The Challenges of Teaching in Jamaica




Paper presented at


Phi Beta Delta Annual Conference


March 22- 25, 2006




San Diego,California





J. Casey Hurley

Western Carolina University







In the early 1970s the Jamaican Ministry of Education, Youth and Culture (MOEY&C) invited WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions to offer a bachelor’s degree program to a select cadre of Jamaican teachers.  Since that time, more than 2000 Jamaican teachers have earned bachelors degrees and more than 150 have earned masters degrees from our college. 

The Jamaican educational force is stratified in the following way.  Starting at the bottom, the Ministry employs (1) pre-trained teachers -- high school graduates with no teacher’s college training; (2) trained teachers – those with a teacher’s college diploma (which is less than a bachelor’s degree); (3) lead teachers, heads of departments, and senior teachers; (4) school administrators; (5) MOEY&C supervisors; and (6) MOEY&C executives.  The qualifications of those at levels 3, 4, 5, and 6 vary, but a bachelor’s degree is a desired minimum. 

Only Jamaican teachers with a teacher’s college diploma are eligible for the WCU bachelor’s degree program, which has concentrations in counseling, administration, special education, and math-science teaching.  Since the 1980s, many of our Jamaican graduates have moved into positions of leadership in Jamaican education.

In 1997 the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) reported:

WCU offers . . . an extension degree program in Jamaica. . . . The major responsibility for those programs rests with the appropriate academic departments, with logistical support from the Division of Continuing Education and Summer School. . . Through its Strategic Plan, the university has formulated clear and specific goals for these programs, goals which are consistent with the institution’s stated purpose.  Through its evaluation procedures for these programs and courses, the university has demonstrated that these programs are effective and comply with the Criteria.


But this is not what is important to faculty who teach in Jamaica.  We care little about an accrediting agency’s assessment of how the program fits our mission.  We care a lot, however, about the extent to which we are relevant to the improvement of Jamaican schools. 

This concern emerges from a feeling of partnership with Jamaican teachers.  Both Jamaican and Western North Carolina teachers try to provide educational opportunities in regions of the world where poor children have few opportunities for social or economic advancement.   Our desire to be relevant is reinforced as new faculty are told that WCU’s approach has always been to:

assess the current level of practice in Jamaican schools and then attempt to help their educators enhance the level of practice.  Just as teachers are taught to “begin where the student is,” our efforts in Jamaica have begun where their teachers and schools are.  (Loughlin, 1999). 


Although this may be common sense, it emphasizes that this is not a beachcombing assignment.  Faculty need to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible, about the Jamaican schools, or they will not be able to help their students “enhance the level of practice” (Loughlin, 1999).  

In short, we struggle with the question of whether or not we can actually make a difference for the young people of Jamaica.  We must be willing to suspend many of our assumptions about both K-12 and higher education.  And then we have to open our understanding to a totally different culture and way of life.  Unless we recognize the depth of cultural differences, we are unlikely to be able to improve the education received by Jamaican children.  We must be the professors who listen and learn.

The first section of this paper discusses the historic, economic and social elements of Jamaican culture, which make it different from North Carolina.  The second section describes the informal ways our faculty have questioned our relevance.  And the last section describes the formal ways we have confronted cross-cultural issues. 


Jamaican Culture


Jamaica is one of a few Western Hemisphere English speaking countries south of the US.  It is a Caribbean island nation with a distinct history and culture.  The first inhabitants we know about were the Arawaks.  For 200 years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus, in the late 15th Century, Spanish and English navies fought over control of Jamaica.  During that time the Arawaks were killed, forced off the land, and decimated by disease.   Eventually England gained control in order to make Jamaica a sugar-producing island of the British Empire.  During the slave trade Africans were carried to Jamaica to work the sugar plantations. 

Slavery was abolished in the late 19th century, but independence from England was not granted until 1963.  Since then Jamaicans have developed a unique culture among its approximately 2.5 million people.  With cultural roots in both Africa and England, Jamaicans enjoy football, cricket, music, theater, and the visual arts.  Jamaica is well known as the home of Bob Marley, the creator of Reggae music.  And Kingston is the home of the West Indies cricket team.  Jamaican schools are proud of their extra-curricular programs in music, football, and cricket.  The national motto is “Out of Many – One People,” which reflects the immigration of Chinese, Indian, and Arab peoples over the last century.   

