We made it! Term has ended; we survived to the end of the academic year. There were many days and weeks along the way when we thought we wouldn’t and only sheer bloody-mindedness has kept us here at times. Looking back, we continually ask ourselves if we were right to stay and the answer is surprisingly yes. It was absolutely the right thing to stay in the Dominican Republic and on balance it was the right thing to stay at the school. If we hadn’t had the children it would have been a different story with a different ending. But by Christmas the children had settled at school, they had made friends and they had started to learn Spanish. These were our three goals for them and our needs and goals were very much incidental to theirs.
When we first arrived, Wailly went out of his way to make us feel welcome. He treated us to expensive meals out and took us to a luxury hotel for a weekend. His seemingly unbounded generosity made us feel a little uncomfortable but we thought that perhaps it was part of our recompense, we were volunteering at the school after all, and perhaps he was really appreciative of our efforts to improve their school.
But ten months on our relationship is a very different story. Wailly is my neighbour and my boss but we barely speak; he keeps out of my way and I keep out of his. Wailly and his family clearly think the school is wonderful and achieves great things. The school is far from wonderful and achieves so much less than it could and should. He naturally doesn’t like the fact that I have a very different perception of the school and have therefore challenged many of his decisions and his way of running the school. But Wailly is nothing if not charismatic and I think he is used to people telling him what he wants to hear. So if all his supporters and loyal subjects are telling him his new suit of clothes is wonderful, he is not going to like the voice of dissent that points out that actually he is stark naked!
Wailly had a grand plan to bring English speaking volunteers to work as teachers in his school which, for a bilingual school, is a great idea. Unfortunately he gave no more though to the plan than getting us here. There was no induction or training or even a tour of the school. He literally gave us all a piece of chalk and said off you go with a vague promise of some text books appearing at some point in the future. I think he thought that by simply being in the presence of English speakers the children would learn English, by osmosis if you like, and so that was the English problem solved. Next problem please.
I don’t blame the students and I certainly don’t blame the English volunteers (well me, the others all legged it long ago!) for the children’s lack of progress in English, or any subject. They simply do not know how to learn because they have not been taught. Learning is a skill and it is the most fundamental idea that must be taught in schools. The job of teachers, led by the principal, surely, is to create an atmosphere of learning and to equip children with a variety of learning skills. The skill of learning is a far more important one to learn than any particular subject or any one piece of information.
When I arrived and had the energy and enthusiasm to teach the students some learning skills we had no common language so I wasn’t able to teach them. By the time we had a common language (ironically Spanish, not English!) I no longer had the heart. Plus I couldn’t do it on my own. I have tried to create a learning environment in my classes but when they go from me to four other chaotic classes each day then there is little point, by the time they are back to me, all good habits have retreated again. I have spoken to the other teachers and they agree with my principles but they have not the energy or the know how to put them into practise. There is no leadership here so my individual efforts were thwarted before they even began.
It has been exam time during my last week here and learning from the previous exam fiasco I did not put in nearly so much of my own time and effort. But as all teachers know, writing, organising and marking exams is an awful lot of work, even doing as half-heartedly as I was. I have classes from grades four to eight so I tried to increase the level of difficulty of the exam papers for the older students, even though, in reality there is no difference in their ability in the subject.
In the month leading up to the exams, I organised “revision” lessons, which for most of the students was as if they were seeing the material for the first time. The revision lessons consisted of me telling the students exactly what each question on the exam paper would be and exactly what answer they should write. The questions covered stretching topics like the days of the week and the months of the year. I prepared the few students who would listen as well as I could for the upcoming exams.
What I have discovered this year about exams, through my experience at our school and through talking to our Canadian friends (they have worked here as teachers and their daughter Courtney attends another Colegio in Nagua), has been the most startling revelation of our life here. Not only should I reveal the questions and answers prior to the exams but if, during the exam, a student comes across a question they can’t answer, I, as the teacher, should tell them the answer! This approach ensures is apparently a win for all as it ensures exam success for all students and glory for the wonderful teacher whose get such impressive results!
And here is the private school dilemma as it is perceived here. Private schools have got to keep parents happy so they keep paying to send their children to the school, otherwise they might as well go the free public schools. How do we keep parents happy here? Send home glowing reports and high exam results. What might cause parents concern – poor results, bad reports or disciplinary action being taken against children? So what has to be avoided at all costs? Of course, reports of poor achievement or bad behaviour or poor exam results! As with the advert detailing what facilities are available at the school, the truth, it seems is far less important than perception.
After we had booked our holiday to Florida, Wailly announced that the date of the end of term had changed, yet again. The very last day of term was now scheduled to be Wednesday 6th June, 3 days after I had left the school. Somehow, I have retained an element of conscientiousness about my work so I asked him if, when planning the exam timetable, he would put the English exams first so I would still be here to organise and mark my them. He said yes…..but then decided to go on holiday before the first week of exams. Whilst he was away the exam timetable was produced and of course the English exams had been set for the days after I had left the school. My first thought s were a) this is not a school and b) the exams are no longer my problem. But that was only a fleeting thought as I had four students who had attended every revision session and, by the standards of this school, had worked hard to ensure exam success. For those four students I wanted to be around to conduct and mark exams. So I simply ignored the timetable, got my exam papers printed and organised them myself on Monday and Tuesday of my last week, marked them and returned the papers and the results to the students. I completed my reports and put them along with the English exam results in the registers. I could leave the school with a clean conscience, knowing that I had done everything that was required of me to close out the school year.
When Wailly returned from his holiday I told him that the exam results were predictably appalling even though the level of difficulty of the exams for each grade was way below grade level. I said that most of the students had copied from each other and that there were two students in particular from eighth grade who I know have no knowledge of English whatsoever who came joint equal top in the exam with 75%. They both sat next to a girl from Puerto Rico who is bilingual and the writing on their exam papers was alarmingly similar to hers as, were both the correct and incorrect answers. When I pointed this out to Wailly and said I thought these two students should resit the exam because they had blantantly cheated, he simply shrugged his shoulders and made no comment. He certainly wasn’t outraged or surprised or considered this behaviour an issue in any way. He did not ask me for a copy of the paper so they could re-sit. For the umpteenth time this year I was rendered incapable of speech!
I spoke to the high school English teacher who showed me the results of an exam his students had just done. Like me, he has to make his tests so easy that they fall way below what would be considered “grade level” and still over half the class scored zero. These students are 17 years old and in the penultimate year. In theory if they fail this year they are not entitled to return to school to complete the last year – that’s what happens in the public school system. But in the private sector, money is all that matters so of course the students will be allowed back to fail their final year because if not, a whole years fees for one grade will be lost.
I have been left feeling by Wailly, like a puppy that he got for Christmas and was really excited about at first. But ten months on he is tired of my demands (let’s work hard to bring order, discipline, truth and academic achievement to the school) and probably would like to leave me at the RSPCA (or more likely at the vet for a lethal injection!) So he can welcome new (hopefully less challenging) puppies in September. I’ll spare him the trouble and the vet’s bill and wander off to pastures new, older, wiser and content in the knowledge that I did as good a job as circumstances allowed and sad that the school has missed a valuable opportunity to use all that my family and I had to offer to help it to get truthfully so much better.
(This post was written in late May)