A Special Education Experience in St. Lucia
by Lindsay Freedman
My work dress is not suited for this weather. It’s so humid that sweat trickles down my back. I tie my hair in a bun so it doesn’t touch my neck. I stop wearing jewelry to make my skin less sticky. I drink sports drinks all day to keep my energy up. But I see the smiles on the faces of teachers and students alike and I realize what a privilege it is to be in St. Lucia. I become reenergized and the breeze that enters our classroom brings fresh air and fresh ideas into the room. Project Overseas is a life changing experience.
I had no prior experience with Project Overseas. I had only heard of it through the grapevine because a colleague had participated in it. I asked her how her summer adventure had been. She told me with enthusiasm, “It was amazing! You have to apply, Lindsay. Project Overseas is right up your alley.” Project Overseas was first started in 1962 by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. The program connects Canadian teachers with their colleagues in various countries. Together they support on-going professional development projects offered by overseas teacher organizations that promote cross-cultural and cross-pedagogical learning. As a special education teacher, I thought this would be a compelling opportunity to explore other best practices in the field.
Team St. Lucia was made up of me and three other female teachers from across Canada. Spending three weeks with other Canadians who share the same profession was amazing! Comparing what teaching was like province to province and discussing regional cultural norms was profoundly interesting. We all came from completely different backgrounds which allowed us to share and contribute different points of view and opinions that inform my thinking today. It was also interesting that I was the only member of my team who lived in an urban community; the other three members of Team St. Lucia were from small rural areas. Even though we all lived in Canada and were educators, our lives and experiences were vastly different.
Compared to Canada, St. Lucia is tiny—it covers a land area of only 617 km2 (238.23 sq mi) and has a population of 174,000 (2010). St. Lucia is a sovereign island country in the eastern Caribbean Sea bordering on the Atlantic Ocean. This island has a rich and vibrant cultural history and I learned so much about St. Lucia from the people I met.
The Educational Environment in St. Lucia
The education system in St. Lucia is based on the British model and is highly driven by standardized tests. According to the St. Lucia Education Act, students must attend school from the age of five through sixteen. At the end of grade seven, students must write the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) which will determine placement for additional compulsory schooling. In other words, to continue in school past grade seven and be able to go to one of the “better” high schools on the island, you must score well on the CEE. As their spiritual education, the academic day begins with morning prayers, grace is spoken before lunch and the day concludes with afternoon prayers and songs. Students wear uniforms, according to their school’s colours, that accommodate the humid weather.
As a Canadian, I could never have imagined what a hot day of teaching in St. Lucia would actually feel like—I got a real education. It is very hot in St. Lucia year round and there is no air conditioning in the school. Most classroom windows have fan flaps to allow for ventilation and if you are lucky you’ll have a ceiling fan. The classroom doors in our school were retrofitted with barn doors which allowed us to lock out animals and insects that were roaming about. In addition to the fan flaps, every room had holes in the wall to maximize air circulation. Baby powder became my saviour to deal with heat rash. But regardless of the extreme climate, having to teach in this school reminded me that our profession revolves around our strong teaching practices to help students succeed—hot or cold, rain or sunshine.
Despite St. Lucia’s reputation for luxurious all-inclusive resorts for tourists, the lack of school resources and basic teaching supplies is a huge challenge for the teachers in St. Lucia. Classrooms might not have class sets of books, pencils or paper. Teachers have a chalk board, some chalk and their creativity. Depending on test scores, wealthier schools may receive more funding and have better resources, but other schools have the bare minimum. Nevertheless, teachers, not technology, educate the future leaders of the island. Programs like Project Overseas are important because, despite the lack of traditional school supplies, the teachers are the school’s best resource. The training we provided helped the participants stay on the cutting edge of teaching that focused on pedagogy rather than fads or aging technologies.
The teachers that I met in St. Lucia love teaching and hold a strong passion for educating and making a difference in children’s lives. My co-tutor was Brenda: a lively, energetic, positive woman who loved teaching, helping others and was passionate about her job. Brenda and her team are dedicated to helping their students as well as their parents and colleagues. Many travelled hours from other areas of the island to attend the summer institute in the capital Castries where they spent the first two weeks of their summer participating in workshops. Our summer institute became a teacher’s paradise for collaboration, developing new teaching strategies and a space to reflect on current and future practices. Our co-tutors invited the Canadian team into their homes, to their schools, as guests at a graduation and on trips around the island, where we became immersed in their culture and shared in their day-to-day living.
Bringing New Special Education Learning to St. Lucia
The St. Lucia Education System is slowly changing the methodology regarding special education. In Ontario, Bill 82 is a landmark policy regarding special education because it puts responsibility on school boards, requiring them to provide accommodations for students with exceptionalities. However, in St. Lucia, until a few years ago, teachers were only required to accommodate students who were blind or low vision. The St. Lucia Department of Education has started to encourage and educate teachers to make accommodations a standard practice for all special education students, but it is still a real struggle. Due to a lack of funding, supplies and professional development, it will take some time to implement this philosophy of integration that is standard practice in Ontario.
On our first day, I ran a workshop on accommodating blind and low vision students for 100 educators of the St. Lucia Teachers’ Union, with great results. To address the gap of education in this field, I facilitated a partner activity on “descriptive feedback” as an example of how teachers need to elaborate and describe what’s going on in the physical environment for someone who may not be able to see it. Interestingly, hearing teachers’ views and misconceptions about disabilities—and the lack of support and resources—provided new insight into the daily challenges that teachers face around the world and highlighted how we need to come up with solutions.
Together with my co-tutor, I co-planned, collaborated and co-facilitated workshops on Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD. In my classroom back home, I have an interactive whiteboard, Apple TV, laptops, computers, iPads, a ceiling mounted projector and the Internet all at my disposal. Being in an environment where I did not have access to some of these technologies greatly changed how I executed my professional learning workshops—I had to rely on the core principles of special education. We used a KWL chart—a graphic organizer that facilitates what the learner knows, wants to know, and has learned—and to my surprise, many of these educators had never used one before. But in a matter of hours, the teachers had adapted quickly. We then moved onto a more hands-on approach to understanding our student’s unique point of view. For obsessive/repetitive behaviours and expressing yourself non-verbally, we taught the participants how to create a task analysis using pictures as well as to use cards with an emotion (e.g., frustrated) that they had to act out as the rest of the teachers practised identifying what the person was trying to express. These strategies will provide structure in their future programs that could minimize student behaviour. Having received very positive feedback, the teachers felt more knowledgeable, confident and better prepared to support a student with Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.
Our discussions around supporting exceptional students highlighted the reality of identifying challenges the teachers face in St. Lucia when having a child with special needs in their classrooms. For example, unlike in my classroom, there is no TA support available, placing the onus solely on the teacher. Also, the general lack of special education training makes it difficult for these teachers to teach to exceptions. Minimal availability of resources such as chewelry (chewable beads that provide sensory input) or a visual timer (that helps visually indicate the timeline of a student’s current activity) also continues to make it challenging to support these students.
Even with the daily challenges they face, many of the St. Lucian educators seemed eager to implement our workshop strategies. My experience during Project Overseas taught me that, although we have a lot of resources here, the St. Lucian teachers showed that with a passion to learn and a keen eye for improving the standard of education for their students, teachers are the most valuable resource.