Juliana O’Connor-Connolly promised to fight for a minimum $5,000 a month salary for teachers in a rousing first speech as Cayman’s education minister that was greeted with a standing ovation Tuesday morning.
The majority of teachers are paid between $3,500 and $4,800 per month, according to a 2011 government report.
Speaking to the entire Cayman Islands teaching body ahead of the new school year, the former Premier said she would deliver better salaries and more resources for schools.
She also vowed to meet with teachers one-on-one to get feedback on the real experience in Cayman’s classrooms, to push for improved exam results and to be an advocate for all students and teachers, regardless of nationality or race.
She told them she was ready for a “Goliath” task.
“You have at least one champion for the next four years in the Legislative Assembly,” she told more than 700 educators at Red Bay’s Mary Miller Hall.
“I will not tolerate being asked by a backbencher for money for toilet paper or for paper …. If the day comes that I find I am not able to deliver the budget you deserve, I will pick up my handbag and go,” she said.
Ms. O’Connor-Connolly said government has to put its “money where its mouth is” and show that education is a priority.
“I will push, agitate if necessary, for my colleagues to wrap their minds around the concept that performance rises on commitment. It is not enough to say education is a priority unless we pay our educators a fair share for a fair day’s work.
“We have budget constraints, but if we can find money to buy alcohol for parties, to do everything else under the sun, we will find money to ensure every teacher in our public education system will make a minimum of $5,000 a month.”
Speaking to the Cayman Compass after the speech, Ms. O’Connor-Connolly acknowledged she would have to sell the policy to her fellow Cabinet ministers. But she insisted the pay raise could be achieved within the next four years.
“It is not something I pulled out of a hat. I looked to see what it would take for a teacher to feel appreciated and I believe my colleagues will support it.
“If we can have an environmental protection fund nearing $70 million, we can have a teacher’s salary fund that is just as colossal.”
She said there would be no professionals, lawyers, doctors or judges in the Cayman Islands without good teachers, and they deserve to be paid a fair wage.
“We must do our part and then hold them accountable to do their part,” she said.
At the event on Tuesday, education officials also revealed the preliminary results for English and Math for last year’s school-leavers.
Lyneth Monteith, director of the Department of Education Services, said the good pass rate, of C-grade equivalent or higher, in English was up from 68.4 percent to 73.4 percent. Math was also up from 50.1 percent, to 52.7 percent.
Results in the end of Primary School external examinations were marginally worse than last year, she said.
A full data report on the exam results will be released later in the year.
Ms. O’Connor-Connolly, during her speech, revealed she had planned to quit politics to become a preacher before being persuaded to run in the May election. And in a delivery that bore some of the hallmarks of her other calling, she urged schools to aim higher.
“I have been there, done that and I have nothing to lose. I can afford to be bold, I can afford to be courageous.
“I will say, as the Lord leads me, I will lean as he guides me and we will take education to new heights.
“When I sit at the end of four years, we won’t be contented that math and English is 50 percent and 73 percent. The perfect score is 100 percent and we will embark on that journey. No child in my tenure will be left behind. They won’t all be doctors, but a plumber is just as important.”
She told teachers she would operate an “open door policy” and said she would be visiting schools to talk to them individually.
“Let me be straight up. I will also meet with teachers without the administrators,” she added.
“Having been a teacher, I understand it is difficult to have full, free, frank, open and honest disclosure when your boss is in the room.”
She also touched on issues of discrimination in schools, saying it should be a level playing field for all.
“I don’t say you have to do more for the Caymanian child. That might shock you, but I see no nationalities. I see a soul, a child, I see a person who is in need of development.”
Students will be returning to school Wednesday and Thursday for the new school year.