When Josie Doran established Little Trotters Farm and Nursery School in 2004, she wanted to create a school that provides a nature-based education fulfilling the needs of all children, inside the classroom and in the wider world.
Nestled among flora and fauna in a quiet patch off Walkers Road in George Town, Little Trotters is the only school in the Cayman Islands to receive the highest rating of ‘Excellent’ by the Office of Education Standards (with inspection reports out on about 50 of the country’s 53 schools).
Little Trotters has more than 80 students ranging in age from 18 months to 5 years.
Lesley Maddock is school manager of Little Trotters, which integrates approaches from Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, incorporated within the British national curriculum.
In the second half of this interview, Doran and Maddock discuss the strengths of the school, their initiative to help train teachers from other preschools, and challenges facing Little Trotters.
In the first half of the interview, Doran and Maddock talked about the defining characteristics of Little Trotters, and how the school responded to the COVID-19 lockdown that began in March.
Josie Doran: Born in South Africa, Doran moved to the UK at age 12. She trained at Montessori College in London as a Montessori Nursery Teacher (2-6 years), and later trained as an Advanced Montessori Teacher (6-9 years) and Nursery Nurse (NNEB). More recently, she attended several Steiner seminars in the UK and observed regularly in Steiner schools. After several years working for Montessori schools in the UK, she read a magazine article that spoke of the Montessori School of Cayman. She arrived in Cayman in 1995 and worked at the Montessori School until 2000 (as assistant, then teacher, and finally principal). She left Cayman to travel, and completed a Permiculture (Organic Farming) course in Australia before returning to Cayman in 2004 to establish Little Trotters.
Lesley Maddock: Originally from Scotland, Maddock trained as a Nursery Nurse (NNEB). She arrived in Cayman in 2000 and started working for Little Trotters in 2005. She was rolled over in 2008 and spent the year away teaching at a preschool in Cyprus. She returned to Cayman and Little Trotters in 2009.
— What are particular areas of strength for Little Trotters?
DORAN: I genuinely feel the students are well-ready for school when they leave here. I think they’ve had opportunities to develop confidence, to learn about the world around them, in a safe and loving environment.
When they reach their ‘big school’, there’s a new environment, there are new teachers, there’s a school uniform, a new routine, but there’s a sense of confidence that comes from the foundations that have been laid here to prepare them for what’s to come at big school.
I think they’re happy during their experience here, and I think they’re lost in the world of childhood.
MADDOCK: One thing that I’ve heard is that you can always tell a Trotters child because they’ve got resilience.
DORAN: Not because they’re covered in mud and paint?
MADDOCK: This after they’ve left. This is a year later. You can always pick them out in a classroom because they’re the ones that dust it off.
— The Office of Education Standards report highlights Little Trotters’ efforts to help educate and train teachers from other preschools. OES Director Peter Carpenter said in an interview with the Current in September that was something that impressed him, and this kind of support for ‘other schools’ has been incorporated into the new inspection framework for Cayman schools. Can you please talk about this programme?
DORAN: I think those are just Christian values, or core kindness values. That’s what that is. It’s one’s role in society to help out where one can serve, so from the perspective of early education, it becomes an honour to do so. It really has been a joy.
MADDOCK: Since COVID, it hasn’t happened as much. At the moment, it’s a memory. But it’s something we will resume. COVID stopped everything and it hasn’t all picked up again.
There are very good reasons for the restrictions, but they affect our having people in from other schools. At the moment, I would say we’re still a bit bruised, and nobody’s making plans because we don’t really know what may happen next.
In the past, we had a lot of schools come in to visit us. This was arranged by Carol Bennett and the Early Childhood Care and Education Unit. Then there were a few schools that Josie went in and spent time in the schools.
Recently, we’ve had a school reach out. They want to come to us in February in order to see our outside learning environment because they want to promote more of that in their school.
That’s the most recent one of at the moment, but as I said because of the 9-month lapse, everything has been kind of hazy.
It was a constant ongoing programme before COVID. There was always a school either coming visit us, or Josie was going to see them.
This has been going on back to 2008.
DORAN: The caregivers from other preschools have an arranged time they come and spend the morning, or mornings, or if there’s more than 1 caregiver, they separate from class to class to class. We have to be mindful not to be too adult-heavy in a classroom, but we warmly welcome them.
