For the past 7 years I’ve been a high school teacher on this beautiful island called Saba in the Dutch Caribbean. This blog post, as such, has been 7 years in the making. I’ve been struggling to write a blog post about teaching here that explains the complexities of education on this intricate little island without it being a tedious read or stepping on any toes, while honouring the many, many factors at play. I just couldn’t for the life of me come up with an angle until I came up with this one: it’s all one big paradox! No wait, it’s more than one! The following six paradoxes make teaching here so complex yet rewarding. Allow me take you on a personal teaching journey through Saba.
Paradox #1: It’s difficult to define identity
Saba, this gorgeous green volcano in the Northeastern part of the Caribbean, is one of the best kept secrets in the region. It is peaceful and small (only 2000 inhabitants); big enough to warrant strong local pride, but too small to be independent. In recent years a cacophony of influences from The Netherlands, Colombia, other Caribbean islands, Philippines, Canada and the United States is changing the demographic, causing some cultural tensions, though overall people here are still very friendly and open.
The most paradoxal element is that, though Saba is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and issues its residents Dutch passports, English is the language of day-to-day life and our currency is the US dollar. To make matters more complicated, the lower school follows a Canadian curriculum, and our high school follows the British Caribbean curriculum from the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC). So that means that our students, who watch American TV, have to read texts about Jamaican Patois or Creole and learn about countries like Barbados and Trinidad, but don’t learn about the culture, history and government on Saba, St. Eustatius or Bonaire. Our students, some of whom have never left this island, have never seen any typical West-Indian sports like track and field or cricket (there’s hardly enough flat land on Saba to allow for an airstrip, let alone a cricket pitch), don’t learn about the Dutch monarchy, or World War II.
No wonder the students don’t identify as Dutch! Yet the Dutch examination system won’t work either, because that is in Dutch and presupposes certain cultural familiarity and hardly relates to our Caribbean students’ world. They wouldn’t know of a proudly national ice-skating race of 200+ kilometers (124+ mile, case in point) called ‘de Elfstedentocht’ (11-cities ride), but it could just be used in an exam to calculate speed or distance. We would like to see them go study in the Netherlands where they can get a decent university education for $3000 a year and receive student financing from the government, whereas US college fees are…, well, what they are. But not many of them want to go Dutch for reasons mentioned above. It’s a vicious cycle.
These differing systems on the island and their cultures also lead to all sorts of confusion in everyday life. We’ve got letter-sized paper, but also A4-size. We measure in inches and pounds, but also in centimeters and kilos and we talk about Fahrenheit, but also Celsius. So before being able to understand each other fully, we constantly need to establish which system we’re using. Are we a five square mile island or a 13 square kilometer island? If you want to talk about identity that can be quite an important question.
Paradox (or not?) #2: Early literacy instruction present yet expressive skills absent
Another paradox of teaching on Saba is that literacy is treated as important from a very young age, but despite this the result is not as evident. In my high school classroom I see a lot of children struggling to use language to express their thoughts and feelings. There are some students who still have trouble writing full sentences just using correct punctuation and capitals even when they’re fifteen or sixteen. There will always be a margin of these kinds of students wherever you teach, but in my classes, I’ve observed this to be 3 or 4 out of 10. There are still teenagers who consistently write the days of the week and months with a lower case letter, or even worse, their own name. Then there’s also the need for instant gratification, which I think is a generational thing, that complicates gaining any long-term results. What about those other 6 or 7 out of 10 who do perform? There are of course also students who do well and that makes it challenging for the teacher to cater to every students’ needs. Never a dull day in a teacher’s life.
Paradox #3: Heaps of homework given, but horrendous homework ethic
My three-year-olds were given homework. My three. Year. Olds. These are kids who can’t even explain coherently what happened that same morning. I have to figure out if the “birthday” was for a classmate or on TV, if it happened that day or some other day or if my kid just dreamed it or played it. Homework? Oh please. You’d expect that the kids would get used to doing homework, since they’re starting so young, leading to excellent homework ethic, right? Wrong!
Giving kids homework only creates a bigger divide between socio-economic classes. The children whose parents are already involved will do well, but it’s the children whose parents are incapable of helping with homework that suffer. Students of for example single parents who work three jobs or who don’t have the facilities or faculty to help, will always feel inadequate and low confidence leads to less learning , increasing the divide even more. Don’t get me wrong, I take my hat off to any single mom out there. I know all of them want the best for their kids. That’s why it’s so important to NOT give homework. How do you recognize good education? When students can be successful no matter what socio-economic background they come from. That’s what we need to work on, especially here.
