My Short Lived Career As A Corporate Executive

DSCN1273In my classroom, I keep an incentive chart on the wall and give stars for good behavior. The students really respond to it. It gives them a chance to visibly track their progress and see how close they are to earning a reward. Bad behavior, they understand, means they don’t get a star that day, and if their behavior is really appalling, that I might even take one away.

The idea was modeled after a similar system that I remember using as a child, and it was something I set up and implemented on Day One of last year. For my Jamaican students, this Americanized system of rewards and consequences was new to them, but it didn’t take long for them to catch on. Within days of school starting, my students would come pouring into my classroom every chance they got to count their stars.

A success, I carried over my incentive chart for Year Two of my service, but with a few small modifications. Last year, when the students reached ten stars on their chart, they got a reward, and at fifteen, another reward, this time a little bigger. I continued upward in increments of five – the ultimate prize being fifteen minutes of computer games. But this year, I scrapped the idea of automatic rewards, and instead, opened what I’m calling my Star Store.

This is shaping up to be both a brilliant idea, and a mad one.


The Star Store is open on Fridays during lunch, and its merchandise includes things like a candy (in Jamaica, they call them sweeties), stickers, cool pencils and erasers. I’ve also got some silly bandz, an option to eat lunch and color with me one day, and of course, the ever coveted, fifteen minutes of computer games.

I started each student off with thirty stars and encouraged them to spend wisely. I also explained that computer games, while on the list of purchasable items, would not go on sale until December 1st. “If you know you want to spend your stars on computer time, then save them. That way when December 1st comes around, you already have enough and you can buy it!”

I had three primary objectives when opening the Star Store. The first was that I wanted to help teach children how to spend or save their “money.” Some students, I knew, wouldn’t be able to save their stars, while others would demonstrate patience, and earn themselves a bigger prize for it. I also thought it would be nice for the students to be able to pick and choose what kind of rewards they wanted for their good behavior. I reasoned that if I gave them more control, it would ultimately lead to more responsibility.


So far, so good! The store has been open for four consecutive Fridays, and I’m very pleased with the results. As predicted, some students spent their stars immediately, and came back the next week unable to understand why didn’t have any left. Others have spent a little bit here and little bit there, and decided to save the rest. Some students I haven’t seen at all! One inquisitive fifth grader asked, if he saves his stars and gets sixty, can he buy 30 minutes of computer games? I told him of course!

But the downside to my Star Store is that my Friday lunches are not my own. My classroom has easily become the most popular destination for the school to congregate. Noise level aside, this is particularly difficult to deal with, because the students that aren’t in my pull-out groups want to buy things too, and are willing to pay with money. Naturally, I refuse, and have to send them on their way in an effort to keep things at a manageable level.

My students are having challenges of their own too. They first need to master the impossible task of forming a straight line, and understanding that I can only help one customer at a time. They also need to work on leaving my classroom after they’ve made their purchase. These procedures will take a couple more Fridays to master, but they’ll get it. In the meantime, helping some of my students to understand the way “money” works will take a little more effort.

DSCN1272The last challenge I’m facing with my Star Store is the way stars are being tracked. Operationally speaking, I add stars to the chart for good behavior, but I’m not removing any after they’ve been spent. This causes great confusion when students come to count their stars. And while its easy enough to do some quick math for someone standing in front of me, it’s going to be much more difficult if I’m doing that for everyone while the store is open. I’m currently brainstorming some alternative methods for balancing their star-accounts.

Overall, I love this idea! I’m excited to see my students excited, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to see how this plays out the rest of the year. I’ve inspired some of the teachers too, and they’re now doing star charts in their classrooms. Positive reinforcement works, and if a teacher can weave in a lifelong lesson in the process, that’s even better. Opening a store and giving them stars for money will provide a foundational comprehension of how the monetary system works, and will drive home the idea that hard work pays off.

