English teacher walks the extra mile for underperforming students
Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer
They were thrust into an environment they obviously were not ready for. They were pushed into grade nine at one of the top high schools in Montego Bay, St James, when they were reading at primary-school level.
But God sent them an angel, who managed to transform their lives and move them to an academic level that underscores the maxim 'Every child can learn'.
As public debate rages over subpar performances in the 2012 Caribbean Secondary Examinations Certificate (CSEC) examinations, particularly in the core subjects of English language and mathematics, the academic staff of the Montego Bay High School for Girls has demonstrated that, given the opportunity and dedicated, innovative tutoring, most children can achieve success.
In doing so, Montego Bay High debunked the myth that it was performing well only because it was blessed with the brightest and the best students from St James and its environs.
Andrea Wakeland, who heads the school's English Department, detailed the chronology of a determined group of teachers who, in a radical move two years ago, succeeded in transforming a class of students from possible doom to exciting success.
In doing so, the teachers lifted the self-esteem of the group of teens, who had entered the institution three years earlier.
Significantly, the students raised their grades above even the most optimistic expectation.
After three years of painstaking work, which, at times, left Wakeland in "despair", her spirit soared after one of her "special" charges had been successful in seven CSEC subjects, attaining a grade one in English language.
Other students were also successful, while others left the institution far more equipped than they had entered.
Wakeland was hesitant to speak about her success when The Sunday Gleaner made contact with her, but she agreed after it was pointed out that many struggling institutions could take a lesson from the experience of the school.
"Montego Bay High has traditionally done well, and we were sometimes criticised that this was so because we received some of the best students in the west," said Wakeland.
"While it is true that we usually get very good students, I really believe that if some of these good students had gone to other schools, they may not have done as well as they did because I firmly believe it has to do with the strategies that we have employed and the dedication of the staff, especially in my department."
Her pronouncements were based on a cadre of students who were sent to the institution by the Ministry of Education three years ago, allegedly in error.
"A rather high number of students (who sat the) Grade Nine Achievement Test were sent to Montego Bay High. Traditionally, we don't get them because it is a small school."
COULD BARELY READ
Wakeland said when she came in contact with the students for the first time, she did not know who they were.
"But within a week or two, I quickly realised that these were not our regular students, many of them could barely read," said Wakeland.
"I discovered, after I had done my diagnosis, I could not allow them to read aloud in class because it was embarrassing," she said.
"They were at a level where comprehension and the identity of simple words were major obstacles to them."
It was clear that when these students were to be streamed for grade 10, they would all end up in one class - the lowest level in the system.
Disturbed by the plight of the students, Wakeland was spurred into action.
"I requested that I get that class to teach and that I would assume responsibility of form teacher," she told The Sunday Gleaner.
Wakeland said that the first order of business in her class was to be candid, by speaking frankly to them without causing further harm.
She also appealed to the students to be circumspect about the exercise being undertaken to prevent or minimise potential ridicule.
"I promised to do everything that was humanly possible to assist, as I knew I had to get them to believe that I cared about them and that I wanted them to do well because they were very suspicious," she said.
"First of all, I worked a lot on their self-esteem, even changing hairstyles and the way they carry themselves in order to blend into the school."
Wakeland said it was clear that the group, having entered the institution two years after the other students in their year group, felt that they were not a part of the school. She added that the class was surprisingly receptive to her suggestions.
"We formed a pact in the class where they would follow their teacher, even in areas that seemed unorthodox, and nothing would leave the classroom … . I was always very conscious that if I lost them, in the thought that they were humiliating the remainder of the school, they would get resentful."
According to Wakeland: "As far as their cognition goes, at the time, our principal, Faith Clemmings, now retired, was most supportive.
"I said to her that I wanted to do something radical by not giving them the option to choose between English literature and office administration because I knew that most of them would have chosen office administration. They were not reading well, so they would have known that they couldn't do the literature."
Wakeland recalled that she received permission from Clemmings to speak with the parents, who were also receptive to the idea.
"Technically, we were not doing literature. We devoted all those sessions to get the students to read more."
She sensitively explained to the grade-10 students that she would treat them as if she had got them in grade seven. But, even then, she had to resort to the primary-school level.
"I started with the grades four, five and six workbooks and started working on specific areas such as subject-verb agreement and use of the past tense - the two big areas that impede students who speak primarily Patois," she recalled.
"So we did a lot of work with that and, in those so-called literature sessions, what we did was read, read, read. When they couldn't read, I would read."
With the success of this programme, Wakeland has sought to share her idea with teachers at other schools during regional workshops.
I started with the grades four, five and six workbooks and started working on specific areas … that impede students who speak primarily Patois.