Stemming the tide: a critical examination of issues, challenges and solutions to Jamaican teacher migration

Carol Hordatt Gentles


Over the last 30 years, Jamaica has been grappling with the loss of large numbers of its teachers through recruitment to overseas jobs. This has created a shortage of teachers across all of Jamaica’s 833 schools, particularly in subject areas such as mathematics, science and foreign languages. The responses of successive governments over this period indicate concern about the migration of its teaching workforce. However, as I suggest in this chapter, these responses have been ineffective in managing the problem. They have focused on finding ways to mitigate the fallout from teacher migration, replacing these teachers instead of focusing on retaining teachers already in classroom. This suggests a devaluing ofjamaican teachers’ work because it implies that the professional knowledge and experience they enact in classrooms can be easily replaced. It also suggests Jamaican policymakers are ignoring the factors that are driving Jamaican teachers out ofjamaican classrooms to take up teaching positions abroad. They are failing to consider how poor remuneration, heavy workloads, poor working conditions, feelings of disempowerment, low professional autonomy, lack of meaningful professional preparation, low status and disrespect affect the capacity of teachers to be effective and influence their decisions to leave.

As a Jamaican teacher educator, whose job entails professional capacity-building for teachers at the graduate level, I am committed to the view that provision of quality education by quality teachers is critical for the continued social and cultural development of Jamaica. The loss of trained and experienced teachers has serious negative implications for our capacity to provide effective education.

The extent of the problem

Although statistical data on the loss of teachers from Jamaican classrooms has been poorly documented, various reports from the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) and press releases (identified later) provide a picture of the scope of the problem. These suggest Jamaica has been losing between 350 and 1,000 of its 25,000 teachers a year since 2000. This is a direct consequence of recruitment drives by overseas agencies from the US and the UK. In 2002, a meeting of the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) Ministers of Education was convened to discuss the recruitment of Caribbean teachers to the UK, the US and Canada. There the Jamaican Government reported that in 2001, 350 teachers had migrated to New York and 100 to the UK (Rudder, 2011). The trend has continued. In 2016, the Minister of Education reported that between 2014 and 2015 more than 500 mathematics and science teachers at the secondary level left the classroom to go overseas (Wilson, 2016). Later that year he explained the impact of this, pointing out that migration was severely eroding the population of fully qualified mathematics teachers. Consequently, of the 207 mathematics teachers available in 2015, 111 had left, leaving only 96 in the system (Saunders, 2016). In March 2019, there were reports of the loss of another 100 mathematics and science teachers who left to take up jobs overseas (Saunders, 2019). Shortages of geography, history and religious education teachers due to migration have also been reported (Virtue, 2018).

Until recently, recruitment agencies came predominantly from the UK and the US. Now, recruiters and job advertisements are coming from China, Japan, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia. Jamaican teachers have also historically migrated to other Caribbean countries, such as the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. More recently, there have been reports of young tertiary graduates without teaching certification (who might normally consider training to teach and work in Jamaica), finding jobs as English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers in Asian countries.1 Anecdotal evidence suggests that foreign language, English language, geography, religious education, early childhood and primary teachers are also leaving to teach in the Middle East.

The fallout from this exodus is particularly problematic at the secondary level, where it is crucial to have specialist mathematics and science teachers in place. For example, in August 2018, the principal of a prominent secondary school reported to the local press that his mathematics department had lost four of its eight mathematics teachers over the summer (Gilpin, 2018). The principal of another top-performing school in science reported it had lost its only physics teacher (Davis, 2018). In 2016, the president of the Jamaican Association of Principals and Vice Principals reported that more than a dozen experienced mathematics teachers had left his secondary school during the last academic year (RJR News, 2016). The fact that similar stories are echoed across Jamaica year after year suggests teacher attrition due to migration is a growing crisis for the education sector and the country.

The vacancies created by teacher migration affect both the quality of teaching and thus student achievement. As early as 2005, Sives, Morgan, Appleton, and Bremmer reported: ‘the migration of experienced teachers has undoubtedly had an impact on the quality of education that some schools have been able to provide Jamaican children’ (p. 98). At the time, the principals they interviewed were able to hire newly qualified teachers to fill vacancies left by teachers who had migrated overseas, but they complained these new teachers lacked competence and experience. Some 14 years later, principals are still distressed that teachers they hire to fill vacancies are inexperienced and even poorly qualified. However, given the current mass exodus of teachers, it is increasingly difficult to find replacements to hire. Thus, principals have little choice but to work with the teachers they can find. In cases where no replacements can be found, schools have to implement extraordinary and unsatisfactory measures to offset the loss of teachers. For example, in schools where geography, history or science teachers have left, schools simply either stop offering these subjects or assign unqualified teachers to teach them.

