Workshops and Meetings and Trainings, Oh My! Part 1: SCA Meeting

To give you a perfect example of how the culture works here and how work gets done, I wanted to document these next couple of months of workshops and meetings and trainings.

I have mentioned it once and I will mention it a thousand times: that we, as PCVs, cannot just come and make a change. We need to fulfill the needs. We are here to make slow change, over time. We don't burst in the door and say "HERE IS HOW TO MAKE IT ALL DIFFERENT."

I will start things off by saying that my school is an excellent school. I'm not just saying continually wins awards, and it has a reputation of being a very organized, well-off school with lots of resources. We have staff meetings and school councils. Once, when I spoke to Frances, who is on Erromango, about one of our staff meetings, she said, "ooh, I'm writing that idea down: 'have staff meetings.'" I assume that our school's leg up has to do with being close to a provincial center, therefore getting lots of exposure to the western world as well as resources.

But we have flaws, as any school does. And the teachers here are well aware of them, and willing to make changes, which makes it a great site for a PCV.

Lately, there have been so many workshops and meetings and trainings that I wanted to give you an inside look at what is discussed at these meetings, who attends them, and how they run.

June 6th, 2018
2nd SCA meeting of 2018
Our school has an SCA, which is the "School Community Association." Think of it as a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) but the SCA allows it to broaden to elders in the village who may not have children at the school, as well as other school staff who aren't necessarily teachers.

This meeting was held during the school week. A few weeks back, there were a few deaths in the village, so school was cancelled. The SCA meeting was supposed to be on Friday, but that would have lead to a two-day school week (as SCA meetings result in school being cancelled for the day).

It was moved to June 6th, and I am a bit bitter as to why a meeting regarding the education of the children results in...children missing out on education because we cancel school for it. But culture deems that we cannot host a meeting on the weekend (church on Saturdays and Sundays) and not during the evenings, as it's too busy, or it's just dark.

Thus the meeting was scheduled to begin at 8am. The school bell rang at 9am. At 9:30am the bell rang again and we slowly began, and by 10am, people were still trickling in.

The agenda was set on the classroom chalkboard:
1. Welcome
2. Apology
3. Constitution
4. Roll call
5. Acceptance of Agenda
6. Last meeting minutes
7. Matters arising
8. New business
8.1 School Council election
8.2 Two double classrooms
8.3 Year 9
8.4 Community Work Support
8.5 Financial Report
8.6 School Chairman's Report
8.7 Headmaster's Report
9. Other matters
You'll notice "apology" on the agenda. In Vanuatu culture, meetings begin with a prayer and an apology. We thank God for bringing us together, for blessing the school. Then, the host of the meeting will apologize for taking people away from their duties at home, and offering them to leave if a matter arises that requires their attention. People here are non-confrontational, so apologies are very important, and if people arrive late to a meeting, even if they are in the back row or sneaking out of the room unobtrusively, they will bow to the front of the room/towards the presenter, and crouch/bow down as they quickly exit, to show respect.

The meeting was mostly hosted in Bislama, which is the national language. However, in the village, everyone speaks the local language (drastically different from Bislama). This leads to some questions by villagers presented in the local language, and then a teacher translating it into Bislama for other staff or community members who do not call this island or language their own. I was thankful for the meeting being in Bislama, as I don't understand a lick of the local language.

Early on in the meeting, an elder suggests we set an end time to the meeting. I secretly agree, as these can run long. It's shot down, as we have so much to discuss that we don't want to set a deadline.

The main reason for this meeting is the School Council election. We have a school council, which is separate from the SCA. The school council is a couple community members that discuss matters with and for the school, regarding fundraisers and whatnot. The debate here is that late last year, at the end of term 3, we voted in a new council, that is to serve for 2 years. However, the headmaster explains, the Ministry of Education for the Shefa province wants to  dissolve all school councils in this region, and we must start from scratch. There are two reasons for this. One is that in other schools in the province, many school council members serve far past their 2-year term and have poor practices. With the non-confrontational nature of the culture, this just happens without anyone speaking up about it. The second reason is that there are new changes in the ministry and the government, and so the Ministry of Education believes it better to start anew with a fresh school council in June.

The election we are about to host is for the term of June 2018 until June 2020. After that time, the Ministry of Education will re-evaluate this forced coup, and see if things worked out and if they need to do things differently in the future.

The current school chairman, Amos, comments how four members of the committee were female and never attended meetings. They were always going to market or at home watching the children, and they need to better commit to the responsibility of the school council. Last year, when they were voted in, it was a conscious effort to put women on the council, because the men believed it should be more balanced. However, as Amos points out, the women have cultural responsibilities to be the breadwinners in the village, and to be the sole caretakers of the family. Traditionally, women earn the money for the family. Yes, men may go to the garden, but women sell the produce. Women cook food for fundraisers and women go to market to sell baskets and mats that they weave. It's understandable that women cannot attend meetings due to familial responsibilities.

Elders in the community argue that the current chairmembers of the council have only been serving for about six months, so they should just continue serving their term without re-election. The headmaster also chimes in and says that the school and Amos have been working together on several projects, so please, to the voters, keep that in mind when you vote.

