High teacher turnover takes its toll

They come for the promise of year-round sun, tax-free salary and the chance to work in one of the most advanced and developed countries in the Caribbean.But teachers tempted to these shores from overseas are increasingly finding life in paradise is not what they expected.  

 

The number of teachers leaving the profession, or at least leaving the Cayman Islands, has increased dramatically in the past couple of years. 

Around 80 of the 439 teaching staff in the public school system left their jobs in the last academic year, up from 47 in the 2011/2012 school year. 

A high reliance on expatriates, who form more than half of the teaching body in government schools, is a factor. Countries such as Bermuda and cities further afield such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, face similar issues. 

Teachers in the Cayman Islands are relatively well paid, the salary is tax-free and the weather and the lifestyle are hard to match. So why do so many leave each year? 

For some there is a natural inclination to return home after a few years in ‘paradise.’ For others, the reality does not match what they expected. 

The largest group of expat teachers in the Cayman Islands is from Jamaica; the second largest is from the UK. 

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education acknowledged that the high turnover rate, particularly among expat teachers, has an impact. 

“Expat teachers are not concentrated in any particular school. They are spread across schools, so when they leave the system to return home, any school can be affected.  

“The loss of an expat has more impact when it is a school leader who leaves. This is a challenge we have carefully considered for the coming academic year. In the government schools, all but one principal are either Caymanian or have a long-standing relationship with the Cayman Islands as well as PR status,” the spokeswoman said. 

Current and former teachers, writing in response to a Caymanian Compass article on the high staff turnover rates, cited a lack of support in cases of physical and emotional abuse from students, as well as stress and worsening working conditions as potential explanations. 

The education ministry conducts exit interviews with departing staff. The ministry did not share the findings of these interviews with the Journal but insists it uses the information to address any issues and make changes were necessary. 

Turnover a problem in the U.S. too  

In the U.S., high teacher turnover rates are also a problem, particularly in urban areas. The primary reason, according to academic reports, is young teachers dropping out because of high stress levels. 

In a warning that could have some relevance to Cayman’s classrooms, a report for the National Commission on Teaching and America’s future concluded: “The consequences of high teacher turnover are particularly dire for our nation’s low-performing, high poverty schools.  

“Many of these schools struggle to close the student achievement gap because they never close the teaching quality gap – they are constantly rebuilding their staff.  

“An inordinate amount of their capital – both human and financial – is consumed by the constant process of hiring and replacing beginning teachers who leave before they have mastered the ability to create a successful learning culture for their students.” 

No data or analysis is available locally to determine the effect of constantly replacing a large number of teachers every year, 

 

Cayman’s strategy  

The strategy adopted in Cayman so far to address the issue has been to consolidate school leadership in the hands of Caymanians or permanent residents and to devise a new course at the University College of the Cayman Islands to increase the supply of resident teachers, who are theoretically less likely to move on. 

UCCI president Roy Bodden said the new course, a collaboration between the university and government, would enable students to qualify as teachers without going overseas to study. He said the previous course at the college was not recognized by the Ministry of Education, which has had a hand in devising the new course to meet international standards. The course will mean students can get a Bachelor of Education degree locally over four years, 

“I consider it to be of critical importance for the jurisdiction to set as a high priority, the training and preparation of greater numbers of Caymanian teachers,” said Bodden. 

“Decreasing reliance on foreign teachers not only makes sense culturally but significantly reduces leakage of valuable foreign exchange as well. Additionally, Caymanian teachers will be able to fit into classroom situations with the minimum of adjustment since there will be no difference in accent and other cultural nuances which reportedly presents challenges, especially in cases of teachers recruited from outside the Caribbean region. 

“The future social and economic development of the Cayman Islands must be predicated upon the jurisdiction becoming self-sufficient in the critical areas of nursing and teaching. It is in the provision of trained personnel in these as well as other popular fields of endeavor that the UCCI can play a pivotal role.” 

 

Expats will always be needed  

The education department accepts that there will always be a need for some expatriate teachers and indicates high teacher turnover rate is inevitable in systems that depend on imported expertise. 

A spokeswoman said: “Many systems depend on expat teachers, for example Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This generally occurs where there are small populations and insufficient qualified teachers with the right specialisms to match all curriculum needs. 

“There are currently almost 5,000 school-age students in government schools and around 2,760 in private schools. The number of students in our system is growing, and it is not possible to cover all classes without expat teachers. Expat teachers come from around the globe to work in public and private schools in the Cayman Islands. They perform important work in educating our children.” 

The spokeswoman added that while some moved on, many chose to stay. 

“Expat teachers tend to choose to come to work in Cayman because they want the experience and lifestyle as well as enjoy a tax-free salary. Whilst some leave each year, many choose to stay, and within the group of expat teachers, there is a very stable core.” 

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More teachers left the Cayman Islands last year than in previous years.
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