So for now, I can toss my personal sanity on Fridays aside, and become a teacher who doubles as a landlord, a storeowner, a bank manager, and an employer. I feel a little bit like this guy:


Miss Teacha

Growing up, my sister and I were like most children; we played pretend. Among our favorite scenarios were house, treasure island, and The Three Musketeers (inspired by our love for Leonardo DiCaprio after seeing Man In The Iron Mask and Titanic). The only game we wouldn’t agree on, however, was school. I’d make Devon be the student, using stuffed animals for classmates, and have her ask questions and complete assignments. Of course, my only living student did not share my enthusiasm, and the game always ended abruptly.

Years would pass, and as I began collecting a variety of experience working with kids, my mom made an unwavering prediction. “April,” she’d persistently prophesize, “you’re going to be a teacher when you grow up.” Every time I heard this, I would reply with the same answer; “No, I won’t.”

But what’s that old saying, again? How does it go?

Oh yes: Mother is always right.


While the Peace Corps has provided me with a large number of firsts, this is not the first time I’m playing the role of teacher, and if I’m to be perfectly honest, I had my “ah ha” moment a long time ago. I’ve worked as a camp counselor, a horseback riding instructor, a gymnastics coach, a religious school youth group leader, and a substitute teacher.

But even in all my prior experience, there’s still so much about this role that is new to me. For example, instead of following lessons left behind by another teacher, I am writing the lessons. I am no longer a faceless substitute, swooping in for a day or two at a time and having to relearn all the student’s names. Nay, I am the full-time teacher, and I get to spend an entire year with them.

Now that I’m a teacher, I catch myself repeating lines I heard from my own school days. Things like, “I’ll wait until it’s quiet,” or, “Sound it out.” I feel a sense of divine power when I give out stars for good behavior at the end of class time. And certain mysteries, like, how did she know which student wrote the test answers on the desk?, have suddenly become clear. (Just match up the handwriting; it’s so obvious I don’t know why I never thought of it before!)

As rewarding as being a teacher is, it’s also a lot of hard work. I write all my own lessons, make up activity pages, and have to grade homework and spelling tests. Consider the amount of prep work I put in for one class, and multiply it by the five different levels I’m working with. Some weeks I don’t sleep.

Classroom management is also a challenge, particularly in a culture where corporal punishment is still widely practiced. Though I’ve implemented a behavior system with rewards and consequences, it’s sometimes still difficult to maintain control without at least brandishing a ruler at them. This is one part of my job that will not miss when I leave Jamaica. I would never hit a student.


But the pros far outweigh the cons, and for someone who was reluctant about being a classroom teacher up until the very moment she became one, I’m having a pretty good time. I’ve laughed at my student’s jokes, and cried with them during times of hardships. I cheered for them when they ran the Jamaica Day Marathon and shared in their pride when they passed the Grade Four Literacy Exam after three tries.

I’ve gotten to know my students, both academically and personally. I know what they are capable of, and know where they are challenged. I can tell you that the troublemakers are the sweetest ones at heart, and I always know when someone gets some extra help on their homework.

I think the most beautiful thing about being a teacher is watching your students grow. Overnight, they’ve become taller. I look at my sixth grade boys and I suddenly see young men. My third grade girls now move with the grace of young ladies, rather than the clumsiness that comes with being a child. I’ve witnessed improvement in their self-esteem, and of course, their reading ability.

We only have a few weeks left of school. As I begin wrapping up the year and thinking about the next one, I also find that I keep asking myself one question: is this the career for me?

Mom predicted I’d be a teacher, and she wasn’t exactly wrong. Whether I’m in the classroom, in the middle of a riding arena, or on the gymnastics floor, I’ve been teaching. Every job I’ve had has included the transfer of skills from instructor to pupil. Now that I think about it, I can’t imagine having a job in which I am not working with kids.

Children are so impressionable! They see the world through a different light, and if we listen carefully, there is so much that they can teach us. Children are creative; they believe in miracles and magic, and they don’t know the meaning of hate or prejudice. Most importantly, there is nothing more incredible than witnessing that moment when a child finally learns something new. Their face lights up. Their eyes grow wide. The smile overcomes their face and you can literally see the joy and excitement pour out of them.

And there is nothing more rewarding than that.


Jamaica Day

I could hear the horns halfway through Jacardi (means, shortcut). Children clad in black, green and gold laughed and shouted at each other as they barreled past me down the mountainside. Inwardly, I awarded myself for remembering to buy a Jamaica shirt for the occasion.

