The crisis of public education in Guyana

By Diana Abraham

Diana Abraham is a member of the Guyanese diaspora with publications in fields relating to transnational migration, identity and belonging

An earlier diaspora column by Deborah Hamilton (January 24th) prompted me to reflect on the similarities between her teaching experiences and those of the teachers who participated in doctoral research I undertook in Guyana eight years ago. My investigation was designed to identify the social and economic circumstances contributing to the migration of qualified teachers, both out of the country and inter-sectorally from public to private schools, and the impact of this loss on the public education system in Guyana.

Research included 22 teachers, 2 Head Teachers, 2 Chairs of the Boards of Governors of Sixth Form secondary schools; 2 Directors of a private school, 2 civil society participants, one former minister of education (2001–2006) and the then chief planning officer of Guyana’s ministry of education (attempts to interview the Chief Education Officer and the Secretary of the Guyana Teachers Union were futile).

Similar to the conditions described by Hamilton, my research found that public school teachers’ decisions to leave Guyana and/or join the private school sector were, among other things, grounded in dissatisfaction with inadequate salaries and benefits, working conditions, and opportunities for professional advancement. Many of these conditions also contributed to the shortage of qualified personnel to replace those who left, and the subsequent impact of this situation on the ability of those left behind to manage the delivery of daily lessons, provide students with the quality of education to which they were entitled and sustain levels of mental health essential to their professional practice.

At the time of my research in 2011, the gross average monthly salary for a qualified Head Teacher in the state supported system was in the vicinity of G$130,000.00 (Can$650.00), and a teacher earned about G$100,000.00 (Can$500.00). While the first $40K was tax free, deductions from the gross payment included tax deductions (average 33% or $20,000) and NIS. These calculations meant that the Teacher would end up with a monthly take home pay of roughly G$75,000 (Can$375.00). To balance their low levels of compensation with the cost of living/necessities for survival demands, many teachers supplemented their salaries with a range of additional employment opportunities. These included the provision of extra lessons after school, on weekends and during school holidays, evening adult education classes, and distance education courses. One teacher was employed as a junior chef, and others with the Guyana Elections Commission.

At work, teachers faced overcrowded and under-furnished classrooms. One participant recalled teaching in a secondary school where “there were about 60 students in a class . . . Imagine one teacher to 60 students, where you are supposed to have 35 students. You have two students on a bench, sometimes three and four students on a bench.”

 The loss of qualified teachers from the public-school system was additionally driven by the Ministry of Education’s (MoEd) compulsory retirement at age 55; secondments to other areas of the public service; and absences related to individuals’ acquisition of university degrees to “upgrade’ their teacher qualifications. Those left behind were forced to assume additional uncompensated workloads. In this context teachers were forced to “juggle” time-tables, adjust the curricula to accommodate additional learners, at times teach 2 classes simultaneously, and be responsible for all MoEd administrative demands. These circumstances had grave repercussions on teachers’ professional practice, and ultimately their morale and home lives. In the words of one teacher, “the pressures in classroom, 30 to 40-something students, half of them slow learners . . . when you get home you don’t want to hear anything from your children.”

The damaging effects of the MoEd’s policies and procedures were a recurring theme in the data related to the factors prompting movement out of the public school sector. In effect, the conditions influencing the loss of qualified teachers cannot be divorced from the administration of public education.

One ‘return-migrant’ teacher who had spent several years overseas, spoke of the advancement opportunities enjoyed as a “contract” teacher in that country and the disappointment when, on return to Guyana, the MoEd’s policies failed to recognise the advantages of overseas experience for professional development and limited the number of years a teacher may be absent from service in Guyana without losing benefits. This penalty also meant that the teacher was ineligible for a senior administrative position in the public school system.

The expectations that teachers assume additional responsibilities without adequate notice and accompanying compensation were aggravated when “temporary” teacher replacement demands morphed into seemingly routinized assignments. Along with the impact of these additional demands on their mental health, research participants’ spoke of the effects of demoralisation on their ability to impart the scheduled lessons and their awareness that the children are suffering as a result. Accommodating additional – sometimes double the number of learners – meant that teachers had to adapt lesson plans to accommodate extra pupils; in a primary school this entailed facilitating three as opposed to six subjects in a day. The psychological pressure experienced by the secondary school subject teachers who “have the extra workload because in some cases you are the only teacher there,” and who have to be prepared to go “back and forth” between all the forms from First to Fifth, running and planning lessons, is aggravated by the awareness, that “at the end of the day it’s the students who move on without knowing what it is they are supposed to know.”

