One Week Before Classes Begin

Next week, on February 3rd, schools begin classes for the 2020 school year. Here's a look at my school's preparation for the new year.

At the end of the 2019 school year, we lost several teachers, which is very common in Vanuatu. Teachers often transfer after their 3 year contract at a school ends. Teachers are the ones who apply for the transfers themselves, and can request a specific region or island to which they want to be transferred. Sometimes staff changes happen more frequently. I've been here since 2017, and at the secondary school at which I've been placed, I've seen two headmaster changes and at least 10 staff transfers in the course of these three school years.

Leipakoa, a retired teacher in my community, argues that these frequent changes are good. When asked to embellish, she explains that transferring teachers allows them to see more islands in Vanuatu, other schools and classroom sizes, and gain more exposure to the diversity of teaching here.

At our school, the staff is comprised of the following 16 people:

  • Headmaster
  • Class 1 teacher/assistant principal
  • two Class 2 teachers
  • Class 3 teacher
  • Class 4 teacher
  • Class 5 teacher
  • Class 6 teacher
  • three Class 7/8 teachers (including the Madame, aka the French teacher for classes 4+)
  • librarian/substitute teacher
  • financial officer/admin
  • Peace Corps Volunteer (that's me!)
  • canteen cook
  • handyman

So after school ended last year, our headmaster announced he was moving to Fiji to go to business school. His wife, the class 5 teacher, could not stay at the school without her husband as headmaster, so she was transferred to another school in the province with her children. The 2019 class 3 teacher is rumored to take over the headmaster's place. One teacher wanted to move back to her home island of Tanna after teaching here for three years. Three community-based teachers, which are not hired by the government but rather the individual schools, told me their contracts with the school were not renewed for the 2020 school year. One teacher was rumored to be retiring in his old age, and two auxiliary staff, the librarian/substitute teacher and the financial officer, were both leaving as well. This, in theory, leaves ten vacancies in our 16-person staff for the 2020 school year.

For a headmaster vacancy, the Ministry of Education has to approve before a new person is put into place. At the end of 2019, the then-current headmaster recommended the class 3 teacher. As of last week, we still have not heard of official approval, leaving the headmaster position still unfilled. Two weeks ago, in the official meeting where the previous headmaster passes off duties and notes to the future headmaster, the class 1 teacher/assistant principal was present to take the information. The class 3 teacher was also present, but since she hasn't been officially approved to fill the role, it was the class 1 teacher who received all the duties/notes.  Recently, however, the class 3 teacher has announced her pregnancy, and has decided she no longer wants to be in the running for the headmaster.

Two days ago, we had a staff meeting. Things change a lot and quite quickly in Vanuatu, making commitment to an idea quite hard. I thought we would have lots of vacancies this year, but based on the attendance of this week's meeting, I learned the Class 3 teacher will remain a teacher, two of the community-based teachers were coming back (I think their contracts were renewed?), and the retiring teacher was not retiring after all. A teacher who lives in our village but taught at a school in a neighboring village will now teach here at our school.

To add to the complications, this year, our school announced that it would officially start offering class 9. Typically in Vanuatu, schools offering class 9 must have dormitories for students, as well as a science lab; it's a requirement across the country. Our school has neither of those, but we do have new toilet facilities that opened at the end of the 2019 school year, which is another requirement. The obligation to accommodate for class 9 adds to the list of needed staff, as well as space.

In 2018, we had a spare classroom that we converted into a conference room for staff, that also served as an office for the class 7 & 8 teachers. In 2019, we no longer had that luxury, with more students enrolled. Last year, we had to split the 55 students in class 7 into two classes: 7A and 7B, to better manage teaching. This meant that the 7 & 8 teachers moved their office/desks into the now-defunct computer lab. They no longer had class periods where they were "off" as there was now three classes to teach, with three teachers (7A, 7B, 8), requiring them to be on at all times. Madame also had one French class a week with classes 4-6, requiring the other upper-class teachers to cover her classes in that time.

Our school is the only school on the entire island that offers class 7, so we get a lot of feeder students from nearby schools on our island, as well as nearby islands. Last year, class 6 was 27 students, and this year, year 7 is 40 students. We had to reject a lot of students in nearby schools, requesting they repeat class 6 and that we could accommodate for them next year.

The staff meeting this week revealed we still did not have tables or chairs for the class 9 students. Class 9 students will have to live with host families in the village (not uncommon for students who come from far away, even far away villages) instead of dormitories. Teacher housing is also being sought after in the village, since we will be expecting a new Madame, new teachers for year 9, and two of the existing teachers need houses to stay in (in case they aren't able to stay at the host families they had last year). We don't have any additional classrooms yet, so we're requesting that the area secretary send us a large, walled tent for us to use as a spare classroom. We also discuss converting the tool shed into a classroom by adding a concrete floor atop the sand. It was used a few years ago as a classroom when one of the current buildings was still being constructed.

Last night, I heard news of a new headmaster. He came today to scope out the school and do a tour, but he won't be coming back with his family until the first day of school. There's still no word on the new year 9 staff.

During the meeting, we clarified class numbers, based on already existing students, student transfers, and students getting held back. I used our digital copies of gradebooks that we made last year to get class lists, and added/removed as needed. The assistant principal had an overflowing folder of birth certificates, school transfer letters and more to add to the document. The more I sit with the assistant principal, the more the numbers change, with news of kids moving to other islands or to Port Vila or dropping out as well as news of families of current students adding to the roster at any moment. We rejected students from the nearby small islands and from the village up on the hill, but I notice that some cousins of a class 5 student have moved to the village from another island to attend our school and are not yet on the registration list.

As of right now, for classes 1-9, we have 332 students enrolled, with class 8 taking the largest number of students at 50. We have a headmaster, but he's not here on school grounds yet. We are still awaiting staff for class 9, and we've told parents and families that class 9 will start with a 1-week delay on February 10th. We don't have word yet on a financial officer or librarian, and the canteen cook has also requested an additional staff to assist her with food prep, especially with a class 9 joining the school (she had an additional staff back in 2017, but not since then).

This week, parents have been coming to the school's office to pay school fees for their children, some paying outstanding fees from the 2019 school year. Teachers are coming into their classrooms and tidying and re-arranging. Friday, three teachers went to Port Vila to purchase chairs, desks, notebooks and other school supplies for the year.

Early on in my service, another PCV, Natalie, told me that no matter what situation you seem to be in, it all works out. I've seen resilience and strength in struggles here, and despite complaints, it really always seems to work itself out. With two days before school begins, here are my highest hopes.


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