“In my experience, morale is quite low amongst educators within schools. Many teachers do not feel heard and feel frustrated by decisions made that do not positively impact our students or do not reap long-term benefits. They feel overworked and under-appreciated. Many express their desire to leave but feel trapped by the pay and benefits.”
— Primary school teacher, leaving in 2020 after 3 years due to stress
“It’s a good environment with people devoted to bettering the children of our islands.”
— Teacher leaving in 2019 after 8 months to continue graduate education
Personal stress and bureaucratic frustrations are contributing factors often cited by Cayman Islands teachers leaving the public school system. Many express concerns about low morale among their colleagues, and complain about poor communication between different levels of the system’s hierarchy.
On the other hand, teachers generally say they are grateful for their experience in Cayman and celebrate the relationships they have built with their students and fellow staff members.
The Cayman Current obtained records of teachers ‘exit interviews’ from the Department of Education Services via a Freedom of Information request. The department provided 44 exit interviews from the years 2016-2020, with personal details redacted.
Teachers who are departing their positions — due to non-renewal of contract, retirement, relocation or moving to another job on-island — have the opportunity to respond to questions about their reasons for leaving, job satisfaction, supervision and management, etc.
(Not) about the money
Some trends are readily observable. For example, teachers reported mixed satisfaction with their pay and benefits (in relation to their efforts and hours), even after the across-the-board salary raise to $5,000 per month in 2018.
“I would imagine that if you speak to any teacher they would admit, although the money is good, they do not teach for the money — This is not why people choose to teach,” said a teacher who left in 2018 after 2 years of employment to go back to their home country.
“If given the option, I would predict that many of them would choose to have reliable assistance within the classroom (TA’s) and know that they would not be taken at short notice to cover staff absences etc. Therefore I feel it is essential that the Ministry create a bank of Supply teachers,” they said.
View from the ‘trenches’
Teachers generally reported having good relationships with their supervisors and were satisfied with the quality of communication within individual schools. However, they generally said that communication was poor between schools and the higher ministry/department level.
“Within the school there is excellent general communication, but this is not evident from the Department/Ministry to the school,” said a teacher leaving in 2017 after 11-plus years.
Commenting on the schools’ behavioural policy, they said, “It requires a team of teachers (those in the “trenches”) to write this policy. I am sure that the team in the ministry is making their best effort, but they truly haven’t a clue of what happens in the schools. Policy advisors need to be situated in schools in order to justly write effective policies.”
In response to a question about policies or procedures making their job more difficult, the teacher said, “Is this a rhetorical question? Too funny…”
A teacher leaving in 2020 after 6 years said, “I dislike the lack of communication from the ministry and the department of education to school staff members. Decisions affecting schools need to include feedback from teachers and members of staff currently working in schools. Decisions seem to be made without any communication or feedback, which makes the new policies very ineffective. Also, the focus for education seems to change each year with very little follow through on previous initiatives.”
A primary teacher leaving in 2020 after 3 years said, “In my experience, communication proved to be a significant area of weakness. Key information was shared with short notice, or not at all, and was often lost in translation when filtered down from the Ministry to the Department to schools.”
They said, “Information filtered up from schools to the Department to the Ministry was also problematic with the biggest concern being a lack of teacher feedback being shared at the highest levels to inform decisions and policies. This was seen in particular this academic year with the introduction of the new curriculum.”
The teacher said, “Major decisions are often made without input from key stakeholders who are currently working in schools and understand its specific needs. In addition … these decisions are often made to meet the needs of those seeking personal or professional gains and there is a strong political influence which is not to the benefit of the education system.”
Behaviour and discipline
Many teachers brought up issues with discipline and behaviour — not always with complaints about their students, but also about the effectiveness of the schools’ behaviour policy (particular in regard to enforcing a ban on mobile phones).
A teacher leaving in 2018 after one year said, “Poor behavior in school means I cannot teach my lessons as I would like to. Because of this, I do not feel I am able to progress in my career.”
A teacher leaving in 2018 after 2 years said, “I have been teaching for 16 years and through the experiences that I have had, I have never had to deal with the behavioural issues experienced here and especially with such young children. I believe that the Ministry needs to intervene, and soon.”
Another teacher, who also left in 2018, after 6 years, offered a different perspective: “Students have the right to be taught in a safe environment; this is not always the case. Some students do not feel safe with certain staff members because of the way they speak to them (disrespectfully).”
In general, teachers rarely reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace — although there are exceptions, particularly of expatriates feeling that they are at a disadvantage.
One teacher, who left in 2018 after 2.5 years of employment, described a “hostile, threatening environment in which students constantly threaten teachers that they will have them suspended or lose their jobs”.
In response to a question about what they would tell family and friends about the Cayman Islands government as a place to work, the teacher said, “If you are seeking a reasonable salary, a peaceful place to live, and can accept or ignore people insulting your race and nationality, then it’s the perfect place to be.”
In contrast to this 2016 article from the Cayman Compass, references to physical assaults, rogue students, and extremely low-performing students appear to be more rare or absent entirely in this more recent batch of exit interviews.
Concerns about morale
About half of teachers said morale was low among their colleagues, although it appeared to vary from year to year.
“Morale seems quite low at my school. Teachers are friendly and mostly supportive of one another. It is a challenging place to be a teacher,” said a teacher leaving in 2018 after one year.
A teacher leaving in 2016 after 3 years said, “Like any workplace; you have some that are happy and others not so much.”
A teacher leaving John Gray High School in 2020 after 26 years said, “Employee morale has varied during my tenure. At the present time, I think that employee morale is high. My School Leader is very positive and encouraging to all staff members.”
A teacher leaving in 2018 after 21 years said, “Many [teachers] feel overworked and underappreciated. Although recently the latter has been changing in tangible ways.”
In response to what it takes to succeed as a Cayman public school educator, a teacher leaving in 2019 after one year due to illness said, “Grit”.
Another teacher, leaving after 4 years due to stress said, “A miracle.”
Special education needs
About half of teachers expressed dissatisfaction with support for students with special education needs.
A teacher leaving in 2020 after 6 years said, “I do not feel this code of practice is effective. While policies are written on paper, they are not implemented within schools. When a student is identified as having special needs, I see no change in the level of service they receive at schools. This is the primary reason I am leaving this position. Students who are identified should receive additional support and interventions for their needs.”
“I believe the code is well written, but lacks real support,” said a teacher leaving in 2018 after 4 years.
A teacher leaving in 2017 after 26 years said that improving the school system “would take a complete overhaul from top to bottom. For example, the [redacted] visits the school but only talks with the principal and deputy principal. [redacted] has not once spoken with the staff. In my opinion, to get a complete picture of what is happening at a school you cannot only hear from administration.”
“Make sure [teachers] know they are valued as the impact they have on the future of the country is significant,” said a teacher retiring in 2019 after 35 years.
A teacher retiring in 2017 after 26 years said, “Unfortunately, I know that this exercise is done every year but no improvements have been seen so far. I have no new ideas.”
As a final comment in their interview, a teacher leaving in 2018 after 2 years said, “I would appreciate if this was forwarded to the appropriate member of the ministry and an acknowledgement given in order for this exit interview to have an impact — otherwise what is the point of it?”
Read the exit interviews here: