The students are gathered around the compound of the school, sheltered from the blistering sun under the ‘peachy-pink’ painted corridor. It’s the first general assembly on the first day of the new school year. The principal, a well-put-together and passionate man equipped with a handful of notes and a microphone, runs through the announcements and theme of the newly-commenced school year: “An Attitude of Gratitude.” The students all shift their weight restlessly, tired of standing in the heat and losing interest in the lengthy ceremony.
“And now we’d like to welcome our new students, teachers, and staff to St. Peter’s RC School,” he announces.
Creating a gap between two students, I step out into the bright sunlight and make my way toward the principal along with the two other new teachers. Then turning and facing the school, I await my turn as he introduces each of the students and teachers.
“We welcome our very new Peace Corps Volunteer, Mr. Scott King,” his voice echoed on the speaker. “He came all the way from the United States of America to be with us so let’s give him a warm welcome.”
A resounding chorus of claps rang out from the students, anxious to have an excuse to make noise. The principal affixes a nametag to the pocket of my white dress shirt that simply states, “Mr. King,” with a yellow smiley-face sticker next to my name. I shake his outstretched hand and we embrace in a formal version of what many would call a ‘bro-hug.’
It was time to get to work.
* * *
For the first two days, I set-up a small desk in the back corner of my counterpart teacher’s third grade classroom and simply observed, getting a bearing of my new environment.
“If it’s okay with you,” I asked my counterpart one morning. “I’d like to do this Eastern Caribbean Basic Literacy Assessment to gauge the student’s abilities.”
“Sure, you can do that this morning,” she responded as the students took their seats.
“Good morning, class,” I announce.
“Good morning,” they responded collectively.
“As you may know already my name is Mr. King and I am here to help out with your Language Arts classes. Now, I have a little writing exercise I’d like for you guys to try,” I state as I pass out ECBLA packets to each of them.
Proceeding to give them instructions on what to do, I started the stopwatch on my phone. They had fifteen minutes to create their own story based on a sequence of pictures in the packet. I paced aimlessly across the front of the classroom, anxiously watching the timer as it seemed to drag on forever.
“Five minutes!” I called as each student’s eyes lit up like a deer in headlights. “It’s okay, just try your best and wrap it up,” I re-assured them.
At the end of the timer, I collected the packets and after the classes switched, I administered the same assessment to the other third grade class.
That afternoon on my fruit-print table cloth covering my kitchen table, I dropped the stack of assessments and began sifting through them. Upon reviewing their story responses, I immediately regretted administering that part of the assessment. It was clear that they just weren’t ready for that type of task. It was surprising, to an extent, as I remember reading some relatively good responses when I did this during my Pre-Service Training on St. Lucia. But these were just not on par with even those responses. I had a few that were what I considered developed responses, but most of them were a few simple lines stating what was in each box.
My heart dropped when I realized one of my students, unable to read or write, simply copied down the text from a poster on the classroom wall.
There was one enjoyable moment in this process for me, however, when reading one student’s response finished with: “The boy’s friends did not help him. The boy’s friends ran in fear and the boy’s friends did not help him and the dog was biting his butt so bad the boy screamed for help but no one helped him. THE END.”
To say I was amused by this would be an understatement.
All in all, I was a bit conflicted as although I regret giving the writing portion because they were simply not capable of that activity just yet, but at least now I knew where they were at.
* * *
The next day I began the reading portion of the assessment, pulling students out for one-on-one oral reading assessments. With two chairs facing each other in the corridor, the rest of the morning was spent trying to block out all the sounds from the other classrooms so I could focus on how each student was reading.
The bell rang to cue lunch.
“Mr. King, I am going to the doctor’s down the road during lunch. I will be back just now,” my counterpart told me.
(Just now does not mean what you might think, it could mean anything between the next ten minutes to an hour).
The bell rang again signaling the close of lunch. My counterpart arrives just in time and takes a seat at her desk as the students pray their routine Grace After Meals.
“I have been put on sick leave. The doctor wants me to go home and rest,” she tells me, pulling her things together.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I reply. “Wait, so what’s going to happen with this class?”
But I already knew the answer to that question.
“I’ll write up some lesson plans for you to take you through to next week. I’ll be back on Thursday, God’s-willing,” she said.
The next day and following week was certainly a baptism by fire. I was catapulted to full-on teacher status in just my fourth day at a school in a foreign country. I spent the week teaching Religious Education, Language Arts (English), Health and Family Life Education, and Social Studies out of the respective texts. I admit I wasn’t happy about having to go way beyond my job description in just my first week. However, I felt it was important so early on that I do this without complaint and take it in stride. So I did.
There was certainly an upside to it, however, as I got to learn my students very quickly. I figured out who were the excelling students, who were the trouble-makers, and who were the struggling readers. I also got first-hand experience working with these students and gauging their capabilities in the classroom. So for those reasons, I am actually grateful I had to teach solo my first week at school.
* * *
“Sir!” a student calls. “She is crying!”
“Okay. Leave her be and go outside,” I respond, making my way over to a girl seated with her head buried in her arms on the desk.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, crouching down to her level and placing a comforting hand on her back.
She sits up and wipes tears from her eyes, muttering, “Sir, it’s broken.”
Following her pointing finger I see an opened package of cheese crackers, the same kind like those bland Keebler cheese crackers you’d have as a child. Well, in her package some of them had been smashed and crumbled.
“Sweetheart,” I say, “It’s just a cracker. You can still eat it.”
I’ll be honest when I say it was almost hard not to laugh. I mean I expected to do a lot of things for these students. But consoling a student for her broken crackers was not one of those things.
* * *
“Sir! Can I go to the toilet?” one of my students, a smart but loquacious boy, asks me.
“When do you have time to go to the bathroom?” I respond systematically, my attention still on another student’s paper I was grading.
“Break and lunch time,” he says. But I got to pee bad, sir,” he pleaded.
I look up as he squirms in his seat and I try to gauge whether he was putting on a show or not.
“No. Lunch is in, like, ten minutes,” I said, calling his bluff. “You can wait until then.”
“Sir. I going to pee.”
“You better not pee in my classroom,” I stated bluntly, silently hoping that my gamble would pay off and I wouldn’t be that mean teacher that made a kid pee in the classroom.
Ten minutes went by and the bell rang, releasing the students to lunch.
An hour later the bell rings again and students return from lunch, all sweaty and excited from recess.
“Okay, eyes on me,” I said to the class. “Let’s breath in through the nose,” I said inhaling deeply.
“And exhale,” I sigh as we go through the breathing exercise I use to calm them down.
About ten or twenty minutes into the class, the same boy comes up to me, “Sir, can I go to the toilet?”
I look up at him, surprised at first, but then I smiled—I got him.
“You mean you didn’t go during lunch?” I smirked.
“Uh…no,” he hung his head, knowing I caught him.
“You mean, you made that big show having to go to the bathroom and you didn’t even go during lunch? No. You were lying to me so you lose your bathroom privileges. Now, take a seat,” I told him as he sulked back to his sit, defeated.
It’s funny. I’ve used the old ‘bathroom break’ excuse to leave class. It’s about the oldest trick in the book. But it took me just a few days to ban them altogether in my class. If one student has to go, they all do. You let one out, prepare yourself for a queue the length of the rest of the class that ‘needs to go.’ I was learning quickly.
* * *
“Sir, look!” a quiet, unassuming boy says to me as he pushes a loose tooth forward with his tongue.
“Oh, okay. Well don’t touch it, let it fall out on its own and come back to me when it does,” I tell him.
A few hours pass.
“Sir!” the same boy exclaims, running up to me with the small tooth in the palm of his hand.
“Oh! All right! Well looks like you’ll get a visit from the tooth fairy tonight,” I say, then wondering to myself if the tooth fairy is even a thing here. “Let’s go see the principal.”
He was sitting in his office, buried in paperwork neatly stacked all across his desk.
“Sir?” I ask. “We got a loose tooth.”
“Oh!” He jumps up excitedly. “Well congratulations! Uh-hold on…”
He pulls out his phone and places it on his ear.
“Yes, tooth fairy? Well I have a boy here who just lost a tooth. Will you stop by his home tonight? Very good! Thank you.”
Placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder, he walks the boy out of the office saying, “Now, you put it in your pocket and take that tooth home to your parents tonight, okay? You just might have a special visitor tonight.”
I admit I felt like a kid again, swept up in the phone call conversation with the tooth fairy that unfolded before me. I was a little taken aback, though, as I remember having lost a tooth in grade school and being given a bio-hazard container by the nurse to put it in to take home. Now, we don’t have a school nurse or bio-hazard containers, so those type of sanitary precautions are kind of swept under the rug; so to that extent I wasn’t surprised. But it was comforting knowing that the tooth fairy makes her way to the Caribbean when called upon.
* * *
“Sir! Someone vomited upstairs!” one my students called, poking his head into the small lunchroom where I was seated with the other teachers.
I paused mid-bite on the chicken and dumpling soup; hoping that I didn’t just hear what I thought I did. I beckoned him over with my finger.
The boy hurried inside to me, excited at the prospect of catching a moment in the lunchroom at the same time as the teachers. He repeated to me that one of my students vomited in my classroom.
I look up over to the young, amicable physical education teacher sitting across from me that all the kids adore.
“What do I do?” I ask him, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
“Well, you gotta clean it up!” he replied with the type of ‘I’m just glad it’s not me’-type smile.
With a sigh, I quickly finished my lunch and located a mop and bucket. By the time I reached upstairs, matters only got worse as I discovered three other students got sick in the corridor.
I shook my head, thinking, “It’s like they all just teamed up to say, ‘Hey, let’s all throw up and ruin Mr. King’s day.’ But in reality, they’re just children and likely it was a combination of the food they scarfed down too quickly and running around on a queasy stomach.
Of course with any event such as this, there was an audience of curious children. So I cleared them out, trying to salvage the reputation of the sick and embarrassed child in my room. After ensuring each student was okay, I began mopping each spot up; albeit mumbling anything but sweet nothings under my breath.
I don’t mean to share this with you to gross you out. But I work at a primary school and these things happen. The school does have caretakers that clean the school, but they often don’t arrive until after school lets out. In the meantime, teachers take on that role. Unfortunately, I was the one who was told about it as it was in my classroom; therefore, I drew the short straw.
* * *
“Happy Teacher’s Day, Mr. King!” a tall, wiry pre-school teacher says as she walks into my classroom one morning and pins an orange ribbon to my shirt.
As she did so a chorus of well-wishes for World Teacher’s Day rang out from the rest of the students. It was touching and it truly warmed my heart as students over the course of the day came up to me with hand-drawn cards and Crayola-crayon colored pictures. Some students went so far as to bring me candy (special shout-out the student who gave me an off-brand Twinkie).
I had been at the school for a few weeks now at this point and had really gotten to know the students pretty well. It’s funny; it never occurred to me that a day like World Teacher’s Day would pertain to me. I never thought I would be a teacher, let alone one in a foreign country. But that’s just it; I am the textbook definition of a world teacher. I am an American teacher in a Grenadian classroom. So that day really struck me as a moment that makes you pause to think, “How did I even get to this point?”
But to receive that much appreciation for just the few weeks I’ve been here just shows the warm nature of the Caribbean people. Not only are they welcoming to visitors, but they appreciate the efforts put forth by their teachers as they are held in high regard here.
* * *
I shift uncomfortably in a chair small enough to suit a primary school student, but not quite big enough for me. Across from me in two of the same type of chairs are two wide-eyed students, not sure what to expect as I had pulled them out of class for a tutoring lesson. A two-person desk separates us on a stage in a poorly lit room, the desk strategically placed under the sole light that actually works.
“Okay, so do either of you remember what a noun is?” I ask.
“A verb!” one blurts out.
“No,” I said shaking my head. “A verb is an action word, a doing word. A noun is a naming word.”
They nodded, recalling what we covered in class a few weeks prior.
“Now, do you remember what three things a noun names?” I ask as a soothing breeze cuts through the shutter windows behind me.
“A person! A place! And a thing!” They respond excitedly.
“Very good. Now, we’re going to play a little game,” I say as they perk up, all of a sudden interested. “If you take a look around you’ll see post-it notes scattered around the room. I want you guys to work together to find them and place them under the correct column on the chalkboard over there. Ready? Go!”
They race off in different directions, gathering as many of them as they can and putting them under the respective “Person, Place, or Thing” columns. I sit back in my chair and smiled as the sounds of their feet thundered on the wooden stage beneath us.
I laughed as one girl climbed on her chair to pull one off the ceiling while the boy pulled one from the shutter window. They found all of them but two, as I low-key prided myself in the fact that I strategically hid some they couldn’t find. So I resorted to dropping, ‘hot and cold’ hints until they found the last two.
After all the post-it notes were found, we read each noun and rearranged the ones so they fell into the proper column. Each of them read the words individually, so as to unknowingly practice their blending skills and reading fluency. Then after reinforcing the purpose of the lesson on learning the types of nouns, they each received a sticker and were dismissed.
(The excitement they have for stickers is parallel to that of your favorite puppy for his doggie treats. They’re an incredible incentive.)
* * *
“Okay, you guys remember what we talked about last time?” I ask the two boys sitting across from me. “It’s that big S-word.”
“Syllable!” the smaller of the two calls out excitedly.
“That’s it! Give me a fist bump!” I smile back while he beamed with pride at receiving a fist bump from a teacher.
“And how many syllables are in syl-la-ble?”
The bigger of the two boys, sitting back in his chair, quietly places two fingers under his chin and mouths the word syllable.
“Three!” He blurted.
“Nice job!” I exclaim. “Way to use your fingers!”
The last sessions we were practicing identifying how many syllables are in a word by placing two fingers horizontally under your chin and counting how many times your chin moves as you pronounce each word slowly.
(Did you try it? It works.)
But the fact that each of them remembered parts of the last session had me excited.
“We’re going to do a little matching activity today,” I explain. “Now, I drew some pictures on these cards. Each one shares a sound with another. It’s your job to find it’s match.”
The boys feverishly sort through the picture cards I made out of yellow and orange construction paper.
“What’s this one?” one asks.
“A poorly-drawn cloud,” I laugh.
The other’s eyes light up as he picks up the card with a clock and takes the cloud card from the other boy’s hand.
“Clock and cloud!” He shouts.
“Good! And what sound do they share?”
We proceed to pronounce the words slowly, in what we call “snail talk,” so that emphasis is placed on each sound and they reinforce their blending skills. They need more work on their blending, particularly certain letter combinations like ‘c and l.’ They’re still early on in developing their blending skills and there is still a-ways to go. But after all, that’s what I am here for.
* * *
“Sir! We coming to you today?” a small girl asks, looking up at me shyly.
“Yes,” I smile back, “I’ll come get you this afternoon.”
That afternoon, I slip into the classroom and make eye contact with my counterpart, ensuring I have her permission to take students out. She acknowledges and it’s always at this point I feel like a game show host selecting contestants. The students watch anxiously as I point to two students to follow me to the stage in my room downstairs. The two students jump up, immediately abandoning their work and coming to the door as the rest of the class murmurs in disappointment.
“Sir! When am I going to go?!” a boy shouts.
“Not today,” I tell him as I turn away and leave the room.
I haven’t figured out how to go about this part just yet. I have about a dozen or so students selected for pull-out sessions with me. These are the students who are truly struggling, reading at a Pre-K to first grade level as third graders. I don’t want the other, better-performing students to know that. So for now, I just brush off the question.
I’m happy because it means they’re excited. It means that the literacy activities I’ve been working on the struggling students with are engaging enough that the other students want to participate. But my focus is on the struggling ones. They are receiving my attention because they’re the ones who truly need it.
* * *
I sit back on Gouyave’s rock shoreline with two other Peace Corps Volunteers, Katie Riley and Katelyn Earnest. They were visiting Gouyave and wanted to see the sunset, however, there wasn’t much of one that day due to the overcast sky.
Shortly thereafter, the group of kids that usually sits with me on the rocks came running, climbing down and joining us at the rocks. We all begin skipping rocks across the Caribbean Sea in the bleak, fading daylight. I introduce Katie and Katelyn to the kids, all of whom attend my school but none of whom are in any of my classes.
“You like Mr. King?” one of them asks the kids.
“Yes,” the oldest of the group, a fifth grader, says. “He doesn’t beat me.”
I about dropped the stone in my hand.
He doesn’t beat me.
I couldn’t believe he said that.
An unfortunate aspect of education in the Caribbean is that corporal punishment is still used in many of the schools. Corporal punishment has a considerable presence at many of the schools the other Volunteers are placed. I’m lucky that the majority of the teachers at my school do not use it. However, that does not mean it doesn’t happen.
I’ve held my breath and internally prayed that a student would correct their behavior before a belt would be taken out. I’ve winced and turned away as a belt lashes against a student’s hand. I’ve looked up in surprise when I heard a slap across a student’s shoulder.
One day a girl came running up to me exclaiming nervously, “The pink crayon from the box you gave me fell off the desk and broke!”
“Are you going to beat me?” she asks.
“Accidents happen,” I say. “Just be more careful.”
This has been one of the more difficult adjustments I’ve had to make. I, of course, am of the mindset that corporal punishment has no place in schools. That being said, naturally as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am not allowed to use corporal punishment as a method of discipline. The kids know this and they do, at times, take advantage of that. However, I also know that they appreciate it.
I just didn’t know it be so noticeable that a fifth grader, who I haven’t had in any of my classes, would know that I won’t beat them.
I’ve broken up fistfights. I’ve settled arguments and ensured apologies were issued and handshakes were given. They’ve certainly pushed my buttons and tested me over time. But I will never raise a hand against one of them. They are my students. I still care for them as if they were my own. They need that type of positive guidance that some may not receive at home.
Just this morning a girl took my hand as I walked to my classroom saying, “Mr. King, I wish you were my father.”
“Oh, is that right?” I reply simply, not wanting to know the reason why.
I wish there was more I can do in regards to this. However, it is not my place as a Peace Corps Volunteer to resolve the use of corporal punishment. It is integrated into the culture at home and at school. To interfere with that would potentially jeopardize my relationship with some members of the community and would ultimately be detrimental to my ability to accomplish what I need to–teaching literacy. Keep in mind, however, it really wasn’t all that long ago corporal punishment was used in America. Grenada is moving away from its use; a process that certainly takes time. So in the meantime, I don’t mind carrying the label as a teacher that, “won’t beat me.”
* * *
My first seven weeks have been a roller-coaster to say the least. It’s hard to believe that I am halfway through the first school term. I’ve run my own class, conducted pull-out tutoring sessions, began a Creative Writing Club, instructed writing strategies in the sixth grade classroom, consoled crying children, and lectured misbehaving ones. I’ve been proud, frustrated, angry, encouraged, and excited.
One thing remains certain: there will never be a dull day at St. Peter’s RC.