Education, teaching and why I left Guyana

By Deborah Hamilton

Deborah Hamilton worked for several years as a teacher at Queen’s College before moving to Canada, where she now teaches.

Recently I was following the social media posts of a friend who had returned to Guyana to spend the Christmas holidays with family and friends – some of whom were also returning from various overseas locations. I was happy that she was posting all the interesting foods and places she had visited, which allowed me to also see what my childhood friends and acquaintances were doing.  To tell the truth, she was making me quite homesick. I was missing the lively banter, laughter, excellent Guyanese cuisine and hospitality, the tales of old, the company – truly, there is no experience like a Guyanese Christmas.  

There were many serious discussions that my friend shared as she visited and informally interviewed friends who played a key role in post-independence Guyana.  I can only imagine that the actual conversations were lively as they were educational.   In summing up her visit she wrote, “Only with age one would say, leaving your roots is a bad idea.  We need countries, cities, communities that value its people and invest in education systems that provide opportunities for all to flourish.  This going away to study and not returning is for the birds.  And it’s disruptive to communities.”

This comment made me reflect on my own journey. I was not one who went away to study and didn’t return. I graduated from the University of Guyana, worked for a short while at the Guyana Sugar Corporation before starting my family, and was magnetized to teaching at Queen’s College (QC) – literally, as I went to borrow some magnets for a demonstration for pre-school aged children, and was promptly given a desk and a timetable.

Teaching at QC was an enjoyable and challenging experience at first, but I quickly became exhausted as there was no class size cap, and I was swinging from teaching biology to fourth to upper sixth form classes.  There were times that I got to school at six in the morning and left near midnight with the volume of marking and preparation.  I recall having a lower sixth form class of one hundred and twenty students and growing, fifth forms of over forty-five students, the School Based Assessments, laboratory reports and content.  It was a dizzying assignment which soon resulted in me experiencing chronic fatigue, depression and weight gain.  My work load also included that of department head and some responsibilities of hosting science workshops and students from outside of Georgetown to do the vital laboratory work for their School Based Assessments.

Senior teachers and officials at the Ministry of Education were not interested in this imbalance in workload, salary or my state of health. What was I doing wrong?  I was dedicated, and went above and beyond to get guest speakers, movies, laboratory exercises, demonstrations, organize field trips – all of which a teacher is supposed to do, within reason. One senior teacher told me, “Mrs. Hamilton, if you don’t like teaching, leave the job!” (She was one who had acquired her home during the time when twenty-five thousand dollars could build a decent three-bedroom home, like the ones in South Ruimveldt).  “The problem with you young teachers is that you want big money.”

It was this callous response, or suggestions to hold extra lessons, that finally prompted me to complete and submit applications to leave Guyana.  I must also include that I strongly believe that students should be in school between the 8:30 am to 3:30 pm time frame, and anything else should be extra-curricular in order to create balance and promote wellness and good mental health!  So, the extra lessons route was against my education philosophy.

It seemed that there was no interest in the health and welfare of teachers, or the quality and delivery of education to students, or even the mental health of the school population.  Trade unions did not raise the issues of working conditions and pay, and a job that was exciting soon became burdensome.  During this time, I should note that Botswana, the Turks and Caicos Islands, North America and other Caribbean islands benefitted from the hundreds of teachers who left by the plane loads.  Frankly, we all felt as if we were in an abusive relationship with our government and chose to migrate.

Often, we were told that we were the highest paid public servants and that we should be grateful for what we had, and that we got the paid long school holidays.  I sincerely believed that the problem with wages for everyone was the result of a series of devaluations in the Guyana dollar in the mid-eighties, and there was not an adjustment factor to correlate with the inflation rate as was practiced in some countries. How could we be financially independent when our salaries could not afford the necessities for survival?  My rent at that time was forty-five thousand dollars for a three-bedroom house in Garnett Street, Kitty, while my net income was forty-seven thousand dollars.  I could not afford my mortgage for the home I loved in Republic Park, or the twenty thousand dollar per week grocery bill for basic items for the home.  That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.  Then there were other factors like safety issues and having to pay school fees for my two sons.