The Jamaican Ministry of Education, Youth and Culture is the government agency responsible for providing a system of universal, almost free, public schooling for young people through Grade 12.  The following characteristics of that system make it imperative that we adjust what we teach to the conditions faced by Jamaican teachers and students: 

1.                  Jamaican schools are poorly equipped and overcrowded.  Classrooms often have rosters of fifty to sixty students. Books, equipment, and educational materials are scarce.  Still, many Jamaican teachers confront this lack of resources in creative ways.  They strive to find and use new technologies, especially the internet.  This new technology, in particular, has the potential to make knowledge more accessible to Jamaicans. 


2.                  Student attendance is sporadic.  Although education is available for all Jamaican children, young people who are members of various localized cultures attend school sporadically.  These sub-cultures exist in both rural and urban regions.  This has implications, particularly, for the teaching of reading.


3.                  Teacher attendance is sporadic.  In a sense, sporadic teacher attendance is built into Jamaican schools.  Jamaican teachers are afforded 12 annual leave days -- days when teachers do not report to school so they can do their own business.  Although teachers are supposed to inform the administration in advance of taking a leave day, in a culture where few rules are written down or enforced, what actually happens is that teachers sometimes just do not go to work on days when they have personal business.  The Jamaica Teachers Association (JTA) bargained for this “benefit” because the government could not afford higher teacher salaries.  Low teacher salaries, in turn, create even more sporadic teacher attendance.  For example, teachers who cannot afford their own cars must take public transportation, which is unreliable.  Proffit (2004) found that poor staff and student attendance was consistently identified as a “problem” in Jamaican schools.


4.                  Jamaican educators face a unique literacy issue.    Most Jamaican children speak Patois in their homes -- the language of casual discourse among many Jamaicans.  Their mass media, however, use standard English and students are expected to read, write, and speak English in schools.    Most Jamaicans are essentially bi-lingual, but they are ambivalent about the role of Patois in their educational system.  On one hand they are proud of its cultural roots -- it began as a way for slaves to communicate secretly among themselves.  On the other hand, some “hear” it as an indication of being uneducated, so they frown on its use in schools and other formal situations.  Those who are not fluent in the “Queen’s English” do not advance in Jamaican society; therefore, some teachers see it as their mission to teach standard English to all children, even the high numbers who speak patois in their homes. 


5.                  A second literacy issue is the lack of available reading materials.  Little is published in Jamaica, so books, magazines, journals, etc. are imported.  This means published material is expensive and irrelevant to traditional Jamaican culture.  This is in sharp contrast to the U. S., which has reading material everywhere – in the dentist’s office, the schools and libraries, and even at the auto repair shop and the bus station. 


6.                  Finally, the Jamaican education system has its roots in the British system.  It has recently begun to emulate American education because more and more high school graduates go to U. S. colleges.  This evolution is not without conflict, however, as some in the Government Ministries cling to and prefer the British ways.


These are the conditions faced by Jamaican teachers.  Clearly, they differ significantly from those faced by North Carolina teachers.  Therefore, although we deliver the same course titles in both places, it would be wrong for us to teach the same things.   Proffit (2004) wrote, “It is of great importance that professors and administrators understand the cultural background of their students in an attempt to minimize any form of cultural clash (ASCD, 1995; Evans, 2001).”   He also pointed out, “There are inherent problems involved when attempting such intercultural transfer (Schmidt & Cogan, 2001).”  Some of these inherent problems cause us to raise questions about whether or not American professors can be relevant in Jamaica.



Informal Queries into Relevance 


We teach courses in Montego Bay, Kingston, and Mandeville.   Classes meet in the late afternoon.  Students have been dismissed, and teachers are able to attend our classes at a host school in one of these three cities.  Our program is one of several adult education programs taking place at the host schools.   Professors going for their first two or three times rarely see what actually happens in K-12 Jamaican classrooms.  We often believe we understand what it is like to teach in Jamaica, however, because we teach in the same environment they do, and our students describe their work to us. 

