For the love of educating
Maths teacher, 73, still goes to the classroom
By Iana Seales
July 4, 2004
Teaching for 73-year-old Norman Sookhoo is his life so he is still tutoring in the school system.
One of the respected local education pacesetters, Sookhoo has been teaching for almost 50 years and longs to keep going as far as the system and his age would allow.
At first glance, the Friendship Secondary School mathematics teacher appears to be the average old man who collects a monthly pension but Sookhoo still goes to the classroom, delivers the day's lessons and makes it look easy.
Referred to as the "little-known breathing icon," Sookhoo has served in schools run by Christian denominations, the state and even the Guyana Defence Force (GDF). He recently told Stabroek News that it all started on September 13, 1954.
For six years prior to his teaching debut, Sookhoo worked as a clerk at the Uitvlugt Sugar Estate.
He was the only one employed there at the time who had the London Matriculation Certificate. According to him this proved to be a setback, since he was viewed as a threat rather a young man who was working to achieve something. Added to this, his monthly earnings at the estate were meager, so he left and decided to start teaching.
St Judes' Anglican School in Blankenburg, West Coast Demerara became his home and he fell in love with teaching.
During those years, his fondness for mathematics grew and he perfected the skill to calculate faster than the electronic calculator. Sookhoo said he soon became quite competent in solving mathematical problems with increasing speed.
But the job was challenging. Days came when students became ill and their interest in lessons waned. And there was the occasional few who showed no interest at all.
He recalls that one male student was "a difficult nut to crack". The boy often displayed gross indiscipline but he tried with him. Sookhoo said several years later, the boy ended up in prison, but still he did not lose hope in him. After he was released, the student turned to the church and became a pastor.
Over the years indiscipline among students has become a matter of concern, Sookhoo pointed out, adding that in the past student behaviour in the classroom was less disruptive. He said classroom conduct then could even have been described as exemplary.
He reasons that the basis of this was the respect children had for their elders coupled with the keen understanding teachers showed in dealing with students and problems in the classroom.
But today almost everything has changed, Sookhoo lamented. Students are now involved in classroom brawls with teachers and there are cases where disciplinary action has to be taken against teachers. Though not unheard of, Sookhoo said, it is shocking.
Commenting on the recent national workshop on Discipline without Beating which recommended that corporal punishment should be retained in schools, Sookhoo said he agrees with the position but is against the abuse of children.
He said that it is possible for children to be physically disciplined and not brutalised, adding that sometimes people go too far when administering corporal punishment.
Art of teaching
After leaving St Jude's he went on to Uitvlugt Scott's School which he said was his training ground as a teacher. There he was able to grasp the seriousness of the job he had undertaken and spent several years learning the art of teaching.
An art which he says is developed in harmony with individual beliefs but for him commitment is paramount. Unequivocal dedication to teaching is the only way of mastering it, Sookhoo said, and he has spent close to 50 years giving everything he has. In that light he contended that teachers should be commended for the tireless efforts they put in.
When he moved on to Meten-Meer-zorg Primary he carried the school despite not being the head. He explained that the head teacher and deputy head had unresolved differences so he was saddled with their responsibilities.
His teaching career also took him to St Peter and Paul Anglican School in the North West District. The riverain area was new territory for Sookhoo but he progressed even there as an educator and raised the academic performance of the school. According to him the students were willing to learn and he was able to utilise creative teaching methods with song and poetry in the classroom.
But his greatest challenge was ahead at Richmond Hill Government School in Leguan. Sookhoo said he took the job and walked right into a battlefield.
Plagued with daily spats among teachers, the school was in chaos when he first got there in 1972. However, in six months, he turned things around and the school began displaying its potential to be among the top ranked schools in the country.
According to him, the task seemed strenuous at first but it got simple after he realised that some teachers had wanted transfers.
Sookhoo later moved on to Malgre Tout Primary, West Bank Demerara. And those were the glory days for him as the school soared academically.
Teaching army recruits
Reaching for new challenges, Sookhoo took up the appointment of Assistant Education Officer in the GDF from 1986 to 1998.
The recruits presented yet another hurdle to the veteran educator since the majority had trouble reading and writing.
And things got `heavier', Sookhoo said, when he was tasked with teaching them trigonometry. He then applied the technique of relating the lesson to the learner's previous knowledge, and within three weeks, the young soldiers were able to grasp the concept of trigonometry. During his years with the army, he also taught sergeants, lieutenants and captains.
Foregoing stint in Canada
When he left the army Sookhoo went to Friendship Secondary where he still teaches. Before that, he was offered a teaching job in Canada but turned it down. Sookhoo said he also missed out on scholarships while he was pursing his career but for him the job came first.
Summing up his life in one word, Sookhoo said: "teaching". In his life he said God comes first, teaching second and his family after. He said that without his job there would have been no family so teaching is the priority.
Outside of regular classes, Sookhoo held extra lessons for many years to help those who were slow and never charged a fee. According to him, he might be among the poorest head teachers to retire in local history.
He says the current three percent increment offered to teachers is far from what they really should be getting, but he reasoned that if government cannot afford more, nothing can be done.
But he pointed out that teachers are migrating because of their poor monthly incomes as they look towards better salaries and living conditions. Teaching really requires a passion for the profession, he emphasised, and those who lack it could hardly continue indefinitely. Sookhoo said he would like to wake up and go the classroom for another five years before "hanging up the hat" as he puts it.