After the inspection there was a time where most weeks we had people coming in, less so through the Department of Education Services but more through them privately contacting us. On a couple of occasions I was invited into their schools to spend the day, or to sit and talk with their teachers, and give feedback.
One of the aspects that I think was very positive about the inspections that have gone on, is it’s had a very unifying effect on all the individual schools coming together with a more unified responsibility, with a greater sense of cohesion. We have pored over and learnt from our inspection, and all inspections, and have improved in the process — as a community, to learn from others, to be better acquainted with others.
You can be so involved in your day-to-day runnings of a little preschool that you don’t come up for air sometimes, and at the other schools, they’re so busy themselves. I think the inspections have had the effect of bringing us all up, to look at us side by side, and realise we are doing this good work, and to share the right things to do as best practices from a child-centred point of view, to support one another in improving. We’ve learnt all sorts of things, haven’t we?
There are areas where we’ve put closer scrutiny, where we could improve and have learnt therefore from the others. It’s a matter of providing the very best for all the children in the community in Cayman.
MADDOCK: The inspectors are very clear that they’re on our side. It’s a case of, “We’re here to make you the best you can be.” It’s not, “You’re doing this wrong.” It’s, “How can we help you to improve? How can you be the best you can be?”
— What are some of the challenges that the school is facing?
MADDOCK: It’s such a happy place to work.
DORAN: Since COVID, it has been less easy to hire. Literally the workforce isn’t available on the island. Typically, we being a destination in the sun, we receive resumes most weeks through the mail, or people knocking on our door. Since COVID, that hasn’t been available.
MADDOCK: There are usually accountants coming in, and their girlfriends or wives coming with them, and those are the kind of people we’re employing. It just hasn’t happened this year.
DORAN: That has been a challenge because anybody coming over has to face a quarantine.
MADDOCK: I think also, from people’s point of view, when you move here, you don’t know when you’re going back home on holiday. It’s not, “Oh, I’ll go and I’ll be back at Easter.”
It’s a different mindset. It’s a bit more of a commitment.
DORAN: In terms of challenges, it’s a very good question. I think we’re quite a well-oiled machine by now. In the school’s younger years, we fell in every pothole possible.
We sort of learnt from our mistakes, got up, brushed off our knees. Now we have very sturdy policies in place, a very strong team of staff who know their roles, and incredibly supportive parents. That can be an area that brings problems, but we really have parents on board, don’t we?
MADDOCK: We do. Even during COVID, where people were tense on the whole, everyone worked together.
DORAN: I think strong communication matters to parents; it certainly did during COVID.
There must be problem areas in this school — but it’s a happy place to be.
By its very nature, working with children is a true delight. It isn’t really a job, it’s a joy. The children will always be the children. They’re the bringers of the joy.
We have tremendous support from the Department of Immgiration, and we seem to be in good standing with them, in terms of work permits.
MADDOCK: Of course, we have a lot of Caymanians in our workforce. We’re over 50% Caymanian.
DORAN: We staff well. There is over 162 years of classroom experience between the 12 teachers. We staff heavily, and then within that corps of teachers, we have a grounds manager who is incredibly hard-working and oversees the management of the grounds, the maintenance of the building, the care of the animals and the school shopping. Then there’s Lesley the school manager, who is phenomenally efficient in all areas of her administration.
I think that creates a fortitude in being able to handle what comes our way.
We would like to get back to the teacher development sessions.
MADDOCK: The teachers coming in, and also the level of school trips.
DORAN: Is it a poor answer to say we’d like to reclaim normalcy?
— Are there any misconceptions about the school, or anything else you’d like to emphasise?
DORAN: Every parent who decides to come to Trotters has had a comprehensive tour that typically takes over half an hour. They tour the premises, have a discussion about our ethos, our values, the child’s day, the child’s year, and their progression as they spend time with us. There’s no stone unturned, so they know what they’re signing up for.
We’re so clear in the definition of who we are, what we stand for, what we provide and what our priorities are, that that’s cleared up from the get-go.
In terms of academics, we do it very comprehensively, we do it very child appropriately, but it’s not a priority.
MADDOCK: Play. It’s the top. We set the expectation that we are play-based.