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The men of Alta

Thursday, February 21, 2013
Reading it's Life

Cedriann Martin

Trinidad and Tobago gets its education news through a gendered lens. Girls, we’re told, top the boys at the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examination. There are vastly more women than men teaching at primary schools. 


Young men far outnumber their female counterparts in the engineering faculty at the University of the West Indies. And on and on. 


So it isn’t lost on the administrators at the Adult Literacy Tutors Association (Alta) that more than 90 per cent of their tutors are—you guessed it—female. A typical Alta tutor training attracts about three dozen women, but only one or two men.


But retired school supervisor, Darnley Gittens, remembers a time when teaching wasn’t strictly a woman’s work. 


“Upon leaving secondary school I went to Mausica Teachers’ College. The intake annually was 110 people. Every year they took in 55 men and 55 women.


“This,” he qualifies, “is 1966.”


During the ensuing years, gender norms shifted.


Today, many people think of teaching as a stereotypical, caring profession. And they’ve increasingly come to think of teachers as women.


Thirty-six-year-old Alta tutor, Andy Romero, explains that his experience in the classroom has challenged his own self-perception.


“I didn’t know myself before,” he reflects. “I found out who I was here in Alta. Society views me as being very dread… very cold… not understanding as a male. In Alta it is totally different. I am one of the more understanding teachers.”


There’s still a ring of surprise in his voice. 


Investment banker Leslie St Louis comes from a long line of educators, but he only capitalised on his genetic gift for teaching a couple of years ago. In his mind the shortage of male role models is an issue for society at large.


“Men tend to take on the role of provider and not necessarily of supporter and caregiver. It’s an awareness issue. It requires a level of self-confidence as a man to feel you can help. Many men see their role in a very narrow way and they never reach the stage of consciousness of getting past the provider line,” he says. 


Retired Holy Name Convent teacher, Carlyle Singh, applies the gender question to Alta’s students: “In the main, lots of males will not admit that they have this challenge. We do get more men coming to the class nowadays. Mind you, many of these same men might want the female touch once they get into the classroom, but ultimately the tone that is set is that everybody is equal and everybody has come to learn, whether they have a male or a female talking to them.” 


For the vast majority of these men, the decision to volunteer with Alta arose from their deep desire to contribute to their communities.


“For me the decision was taken in the context of retirement... not wanting to sit down at home and contemplate the sky, but to get out and do something that allows me to give back to the community. Interacting with the students and seeing them progress after one or two years brings an incredible personal satisfaction,” reflects retired diplomat, Philip Sealy.


Ian Georges is the odd man out. He’s matter-of-fact about his less-than-altruistic motivation for starting tutoring at Alta. As he neared age 60, he thought about taking on one of those gigs as an English language teacher in some faraway place. Alta, he thought, would get his teaching shoes wet. 


“At first it was driven by selfishness and personal motivation. I thought: Why not find out if you like it? You might help somebody in need as a by-product’.


“Now I realise that I need Alta more than Alta needs me. It is unbelievably rewarding... the best investment I’ve ever made in my life. This is the first time in 30 years that I am actually doing something I really love,” georges reflects.


When asked what they’ve learned about themselves through the Alta experience, the answer is almost unanimous: they didn’t know what patient men they were.


All male teachers aren’t the same, mind you. They have varying views on T&T’s literacy challenge.


For Gittens, who has had a lifelong passion for serving the children whose special needs aren’t obvious, the flaws are to be found in our education system. 


“We have to ask whether there is something wrong with the students or something wrong with the schoolteachers. Even if you do not understand, you should feel as though the teachers are on your side. In schools, some of the teachers are not as dedicated as they could be. There are people who are not in it to help… they don’t love their jobs and aren’t concerned with whether or not it’s done properly,” he contends.


But for Georges the fault often lies with a society that does not sufficiently value education and support children’s access. Some of his students share stories of having been, quite simply, kept away from school. Others opted not to go and didn’t have adults insist. 


“We want the smoking gun,” he says, “but the problem lies with us.”


Whatever the origins of the problem, Alta provides a solution to which all these men firmly subscribe. They’re a motley crew in terms of age, professions and demeanours but there are a few points on which they are unanimous.


First, volunteering for Alta isn’t just about a couple hours, a couple times each week. It requires an investment of time, energy and emotion. But it’s all worth it. Many of their students move from strength to strength—some can read the paper; others can fill out their own passport forms; others still successfully complete School Leaving and Caribbean Examination Council examinations.


There’s something about the kind of person who would sign up for the Alta challenge that combines with the philosophy and form of the programme to create committed, compassionate teachers... gender notwithstanding.


—Cedriann Martin is the Communications Officer at the UNAIDS Caribbean Regional Support Team

• Play your part to build literacy. If you have time, volunteer to be an Alta tutor, a Reading Circle guide or to assist students on the computer. If your time is already booked, sponsor an Alta student for the year (TT$500). Call 624-ALTA (2582) or e-mail [email protected]


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