Paradox #4: They don’t dislike you, it just looks that way
One other paradox of teaching on Saba is that students are kind and sweet (though there is such a thing as a mob-mind, for true), but non-verbal behaviour is absolutely atrocious. Most, not all, will roll their eyes, sigh, suck their teeth, talk back, hang in their seats, shrug their shoulders, give you attitude, turn their back on you, even give you The Look. Seriously, one fifteen-year-old gave me The Look on several occasions trying to get me to give in. Saban students are totally oblivious to the effect this behaviour has on people outside of Saba. I can’t really blame them, because more often than not that is the norm. Why would you know how to introduce yourself if all the people you ever meet are people you already know? They are totally unaware that this behaviour is not normal, so if you try to correct them, they misinterpret what the problem is (they’ll think it’s personal), which will lead to more attitude. Trust me, as a new teacher on Saba, this behaviour takes the most getting used to.
However, the toughest looking students are the ones hanging by the side of the road, but when you walk past them, their chests swell, their eyes light up and their smiles shine out. ‘Hi, miss!’, they wave like the kid they are. The students also write you cute notes thanking you for being their teacher, give you hugs when they see you, are genuinely interested in your life, invite you to get-togethers, tell you happily when they saw you somewhere over the weekend, pet your hair (nope, somehow that doesn’t get weird until they reach like form 3 / grade 10) and the greatest compliment of all: tell you what’s really on their minds. You learn not take their non-verbal behaviour at face value and hope that your presence can show them that positivity, openness and kindness can also be strengths.
Paradox #5: To plan, or not to plan? That is the question
One not so paradoxal paradox is that nobody follows the school calendar, and yet some teachers complain about the lack of homework ethic in our students. Every year there will be events planned that never materialise. Every year there will be days in which no teaching can take place that were not in the planning, though could have been. So, teachers plan loosely and leave room for unexpected events. Remember, you’re in the Caribbean, so might as well pour yourself a rum and play some reggae or soca. Then again, maybe leave the rum out of the classroom…
Paradox #6: It’s bittersweet to say goodbye, but it’s bad to say it too often
People come and go. American or Canadian medical students and their spouses stay around two years. Policy workers for the government stay from six months up to two years. Colombian cleaning ladies come for a few years to make money to send home to their kids. After hurricanes Irma and Maria we harboured refugees from nearby islands. There’s no telling how long people will stay. Saban graduates study in the Netherlands or the US and return or they don’t; there’s not always a job for them here. Saying goodbye here is a fact of life that kids grow up with from a young age. The small community of Saba feels the effects of this more than a big city or even a town would.
Despite this continuous saying goodbye, we still want students to leave the island, to experience a reality outside Saba for themselves. It is almost always for the better for the student. Though sometimes when they do leave, it’s not for reasons we’d like to see. I’ve seen students being deported because of troublesome home situations or passed around between family members to other islands like a Netflix subscription. It upsets the small community of students (we have around a 100 in the Entire. High. School) and influences class atmosphere and learning.
And it’s not just students leaving. Teachers leave all the time too and students have to adjust just as much as teachers do. It gets tiresome and I can’t blame the kids being apprehensive every time a new teacher comes in. Bets will be placed how long this one is going to last, though when someone actually wins that bet, everybody loses. I get it, almost everybody gets “Island Fever”, when you just want to get off the island and be anonymous for a few days in for example neighbouring Sint-Maarten, but don’t mistake island fever for a reason to abandon the island altogether.
One benefit from all this leaving is, however, that Sabans have a network all over the world. Once they know you ‘from Saba’, you’re in their good book. It’s a matter of course. People sometimes drop by unannounced because they had a cousin’s friend’s sister who was from Saba and that’s okay, it goes without saying.
Regardless of these paradoxes, getting to know the island and the students really is the highlight of teaching here. That’s why I tell every new teacher to at least give it until Christmas to adjust. Open your mind and open your heart and revel in the good you can do here. The students need it, the island craves it and you will love it once you are synced to the island. Just Give. It. Time. It’s a bit like cleaning a pile of really dirty dishes. At first you are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, but the reward is peace of mind. Your work is apparent instantly. That’s where the greatest paradox lies: we want our students to need less instant gratification, but the beauty of teaching here lies in the gratification teachers get. One thing that is NOT a paradox is that Saba is unique.