Speiding up North
Former JTA president touts value US places on teachers; benefits afforded to students
After more than three decades as an educator in Jamaica, former Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) President Owen Speid is now working in the United States. Like many of his colleagues who ditched local classrooms for more lucrative opportunities...
After more than three decades as an educator in Jamaica, former Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) President Owen Speid is now working in the United States.
Like many of his colleagues who ditched local classrooms for more lucrative opportunities abroad, the firebrand teacher advocate, whose last stint in Jamaica was as principal of Rousseau Primary School in St Andrew, is not surprised that many of the most qualified and experienced educators are looking outward.
Education Minister Fayval Williams recently said that some 167 teachers had resigned islandwide since July, but the JTA – which represents more than 23,000 of the island’s teachers in public schools – said it is foreseeing a shortage of roughly 600 educators come September, as many more have either resigned, retired or have gone on leave.
Speid, who spent 18 years as a classroom teacher before doing another 15 years in administration, believes that when the new academic year officially begins next week, the true picture could be worse – much worse. And by next year, things could get even grimmer.
“The Government knows that the numbers that they are putting out there are false,” Speid shared over the phone with The Sunday Gleaner last week from his residence in the United States. “My figures are telling me that 3,000 to 4,000 teachers have migrated since this year and I expect the year’s final count to be tripled next year, because in America, teachers are treated well, so they feel valued.
“Some people have not even told their school yet because they know that they have some school administrators who will try to hold on to salaries if they send an early resignation. So you’re not going to get the real numbers until maybe the first to the second week of September. I see nearer to 4,000.”
UPHILL BATTLE IN JAMAICA
Since migrating to the United States with his family last year, Owen Speid said they have been reaping dividends from that decision, adding that the move opened his eyes to an embarrassingly huge gap between the standards of the US and Jamaica.
“Since we came, my son went through his final year of high school, at minimal expense to us, because there are resources here that cover him, but if he was in Jamaica, I would have to spend quite a bit for him to finish high school, including school fees and textbooks, but he now gets all the resources free of cost,” Speid revealed.
Additional support such as a school bus system that takes students to and from school embarrasses the haphazard transportation system that exists, especially in rural Jamaica.
“There are many more resources in the American school system than in Jamaica by far. The conditions under which you work are far superior and class sizes are generally smaller,” added the veteran educator.
He emphasised that teachers were far more valued in the US.
“In Jamaica if you go to the parents group, they are ungrateful; the ministry group, they’re ungrateful, too, because teachers have to go through with very limited resources. Teaching is the only profession in Jamaica, in particular, where the workers have to be raising funds to maintain the institutions that they work with,” Speid said.
“Policemen don’t buy bullets or handcuffs and nurses don’t buy injection needles; they don’t buy medicine to go to work with. But teachers have to raise funds in the schools to ensure that they run their programmes. Even to pay bills, teachers and principals have had to beg to cover their expenses, so nobody rates the teacher,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
The political directorate has also been failing teachers, Speid said, ranking Williams and Andrew Holness – the man now in charge of the country’s Government – as the worst education ministers the country has seen. Holness, however, was a tad better than Williams, he said.
“They are the ones who started with this JTC (Jamaica Teaching Council) bill and are talking about performance that is pushing the teachers away from Jamaica,” he said.
The controversial bill, which is currently being reviewed by a parliamentary joint select committee, has met strong resistance from leading players in the sector as the Government seeks to repeal the Education Regulations of 1980 and police the conduct of teachers.
Speid believes that the urgent push to roll out the JTC was to muzzle people who are outspoken and will speak out on issues.
“I told [former Education Minister Ruel Reid] that they should back off, and I am still making the call for them to back off because it is one of the things that is frightening the teachers and pushing them away,” he said. “The teachers don’t believe that there will be any job security if the JTC bill is implemented in its current form because the Government will have the liberty to withdraw or refuse licences at will, so someone as outspoken like me, if I was in Jamaica, would one day be told that my licence would not be renewed.”
DOLLARS AND SENSE
Owen Speid says the average teacher in the United States school system is paid three to four times more than what they would earn in Jamaica, a major factor pulling Jamaicans to the North American country.
“The salary in Jamaica is much too low and because of these things, the teachers don’t feel they have anybody in their corner, so they are going to be moving towards a better life when they get the opportunity,” he argued. “The rate of the Jamaican dollar compared to the US currency is another factor and so it is a lot easier for us to convert and invest in Jamaica.
