In St. Cuthbert’s Primary School, there are no walls. Grades 1 through 6 are seated in classrooms separated by chalkboards. Unsurprisingly, the school is loud. Teaching in this atmosphere takes some getting used to, and not just because of the noise level.
In theory, each grade has a teacher, but in practice this is far from true.
The grade 1 teacher is wonderful—she’s an experienced, trained teacher who is from the coastal area of Guyana. She’s volunteering in a program that sends teachers to “hinterland” areas like St. Cuthbert’s that are notoriously lacking in trained teachers. She teaches her first graders phonics and spends extra time with them after school and on Saturdays to try and get them caught up to the level where they should be. Unfortunately, she is only stationed at St. Cuthbert’s for one year.
The grade 2 teacher is currently on one month leave. In Guyana, after a teacher works for four years, she qualifies for one month leave with double pay during the school year. A nice perk, I suppose, but it causes some problems in a school system without substitute teachers. Fortunately, she will be back on Monday.
The grade 3 teacher is currently enrolled in a teacher training college. This is good for the school in the long term, since only two other teachers in the school have any formal training, but for the moment it means Ms. S’s class has no teacher three days a week.
The grade 4 teacher is also the headmistress and therefore my supervisor. The headmistress of a school is not supposed to have a class to teach as well, but the official headmaster is attending university, so Ms. B has taken his place while still teaching grade 4. As headmistress, she must travel out to town at least twice a month, sometimes as often as twice a week, to negotiate burocratic affairs with the Ministry of Education. On these days, her class has no teacher.
The grade 6 teacher has decided he will work “out in the bush” this term. This is what most men in the community do for work. It usually means prospecting, for gold or other minerals, and it pays better than a teacher’s salary. Sir O does not plan to return to the primary school for at least a few years.
The school has very few reading books and even fewer textbooks. There is no copy machine, no gym or music or art teacher, no playground, no cafeteria. (Both teachers and students go home for lunch.)
There are general guidelines as to what should be taught to each grade for each term, but it’s a bit difficult teaching, for instance, addition of fractions to a class where many students still need to count on their fingers to add 2 + 2. And, how to teach prefixes with a list of words including “uncomfortable” and “displeased” when half of the class can’t read the word “please”?
This is school. It’s a struggle, but on the bright side there is much room for me to make an impact. If when I got here everything was perfect, then there wouldn’t be much for me to do! As for what I’m doing—for a while I was floundering, trying along with whatever teachers were present to address the understaffing problem, sometimes teaching two classes at once. Staffing issues seem to have stabilized, so I am free to go on with my plan: teach the grade 3 class Tuesday through Thursday when Ms. S. is out at college, and conduct pull-out remedial reading groups on Mondays and Fridays. Currently, I am just doing diagnostic assessments to figure out what level the students are at. An analysis of the results will allow me to choose students for my reading groups and decide exactly what I will teach them.
I am really excited to start teaching phonics! I never thought that I’d be excited about phonics, but that was before I was exposed to what Guyanese teachers refer to as “guided reading” or the “see-and-say” method—that is, simply memorizing “C-A-T cat, D-O-G dog,” and so on. Most of the students in my school don’t know what sounds any letters make. I aim not only to teach some of these students phonics in my remedial reading groups, but also to teach the teachers how to teach phonics. This will be one of my first efforts at what Peace Corps calls “sustainable development”—community changes that will continue on even after I have returned to the States.