The headteacher’s house
When Mrs Vanessa Wilson-Johnson accepted the position as headmistress of the Mahdia Secondary School, she would have done so cognizant of the fact that she would have to leave her home, family and familiar surroundings. She was going to be serving children of this nation in a tough, gold-mining community. Mrs Wilson-Johnson must have made mental preparations for what would, no doubt, be a challenge. But nothing would have prepared her for the “house” which was provided as per the advertisement for the position.
To quote the headmistress: “Wood ants eat out the wood. The utensils… it was if I was back in time. The bed was eaten by wood ants, the steps gone, the paint peeled … no stove, the house was a shell… it was a disaster.” She said she felt as if she was “in a rat hole” so dilapidated and rodent and termite-infested was the house. Unable to stay there, Mrs Wilson-Johnson sought refuge at a local guesthouse. But on a headmistress’s salary in a gold-mining community where prices are known to be sky high, she was not able to maintain a room there and subsequently relocated to a sofa in the guesthouse’s foyer, under a staircase, at the discretion of the guesthouse owner, who obviously understood her plight and empathised.
Mrs Wilson-Johnson told this newspaper that she followed Ministry of Education protocol and wrote to Minister of Education Priya Manickchand through her District Education Officer, the Regional Education Officer and the Regional Executive Officer (REO). She received no response from any of the officials in Region 8 and when this newspaper contacted Minister Manickchand she revealed that she had not even received the headmistress’s correspondence.
Mrs Wilson-Johnson could have left the region, but she said her love for children and for her profession had stopped her from doing so. In addition, had she left, she would have been seen as having broken her contract and that would have been the death-knell for her career as a public school headmistress. She did the next best thing: complained to whoever would listen. One day that whoever happened to be members of the Alliance For Change (AFC), who were on a visit to the region and thus the plight of the headmistress under the stairs was made public to the entire nation.
At first, REO Ronald Harsawack would not comment and said he had not read the newspaper article in which the AFC had highlighted Mrs Wilson-Johnson’s plight. However, following a subsequent report after this newspaper had spoken with the headmistress, Mr Harsawack committed to “holding talks” with Mrs Wilson-Johnson, along with regional education officials to arrive at an “amicable resolution”.
However, the REO also said that repairs could not be carried out on the head teacher’s designated residence this year as such work fell under capital expenditure and had not been budgeted for. Mr Harsawack and other regional officials should be made say why no funds had been budgeted for rehabilitation of the head teacher’s house when it had obviously fallen into ruin. The house could not have become dilapidated overnight. Whoever was responsible for checking and ensuring that everything was ready for school to be reopened in September, should have checked the house and made sure it was livable. But obviously, this had not been done in years. Is it any wonder that there was a vacancy for a head teacher at Mahdia Secondary? Who in good conscience could hand the keys to a house where termites have eaten the bed frame and there is no stove to a headmistress who has come to a strange place to serve the region’s children? And Mr Harsawack had the temerity to be peeved that Mrs Wilson-Johnson refused to take the keys after the place was “cleaned” twice this month. Perhaps he does not know and needs to be told that no amount of cleaning will replace termite-ridden stairs and bed frame or a missing stove.
The treatment meted out to Mrs Wilson-Johnson denotes the gross disrespect with which some of our teachers are handled. And this, coupled with the pirated textbooks issue, points to a rather cavalier approach to education by this administration and provides another insight into why literacy in Guyana has taken a downward plunge. This has to change and quickly or implementing programmes to boost examination results will continue to be hit and miss. They cannot succeed when the persons in charge of running them are underpaid, uncomfortable and dissatisfied.