The Cayman Islands Society of Professional Accountants has partnered with Red Bay Primary School to bring its members into the classroom and help the kids with what accountants rely on every day: Numeracy.
“Throw me under the bus” was the feeling Jarard Blake of UBS had when he first stood in front of a whole class of primary school children to teach them numeracy.
“I walked in there saying to myself how bad can it be?” he says.
“The first time I taught in front of the whole class, I realised how challenging a job teachers actually have to control 28 to 30 kids, who are full of energy.”
But after nearly a whole year of spending one hour every week teaching numeracy to Year 4, 5 and 6 children, Blake has found a comfort zone.
“Some days we would take some of the kids aside and work one on one with them or in small groups; other days I would teach the class,” he explains.
Blake is one of 10 CISPA members who regularly give their time to Red Bay Primary to help with the school’s numeracy programme.
The school in turn has welcomed the volunteers and is grateful that “these professionals took time out of their busy schedules to make the student’s future a little brighter”, says principal Vickie Fredericks-Best.
She adds that the volunteers routinely state that they feel they get more out of the programme than they give and learn first-hand the challenges facing students and teachers today.
“One thing I noticed across the board is that [the students] are all eager to learn, but they all learn at a different pace. And the danger that I saw in the schools with a large class size is that the teacher can only teach so much in the time and they often have to devote their energy to the kids who are paying attention and getting it,” he says.
But it is not all down to the school to take responsibility for the children’s education, Blake notes.
“In a perfect world they would all have their parents involved with their homework. But that is not always the case.”
He believes that the students enjoy the different experience as well as the extra attention they are getting.
“Having an outside person come in makes a difference, mixes it up. The kids sit up straight and put an extra bit of effort into it,” Blake says, adding “that the kids are happy to see you”, which makes it a “very rewarding experience”.
“They are just happy to have someone else to have some interest in them, picking someone to go to the board to give an answer, not taking no for an answer, when they say they can’t do it.”
The programme has been several years in the making and discussions began when Charles Bolland, partner at PWC and chairman of the CISPA Development Committee, began to explore what the organisation could do to reach out to the education industry.
The first discussions with Mary Anne Cannon, who recently passed away and was the careers counsellor at UCCI, resulted in meetings with Caroline Dawes, the schools’ numeracy coordinator, and Shirley Wahler, the head of the Education Department.
Maths was identified as the main challenge for the local schools and numeracy and maths seemed a perfect fit for accountants to become involved, says Bolland.
In addition to a $15,000 funding over three years that would enable the department to go for the “A-standard in terms of materials”, it was agreed that CISPA members would go into the class rooms at primary school level to help with the numeracy strategy, he explains.
“We started with the sponsorship in the first year, but it was only in the second year that we got the volunteer programme in place.”
Like with any pilot programme not everything went without mistakes and Bolland admits that there probably should have been a briefing session to start with.
When CISPA did a review meeting with the CISPA volunteers the feedback was that some of them felt overwhelmed, that they only scratched the surface and that the kids really needed help.
“But they said they actually managed to connect with those kids and look forward to seeing them every week,” says Bolland.
Since then the programme has been tweaked and new ideas of how to make maths fun were explored, which could be employed in after school clubs in addition to the classroom-based assistance.
“I think one of the frustrations that the mentors feel is that the teachers have to cover a certain amount of material and then move on even if the children have clearly not grasped everything,” says Bolland.
“That is where they feel that if you could do something outside of that regimented programme, they can be more creative in what they do.“
The other important aspect of the programme is that it not only benefits the children but also the volunteers by making that connection.
“Many of the mentors are expats who might not otherwise have any interaction with Caymanian children and we are actually breaking down barriers by doing that,” explains Bolland.
To witness the progress of the children over the course of a year, to “go through the different steps with them and then see that light bulb go on when they get it” is also very rewarding, says Blake.
For the private sector to take part in an initiative that is typically the domain of the public sector is also very important for society overall.
“These kids are our kids. They may not be yours personally, but if we don’t help them at all, when we see a shortfall or room for improvement, then we will have to deal with them later and may be not in the way we want to,” says Blake.
CISPA aims to establish a critical mass of volunteers to extend the programme to another school next year and also expand the scope of the assistance to after school clubs.
Another CISPA initiative, in conjunction with UCCI, is the E-mentor programme, designed for students enrolled in the Associate in Accounting or Bachelor of Science in Accounting degree programmes at UCCI and partnered each student with a CISPA volunteer who acts as the student’s mentor for the next semester.
“Mentors play an important role by providing support in their mentee’s course work as well as general advice and guidance on entering the accounting profession,” says one of the mentors Garth Ebanks of KPMG.
The programme puts students in touch with an active accounting professional, who acts as a point of contact for the student, is able to share accounting and industry knowledge, can give direction on career paths or discuss everyday experiences that have nothing to do with accounting.
Ebanks says having good technical knowledge is necessary but other characteristics such as attitude, work ethic and personality are even more important in one’s career. And this is where mentors are also often called upon to give advice.
Student and mentor are in contact through emails, phone calls or face to face meetings as often as required, sometimes several times a week.
“It has not always worked, it depends a lot on the personalities and in particular the students and how keen they are,” says Bolland. “But we had some real success stories, where people have become good friends.”