But Jamaican K-12 education is kept behind closed doors.  And one of the reasons is Jamaican culture.  When I have been invited to visit a student’s or an alumnus’s school, the teachers treat me like a guest and the normal routine is interrupted for my benefit.  For example, if I step inside a classroom, the teacher might ask students to stand and recite a passage they have memorized.  I first attributed these occasions to Jamaican etiquette.  I felt appreciated as their guest; and I, in turn, credited the students for their  recitation achievement.  Eventually, I realized these recitations were also an indication of something the Jamaicans did not want me to see – that they have almost no reading and learning materials.  When no materials are available for independent study, students must memorize the texts that are available. 

When this occurred to me, I wondered if we American professors understood the effect this has on teaching.  I don’t think we have come to grips with this example of a major difference in our two school systems.  We have not asked the question, “What are the effects of having almost no learning and teaching materials available in Jamaican schools?”  We have not done so because we assume a certain level of resources, and then we use this assumption as a foundation for teaching classes in counseling, administration, supervision, psychology, special education, and teaching methods.  We need to learn from Jamaican teachers what it is like to have so few resources.  Only then will we be able to become relevant to Jamaican education.  

So far, however, Jamaican teachers have not wanted to admit that their system is so impoverished.  They are proud people who want to be good hosts.  Can they understand that we want to be more than guests?  We want to be relevant to their educational system, regardless of its strengths and weaknesses. 

A few of our faculty have taught the Practicum course, which takes us into Jamaican schools during the school day.  While there we see and experience what Jamaicans do not want us to see – the lack of instruction, the poor facilities and equipment, and the way in which some classrooms are on the edge of chaos.  I have seen this, but most faculty have not. 

During the weekends of a two-week course, we professors often meet at a beach resort.  While immersed in the Jamaica beach culture – watching the sun go down with a Red Stripe in hand – my colleagues and I wonder whether or not we are helping to improve Jamaican schools.  Mostly we believe we are because our students say so.  The Jamaican teachers are extremely appreciative of the knowledge they gain in our classes, and they sincerely believe they are becoming better because of this new knowledge. 

When working across cultures, however, we have to continue to question the extent to which we actually make a difference.  If we accepted our Jamaican students’ claims at face value, without considering that there may be subtle, yet powerful cultural elements at work, we would be accepting an unusual premise – that we are more relevant in another culture than we are in our own.   I say this because the appreciation of our Jamaican students is far greater than that of our North Carolina students, some of whom treat our courses, assignments, and ideas like three-day-old fish.  The Jamaicans, on the other hand, enthusiastically tackle every assignment, and embrace the opportunity to read and explore new ideas.  The following course evaluation comments are fairly typical:

This course provided a challenge to most of us in that we seemed to have been very comfortable in a system that is not working.  We now see where we have a responsibility to move away from our easy zone and create for ourselves and others a community that will enrich us.


The course was an excellent one.  We have really covered a lot and will use what we have learned to our best advantage.


The instructor is a dynamic one.  He kept the class thinking, even after class.  For too long we have just accepted certain positions.  Now we cannot.  After taking this class we cannot take these things for granted.  Instead, we have to examine our positions. 


These responses to our courses encourage us, but we must continually wonder, “Does their appreciation make us giddy, like the Red Stripe that revives us at sunset?”   


Formal Queries into Relevance



Recently several WCU faculty have tried to bring cultural differences to the surface, so these can be part of the discussion of the ways we are, or are not, benefiting Jamaican education.  Loughlin (1999) has described the history of the WCU-Jamaica program in his doctoral dissertation proposal; Proffit (2004) has studied what Jamaican teachers consider their major educational issues; and McGinty (2003) presented a paper on Jamaican teachers’ attitudes toward testing.   The remainder of this paper will discuss the relevancy question by describing McGinty’s (2003) efforts to teach her students about standardized testing, and by describing my own experience teaching instructional supervision in Kingston. 

I chose these two experiences because they are examples of how we adjust what we teach in Jamaica.  Both McGinty and I altered these courses, in an effort to be relevant to Jamaican teachers.  In these two cases we actually took opposite approaches to trying to be relevant.  McGinty confronted Jamaican educational beliefs and practices in the way she adapted her course, but I accommodated their beliefs and practices in mine.      


First, McGinty (2003) examined how Jamaicans feel about the testing culture in their schools.  She sought to find out what they believed about testing as she taught Tests and Measurements.  She wrote:

Since the Jamaican examination system is more rigid than our own, I had expected—perhaps naively—to hear from my students the same criticisms I often hear at home.  Surprisingly, however, my Jamaican students revealed themselves to be, with few exceptions, strong supporters of the tests.  I set about to find explanations for this view, to understand what meanings the tests might hold for my students.  (McGinty, 2003)


It is not important to re-state her findings, here.  But we can use her paper to demonstrate one of the ways we struggle as we try to confront strongly held educational beliefs in their culture. 

First, she described the contradictions she saw in the journal reflections of her students:

Beverly’s writings exemplify some of the apparent contradictions I noted in many of my (NC) students’ attitudes toward the testing system, especially with regard to its psychological effects on pupils.  Often, even within a single journal entry, I found painfully detailed descriptions of the anguish of failure, followed immediately by impassioned proclamations that tests build confidence.  Overall, however, most of my students were supporters of the examination system . . . (McGinty, 2003)


These attitudes among her students surprised her, but she did not think it her role to convince them of the political uses of testing.

She wrote:

In my teaching I had resolved to try to appear neutral on most issues.  I wanted my students to be exposed to, and to reflect on, different sides of a given issue; at the same time, I preferred, for both pedagogical and research-related reasons, not to over-emphasize my own opinion, and often even to avoid giving it.  (McGinty, 2003)



She taught the technical knowledge that would enable students to form their own political judgments.  Only when she realized their politics would not be changed, even by studying and understanding the limitations and unfairness of standardized testing, did she feel a need to assert her own beliefs.  If she had not, she would have been in danger of being worse than irrelevant.  She would have been complicit in the Jamaican sorting machine that is their standardized testing program. 

She reflected:

But, as it became clear to me that my students had never considered the possibility that the testing playing field might not be level after all, I began to probe the students a bit, inciting them to consider this possibility more carefully.   Even then, most students were reluctant to embrace the view that testing might stifle opportunities rather than create them. (McGinty, 2003)


Like a good teacher, she decided to “assess the current level of practice in Jamaican schools and then attempt to help their educators enhance the level of practice” (Loughlin, 1999)

She contrasted Jamaican teachers’ situations with those of teachers in North Carolina. 

It was apparent from class discussions and interviews that the examination system gives teachers a sense of purpose and direction in instruction.  Jamaican teachers are long accustomed to following the national curriculum and the examination syllabi in their courses, and those in my study did not seem to expect the degree of autonomy and freedom that my students in North Carolina seem to believe is their right (McGinty, 2003).


She noted that different professional norms explained part of the reason why her Jamaican students persisted in their belief that standardized testing is good, fair, and helpful to students and teachers.


Finally, McGinty (2003) summarized the ways she was comparing her graduate students in Jamaica with her students in North Carolina.  She wrote:


Possible inequities in the testing system were also not generally acknowledged by my students, with a few notable exceptions.  Perhaps I should not have expected them to have reflected seriously about the equity issue.  After all, their experiences have been different from mine; unlike American educators, they have not been sensitized to equity issues through the Civil Rights Movement, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and educational foundations courses.  Try as I might, however, I could not shed my own cultural clothing, especially with regard to this point.  I wanted to know—but did not ask—how they could fail to see the tests as being inherently unfair.  How could they believe, as Catherine does, that the tests create a level playing field?  Couldn’t they see that the playing field is uneven to begin with, and that the tests just perpetuate and exacerbate the unevenness? (McGinty, 2003)


These were the reflections of a professor struggling to be relevant as she confronted beliefs that have their roots in another culture. 

This is the opposite of how I addressed the relevance question.  Instead of confronting Jamaican teachers’ beliefs, I sought to accommodate and reinforce them with a book that we had not used in Jamaica.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed (POTO) (Freire, 2003) uses harsh, political, philosophical language to describe how the banking model of education actually oppresses those we presume to educate.  Selecting this book “accommodated” Jamaican teachers because its themes coincide with Jamaican teachers’ beliefs that they have “problems with administrators” (Proffit, 2004). 

What was the result of using a book that was harsh, political, and philosophical?   Because this book is so different from the others in the program, I asked the following questions as an optional assignment at the end of the course.  I wanted to find out if, after reading a book with a totally different tone and philosophy, they felt this tone was more relevant to their Jamaican educational situation.  Therefore, I asked, 

Is Pedagogy of the Oppressed relevant?         

