'Caring is the point of teaching'
by Miranda La Rose
July 30, 2000
What is the point in teaching? "Teaching is about caring. Caring about people, helping them, guiding them and making a difference to their lives", Jamaican-born teacher-educator Dr Zellynne Jennings said.
However, Dr Jennings added, because so much is put on the shoulders of the teachers and "they have to toil so hard for so little reward that many become disenchanted and leave the profession altogether, or leave the country to continue in the profession where the pastures are seen to be greener."
Dr Jennings, a graduate of the University of Hull in England and the University of the West Indies (UWI) lectured at the UWI and the University of Guyana for a number of years. She has spent over a decade in the country working on various local and regional projects and has been employed as a consultant by a number of international funding and donor agencies. She has authored two books and has published the results of her research in Guyana and the region in such areas as literacy and functional illiteracy.
At the graduation ceremony for teachers in the Guyana In-Service Distance Education (GUIDE) programme at the Ocean View Hotel and Convention Centre last Tuesday, Dr Jennings encouraged teachers to remain in the profession, by relating some details of her own personal experiences in the field. She said that while working at the University of the West Indies (UWI) some years ago she became "very disenchanted with teaching". She said "it reached the point that when I met one of our graduate teachers I was afraid to ask what he or she was doing. I was tired of hearing that he or she was in the bank, working with the airlines, in some private company. Indeed I found myself reacting almost with shock when one said that she was still in teaching, and said it as if it was some sort of disgrace."
She said she kept asking herself, "What is the point in teaching? What is the point of pouring my heart into training teachers who ended up doing everything else but teaching?" She felt she had reached the end of the line on more than one occasion when her past students would meet her on the streets in Kingston and ask "Dr Jennings! You still at UWI? You still in teaching?" When she replied "yes" and that she liked teaching, she said, "they gave me a look as if to say `Surely you could find something better to do' and then went their way. "It was so destroying. I kept searching for the answer to the question, `What is the point?'"
It was at about this time of soul-searching that she came to Guyana, and it was here as well as in some Caribbean islands where she had undertaken consultancies that she believed she found the answer to the question.
In the early 1990's the National Centre for Educational Resource Development (NCERD) held workshops in the country's administrative regions to introduce heads of schools to the idea of skills reinforcement. The intention was that skills in language arts and mathematics would be reinforced in all areas of the curriculum so that ultimately every child would leave primary school functionally literate. Her input in the workshop was in the area of principles of teaching and lesson planning, including planning for multi-grade teaching.
One of the workshops was held at Kato in the North Pakaraimas. Kato, she said, was a wide awakening for her, not because of the fact that she had never had to walk so much or so far in all her life, but because of something else. "My most vivid memory is of a day when it rained and it rained and it rained with a fierceness which I have seen only matched... some months ago on the East Bank [Demerara]. I remember standing at the door of the primary school in Kato looking out and saying to myself that there will be no school today. Then I caught sight of something moving in the distance and the thing came nearer and nearer and soon I could make out what it was. It was a group of children, they were running to school barefoot in the rain. But they were laughing. It was a laughter that said school is fun. It is a fun place to be and nothing will make me miss a day. I want to learn. What is the point of teaching? That is the point."
Two other experiences came from the NCERD workshops when she was collecting data for the evaluation of the hinterland teacher training programme. In doing the evaluation she had to find out how the trainees valued learning by distance and how they felt the programme could be improved. In Region Seven (Cuyuni/Mazaruni) the Regional Education Officer, she said, arranged for the trainees in his area to meet with her, and they met at Bartica. When she began to hear from them the details of the distances they had travelled, the number of days they had been on the road, she wondered how she could ever have doubted the value of the people attached to education.
She also recalled a head who had travelled from the southern end of Region Nine (Upper Essequibo/Upper Takutu) to Lethem. He had covered almost 100 miles, mostly on foot, with the occasional lift from bullock carts or truck, sleeping at nights in his hammock slung between the trees. She contended that, "there can be no similar effort in any of the Caribbean islands to match such determination to learn." That, she said, is the point in teaching.
Her third experience was in February this year when she went as a Caribbean consultant on a Canadian International Development Agency team which evaluated the organisation of the Eastern Caribbean States Education Reform Project. In one of the islands she met with a group of education officers and teachers. At the end of the meeting one of them had pulled her aside remarking that Dr Jennings probably did not remember her name. "What she said," she continued, "went something like this: `I want to thank you because what you did has made such a difference to my life. When I was at UWI and I had a problem you were the only one who took the time to listen to me. You took me in your office. You went through with me the pros and cons of making certain choices in my study and you helped me to make the right decision and this has paid off because I was able to move up the system rapidly since I became the only one qualified in the area. That was because of the choice that you helped me to make. I can't tell you enough thanks'". To Dr Jennings, caring was the point in teaching.
She said that the experiences she had related summed up the situation in the teaching profession. Which other profession, she asked, had such a noble task? There would be many times when teachers would feel the burden of the expectations of the Ministry of Education, the parents and the students on their shoulders. So when teachers toiled so hard and the reward seemed so small, she hoped that when they, too, asked the question `What is the point?' they would come to the conclusion that, "Somebody has to care. Somebody has to be prepared to give a helping hand to guide people who need guidance. Somebody has to be willing to try to make a difference to people's lives. Making a difference to people's lives involves engaging their minds, developing their minds and helping them to make the right decisions in life."
She said the teaching profession was the only profession in which a person was able to do all these things. She implored teachers to "wear the badge of the teacher with pride and honour. I certainly do".
Dr Jennings, the wife of former Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana Dr Dennis Craig, who leaves the country tomorrow to return to the University of the West Indies after a break of four years from the lecture room, expressed thanks to the Ministry of Education, NCERD, GUIDE and colleagues at the University of Guyana all of whom had helped in her own professional development.
Dr Jennings said that UWI had been calling on her to return for the past two years. The reason was that they were seeking to revitalise curriculum development, particularly in the masters degree programme, and as a consequence she had decided to return there.
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