‘Do you know your numbers to 10?’: Reflections on life as a school inspector in Cayman (2 of 3)

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***Editor’s Note: We are pleased to feature a Viewpoint from Peter Carpenter, the former Director of the Office of Education Standards. (Click to expand.)

As the Chief Inspector of schools from October 2017-December 2020, Carpenter and his team visited every one of the more than 50 public and private institutions in the Cayman Islands, from early years to CIFEC. Previously Carpenter was director of school inspections in Dubai, lead inspector for primary education in Scotland, principal of two schools in England, and a teacher for 30 years. Now ensconced with family in Dubai, Carpenter has penned a perspective on his time in Cayman. Informed by his international and local experience, his commentary is light-hearted and humorous, but also deeply informative about fundamental issues in Cayman education. This is the second of a three-part series that we will publish over the next week.***

Peter Carpenter
Former Chief Inspector of Schools with Cayman Islands Government

Peter Carpenter

It was a joy and privilege to visit the schools in Cayman. Regardless of their quality or their position in the journey to improvement, they were full of character and energy and the students sparkled with enthusiasm. Humility in this process is, of course, an important characteristic required of both teachers and school inspectors.

I received good advice from a former Chief Inspector of Schools in Scotland in the United Kingdom. We were together on a week-long visit to a large school in the Scottish central belt. “Arrive on Monday and listen,” he said. “Listen on Tuesday and also listen on Wednesday morning. Only start talking on Wednesday afternoon, after you have heard all about the work of the school and the challenges faced by the staff and the children.” Good advice and approaching each inspection with humility and respect is important and I frequently reminded myself and my colleagues how we should not forget how challenging the teaching profession has always been and would always be.

School inspectors, of course, are not immune to error or fault. They can also tend to forget that they are not quite as important as they sometimes think. I had my fair share of humiliation, often the result of insufficient listening, as my former colleague pointed out.

A memorable incident occurred midway through my time in Cayman. Joining another primary class, I noted that students were sat in groups, all furtively puzzling their way through mathematics textbooks or moving plastic blocks around on their desks with serious intent and seemingly purposeful intrigue.

The tables were positioned strategically and the teacher (another ‘Mrs. Ebanks’ ironically) is seated with one group scanning all of the class, visibly identified by large signs naming the four sets of tables as green, blue, red, and yellow groups.

The teacher is welcoming. She lifts a file from her desk which is, she explains, the lesson plans for this term. It looks more like the lesson plans for a century and, as I struggle to hold it whilst grasping my essential clipboard, I decide to retire to her desk before I drop it unceremoniously to the floor.

The file contains the lesson plans for the full academic session, with sections tabulated for mathematics, English (reading, writing, spelling, grammar, speaking and listening) and every other subject imaginable. I thought about searching for anatomy, physiology, or nuclear physics amongst the colour-coded sections, but then remembered that this was indeed a Reception class and that the children were a mere four to five years old. I read the comprehensive lesson plan for this class, helpfully directed by a dazzling paper clip sculptured into the shape of a large arrow.

The lesson plan outlines the tasks for the whole class for this one-hour period and the plan is also defined with delicate, colourful illustrations explaining the different learning goals for a number of children who were either ‘gifted’, ‘talented’ or who had ‘additional learning needs’. The teacher had covered every possibility. The plan would have taken lesser mortals hours to devise and days to write down. There was a plan explaining what most of the class should learn and then there were extension plans for others who may finish the main tasks earlier than others and had time to spare. There was different work for the ‘less able’ and for one child with special educational needs who had her own individual plan.

The teacher had plans which directed the work of her classroom assistant and she had even explained also what would happen if that classroom assistant were unable to attend class. The only missing element was, perhaps, the explanation of what would happen should Halley’s Comet happen to pass by unannounced, or perhaps there was an earthquake or an alien invasion.

So, the plans were impressive, to say the least and, having recovered from the weight-lifting challenge, the time came to talk to the children about what they were doing and what they were learning. Tentatively perched on a tiny chair again, I opened my mouth to begin my extensive questioning, when I was questioned first.

“Are you one of the ‘inspectorers’?” A confident and cheerful girl asked. Her friends stopped their tasks to watch with interest. She was clearly the table and perhaps class spokeswoman.

“Yes. I am. What’s your name?” I questioned.

‘Amy’, explained her friend, but Amy wasn’t offering a great deal of personal information. She had tasked herself with ascertaining much more important information from me. Formal introductions and social graces were not going to interrupt this determined investigation.

“Do you know your colours?” Amy enquired.

“Yes. I do know the names of different colours,” I replied, only to be quickly asked another question by inquisitive Amy.

“What about your numbers? Do you know your numbers to 10?” She was persistent and asked her questions with a firm stare and raised eyebrow. It felt something like the proverbial Spanish Inquisition.

“Well, actually I do know my numbers to 10.” Who is being inspected here, I wondered? And is that a wry smile from Mrs. Industrious Ebanks on the yellow table?

Amy has another question though. “And your name,” she asks. “Can you write your name by yourself?”

“Yes,” I replied, in due deference to Amy’s superior enquiry skills.

“Well then,” Amy explains helpfully, “you are sitting on the wrong table. You should be in yellow group with Mrs. Ebanks.”

I sometimes think teachers have certain superhuman skills. How else could one get a group of 30 five-year-old children to listen, sit still and do things they really don’t particularly want to do? I met an unusually talented teacher in January 2020 during an inspection of a government primary school on Grand Cayman. She was teaching Year 3 and I was timetabled to join her geography lesson. Now, this was a remarkable class.

Entering the room was like entering a tropical jungle. Indeed, as I was informed by Edward, aged eight years, ‘the Amazon’ had been a recent class project. Hanging around the classroom and delicately wired from the ceiling tiles were papier-mache monkeys and large, strategically placed cardboard trees. The children had also painted a good number of creepy crawlies which had been fixed to the floor and to chairs. These included spiders with characteristically hairy legs and millipedes with remarkably hairy bodies and happy smiley faces.

Edward directed me to a seat at the back of the classroom and explained that the class had been ‘expecting me’. The teacher was in full flow and hardly acknowledged my presence. Understandable, because she was urgently explaining, using ‘YouTube’ and poster-size diagrams, all about how earthquakes happen.

Edward pointed to the chair and proceeded to join the rest of his class. Edward had clearly been appointed as the Inspector Guide but was, in truth, rather more interested in earthquakes. On reaching his seat he immediately raised his hand and proceeded to participate in the class. Just as the teacher was explaining the effect of seismic waves, there was a sudden loud rumbling noise and various car alarms outside in the school car park were triggered. The teacher did not blink.

As if using the physical surroundings as some kind of God-given illustration of her current learning objective, she raised her voice above the alarms to explain the effect of rock or blocks of earth rubbing together. She rubbed her hands to illustrate the concept even more eloquently. The children were told to rub one palm of their hand on top of another and talk with their ‘shoulder partner’ about what they felt. A good idea, I agreed, but the subsequent movement of pencil pots on tables and the evident shaking of the hanging class monkeys from the ceiling raised some alarm in my mind that this was indeed a real earthquake.

By this stage, the visual clues were catching the attention of the most astute students in class, including Edward who, with stunning politeness, had simply raised his hands and was waiting for his teacher to seek his mature insight. It seemed, however, that the teacher was at a critical point in her exposition. It was the point at which we were informed that ‘P-waves’ were becoming ‘S-waves’. The teacher’s excitement was tangible. And this is when Edward felt inclined to burst with information and stood to shout loudly, “Earthquake!”

“Yes,” responded teacher. As if this was Edward’s Eureka moment and not, as it actually was, an earnest shout of concern.

Our earthquake teacher explained that earthquakes were indeed the consequence of such momental events. She advised that earthquakes were very dangerous and that people in some parts of the world actually died during earthquakes. I was minded to agree with this assessment and looking through the class window, through a haze of cheese plants, vines and banana trees, I was able to see several classes of children leaving their rooms led by their teachers, all of whom were eagerly grasping class registers and walking earnestly towards the muster points in the playground.

Through a chink of glass I was able to see my colleague inspector. She had left her class with the teacher and was staring at me with a puzzled gaze. She gesticulated indicating that I should leave the class. I thought this was a good idea but just couldn’t visualise the scene of my departure from the room, leaving this teacher and her children to fend for themselves as I made my escape.

However, I shouldn’t have worried because the lesson had proceeded to its next stage and logical conclusion. At the teacher’s direction, all of the children were encouraged to “Get under the desks.” She added rather cheerfully, This is what we do when there are earthquakes.” Of course, she added, “Such precautions will stop heavy things falling on our heads.” Glancing heavenwards, children were watching swinging monkeys and rustling tree leaves, no doubt astounded by this teacher’s ability to recreate such visual learning experiences.

At this point Edward directed me to join in the drama and with a grin and, taking me by the hand, steered me under a nearby trapezium-shaped table. Here I knelt alongside Mary Louise and Grace, both aged nine years and Edward, of course, the Inspector Guide. Mary asked if I was enjoying the class and, with equal measures of calm, and serenity, Grace pointed out this was “great fun”.

I wasn’t quite convinced and was less assured when another teacher opened the classroom door, looked around the room and stated categorically and ever so slightly hysterically, “Earthquake! Everyone Out.” I unceremoniously reversed from beneath the table and holding Edward’s hand, joined the class line and exited to the emergency muster station. As we walked and joined the teacher with her register in hand, the teacher offered an apologetic smile. “I will finish the class tomorrow,” she stated, “we are going to move on to volcanos”, and I made a mental reminder to make sure I was elsewhere.

Thankfully, the Cayman earthquake of 28th January 2020, of 7.7 seismic scale caused minimal structural damage to schools or properties across the Cayman Islands. No-one was injured in the school or elsewhere on Grand Cayman. The fear of a subsequent tsunami also proved unfounded. The evaluation of health and safety arrangements is always an important part of our inspections. This school demonstrated in unique circumstances how drills, practices, discussions, training, policies, and guidance are essential to make sure children and staff are safe, even in the most unpredictable of circumstances.

They say that school life is full of drama. This is, of course, true but is especially true of the primary classroom. Sometimes the drama arises from the quick wit of the smart child. Meet Paul, only six years of age. A rare expatriate in the Cayman government education system. Paul has a rather large bulge in his trouser pocket. When challenged by his teacher he delves deeply and presents on the flat of his palm a model toy police car.

The teacher explains that this is one of the class toys and then asks Paul if he has perhaps accidentally forgotten this. Paul looks puzzled and, as if to emphasise that the appearance of such an object in his possession is no less than a miracle, his face transforms to display the dramatic characteristics of surprise, including his wide-open mouth, open hands and raised eyebrows.

But then his real dramatic skills become evident. Paul explains that the teacher is actually, on this occasion, incorrect. The model police car belongs to him and we should realise this because why else would there be a letter ‘P’ on the vehicle? “P is for Paul,” he explains. All that phonics teaching has had some positive impact at least.

‘Do you know your numbers to 10?’: Reflections on life as a school inspector in Cayman

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