The day was rich with excitement. All over the island, children were celebrating their country’s heritage and accomplishments. The school served chicken foot soup and barbequed chicken back and neck. A bulletin board displayed newspaper articles of Jamaican athletes at the Olympics. The compound was a rolling wave of Jamaican colors, playing to a soundtrack of young voices, shouting playfully in a language I still don’t fully understand.

The Marathon

Marathon MapWe stood under a tree on the side of the road, holding light blue tickets made from poster board and a stamp of the school’s seal. “This is the last checkpoint,” Miss explained to me.

The marathon was the highlight of Jamaica Day. Fifty students signed up for it. Shortly after Devotions, they were loaded into two buses and brought to their starting point in Richmond Vale, while several teachers dispersed themselves along the way. The objective: run from Richmond Vale back to Cedar Valley Primary School – a total distance of 3.3 miles.

For a long distance runner, three miles may seem like child’s play, but consider that a U.S. student might be asked to run a mile in his/her P.E. class, then factor in pavement instead of grass, a couple of steep inclines, and children without shoes. That’s the CVPJHS Marathon.

We waited for close to an hour before students made their way toward us. They came charging down the road – barefoot* and shirtless – collecting their colored tickets along the way, encouraged by cheering community members.

They were given ice cream and orange juice upon returning to the school.

* When parents buy shoes for their children, sometimes they have to buy one pair to last two or even three years, so many students prefer to ditch their shoes (especially when running) as soon as they get to school.


Carrie Russell

“Wait, who is this?”
“Carrie Russell. She brought home two gold medals for Track and Field.”
“And she’s from here?”
“She was a student of mine!”

IMG_1693I thought of the students who just ran the marathon; one of them could be Jamaica’s next biggest athlete. What pride these students must feel, to know that one of their own made it to the top. I wonder if that crossed any of their minds as they ran barefoot on mashed up roads through their poor community.

For me, this was exciting. Here I was, a stranger in a strange land, meeting a local star. More importantly, as an Educational Peace Corps Volunteer, whose primary goal is to “make a difference,” there stood before me living proof that you can do anything you set your mind to. Was this as inspiring to the students as it was to me?

This was not the first time I was meeting an Olympic athlete, but this was the first time I witnessed one return to her roots. She arrived on campus so casually that at first no one paid her any mind. Wearing blue jeans, sneakers, and a blouse, she blended into the crowd and disappeared from my view.

A little later she spoke to us, encouraging students to follow their dreams and never give up. She did not speak of her fame, but of how good it felt to return to where it all began. She thanked her teachers – many of whom are still at the school – and assured us that CVPJHS will always have a special place in her heart.

Soccer! Er… Football!!

Penlyne Castle Primary School joined us in the afternoon for the long-awaited, highly coveted football match. With their school in red, and our school in blue, the students began warming up, and more community members arrived. It would appear that the football match was more exciting than an Olympic athlete!

I didn’t stick around for the soccer football game; it was after 3pm by that time, but I hear CVPJHS kicked some major Penlyne booty.


So, between running and football, I’m sure there are a couple of stars hidden within our midst. And as far as Jamaica Day goes, I’d like to think a few of students were inspired to try their best and never give up.

For me, they day was stimulating. Even though I sometimes still struggle to understand the language and culture, and I’m often not made aware of big events until the last minute, I felt fully included for the first time since joining the CVPJHS family. Maybe it was the Jamaica shirt. Or maybe I’ve finally been here long enough to have not slipped everyone’s minds. But while I munched on chicken neck, hung out with the students, and witnessed a real-life story of beating the odds, my preconceived notions of a Peace Corps Volunteer came to mind.

Prior to my own experience, I believed the friendly people I saw in pictures with foreign children were important people. I believed they sat on mountains of personal achievements and were now influential ambassadors performing miracles. Surely these volunteers had to have hearts of pure gold – a heart of which I was not worthy.

