Submitted by Tina Hellmuth
Now before you start, put on some background music from Youtube- listen to this upbeat SOCA tune –This Island is Mine by Skinny Fabulous. It takes 3 minutes and will put a smile on your face as you then read this article.
I was fortunate to go as part of a group of 6 teachers- four from Ontario and one East coaster from Moncton – to take part in Project Overseas in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG)… OK, you may ask where is this island? It is a 400 square kilometer mountainous volcanic island near the tail end of the Caribbean islands just west of Barbados and quite close to South America. It has a population of about 103,000 of which over 25% are between the ages of 0 and 14 years old. They need teachers- many teachers!
Our job while we were there was to pair up with a St. Vincent co-teacher and then offer 10 days of in-servicing to teachers from all over the main island and also the smaller Grenadine Islands. Canadian Teachers’ Federation has been working with the local teachers’ association for over 30 years, close to the beginning when Project Overseas started in 1962. Our local MTS and many other provincial and territorial unions through Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) put up funds to cover transportation and living expenses for the 56 participating Canadian teachers and also added funds to offset expenses for the local associations.
We had over 120 teachers signed up for one of the 4 training options- Language Arts, Math, Special Education and Assessment. Each participant had 8 sessions of their chosen area as well as 4-5 sessions on Computer Technology, Action Research and Trade Union Education. We also had a “special day” where participants had sessions on Gender Equity, HIV/Aids, worked on their own Action Plans and had fun with Canada Day activities. Our feedback showed that participants learned from and enjoyed the sessions. There was always the feeling that the Canadian participation was deeply appreciated and welcomed. Our local co-teachers worked with us so that the in-servicing was relevant to their situation.
Schooling in St Vincent follows the Eastern Caribbean Curriculum which is heavily based on the British system. All students wear uniforms which can be as simple as a white golf shirt and navy pants or shorts for boys and navy skirts for girls. Formal testing occurs regularly with one of the most important series of exams happening in May of Grade 6. Results from this battery of tests determine what high schools these students may attend- the strongest 1000 can pick the best schools, others may have little choice.
Teachers vary greatly in their training. Some were young with only two years of schooling past High school. Others had gone overseas, often to England, and had their Master’s in Education. All the teachers we met were extremely caring, hardworking and dedicated. We must have seen their best because they chose to give up two weeks of their holidays to come to “free inservicing” and a free daily lunch. Teacher salaries vary greatly there too. Some teachers received the Canadian equivalent of $550.00 a month while others with more experience, credentials and lead teacher or principal designations made $2500.00 a month. Some interesting differences we learned is that teachers need to submit detailed 2-4 page lesson plans – up to 4 a day- to administration. Administrators need to check that teachers fill in their day books and keep their mark tallies up to date.
While there we learned that there can be a difference between public perception and reality. For example, it is true that through a gift from the Venezuelan government students in primary school got a Portuguese Netbook computer to take back and forth to school. These computers were to help students for many years. The reality is that students received the computers and little training on how to use them. Many of them broke and were irreparable. So although the government would say all students have computers, the reality is that most were broken within the year leaving teachers in Grades 4 and up with few students having workable computers. Schools do have technology, but this is often shared- for example one projector and 10 classes or internet hook-up using a router meant for home use ( ie good for 3-5 computers) for a lab of 30. It is not a “have not” teaching situation, but is a have little and be creative teaching situation.
St. Vincent teachers share many of the same concerns we have here. How do we get reluctant students to learn? How do we engage boys and keep them engaged when they are older? How do we battle truancy? How do we differentiate materials to better meet the needs of learners with different learning styles? How can we get more students to memorize their multiplication tables? ( I had to put that one in because I co-led the Math sessions.)
WTA was generous in donating $1000.00 for supplies. The funds were used to buy memory sticks, teaching materials, whiteboard markers, other markers and paper goods. Participants truly appreciated the materials. Although resources were put on a google drive, access to it on the island was inconsistent. One ITC session covered how to download and save materials onto flash drives, making access to the songs, videos and materials easier. Each participant was given a flash drive to use. Another popular supply was laminated chart paper. Black boards and white boards can be in poor shape in some settings and the laminated chart paper can be used over and over again with white board markers.
So… after all this information, what did I get from “giving up” a month of summer?
I learned that I am part of a dedicated group of Canadian professionals who truly care about students and their teacher peers and that we are a part of a larger international group who dedicate time energy and resources to making a difference in students’ lives.
I learned that St. Vincent is a beautiful diverse island with great friendly people, few tourists, waterfalls, volcanoes and lush vegetation. Although afraid of the “hot weather and rainy season” before I left, I learned that the Vincy weather was not much worse than the warm Winnipeg weather. Our rain showers were short and the strong winds provided a cool breeze most evenings.
I enjoyed the free time with my “teacher buddies” as we explored the black and white sand beaches, snorkeled and watched colorful species of fish swim through the coral reefs, climbed up 4000 feet to the top of the volcano, visited historic forts and participated in the local Kingstown carnival called “Vincy Mas”.
I got to work with incredible Canadian and Vincy teachers who introduce you to different ideas and practices as well as exchanging many stories and laughs about life, family, teaching and travel.
I have a greater appreciation for my teaching situation- the well-stocked libraries, the fairly unlimited supply of photocopying, the working computer labs, the clean classrooms with polished floors and desks and chairs that don’t give you slivers.
I also have a greater appreciation for our teacher unions- they advocate on our behalf to give us good working conditions and wages and offer programs to meet our needs.
Do I suggest that you too participate? Whole heartedly… applications are due to MTS by the end of October. Hope to see you somewhere!
Tina Hellmuth has been a WTA member since 1986. She has taught Grade 4 to 6 Immersion and is presently a Special Education Resource teacher at École J.B. Mitchell School.