Tales of the teacher lady

10th January 1997 at 00:00
I did not meet my mother until one month after my 10th birthday. But I began competing with her from the moment I could recite the alphabet and count to 100, thanks to my paternal grandmother with whom I lived from the age of two. If ever I struggled with a letter or number she would say: "Your mother was a 'teacher-lady' so how come you're such a dunce?" Considering I was only three years old this was harsh criticism, but it was also a clear indication of the high esteem in which teachers in Jamaica were held. And from then on until I left the island, I strove to measure up to the standards my mother had set.

She had been a teacher in Jamaica for five years but succumbed to lure of the mother country and joined the Caribbean exodus to Britain in the late Fifties.

Even years after her departure, my brother and I would still be referred to as Teacher Campbell's children by our village neighbours. In our childish stubbornness we refused to join in their adoration and agreed to think of our mother by her Christian name, Olive. It was our way of mentally dragging her off that pedestal she had been put on. Now, somewhat older and wiser, we can laugh about these incidents and soak up the stories of her time as a teacher "back home".

Olive Campbell began life as a country girl in rural Jamaica, but a poor existence in the sunshine was never going to be enough for her. The fourth of seven children, her love affair with education began at the age of five when she took her seat behind a desk at Fellowship All Age School in Portland on the north-eastern side of the island.

She was bright and confident and caught the eye of the headmaster Teacher Currie, who immediately marked her down as potential teacher material. The thought of entering this lite profession kept her going as daily, accompanied by an older brother, she walked the three miles from home to school. "There weren't any school buses in those days, so it wasn't unusual to see hordes of school children trekking across the countryside to try and reach the school gate before the bell rang," remembers Olive. "The gate would be closed promptly at 8.30am. Any latecomers had to enter through the headmaster's office and face a severe caning. There were no allowances for lateness, no matter how far you had to travel from."

This harsh regime of discipline did not deter her and at the age of 18 she succeeded in passing the third year of the Jamaican Local Examinations (equivalent to Cambridge GCE A-level) which meant she was now qualified to teach primary-aged children - and that is exactly what she wanted to do.

Teaching was one of a handful of professions that allowed people from the country areas to better themselves. It commanded respect and paid even more than a job in a bank. Her first teaching post was at John's Hall school, where she was paid the grand sum of #163;15 a month for imparting her knowledge to students aged six to eight. After two years she graduated to teaching juniors at Bellevue school, eventually moving on to secondary pupils at Spring Bank school. "In those days #163;15 went a long way. I was able to buy clothes, help my mother with the grocery shopping and save for the future," she says.

It was not uncommon for young teachers to get postings to all corners of the island - my mother was lucky to remain in her home parish (county) - and the economic situation in many homes meant refusal to take up the position was unheard of.

Nevertheless, her job was several miles away from home. "This meant I had to spend the week away from my family and friends in a boarding house close to the school. "

Her eight-hour day officially started at 8.30am, but teachers would often arrive an hour earlier to prepare for their charges, and stay late to mark homework. The day's work would typically comprise lessons in the 3Rs, sciences, history, geography, spelling and multiplication tables.

"Every morning the children had to be tested on spelling and tables. It was a joy to see their little faces when they managed to get them all right, " says Olive.

"It might not seem much of an achievement to most people but you have to bear in mind many of them travelled miles to school every day. Often their families lived in nothing more than one-room shacks and studying was done by candlelight or gas lamp. So any success was applauded. "

Truancy was rare in Fifties Jamaica. But schools all over the countryside tended to show a very much depleted attendance on a Friday. That was market day and many mothers needed a child to help carry the produce to market. "As country teachers we understood this and the children did make up for missing a day by working extra hard from Monday to Thursday," she recalls.

Although caning was an acceptable form of punishment, it was rarely used to emphasise the need for pupils to work hard. "They were so afraid of failure that all we had to do was remind them they were likely to end up picking bananas for a living if they didn't pass their exams."

Inter-school competition was rife. Every headteacher wanted his or her school to be the one with the most exam passes. Teachers were pressured to push pupils to achieve their full potential - and more.

Students were encouraged to compete for annual scholarships for university places, the most sought-after being the one awarded to the boy and girl who gained the highest mark in the GCE A-level. This coveted Jamaican Scholarship entitled the winners to study medicine in a Scottish university."We had pigs, goats and chickens straying in the school grounds,and orange sellers at the gate. But we still aimed for the Cambridge GCE," says Olive.

The brightest 14-year-olds were given three hours' extra daily tuition by the headteacher to prepare them for the Jamaican Local Examinations. This was split into three parts. Part one (equivalent to what used to be our CSE) was taken at age 15. Those who didn't pass would have to stay down a year to resit. The shame of failure was too much for some children to bear,resulting in their refusal to return to school. Olive remembers failing her first year exams. "We would wait with trepidation for the results in September. The names of the successful candidates were always posted up outside the village post office for all to see. When I realised my name wasn't on the list I felt as if my world had come to an end. I resat the following year vowing never to fail again."

A year later part two (GCE O-level) was taken and the last part, at age 17, was the Cambridge A-level. Only the scholarship children and those from well-to-do families would go on to university in Kingston or abroad.

Jamaica's education system was set up by the British before independence in 1962 and has not changed much since. It still has 11-plus exams, two kinds of secondary schools, traditional spelling tests, and occasional use of the cane.

Now in her early sixties, Olive sympathises with today's teachers: "In my day children were taught to respect their teachers, and both children and parents were motivated because education was seen as the passport to success."

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