So I applied on a whim, never believing I’d get in. Then I did, and slowly made the transition from the outside to the inside. Eleven months into this crazy exploit, and I’ve finally come to understand that I am now one of those people from the photos. Only, I am not performing miracles; I’m taking baby steps. I’m not sitting on a mountain of personal achievement, because I am still learning and growing. Anything I’ve done feels small in comparison to what I’d like to do. And I don’t have a heart of pure gold; I just have my heart – a heart that’s made mistakes but still tries to make the right choices. I’m no great, influential ambassador; I’m just me.

Just me, sitting on a bench, surrounded by students, on a little island in the Caribbean, eating chicken. I am completely present. Around me, I see a culture that is different and also the same in so many ways.  All at once, I understand that this is what it feels like to be one of those people in the photos.

Oh look! I’ve got one now too.



IMG_1517IMG_1523IMG_1629IMG_1532 IMG_1622IMG_1593

Murphy’s Law

Murphy's Law

“The school’s projector doesn’t work very well, but you can use mine. I have good speakers too.”
“Great, thanks! Can I lock them in my classroom so I’ll have them when I get to school tomorrow?”
“I have to teach an early class tomorrow, so I’ll be here.”

Of course, he wasn’t.

I got to school at a quarter after eight, figuring how-to-train-your-dragon-poster-1that forty-five minutes was more than enough time to set up for the movie. My students had spent the last two weeks reading a story about dragons, so I wanted to treat them by showing the Dreamworks film, How To Train Your Dragon. I was excited; this was the first time I was showing them a movie, and I knew they’d really enjoy this one. I wanted to make sure I got to school early enough to set up, and iron out all the kinks before 9am. At an hour and a half in length, that would give us enough time to watch and be finished by Break.

Without Sir’s projector, I was forced to see if I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the other one. I pulled it out, plugged it in, and turned it on. It seemed to work just fine, so I brought it to the library and began my set up. Projector in place and functional, next I needed a computer. Thanks to Apple’s brilliant product scheme, the projector would not properly connect with my laptop, so I needed to track down one of the school’s PC’s.

Okay, PC laptop: check.
Projector: check.
Extension cord? Yeah, I definitely need that. Let’s go get it.

Time: 8:30

As luck would have it, the extension cord was not where it was supposed to be, so I needed to track that down as well. I asked several teachers, and ten minutes later, finally had it in my possession.

“What about speakers?” I asked. “I am showing this to twenty-four students.”
“They should be in the office. You didn’t see them?”
“Hm. Who had them last? Go ask Miss and see if she knows where they are.”

This Miss didn’t know, but maybe that one would. Nope, she didn’t know either; go ask her. “I haven’t seen them, but I think they are in So And So’s classroom.”

Time: 8:58

meme-face-thinkingBy five after nine, I had the speakers in my hands and returned to the library. Thrilled that I was only five minutes behind schedule, I pulled them from their box… and discovered a power plug.

Of course they need to be plugged in, I thought grimly, looking at the wall with only two outlets, and both of them occupied. Can I unplug the computer and let it run on battery? The computer quickly powered down. Guess not.

I need a power strip.

So once more I return to the Principal in search of a power strip, hoping this won’t take me another ten minutes, or that the school even has one. Fortune was with me, but not with the school’s bursar, who had to give up all use of her computer by handing over her electrical unit. Thanking her, and apologizing profusely, I hurried back to the library.

Time: 9:15

As quickly as I could, I unplugged and replugged everything, then rebooted the computer and the projector. As I ran through one more mental checklist and performed a final test for functionality, I heard the distinct grumble of Sir’s car as it entered school property.

PC laptop: check
Projector: check
Speakers: check

Time: 9:23

All systems are go.

In a hustle now, I swiftly collected my students and ushered them into the library. Once they were settled in their seats, I stood before them and smiled. “I am so excited to show you this movie,” I prefaced. “I know how much you liked our dragon story, and I think you’ll really like this movie too. In class, I asked everyone a question; I asked what you would do if you saw a dragon. Some people said they would run from it, and some people said they would fight the dragon. But one brave person,” I winked at that student, “said he would pet the dragon. That said, this movie is called How To Train Your Dragon. I hope you enjoy it!”

I moved aside and pressed play.