Guyana’s desperate shortage of teachers in the STEM field meant that one head of that department, a STEM subject specialist, was required to take responsibility for the instruction of all the secondary school’s classes in this area.  Describing the management of the emotional labour embedded in the intensity of the schedules teachers were asked to complete, this teacher said: “Is a miracle. I am so stressed and tired when I get home, yes, because I am just going. Between classroom contact time and administration [I am] going non-stop. Maybe, I just have one day, I think, in the afternoon, when I have two periods, I am free. Sometimes you are in a class and you are being called to the meeting. So that adds to the whole thing. Very stressful; very stressful.”

An additional fracture in the delivery of classroom lessons was the time demanded by MoEd-directed administrative tasks. One teacher argued that reduction in the bureaucratic demands would enable teachers to prioritise classroom activities, which allowed teachers to function in the best interests of the children: “It was ‘teachers fill in this form and that form,’ and if you are filling in forms 30-something children are left on their own. Make it comfortable have classrooms that allow teachers to function as they should. Focus on the children. Focus on helping the children let them be the main concern. Think about the children you really want no child to be left behind.”

The MoEd’s seeming disinterest in the health and welfare of teachers, the quality and delivery of education to students, was evident in its inability to acknowledge their additional workloads and the accompanying psychological stresses: As one teacher noted, “So, you’re fed up because there’s no ‘tanks (sic)’ in it. Nothing of the sort goes on; so, teachers are vexed and stressed out because 70 children is (sic) not easy to handle on a daily basis from 9 to 3.” One head teacher attributed the teachers’ sense of being undervalued to perceptions that the Guyana Teachers Union was “not doing enough for them and so they say, you know, I am just going to put this foot forward; I am not going to put more . . . and I’m just going to work. This is how I work for $35,000.00 or $60,000.00. I’m not going to put more . . So that’s how . . . the teachers’ morale drops.”

Notwithstanding low levels of compensation, mandatory retirement at age 55, and the Government of Guyana’s encouragement of the establishment of private schools, my research revealed that the unavailability of qualified teachers cannot be divorced from the educational attainment of individuals applying for and accepted into the teacher training programmes and the subsequent impact of this phenomenon on the standards of professionalism demonstrated by those recruited to replace the departing teachers.

This phenomenon was in many respects the ‘elephant in the room’. Thus, alongside the findings related to the social and economic circumstances surrounding the loss of qualified teachers from the public education system, were the data speaking to how deterioration in the public education system has downgraded the quality of the individuals accepted into and graduating from the teacher training programmes. The scope of this shortage was captured in the 2013 press release from the Teaching Service Commission which noted that, “In 2012, the (Teaching Service) Commission received 1,016 applications from Secondary School Graduates for employment at the Junior Level. Only 347 of them were employed. There were many applicants with ten or more CSEC or CXC passes with Grades I to IV but had lower than Grade III in English Language and Mathematics. A pass grade II and higher in English Language and Mathematics is compulsory for appointment as a Temporary Qualified Master/Mistress. In the case of junior appointments, some vacancies were unfilled because applicants with passes in technical fields were deficient in English Language and to a lesser extent Mathematics skill.” As a 2014 Editorial in the Stabroek News noted, “The nation’s best and brightest are not clamouring for admission to the Cyril Potter College of Education immediately having received their CSEC results that include good grades in English and Mathematics. They are looking elsewhere.”

My research suggested that despite the frequent boasts of the then minister of education about the numbers of trained teachers, there were serious flaws in the capabilities of individuals graduating from the teacher education programmes at the Cyril Potter College (CPC) and the University of Guyana (UG). The participants in my study contended that the problems began with the qualifications of the individuals who apply for and are accepted into the teacher training programme. So, even if there were policies governing how to respond to teacher attrition, including funding to cover the costs of long and short-term replacements, this would not solve the problems relating to the recruitment of qualified personnel.

How much has changed since 2011? A 2017 editorial in the Stabroek News located the system of public education within a “meltdown which began more than three decades ago and has been in a condition of near freefall ever since. […]  Problems, like poor physical infrastructure, a scarcity of qualified teachers, poor pay, failure to attract persons with suitable qualifications to the profession and a dramatic evidence of official lack of regard for the profession of teaching arose out of years of chronic neglect. Two years later these issues were echoed in a January 2019 editorial in the Kaieteur News, which attributed the continued presence of under-achievers and functionally illiterate in Guyana’s schools, to a poor education system, which relied on “too many Band-Aid solutions to solve deep-rooted problems and continue to patch up a shabby education system.” Amidst all the talk of oil today, our people are our most valuable resource. What will it take to address this comprehensively?

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