1.         If so, in what ways?                              If not, why not?

2.                  If so, how will it affect what                   If not, what should we study instead?

you do in your school?             


Of the 33 students, 21 completed the assignment.  All 21 indicated that the book was relevant.  I do not know what the others thought, but it is more likely that they did not do the assignment because of a lack of time more than because they thought the book was irrelevant.  I say this because everybody in the course had ample opportunity to challenge the ideas and politics of the author, but none stepped forward to do so.  Instead, all the students participated in discussions of the book, and all spoke positively about the importance of the book’s message.  

Student comments on the survey revealed much about how they felt about the book, and its relevance to their situations.  The following quotes illustrate student responses to the three questions:

“If I can liberate just one, I’ll set my heart to do so.”

“I will definitely use my voice and start to make a change by starting with those I work with as I have come to realize that most changes occur from the bottom up.”


“The eye-opening experience of finding out that I have oppressed others is still shocking to me.” 


“Although I would love to incorporate all of Freire’s strategies in my classroom, I am concerned that they (my students) will be disadvantaged and disenfranchised when they leave my school.”


“The next thing I need to do is see the system for what it is – Oppressive!  I then will have to share my ideas lovingly and humbly.”


“Education in Jamaica has been used as a major tool of oppression.  It has evolved from the era when the masses were not supposed to be educated and continues into a kind of elitist educational system which is for the most part irrelevant and does not encourage much self-reflection and critical thinking.”


Apparently many Jamaican teachers internalized the ideas in POTO.  But how can I know the extent to which they were saying what they thought I wanted to hear, instead of what they really thought.  It is hard to know these things within one’s own culture, let alone across cultures.  We claim we are helping improve Jamaican education, but I am not so sure. 

            POTO was the reading for my course not only because its message accommodated Jamaican teachers’ feelings about administrators, but also because it challenged other teaching in our program.  Like most educational administration programs, ours tries to teach aspiring school administrators how to apply the latest social science theory to school situations.  POTO, however, rejects this idea by arguing that such a curriculum is actually a powerful tool of oppression, itself.         

Greenfield (1986) is concerned about how a “science of administration,” like the one taught in our other courses, is being spread to Third-World countries.

To criticize the spread of such programs is not to suggest that the training of administrators is futile or unnecessary; rather, it is to argue that many university-based training programs, captured by a narrowly defined concept of administration, restrict the possibility of productive inquiry into administration. (p. 69) 


Greenfield is suggesting that, before we attempt to train Jamaican administrators to be like American administrators, we ought to learn things from the Jamaican situation that can inform the practice and training of administrators in both countries. 



This has begun to happen for those of us who have been teaching in Jamaica for ten to fifteen years.  Working with Jamaican teachers has been a life-changing experience for me.  I have certainly benefited from our program in Jamaica, but I am not so sure we make much difference in the lives of Jamaican school children.  Only time, and a continuing effort to try to find out, may eventually give us more reason to think so.     

We are still trying to be relevant to Jamaican education.  By its very nature culture goes deep and affects our understandings at fundamental levels.  So the slightest cultural differences can powerfully influence relevance, even as they go undetected, or especially as they go undetected.  If we can regard ourselves; and, if our students can regard us as fellow learners, our curriculum will be enriched.  Exploring cultural questions with our students can help us become more relevant (maybe).    




Freire, P. (2003). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc.


Green-Evans, V. (2004). Ghost of the Common Entrance haunts GSAT.  The Jamaica Observer, March 7, 2004, p. 10-11.


Greenfield, T. B. (1986). The Decline and Fall of Science in Educational Administration. Interchange, Vol. 17, No. 2. pp. 57-80.


Loughlin, M. (1999). Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation Proposal, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC.


McGinty, D. (2003).  A Qualitative Study of Jamaican Educators’ Attitudes toward Testing.  Unpublished paper presented at the American Educational Studies Association Annual Convention, November, 2003, Mexico City, Mexico.

Proffit, A.C.  (2004).  Problems Facing Jamaican Schools.  In Research on Education in Africa, The Caribbean and the Middle East,  Book II.  In K. Mutua and C.S. Sunal, C.S. (Eds.), Greenwich, CT:  Information Age Publishing.