Thirty seconds in, when the film’s narration begins, there were sound effects, but no voices. Panic raced through me, but I was tech savvy, so I was confident I could fix this. I quickly paused the movie, apologized, and began pouring over the VLC Media Player settings. After five minutes, and watching my students grow rowdy, I conceded that this might be beyond me. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong! I sent a student running to get Sir. He took his time sauntering across campus, clicked two buttons, and smiled at me before heading out. Back in business, I breathed a sigh of relief, and restarted the film.

A very short time later, someone knocked softly on the library door. Stepping outside, I greeted the Principal.

“Is everything working now?”
“Yes, finally.”
“Good. I am glad you are getting through. I wanted to remind you about the special presentation today. I’m sure you got the notice that went around yesterday?”
“No… I never got a notice.”
“Oh, my apologies. Anyway, there is a special presentation today at Eleven. And you remember that today is an early dismissal day?
“Yes, that I remembered.”

“Miss! Miss!” I heard from inside. We both stepped into the library, to find the screen dark. The projector had finally given up.

Time: 9:50


The master of delegation, I sent the same student back to Sir’s room to get his projector.

At 10:30, the students heard the bell for break, and lost interest in the film.

By 10:50, I began my slow descent into madness. My students finally returned from break and were settled in their seats to resume the film, when the library door opened again. Without acknowledging me, six older boys poured into the room, demanding that my students stand up so they could take the chairs. Livid, I put my foot down. “Excuse me! You knock when you see a closed door, and if you need something, you ask me, the teacher. You don’t just barge in and do whatever you please!”

brunette_rage getting pissedTaking things one step further, I sent the boys away and instructed my students to take the chair they are sitting on and bring it to the pavilion, and to make sure that they each bring one chair back afterward, so that we could finish the movie.

But the presentation went longer than expected, and I knew finishing the movie that day would be impossible. My students, however, eager and excited, did not want to take no for an answer. They did as they were asked, brought back the chairs quickly, and promised they wouldn’t make a mess eating lunch.

Meanwhile, the extension cord had disappeared – turns out they needed that for the presentation too – and the Bursar needed her power strip back so she could get her work done. Other students were trying to sneak in so they could watch the movie too, my students wanted to go to the bathroom, all of them wanted their lunch, and two boys were suddenly wrestling violently on the floor. If that wasn’t chaotic enough, a parent showed up to talk to me about her son, and Sir’s car rolled into view with a honk. “Are you ready to go?” he shouted.

When the hell did it get to be 1:30!?

I don’t know how I did it (PTSD clouds my memory) but I managed to survive the tornado and make it off school grounds in a timely manner. I can’t say much for my sanity, though, and as soon as I reached home, I collapsed on my bed. Tears spilled from my eyes – either from stress, or relief that the day was done – and my final thought before I drifted off for a well-deserved nap was that I needed to change Bowser’s litter.

I woke up to find a fresh, rancid turd in the middle of my bedroom floor.


What I Came Here To Do

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 6.06.57 PM
Finally, I can begin!

After seven months in Jamaica, and five of them as a volunteer, it is only now that I am able to begin what I came here to do. And because I spent the first three weeks planning, I was able to jump straight into my lessons after ESC.

Regardless of my preparations, I was still swamped under a ridiculous workload. My week consists of meeting with each group twice, taking into account planning between sessions, school-wide schedule changes (like an unexpected early dismissal), and reminding teachers of which students to send and at what times. To top it off, even though I’d made a decent set of activity sheets for each lesson, I didn’t remember to label them properly, and returned to school with a mess of my own making to sort out.

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 5.59.00 PMMy first week was exhausting. And because every class did the same thing for the first lesson, I felt like a broken record by Thursday. Luckily, my schedule allowed for a Friday without students, so I was able to get some more planning work done, and then spend the weekend on hiatus.

Meanwhile, week two (the week we are currently in) picked up at a great start. Most of my students behave well enough, and lessons, for the most part, are going as planned.

But adjustments always need to be made, so flexibility is a major part of the job. I’ve already scouted out some potential changes to my groups and have had to make some alterations in lesson plans. Additionally, I’ve been able to iron out a couple of small details to help make my life easier, like giving each child a post-it with their days and class times on them, and asking them to help remind their teachers that they need to come see me. This, at least, eliminates my need to constantly remind or come fetch my students, and it provides them with a feeling of responsibility.


