Miss Debbie: teaching and helping are her life’s work

Deborah Sancho

She moved to New York several years ago and shortly after found that she and her children had nowhere to live and even though she had a job, they were forced to seek the state’s assistance. Just when she thought there was no light at the end of the tunnel, help came in the name of Deborah Sancho.

It was this woman who helped her to get back on her feet, so to speak, and looking back at those tough years she is eternally grateful for her helping hands. While she did not want to be named she wanted to testify to the tremendous support she received and give credit for the assistance that helped her to be who she is today.

The same has been done for others time and time again and according to the woman doing it, “helping is what I do.”

Born in Victoria, East Coast Demerara, Deborah Sancho, or ‘Miss Debbie’ as she is known, migrated to the United States in 1985, and only recently retired from a fulfilling 25-year teaching career. It was her retirement from the teaching service, which saw her being thrown two parties that reminded many (not that they had forgotten) of her tireless years of service.

Retiring from teaching was bittersweet for Sancho as on the one hand she knew she could do so much more for children who needed it, but on the other, she believed that the new system being introduced into schools was not one she could cope with. So, at the age of 56, she opted for early retirement; she could have gone on to render her service until the age of 65.

When she left Guyana for the US, even though she had taught for a few years, Sancho said, she was not trained and so the first thing she did was go back to studying. She began with an associate degree, got her bachelors and then  her masters. But before she completed her studies she started working as an assistant teacher and later became a full-time elementary school teacher with the New York City Department of Education.

While she taught from nursery right up to fifth grade, most of her time was spent in third grade.

“I touched many students’ lives and not only students, but parents as well. I am a giver and a helper. I believe the call from childhood was to be a teacher,” Sancho told the Sunday Stabroek in a telephone interview from New York.

Even though her days were long, starting from 7 in the morning and going long after the afternoon bell rang, Sancho said she never considered leaving the profession as she wanted to give as much help to her students and parents, 95% of whom were of Caribbean heritage. And out of that percentage half of them were from Haiti and had the additional problem of a language barrier.

While the children spoke English, many of their parents struggled and at the school in Flatbush, where she spent 19 of her 25 years, she was often the middle ground between the child and parent. Those years for the child were the critical ones as it was at that age they were expected to write an important examination and she wanted them to excel.

“What kept me going me going is my Christian values. I am a born-again Christian, and I have had a good support system both from my family and my colleagues,” the mother of three grown children said.

And she must have done something good as at least one of her children followed in her footsteps and is now a teacher.

Not smooth sailing

But Sancho, like many immigrants, faced difficult times when she first went to the US and as she put it, it was not all “smooth sailing.” She did not say it, but it may have been her own experiences during those difficult years that saw her reaching out a helping hand.

She shared that before she entered the teaching profession she did “all kinds of jobs from security guard to home attendant, you name it I did it,” but during those tough years she made sure she elevated herself by attending university.

And coming from Guyana, Sancho said she always ensured that she paid attention to children who came from Guyana or were of Guyanese heritage. For many years she was the only Guyanese teacher, but later she was joined by another Guyanese who is still at the school.

She recalled that she had met a child and immediately suspected that something was wrong. She later learnt that the child’s Guyanese mother was overseas on military service and the child was having difficulty receiving his mother’s calls. She arranged for the child to get the calls and she later spoke to the mother and a relationship developed. She even helped the family at one time when they moved house.

While she has now retired, Sancho said she still plans to work in the system even though she will be travelling in the near future as it is something she loves. But she will continue to mark the state exams every year as she has done for years and eventually work two days a week in a classroom, whether it is voluntary or paid. Her church has a school and she plans to help out there as well.

Reminiscing on her days as a teacher, Sancho recalled a particular child who always threatened to sue if she touched her. “She would say ‘Miss if you touch me, I would sue you’ and she would say this over and over but in the end we became very close and today she is a cop and we are still in touch,” she said.

As a matter of fact, many of her past students, especially those from Guyana, are still in touch with her and many were at her retirement parties.

But while she loved the job, Sancho said she could not continue in the system that is changing rapidly. One of her biggest bugbears is Common Core System which is adopted by 48 of the 50 states in the US and which sees children being introduced to work that in the past they would have done when they are much older. This, she said, is very difficult for many of the children who do not have parental support.

“They are pressuring the children at a much younger age… And many cannot afford extra lessons, and those children suffer…,” she lamented.

That for her was the deciding factor for early retirement and she told the sad story of a colleague who worked hard with much resistance from the school’s administration to assist the children who suffered and could not afford the books needed. That teacher, a man, she said, eventually became very stressed out but had the children at heart. He retired at the age of 59 but died one year later on his birthday.

“That was very sad…”


She recalled growing up in Victoria in a large family of seven siblings and they shared the yard with her aunt’s family which had five children.

“Growing up in Victoria was fun. We had two families in one yard with lots of kids to play with. The neighbourhood children would also come over and so there was never a dull moment. We did everything under the sun…,” she told the Sunday Stabroek.

She attended what was then the Hindu College and went to Sir Trevor Thomas’ lessons in Victoria; at that time had one of the biggest lessons classes. He is now a professor in the US, she noted.

Sancho later started to teach and shortly after she opted to move to Mahdia to “get away from the family clutches. My mom was very strict,” she said laughing, even as she recalled that working in Mahdia was fun and in those days members of the community were mainly St Lucian. There were just a few Guyanese and it was not as populated as it is today. She added that in those days the community had a sense of “peace and tranquility” that is missing today.

And because according to her, she “was always helping somebody,” even back then she took in children who were brought out from villages until their parents came to uplift them.

“That is me. I love helping. I go above and beyond for anyone who needs help,” she said simply.

She still holds Guyana as her home as, “it is where my heart is” and while she may not move back here permanently she plans to be “back and forth” between the two countries.

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