“If you don’t make the conditions right for the teachers, then you’re not making any proper conditions for the learners.”
Speid said a desire to be paid what he was worth was critical to him exiting the local system after more than 30 years.
“I know my worth and from a young man coming up, I have held fast to my principles and beliefs and if I can earn a good living, nothing else matters,” he said. “The truth is that many of the teachers may never return because schools here see their worth and make sure that they get their green cards. ... I can’t tell anyone that it’s a bed of roses here because in America, you will have to do the job you have committed to do, but you are provided with the resources, so teachers are going where they are respected, where they are appreciated.”
While teachers in Jamaica have to face the harsh economic times with little or no support from the Government outside of the low salaries, US-based educators get a bonus at the end of each school term and another at the end of the calendar year.
“It is a disgrace that Jamaica cannot give the teachers a little push when it is back-to-school to buy some new clothes or to set up their classrooms,” he added.
And it’s not just teachers who were feeling undervalued, he pointed out, noting that nurses and other public sector workers have been heading to North America to do odd jobs to improve their standard of living.
“Picking apples or being a sales clerk in Walmart is better off than teaching maths in Jamaica,” he said.
PORTLAND LAD BECOMES JTA HEAD
Owen Speid’s parents were vendors, who depended on farming to raise their 11 children in Windsor Castle, Portland.
When his grade six teacher at Windsor Castle All-Age School told him he would not do well academically, a fiery determination was ignited in the youngster. He passed his Common Entrance Examination for Titchfield High.
At age 11, Speid embarked on his first business venture, selling peanuts and other delicacies at the bus terminus in Port Antonio, Portland, and in Annotto Bay, St Mary, to help finance his education after his father walked out on the family, leaving his mother with five children attending Titchfield High all at the same time.
“I was willing to do what I had to do to buy my books and uniform and I did that straight through high school,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
At Titchfield, cricket coach Noel Cousins became a big influence in his life.
“He is the first person to believe in me, and imparted a strength of character and that never-say-die attitude so that I can be my best self,” recalled Speid, who was a top cricketer at the Headley Cup level and began representing the parish at the age of 19.
He also went on to play for St Catherine Cricket Club and for Lucas, subsequently becoming captain of the Portland parish team.
He also played football.
Speid attended The Mico University College – then Mico Teachers’ College – where he earned his diploma as an educator.
His plan was to only do three years in the teaching profession and then pursue something else, so he went to CAST – now the University of Technology, Jamaica – where he studied marketing, while teaching and coaching.
Speid then attended Western Carolina University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in middle-grade education, graduating with honours.
He then completed a master’s degree in education, leadership and supervision.
An occasional Gleaner guest columnist, Speid, for years, served as the science and language arts tutor for the Children’s Own, while offering private lessons.
“I’ve never done one job, so being in America now, I still continue to be versatile and do what I have to do to survive,” he said. “I enjoyed every minute of what I did in Jamaica over the past three decades. I was very successful and everything I touched turned to gold and I do not see why my move to the US will be any different.”
Speid and his wife Rochelle, who is also an educator, are now international teachers, and he is now furthering his studies with grant funding support for the first period.
“My wife and I have combined our resources and are far more comfortable than when we were in Jamaica,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
When he wanted to have a greater voice to save the “limping” education system in Jamaica, Speid saw the JTA presidency as the perfect vehicle to lobby for change.
“I ran for the presidency three times because there were issues, and from 1999, I watched what was happening with education and nobody seemed to care. So all of that was bottled up inside me, and I decided that I would offer myself as the president,” said the former JTA head, who gives his own 2019-2020 administration an ‘A’ and rubbishes suggestions that the union has been ineffective.
“I visited 200-plus schools when I was president because street data is not something to be taken lightly because when I visit the schools, people – the teachers – talk casually about their issues,” he said.
Speid is unhappy with the association’s silence on current plans by the Government to remove motor vehicle concessions for teachers.
“I am very displeased because I believe after five years, every educator should be entitled to motor vehicle concession, but just thinking of taking it away is cruelty,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
“When I was JTA president and even before I became president and during our meetings, I used to warn the minister of finance that something must be done to make sure that the best teachers stay in Jamaica, but he did not respond.”