Teaching on Saba explained in six paradoxes

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 [1][2], 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.

Perceptible progress

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.

[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110404105901.htm

[2] https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

Irma’s Visit to Saba

It’s Saturday noon on Saba. It’s quiet. Very quiet. Not a breath of wind. No rustling of leaves, not even in Windwardside. Few people are out and about. This is in stark contrast with the past week, in which people were either frantically preparing for the coming of hurricane Irma, or anxiously cleaning up after she left and before the coming of hurricane Jose. Both major hurricanes, Irma a category 5, Jose a category 4, here within a week of each other.

Saba was well prepared for Irma. All over the island sounds of hammering, sawing and trucks could be heard. Houses were boarded up, building materials properly stored, food and water stocked. The government disaster team kept us updated twice, sometimes three times daily of all island services such as garbage pick-ups, power, communication, curfews and shelters. People were given off work to help prepare. I have never seen the island grapevine work so efficiently and with such might. The only talk on the street was Irma or Irma-related and the atmosphere was tense to say the least. All those on Saba were nervous and afraid, also for other islands. Irma was looking to head straight for us and she was a monster.

By 6 p.m. on Tuesday everybody except those who had a responsibility for the island, had been boxed in their houses. Those who didn’t trust their house or were alone stayed with friends or family. The electricity was planned to go off at 12 o’clock that night for the safety of their employees. Our internet provider, Satel, had opened up an island-wide Wi-Fi network so everybody could let people overseas know how we were doing at least for as long as the internet would hold out. Saba was as well prepared as she could be.

Irma arrived on Saba around 6 a.m. on Wednesday. I think everybody tried to catch some sleep that night, but from what I’ve heard only children managed to get some shuteye. Irma was shrieking like a banshee, banging on shutters, tearing at anything she could get a grip on in a mad frenzy. Debris was flying over our roof. And she was scheduled to only get worse. She really started pummelling the island between 7 and 8. The internet finally gave out all over the island and we were all in the dark literally and metaphorically, forced to listen to Irma howling outside. Some Sabans were hanging on their doors for hours to keep Irma out. Some people had to sit out her ferocity under a mattress in their bathroom, winds, debris and rain coming down on those whose roofs she took.

Irma left Saba behind on Wednesday. Upon opening the door, a beaten, but not defeated Saba greeted us. Her hide had been torn; there were hardly any leaves left on most trees. Those leaves still attached were scorched. Scorched. By the wind. Most houses thankfully were left standing. People were coming out of their homes, exchanging experiences, checking on friends and family and scrutinizing Saba’s assaulted surface. We learnt how lucky we were compared to our neighbouring islands. There were no fatalities. Saba was laid bare and left vulnerable, but her spirit was strong as ever.

Remember that grapevine? The governor and the crisis team met and every decision was communicated via whatever lines were available to Saba’s residents. That grapevine was still working furiously. Within 8 hours most areas on the island had power again. Within 24 hours everybody had land lines restored and internet was running again. Unfortunately whatever work had to be done, had to be done in a hurry to prepare for Jose who had announced his coming on Saturday.

Saba took a ragged breath, flexed those muscles, straightened her crown and got to work. We were inspecting damage, clearing debris, fixing roofs, and the sounds of hammering, sawing and trucking returned, this time with a fever. Dutch marines, public works, truck drivers, contractors, teachers, tourists, anybody who could lift a finger helped out. Wounds were patched, sores were bandaged. Everybody was helping Saba care for her injuries. Never in my life have I seen such productivity and perseverance. Never in my life have I felt prouder to be a member of a community.

Suffice to say that Saturday afternoon, in utter silence, Jose, a category 4 hurricane, took pity on Saba and our sister Sint-Maarten/Saint-Martin and bypassed us quietly. The Unspoilt Queen can breathe again. For now. Here and on sister islands, there is still a lot of work to be done.


So You Think You Can Live the Dream?

Life on a small Caribbean island is the stuff some people dream about. And who can blame them? See the alluring white beaches and breathtaking sunsets, feel the sand between your toes and the sun on your skin and smell the sun screen while you are rocking in your hammock to a distinct Caribbean rhythm. Who doesn’t want that? That’s the holiday feel you crave when you are working to pay the rent, commuting through the rain, standing in line for the cashier.

But don’t forget that’s the holiday feeling, the feeling that lasts three weeks at most before going back to the rut of reality. What is living on a Caribbean island really like? Is it the non-stop holiday people think it is? What are the problems? What are the benefits? What are useful tips for those wishing to take the plunge?

cropped-pa211040.jpgFor those that are seriously considering immigrating to Saba (no, not for studying), the most regal of the Windward Islands in the Dutch Caribbean, bear in mind that each Caribbean island has a distinct identity and culture. What goes for one island, doesn’t necessarily go for the neighbouring island, so do your research. There are a lot of blogs and websites out there that can help you get an impression of each island. This post is about my experiences on the Unspoiled Queen. I am going to assume you have done most of your basic homework about this island and that you are now ready for the next level of information.

Let’s start with the challenges. The obvious ones are being away from your family and friends and missing inevitable major events such as births, marriages, or the death of a loved one. You may feel the distance particularly devastating in the last case. But these issues are not typical for Saba. On this small tiny island there are several things that could pose a particularly Saban problem if you wish to come here to live.

First of all, there is the cost of living. Rents are high. Housing starts around 650 USD for a basic one room apartment. A two-bedroom house will cost between $1200 and $1500. These are furnished, because there is no IKEA in this isolated part of the world. Almost everything (groceries, building materials, clothes, etc.) needs to be shipped in, so expect to pay for that too. A liter of long-life milk is $2,65 at the cheapest and there is limited choice, though I have to admit that for such a small island we have relatively a large variety of products. There also isn’t a fierce competition between supermarkets. Don’t forget also that travelling to and from this island will cost you. Winair has a monopoly position and sometimes a one-way ticket for that 12-minute flight (a must try at least once!) will cost you over $80. There are ferries (Dawn II and Edge II) , that cost about half that. And you will need to travel off-island at least a couple of times a year, be it for medical reasons or to go anywhere else in the Caribbean, because you need to go through neighbouring Sint-Maarten.

Second of all, there is the politics. People here are superfriendly, they really, truly are. At first. Once they find out you are intending to stay, you will be moved from the category ‘tourist’ to the box ‘expat/immigrant’, which requires them finding out if you are a know-it-all Dutchman (in which case they will shun you), isolated seeker of peace, well-meaning professional, contract worker or a retiree. This process of finding out may take a while, depending on which category you will fit and how you comport yourself. Whatever you do, be yourself, but put your opinions on hold when speaking to anybody. Avoid getting involved in the drama that can come from living on a small tiny island. Don’t listen to the rumours, don’t read the rumours, don’t spread rumours, but expect rumours about you and only say nice things about people. Assume that everything you say will be shared with Tom, Dick and Harry at first. You will be surprised at how hard this will prove to be, because you will feel the need to defend somebody or yourself at some point, set somebody straight or voice your opinion. Don’t. Heed the advice of the penguins of Madagascar: “Just smile and wave, boys, smile and wave.” This way you won’t be part in “he said, she said” games. It may seem like an open door, because after all, doesn’t this apply to every situation in life? On Saba, however, on this scale, the effects could come to haunt you. Play your cards well, stay positive, treat people with respect, and you will see the return of the superfriendlies.

If you come here to work as a professional, then you might encounter a third problem: public versus private life. Because of the small tiny scale of the island, you will run into people you know everywhere. This makes a trip to the supermarket on Wednesday feel like going to a party, but it can also be a bit of a burden. Once people find out what you do, that will be your name and calling card. You will forever be the teacher, the captain, the doc, the gardener or the coach. Don’t mind it, it’s why they respect you, but expect to get questions concerning your profession on the street. How is my son doing in school? Can you save me some red fish? I have this nagging pain in my lower back… Don’t be surprised to talk shop in a bar on a Friday night (hey, this is when the creative juices tend to flow) and once your phone number is out on the street, expect calls from people you have never met, who would like to make use of your services. Deal with this professionally by saying when and how you would appreciate hearing from them or, if you don’t mind, engage the conversation, it’s up to you.

What about the benefits of living on a small tiny Caribbean Island? I am going to be short about this, because they are self-explanatory:

  • sense of community
  • pace of life
  • safety
  • climate

You see, here is why I know I’m living the dream. After all, which are the more important issues? Cost of living or a sense of community? Politics or pace of life? Privacy or safety? To me it’s obvious. Which of these issues are within your control and which of these issues are a given? You balance your budget, but you alone can’t create a sense of community. You don’t depend on local politics, but the pace of life is dependent on where you work, live and love. You control how to deal with public or private life, but you can’t control crime rates. The problems I mentioned aren’t really problems. They are challenges, but ones that can be overcome.

In the end, it’s all about balance. Wherever you’ll go, you will face challenges. Deal with them. Ask yourself why you want to live on Saba. What do you hope to find and achieve? Be honest with yourself: are you running from something or do you sincerely wish to embrace a more relaxed lifestyle? Face your dragons before you even start thinking of coming here, because whatever dragons you have been battling, they will come find you here, so make sure to leave them behind. Come here because you sincerely believe that you deserve to be in this piece of Paradise. Come here because you wish to be a part of this community and live a meaningful life. Come here by your choice. If you think you can live the Dream, the Dream is yours for the taking.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Vo-ca-tion: ”A strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation”.

My students ask me sometimes why I chose to become a teacher. Their intonation and their posture hints at a different phrase: “Why in Heaven’s Name would Anybody want to consider becoming a Teacher?!” And boy, do I understand where they are coming from. When I was their age I couldn’t dare imagine teaching a bunch of disinterested, unmotivated, know-it-all adolescents like myself. “You should become a teacher,” somebody said to me then, and that remark alone made me want to walk away indignantly huffing.

So why did I? After an internship in the Royal Netherlands Institute of Sciences in my third year in linguistics, I found out that linguistics is practiced inside a room, thinking. A linguist could sit inside a room thinking about language structures all day, because the object of his study is his own language faculty. Sometimes linguists do fieldwork, but usually they have minions do the fieldwork for them, while the linguists are cooped up, crunching data. Data that could possibly lead to stunning results, but were more likely to generate a need for more data. Suffice to say, after three months of social isolation in the name of science, I craved another human being to talk to so much that I changed my career plan.

This still doesn’t answer the question of why I became a teacher, now does it? Call it serendipity, fate, chance or providence, this last minute change of career was not easy. The only course that was still available in my major was in education and I needed the credit. I was assigned to an absolutely wonderful school for my first practical internship with the best teacher coach anybody could ever wish for. I had only taught three full lessons, but my path in life was set when she wrote the words ‘Rhiannon is a natural and we would love to welcome her back when she finishes her studies’. It turned out I was good at making contact and motivating students.

So far, no regrets. This job has literally taken me from East to West and enriched me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Over the years, teaching has brought me great pleasure, but also heart break and head ache. It is heartbreaking to see that weak student try so hard and still fail. And everybody will understand the frustration of that one particular student you just can’t reach. It is, however, immensely satisfying to see students thrive under your watchful eye and to see them grasp important themes such as ‘the power of knowledge’ or ‘the importance of freedom of speech’. The most rewarding moment in any teacher’s life is that moment when you can almost see the penny drop; the student’s eyes widen, the index finger goes up, she gasps and exclaims, “Oh, so that is why …!”

Interestingly enough, though, it wasn’t a conscious choice that initially led me to a career in teaching. I just followed the path laid out for me. Something brought me on here for whatever reason. Something was spelling it out for me, “Follow this yellow brick road”, with a big flashing arrow hovering over my head. I believe that if the signs are that obvious, you better do what they tell you to. And I was right. Whatever that something was that put me on this path, I am grateful.

The word vocation comes from Latin ‘vocare’, which means ‘to call’. I was called to this job and I wouldn’t want to change it for all the careers in the world.

A story of a home

A home is a place to feel safe and appreciated and be yourself. It is never made up of material things; it’s the people that make a home a home. Unfortunately, this is not a given for a lot of people in the world, so I feel blessed because my mom and dad have given me a wonderful home and a great start in life. The person that I am today is for a great part the result of their upbringing and I have a lot to be grateful for.

I am over 30 now and I have been living my own life for the last decade. Some of it with house mates, to whom I think back with much fondness and warm, fuzzy feelings, but for a larger part of my life I have made a home with the man I love and married. His wisdom is endless, though in the end I am of course always right. Together we have lots of stories and adventures to tell and for the last two years those stories all feature one particular place.

The home we have now is a tiny, tiny, tiny island in the Caribbean. The people of this island are the friendliest and most interesting bunch I have ever met. They have the ability to make me feel incredibly welcome. Not everything is perfect on this island, but tell me of a place and a people that is and we will call it Paradise and move there in a heartbeat.

In a dream world, my perfect home would be where people greet each other on the street. My perfect home would be where I feel safe. Safe walking the streets at night alone, safe in the knowledge that there would always be someone helpful should the need arise. My perfect home would be where the sun always shines and clouds are beautiful and welcome variations. My perfect home would be where I know the vast ocean is always around the corner and where at night I can count the stars while listening to the rhythm of the tree frogs. In reality, we have all that here. Friendly people, check. Beautiful Scenery, check. Peace and safety, check. I have found my little paradise right here. We try, and we may have found a home here.

Global Citizenship

Let me tell you a story of the birth of a global citizen, 33 years ago. The mother was of part-Indonesian descent and the father an Australian. They met in the Netherlands and still live in peace and reasonable health. Their daughter remembers how they told her their stories when she was little. They were exciting adventure tales of fishing in rivers and sleeping under the stars, while the smells of her mother’s cooking seeped into her bronze skin.

Enchanted by all stories, the girl kept searching for more and even got a Master’s Degree in them. But understanding them and reading them wasn’t enough. She felt she needed to share these stories and maybe even inspire others to write and live some stories of their own. So after a couple of years she and her love travelled from the Orient to the Occident in search of more stories. On the way they met princes and sailors and beggars and tigers, all with a powerful soul and lots of stories to tell.

The couple’s fairy tale continues. They are living in the most beautiful and steepest 5 square miles in the Kingdom now. It is an enchanting place with cloud forests and pinnacles and surreal animals that fly and walk and hop and dive. They live happily here, but there is always that need for wonderment tugging at them. Luckily there is such astonishment to be found in the tiniest of things. All one has to do is ask the right questions.

Through these fairy tales the girl has learnt several things. Entire communities are funded on stories and collective memory. Interestingly, nowadays, communities can be worldwide. As such, we discover that some stories are universal through time and space. Yet, despite this universality, each story is always unique for the story teller is always profoundly influenced by his or her roots.

Together, through our sharing of stories, we shape communities and our world. So, together, you and me, we are shaping the world as you are reading. Let’s play with this idea. This is after all, how we are global citizens. We share in the responsibility that our stories help shape the world as we know it. They are the heartbeat of communities and the backbone of cultures.

So let’s shape the world, you and I. Everybody has a story to tell. What is yours?

Telling stories

Have you ever wondered what life would be like without stories? When you get down to the nitty-gritty of things, pretty much everything you see or hear consists of a story in some form or another. That anecdote you told at the family party, that joke you heard on the radio, the movie you watched with your boyfriend, are all stories.

The word ‘story’ is derived from the ancient Latin historia meaning ‘recital of true events‘. Of course the word ‘true’ is more a concept on a sliding scale nowadays. If I would have gotten a dollar for each time one of my younger students responded ‘I read it on Facebook/Twitter/the Internet’ to my critical questions, well, let’s just say I could take my husband out for a fine dinner at Queen’s Gardens. More true or less true, however, nobody can ignore the power of a good story.

Stories are what makes the world go round. The continuous quest for that Pulitzer Prize article, that fine piece of art, the blockbuster movie, the archaeological find that will change how we see the history of the world, they all are stories in one way or another. A story can encompass what you see, hear, feel and smell. A story can influence how we see the world around us and what we see around us can in turn affect the stories that we tell.

Every person has a story to tell and in sharing our stories we shape others. Life is a collection of stories.

This is mine.