I am a teacher. I was trained at the Bethlehem Teacher’s College. I appreciate very much the rigour of my old school teacher’s college training. It was rigorous, it was lonely, it was difficult. I did graduate over twenty-five years ago, so much of my experience is perhaps dated and no longer has relevance in today’s classroom. However, as I engage the classroom and students from time to time and as I speak to teachers I get the feeling that not much has changed in terms of teaching and classroom management.
I spent a lot of my time when I was learning to be a teacher concentrating on learning about how children learn learning skills. How they learn reading skills, how they learn mathematics skills, how they learn language skills. My teacher’s college called me a generalist, a primary school teacher. I can teach children to read and build mathematics skills. I was taught to teach them to be curious about life and to ask questions about their environment. Teachers like myself were taught to encourage our students creativity through music and dance and art. I learnt to play the piano, the drum, to teach skills of design and self expression in art. I learnt how to teach children to play so they would learn team work, to listen to each other to work cooperatively and to listen for instructions and to follow instructions.
Science was about experiments and coming up with creative ideas to teach children to experiment with the world around them in Religious Studies we learnt about engaging students in conversation about morality and right and wrong. We had conversations about religions and the idea that if children are exposed to religious and moral teaching early enough, we can mold them into the people and citizens we want them to be. In fact I will never forget Valrie Tinglin’s invocation from the Catholics “give me a child before he is seven years and I will make him a Catholic for life.” We spoke at length about the importance of those formative years. My math methods teacher Yvonne Kong who taught us that Math is a practical subject and we must never go before our students without materials, that we must be engaging children in the development of fine motor skills as we teach them math. I spent months on my Math kit. Everything around me became a proxy for teaching Math. Mrs. Kong wanted us to tell children that Math is all around them, in the kitchen in church and on the streets. Math she said is a lived and living experiment.
Leroy Phillips was our music teacher. I loved music, he taught us to play basic accompaniments on the piano so our classroom would be filled with music. The arpeggio, folk songs, Jesu Joy, the Xylophone, the Congo drum, the tambourine, the recorder. I loved my music methods classes, as student teachers our skills and senses were groomed and trained and we were taught to ensure that our children could bring music across every subject area. They could make music for social studies, for math. Teacher’s College and teacher training were about getting children to wake up everyday through music and movement . Challenging them by exposing them to difficulty but training their minds for problem solving.
I remember Mrs. Pearline Williams who taught us Child Development and Chid Psychology invoking the idea that classrooms must be places of play. She reminded us constantly that “play is a child’s occupation.” We knew that children needed to play, we knew classroom management was best achieved when our students wanted to learn and were intrigued. When they were motivated and excited. We defended our profession in classes with Rhona Anglin and Beverly Little. Looking at the history of teaching; globally and locally and asking and answering if teaching was a profession, if teachers were professionals and making suggestions as to how we maintain the sanctity of our profession. We looked at legislation and policies that defined and governed our professional practice and we examined the role of the teacher and the evolution of teaching.
I am a teacher. I am proud of the rigour I was subjected to during the years I studied in Teacher’s College. I didn’t even mention teaching practice. But perhaps I should end by saying this. I was never able to put my training into practice when I left teacher’s college. The classrooms I encountered were hot and difficult to maneuver. They were dirty and the benches were unwieldy. I didnt have space to set up my reading corner, my music corner, my math corner. I couldnt take my children outside to engage their environment, firstly, outside was dusty and hot, there were no trees or grass for us to sit under in quiet repose while we read and told stories to each other. The three school compound in Montego Bay sometimes broke out in gang warfare as Boys school and Girls school children would throw stones over the walls at each other. Teachers didnt send children out for break time because they sold bag juice and cheese trix. Principals wanted their schools to be quiet and orderly. Parents wanted their children to get high marks in tests. I was taught classroom testing and evaluation but it had nothing to do with the standardized testing which now defines classrooms. In teacher’s College we were encouraged not to teach for a test. More and more the primary classroom is only important because it is a precursor to some standardized tests.
My professional organization was only concerned with the politics of the teaching enterprise. Every week there was another quarrel with the ministry and some principal some where was flouting a rule. Conditions in the classroom worsened and I decided this wouldn’t work for me. I liked teaching, I love some of the children, I didnt like most of their parents and my older colleagues had become cold and stodgy. I remember my last attendance at a JTA regional meeting in Montego Bay and Helen Stills, who was the then president of JTA, humorously asking teachers to not be like “porridge, studgy and hard to pour” but to instead “be like cornflakes ready to serve.” I remember making a promise to myself to leave teaching. After five years in both primary and prep schools, I did not like teaching anymore.
I remember in one of my engagements with a woman who really saw teachers as paragons of virtue and teaching as the ultimate profession, Dr. Jassette Smikle, who asked us to not teach unless we love our children. Teaching she said is an act of love. At Bethlehem the motto is “Mihi Cura Futuri” My Care is For The Future. It is a very sustainable development approach to life and living. Dr. Randolph Watson, principal of Bethlehem Teacher’s College when I was a student teacher, always spoke about us as young teachers not putting ourselves in compromising positions. Teachers and teaching have been compromised, by conditions which make effective teaching impossible; poor policy and legislative environment, severe shortage of resources for facilitating learning, unsuitable classrooms, overcrowded schools, ineffective school leadership, parents who have no parenting skills and send unreachable and unteachable children to school and a professional organization that has let down the side. Schools and teaching are in crisis, have been for a long time. I remember a discussion we had in Mrs. Williams class at Bethlehem we debated the troubling truth that sometimes children learn inspite of us and not because of us. I want to ask that question of Jamaica and the education system. Are children learning because of us or inspite of us?