The vote works as follows: someone in the audience will randomly elect someone, and then others will agree, and then that elected person tells you whether they accept the position or not. One elder re-elects Amos, and a majority agrees. Amos stands up and accepts.

We need a new secretary for the school council. Someone nominates Pastor Solo. Several agree, and Pastor Solo smiles and gladly accepts.

Another elder suggests that the neighboring village is represented, since a majority of the school is attended by one village but not the other, however, about 30% of students come from that neighboring village.

To fill the SCA secretary role, several women are nominated. The first woman nominated declines. The second, the third and the fourth all decline, without reason. Amos suggests we nominate a man, since the women don't seem to want it. However, the next few nominations are still for women. An elder nominates another woman, but says that if she declines, we should try to get a woman from Pele, a neighboring island (some students are from there). The woman declines, but unlike the previous women nominated, she gives an explanation, stating that she's in charge of plenty of committees and councils in the village, including the women's council and church groups and more. If she had time, she'd commit. But she knows she doesn't, so she declines. We decide to push the vote to Pele, and have them select a woman to work as secretary.

Matter 8.2, or the two double classrooms, comes to discussion. The headmaster explains some things about a rotary group donating money and some government grants and some detailed financial stuff that boils down to the fact that some Aussies or Americans are going to build a new double-classroom building for our school, complete with a science laboratory.  (Our current status, however: We currently have no need for a classroom and aren't over-crowded. We have a classroom for each grade, and plenty of resources otherwise.) We can use this classroom building if and when our school extends to grades 9 and 10. Currently we only go up to year 8, and once students graduate, they go to "college" for grades 9-12 (think British school system). The rotary group came to our school and asked what our greatest need was, and the school council said a science lab, because the Ministry of Education requires one for any school that hosts a class 9.

This is apparently a done deal, and in September (during the current school year), a new double classroom will be here (with work to begin in July). Amos notes that a science lab will encourage students to have more interest in science, as many choose social science as their focus when they go to class 9. Science offers higher-paying careers and a different level of critical thinking. In my head, I personally agree with this. Many students here tend to focus on subjects that directly affect them in this culture, and social science is one of them. If you don't graduate to study science, your interest in it at this level is low.

For matter 8.3, Amos mentions that he has repeatedly asked the community what our need is to host a class 9 in our school. No one has ever told him directly. Someone mentioned it at an SCA meeting last year, so it's been in the meetings/minutes/discussions since then, but there hasn't been a direct need listed. Currently, there is no issue with sending students off to Efate to study class 9 and above, so he is understandably confused as to why this matter is continually discussed. However, Amos was part of the discussions with the rotary regarding building that new science and classroom building.

Matter 8.5 regards financial matters. This past term, in lieu of hosting a fundraiser at the school where all the mamas cook and sell hot food and produce, the school asked them to contribute 1000 vatu. It made it quicker and more efficient. The school reported that they are still waiting on some parents to turn in their money, but they did get a great turnout for fundings.

The headmaster discusses that we no longer have a school financial bursar, as there is a new system in place with the Ministry of Education called Open VEMIS, which is an online portal where all financial matters are recorded. The headmaster himself enters all money for the school in this program and prevents the need for a bursar. Last year, our bursar had a stroke and fell ill, and many in the community felt he was too elderly and unwell to serve the position. This new system has been working well, according to the headmaster, and it allows anyone to view financial reports online on their own time (though, I am sure no one in the village has done that yet).

In the headmaster's report, he mentions how we've had many school closings lately (as of last week, we had 6 in the first 20 days...resulting in 14 "real" school days). There have been deaths, trainings, etc, and he states that children cannot afford to miss so much school. And, from a financial standpoint, families aren't getting their money's worth.  (Class 1-6 costs 2000vt per term per child. Class 7 and 8 costs 5000vt per term, and 6000vt for children from non-neighboring villages. There is a discount of 250vt per child after the 1st is enrolled, ie, the 1st kid pays 2000vt, the second 1750, the third 1500 and so forth. There are three terms in a school year.) The headmaster states that the school council will review the policy on a death in the village, as the current policy is to cancel school for the day if someone in the village dies. They are reviewing the idea of having just immediate family allowed to miss school for death.

The headmaster mentions that we will have a few awarenesses the week of June 11-15 to neighboring villages to talk to parents of the community about school needs and the children's performance.

The headmaster also mentions that myself and Ms. Tatangis, the class 8 English teacher, are looking after the school's computer lab, and it's open for business with wifi and word processing, should anyone want to pay. It's 100vt per hour for internet access, and 50 vt to charge phones, laptops, tablets and speakers.

Shefa day is on June 18th, and the headmaster states that only one day of school will be cancelled, instead of several for the week.

The meeting concludes at 12:15pm, clocking in around three hours.

On Friday, June 8th, school will be cancelled for a phonics workshop (more on that in the next post) and the ESC will meet on June 11th, and the school staff will also have a meeting on June 11th. Stay tuned.


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