This week also marks the beginning of my Reading Club, which is held after school on Thursdays. Due to limited resources, and because asking children to read additional pages might pose as a challenge, the Reading Club consists primarily of games to help reinforce the fundamentals. Some of the materials I’ve made for my students turned out to be perfect for this. Things like Sounding-Out Dominoes or Rhyming Bingo, Matching (or Memory) with uppercase and lowercase letters, and even introducing Hangman was a great success. I’ll continue with this club for a few weeks, and then try something new. I have an idea for a Writing Club, and another idea for a Study Hall, which, if all goes well, has potential to evolve into something bigger and more permanent.

DSCN1272One of the teachers at school has also noticed some of the materials I’ve made, and has requested help with some materials of her own to help her struggling students. She understands the importance of reinforcement through repetition, and hopes that these students (I have six from her class) can continue to improve on their reading even outside my classroom. This teacher and I have partnered together for our Reading Club, and she will lend a tremendous hand with my Library Improvement Project.

Speaking of projects, the school has voiced its desire for a computer lab, and since ESC was partially about secondary projects, I will begin the plans for that as well. I’ll be working with the teachers, ancillary staff, and other members of the community to help establish a functioning computer lab with Internet, as well as incorporating a computer class into the curriculum. Of course, all these things take time, so when there is an update on my projects, I’ll be sure to include it.

All in all, despite how much I am already accomplishing, there still seems to be an endless to-do list, both at school and in my personal life. My bedroom floor is in desperate need of a good sweeping, I’m overdue for a load of laundry, and busy tracking down missing care packages or arranging for those that have arrived to be picked up or delivered. I’m keeping up with friends back at home through Skype, email, Facebook and my blog, and making Halloween plans with PCV friends around the island. Let’s not forget my dedication to lose the weight I put on during the summer. That includes a regular workout routine, and the necessity to stop being lazy and actually cook myself a decent dinner. Which, if we’re being honest, hasn’t happened yet this week.

The Sixth Grade girls drew this for me
The Sixth Grade girls drew this for me
(left) Letter Tiles, (right) Sounding Out Dominoes
(left) Letter Tiles, (right) Sounding Out Dominoes

My First Site Visit

Every once in a while, staff will come to a PCV’s site and check in on them. This is usually always a good thing, and while I can’t speak for everyone, most of us love them. We get feedback on our projects, help with ideas for further development, and if we’re really lucky, a care package.

DSCN0964Last week, my PM, my PTS, and one of the PC nurses graced me with their presence. For two of them, it was their first time seeing my site, and they were in absolute awe. I mentioned earlier that my school was exceptional compared to most other sites, and seeing their reactions only confirmed that belief. When I showed them my incredibly spacious classroom, they immediately launched into a frenzied discussion of its potential. At last, PM declared that PCV’s were not allowed to visit my site, because she’d get too many phone calls from angry people, upset they weren’t as spoiled as me. Evidently, I really lucked out.

Then I brought them into the library. First, I showed them the teaching materials I’ve been working on, and they were very impressed. They asked me if I would please take pictures of them so they could show Group 85 during their training! Then we reviewed lesson plans, and I received more praise.

Next we moved on to discussion of my library project. They liked all of my ideas and even threw in some more of their own. This launched a twenty-minute discussion that resulted in me having to take notes because they were all so good!

During the last part of their visit, I put PM and PTS to work moving some boxes, while Nurse and I drove up the road to my house to chat privately. She likes to have a visualization of where I live and keep health-related items in my room in case there is ever an emergency. Then we sat on the veranda and filled out a few forms and answered a few questions. One those questions included something like, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you say you feel on a regular basis; 1 being depressed, 5 or 6 is coping, and 10 is incredibly content?” I mulled it over for a moment and happily reported that I am at an 8 or 9.

Much later that day, long after they’d left, PTS called to commend me again on my ideas and progress. He told me to keep up the good work and he looks forward to visiting my site again in the future.

And to top it all off, my first site visit also came with my first care package. Thanks Mom!!

My first site visit also came with my first care package!!!
Whoa, big package.