Violent behavior from pupils, lack of backing from officials and changes to pay and contracts are among the reasons highlighted by teachers for quitting Cayman, according to transcripts of “exit interviews” seen by the Caymanian Compass.
Shock at the low literacy and numeracy levels of pupils is also highlighted by some departing teachers who, in the interviews, advise the education department to be more upfront with teachers hired from overseas about the challenges in Cayman’s schools.
The Compass reported last year that Cayman had a high turnover rate of teachers. Around 80 teaching professionals – just under 20 percent of the entire teaching body – left the public school system in the last academic year.
High turnover rates have been a perennial problem in Cayman, as in other island nations that rely heavily on expatriate staff. But the figures for the last academic year represented a significant increase on the norm.
Note-form transcripts of exit interviews, which are conducted with some but not all departing teachers, were released to the Compass following an open records request.
Behavior of the students is a recurring issue in the interview transcripts. One teacher claimed to have been physically assaulted by a pupil. Details are not given in the transcripts, which are the interviewers’ notes on the responses from teachers.
In one case, the paperwork simply records, “Physically assaulted by child, no recourse.”
In a response to the Caymanian Compass on the assault allegation by the teacher, and other issues that arose in the exit interviews, education officials described the assault as a “highly unfortunate but very rare” incident. The ministry stated that the school and the Department of Education Services followed established guidelines and policy on the reporting of serious incidents, and that the student in question was subsequently charged and convicted, and was ordered by the court to undergo mandatory medication and counseling.
“The student, having received an extended exclusion and subsequent ongoing counseling, was not returned to the teacher’s class. The teacher received additional support from the school to address their class management issues,” according to the ministry.
The ministry confirmed that there is a “small number of students” in the school system with behavioral and mental health issues, some of whom exhibit “very challenging behaviors at times.”
“Ensuring our schools are safe learning environments is a top priority and a key goal within our national strategic plan. A significant amount of work is in action to effect changes at a school level,” the ministry said.
Other teachers also had issues with student behavior, with one complaining that aggression by pupils is rife.
Another teacher noted, “A special unit for hardest-to-reach kids is needed. We can’t cope with them. We don’t have the skills or the training.” Another said, “Achievement is impacted so much by behavior.”
Several expressed frustration about a perceived difference between what they were told at interview and the reality of schools.
One said, “Be more open about what the school is like. Behavior of pupils, so poor.”
Another wrote, “Shedding light in the interview on the behavior challenges within the school would have been useful to prepare us.”
The Ministry of Education said in a statement that during the recruitment process it went to “considerable lengths to be very clear to candidates about the strengths and challenges in our schools and our current strategies for improvement.”
The ministry said it strongly encouraged teachers to “research about our islands and our education system, to prepare for their arrival and to fully understand our educational context before they arrive.”
Literacy and numeracy levels
Teachers also emphasized the level of the students as a major issue in their decision to leave and warned teachers were often just “fire fighting” or “trying to get through the day.”
One teacher complained that 10 percent of kids are “not in the mainstream.” Another points out that the exam pass rates are surprisingly low.
Literacy and numeracy levels were listed by several teachers in response to a question about what they found most challenging or frustrating.
One argued that the curriculum is “not thorough enough” and more cohesion is needed between primary and secondary schools to ensure pupils are better prepared. Another suggested teachers should be given samples of pupils’ work before they arrive.
The exit interview transcripts also suggest government’s decision to abandon a promised 3.2 percent “cost of living” pay raise was an issue.
Several teachers highlighted a “pay cut” at the start of their contract as a factor. It is understood that some teachers were recruited with the expectation that the increase, which one points out would have amounted to $350 a month, would be part of their starting salary, only to have that decision reversed before they started work.
The ministry acknowledged that the 3.2 percent pay cut across the Civil Service occurred just after the arrival of new teachers on island.
“We have had a lot of feedback that indicates this has had an impact on the morale of the new teachers who arrived in 2012, as well as on longer-serving teachers. Given current budgetary limitations, this is an issue being faced across the entire civil service,” the ministry said.
Cultural and racial issues also appeared to be a problem for a few foreign teachers, with some suggesting they were not listened to or that their opinions were not respected. One claimed, “A comment was made in a staff meeting that I only got the role because I was white. I then left the meeting.”
Another pointed out, “Being an international staff member makes it difficult to change things as you are not heard.”
Some teachers suggested local teachers and pupils are favored over them when there is a dispute. Others expressed frustration with the teaching assessment process, while others had specific issues with certain school policies, such as the amount of religious devotions.
The Department of Education says it is using the interviews to help hone its recruitment process. Asked why, of the 80 teachers who departed the system last year, records were provided for only around 10 teachers, a department spokesman said the process was currently voluntary.
“Unfortunately, exit interviews are not currently conducted as part of the standard exit procedure from the department, but rather undertaken if requested by individual employees or where a specific need is identified.
“We recognize the valuable information/feedback provided about an organization from this source, and are working towards implementing a procedure which will have exit interviews offered to a statistically significant number of leavers.”