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Education system needs an re-education

Resources, teacher training and classism

Lorenzo Smith

Sunday, August 05, 2018

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It's that time of year when Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination students anxiously await their results. It is also that time of year when society's eyes are zoomed in on the education system — a sort of a bittersweet situation.

I also, with much anxiety, anticipate the results of my students. There is no greater feeling than having your students call to say, “Miss/Sir, I passed!”

That being said, we cannot ignore the plight of the education system. We must come to an acceptance of the classist education system that exists and examine if our teachers are fit and proper for the classroom.

We have more teachers in classrooms across the island who are holders of a degree as the basic level of qualification. We have been budgeting more money for education. The financial year 2018/19 saw a $2.7 billion increase to the sector — moving to $101.6 billion from $98.9 billion in 2017/18.

Then there is the National Education Inspectorate (NEI) to ensure quality leadership in our schools. Struggling schools and leaders have been offered assistance primarily through the work of Dr Renee Rattray and the Jamaica National Foundation. More principals are being trained through the National College for Educational Leadership (NCEL). With all this assistance monetary and otherwise we still have a huge gap in our education system.

This gap will not be filled until we acknowledge the fact that we have an education system deeply entrenched in classism which satisfies the needs of the elites. Let's not forget from whence we came — a system in which schools were built for children of planters. A system in which only the wealthy, high-coloured, middle class could afford to send their children to school. A system in which children of the lower socioeconomic class would only receive elementary education which would keep them grounded as skilled workers. A system in which, as educator Esther Tyson posits, “not many children went to high school, because you had to pass the Common Entrance [Examination] to go to high school. And if you did not get a scholarship through the Common Entrance, your parents had to pay fees. However, not many persons could afford the fees.”

How different are we today? We continue to pride ourselves in the distinction of “traditional high” versus “upgraded high” or just high school. We perpetuate these markers and pass them on to our children. Additionally it is often the case where the “traditional” schools are better equipped than the plain high schools. It is often the case that children from a particular section of society form the base of these “traditional” high schools, which automatically translates to strong parental and alumnae support.

We will move a far way in this country if we only accept that classism exist.

Teacher training is critical, as such we have to examine how we are preparing our teachers. Are we equipping our teachers to take on the challenges in the classroom? Are our teachers differentiating their lessons? How many of our teachers can identify signs of learning disabilities? Is there a learner profile on our students? Do we have the resources to assist students with learning disabilities? What is the ratio of student to special education and/or resource teacher? As teachers we have to be careful and also examine the curriculum used to train our teachers, the focus should be on a more inclusive classroom where learning is differentiated.

Some schools style them as enrichment teachers as they support teaching and learning in a direct way, whether it be sitting with a student in the class or pulling that student for a one on one. Too many of our students are assigned negative labels which, when internalised, manifest themselves in disruptive behaviour.

I taught at a “traditional” high school for seven years, and in those seven years I have seen students labelled “dunce” or “disruptive”, but after having conversation with said students I realised that there were several issues at play, primary among them were learning challenges/disabilities such as dyslexia, some were clearly fast learners who were not being challenged by the work assigned, as such they disturb the class.

At said high school teachers, upon realising the problem that confronted them, requested a reading specialist. We were told that because of the status (“traditional”) of the school the ministry cannot assign one. I was blown away. Hopefully that is not the case now.

We will not see changes in the education system until we hold the players in the system responsible for dereliction of duty; from education officers right down to the classroom teacher.

The fact is we are doing a lot but the journey ahead is a long one.

Lorenzo Smith is an educator with interests in social justice. Send comments to the Observer or to lorenzsmitt@gmail.com.

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