We left Guyana in 2001 for Canada.  It was a huge adjustment for us.  We had no family and everyone we knew lived a great distance away. The education system provided a variety of opportunities for our sons to experience many learning styles.  Field trips were exciting.  Ski trips, swim meets, music festivals and a variety of sports and cultural events helped to move the school year along.  One son seemed to fit in quickly with the system, while the younger one pined for his Guyanese culture, his roots, his people, his music. It was this that we lost. While I tried my best to cook all our Guyanese food, tell stories of our childhood, and keep in touch with friends, the soul of our people was missing in this cold environment. As my late younger son summed it up in one of his writings, “Canada is a cold, cold place”

I described teaching in Guyana in terms of the conditions of work – not the best for one financially or mentally.  It is quite different here in Canada.  There are school boards, public schools, independent schools, Catholic and Jewish schools as well as First Nations schools.  Getting a job with a school board is highly competitive and quite a long process, with multiple levels of interviews. I taught at two independent schools before I started supply teaching, and eventually got hired at my school board.  While in Guyana I taught biology from forms three to upper sixth, in Canada I taught elementary and middle school science, math, language, history, geography and religion.  At the high school level, I worked in an alternative setting, which took me well out of my comfort zone teaching math, science, and family studies.  I took courses in special education as I was trying to figure out my younger son – so lots of psychology and a wide variety of special education material dealing with physical and intellectual programming.

This special education training led me into working with autistic and developmentally delayed youth – lots of administrative paper work and a totally different world from biology.  Guidance and career education led me into teaching some social science courses in family studies.  Unlike teaching in Guyana, there are some guidelines around class size and workload.  The local union representative is always available to discuss such issues, and there is some effort to set a comfortable work environment.  

Classrooms usually have computers, overhead projectors, Wi-Fi access, in some cases interactive Smart Boards or Promethean Boards.  There are computer labs which can be booked.  Funding for field trips, guest speakers, stationery, various arts and crafts and building material, TED-talks and YouTube videos compliment power-point presentations.  Students have access to text books either in hard copy or the on-line versions.  There are electronic test banks and many on-line teacher resources and tools.

In principle, teachers are encouraged to support students in addition to academics, so if a situation is identified – for example, financial hardships, abuse, neglect, etc., we need to work with the guidance department, social workers and other partners to assist this student.  This is the special education part.

To be sure, there are many types of schools depending on the socio-economic location in the city.  This means that some schools may not have access to all the support mentioned above.  There are very academic schools with high functioning, self-motivated students who possess strong leadership skills, and there are schools with a healthy mix of everything.  I teach at an adult learning center – catering to youth between eighteen and twenty-one years old.  This population often faces several challenges, and there are quite a mix of issues to deal with including financial stress, substance use and mental health.

Even within this very wealthy environment where resources seem to abound, there are management decisions that are mostly politically driven, and not always in the best interest of the students. Unlike Guyana, where the principal is the manager of his/her school and makes the bulk of the decisions on the way the school is run, Ontario schools have superintendents and school board trustees for the various districts who in turn report to the director of education and the ministry.  A very top-heavy situation, where it becomes a game of numbers and cost of running programs versus the real need and appropriate models to suit the individuals.  The policy makers often look at the rate of attrition or success without studying the challenges and the learning strategies needed to program for the group.  The funding formulae often trumps specific needs.  The principal usually must listen to his/her superiors and not to the teachers who work with the youth.

My departure from teaching in Guyana has offered many rich experiences in education.  At first, I was intimidated as most of the teachers at the first school where I taught spoke five languages fluently, had masters or doctorate degrees, participated in a variety of extra-curricular activities enabling them to coach and which certainly gave them the edge in terms of employment.  I soon found that these exceptional skills were lost on students who did not learn through literacy or numeracy strengths (or lack of!). There was a group who required a different approach to learning.  Assessment and evaluation would be different for them – performance-based learning, or problem-based approaches that did not require lots of writing or speaking.  While it is necessary for students to communicate effectively, there were other skills that were as important, and for these students social, time and self-management skills require more focus before the other literacy and numeracy skills can be addressed.

I totally enjoyed teaching Guyanese youth who are hungry for education and wished I could transfer some of what I have here to my teaching colleagues back home.  The experiences that were gained from my move have made me so much richer in the process.  I would love to share these skills, especially with the youth who might be prime candidates for what was known as NOC (New Opportunity Corps).  Yes, I love to work with the ‘difficult’ young people as it is a joy when they achieve success and can move on independently.  I would like to see some revamping of the way teaching is done, and improvement in the salaries and benefits for teachers. Only then can teachers see a future in the profession in Guyana.

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