion and wished I could trans­fer some of what I have here to my teach­ing col­leagues back home. The ex­pe­ri­ences that were gained from my move have made me so much richer in the process. I would love to share these skills, es­pe­cially with the youth who might be prime can­di­dates for what was known as NOC (New Op­por­tu­nity Corps). Yes, I love to work with the ‘dif­fi­cult’ young peo­ple as it is a joy when they achieve suc­cess and can move on in­de­pen­dently. I would like to see some re­vamp­ing of the way teach­ing is done, and im­prove­ment in the salaries and ben­e­fits for teach­ers. Only then can teach­ers see a fu­ture in the pro­fes­sion in Guyana.

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