The fallout from such measures is detrimental to students, teachers and parents alike. When students take weekend and evening classes, they miss opportunities to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. When teachers and administrative staff step in to do the work of teachers who have migrated, they become overburdened with the increased workload. The sudden departure of teachers, often without notice, places tremendous pressure on principals to find new staff from a shrinking pool of subject specialists. Parents are stressed when their children sit in classrooms without a teacher (Davis, 2018). Teacher shortages also affect student achievement. In 2016, the education minister blamed teacher shortages due to migration for a 6.2 per cent decline (from 53.9 to 47.7 per cent) in Jamaica’s overall pass rate in CSEC (Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate) mathematics (Jamaica Gleaner, 2016a). More recently, the president of the Jamaica Teachers Association stated publicly that ‘the constant migration of Jamaican teachers to greener pastures is having a crippling effect on the quality of education being offered to the nation’s children’; he noted that that critical subjects have had to be dropped because there were no teachers to teach them and warned of the negative implications of this for the production of functional graduates from the education sector in the future (Jackson, 2019).

Attempting to stem the tide of teacher migration

Before considering how to address the problem of teacher migration, it is important to note it is a subset of the larger problem. Jamaicans have always had a ‘high propensity for migration that has persisted [from the 1850s] to the present time’ (Thomas-Hope, 2018, p. 3). The number ofjamaicans living abroad is estimated at 1.3 million. Together with ‘the foreign-born second and third generations who associate their identity with Jamaica’, they represent a Jamaican diaspora ‘equivalent in size to that of the population of 2.8 million in Jamaica itself (Thomas-Hope, 2018, p. vii). This diaspora contributes heavily to the Jamaican economy through remittances sent back to Jamaica. The most recent Migration Report for Jamaica (Thomas-Hope, 2018, p. 82) states that ‘remittances contributed some 14 per cent to the national GDP each year over the ten years 2006/15 and was 16.1 and 16.3 per cent in 2015 and 2016, respectively’.

The propensity to migrate is influenced by push factors in Jamaica, such as lack of economic and social opportunities, and high rates of unemployment and underemployment, as well as high levels of crime, violence, lawlessness and general societal indiscipline (Parkins, 2010; Thomas-Hope, 2018; Glennie & Chappell, 2010). This is offset by the promise of what is possible abroad: higher levels of income and increased purchasing power, along with the more attractive lifestyle of developed countries. For many Jamaican migrants, the family networks of the diaspora are a strong pull factor. For teachers and other professionals, the lure of what is offered by recruiters from abroad is also very persuasive. Media reports suggest Jamaican teachers who take up jobs in the UK are paid five times more salary than they earn in Jamaica (Neufville, 2016). Through conversations with former students who have migrated, I have learned that many teachers who have recently migrated to the US enjoy high levels of support from recruitment agencies. Recruiters process work visas for them, pay their airfare abroad and provide financial support for initial settlement such as accommodation and a car. Migrating teachers also report they are given strong professional support through structured orientation and mentoring, along with ongoing professional development opportunities. Additionally, their immediate families can join them in the US after a probationary period.

A critical examination of government responses to the issue of teacher migration suggests that what is happening is recognised as a problem. However, it seems more value is placed on the prospect of securing income through remittances from the teachers who migrate than on attempting to stem the tide of teacher attrition from Jamaican classrooms. In practice, government policies seem to focus on replacing rather than retaining teachers to serve the education sector. According to Jamaica’s Migration Report (Thomas-Hope, Knight, & Noel, 2012, p. 57), policy responses to address ‘the problem of the outflow of high-level skills (“brain drain”) . . . have included bonding, increased training output and recruitment of workers from overseas’. Thus, for example, in 2016 reports of heavy losses of teachers spurred a debate about giving substantial salary increases to mathematics and science teachers to encourage them to stay. In response to protest from the teachers union (which objected to offering a raise to only mathematics and science teachers), the government backed down, opting instead to extend a previous initiative to fill existing shortages by offering scholarships to suitable persons in the field (Jamaica Cleaner, 2016b). This was done through a recruitment drive for mathematics and science teachers under a $13 million USD programme to provide 1,200 scholarships to pre- and in-service teachers by 2021. In 2017, 440 of these scholarships were awarded. Successful candidates were to be bonded for service as teachers for five years (Buckley, 2016). As a stopgap, in 2017, the Ministry of Education trained and deployed 70 mathematics coaches and tutors to serve 4,000 students in 118

secondary schools until the newly trained teachers were ready for the classroom (Linton, 2017),

Other strategies to replace teachers have included recruitment of retired teachers and teachers from overseas. Thus, since 1997, 72 teachers have been recruited from Cuba to teach the sciences, Spanish and other subjects at primary, secondary and tertiary level. In 2016, the then Minister of Education even suggested a ‘quick fix’ of using technology, with strategies like flipped classrooms as possibilities for filling the gap left by migrating teachers (Wilson, 2016).

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >