Even as a little girl, Karlene Bisnott knew that she was meant for the classroom, and now she is living her dream as principal of Vaz Preparatory School, her former alma mater. This makes it even more fulfilling. To mark Teachers' Day, Flair sat with the principal for her reflections.
Growing up in Kingston, Bisnott was surrounded by family members who were educators so it was only fitting that she followed in their footsteps. After attending St Hugh's High School she studied chemistry at the University of the West Indies (UWI) so she could help mould the minds of future scientists. After university, she taught chemistry for seven years at her former high school. Then, in 1996, she moved on to Vaz Prep as a science teacher for grades four to six. Five years later, she became vice-principal and assumed the top job seven years later.
Bisnott told Flair that while she enjoys her role, she misses being in the classroom, and every opportunity she gets, she uses it to teach. Currently, she assists with the literacy intervention programme designed about four years ago to assist students from grades one to five who are behind in their work.
"We identify and pull out these students and work with them, giving them the extra attention they need to perform," explained Bisnott.
The 47-year-old principal noted that while she gets an opportunity to assist these children two days per week, often her administrative duties take priority. Bisnott also explained that a major challenge she faces as principal is time management, accomplishing a day's work during frequent interruptions by things unplanned. There is also the issue of maintaining discipline. "The truth is, these days you have to be creative in the methods used to maintain discipline, plus I lean a lot on my guidance counsellor, and the school also has a part-time child psychologist,' she said.
Bisnott faces a tall order in the management of over 800 students, and 67 teachers, spread over three properties. "It takes teamwork," she said, but the staff is cooperative. "I could not do it alone."
Vaz Prep, like everywhere else, is feeling the pinch of the economic downturn. And Bisnott said what makes it even more challenging is the fact that teachers need better pay.
"It is important for us to keep our good teachers and it is regrettable that we can't pay them more, but what we have done is try to keep them motivated. We compliment them on the good work and let them know that we appreciate what they are doing for the children."
She said, despite everything, Vaz prep does not have a high staff turnover; the majority of the teachers have been with the school for 10 years or more. "They are loyal and have been doing a great job, and for that I applaud them.
For her, the greatest reward is seeing the teachers evolve over the years from ordinary to extraordinary educators, improving the lives of the students and theirs in the process. She also expressed her joy at the exceptional performance of the students in academics, sports, cultural and extra-curricular activities. Bisnott smiled as she spoke about how the island's top achiever in GSAT was a student at Vaz Prep in 2009. "And our performance continues to be way above the rest in region one. We pride ourselves on doing the best not just academically but in all areas."
All aspects covered
When a parent sends a child to Vaz Prep, they can expect the best, because the school not only focuses on the academics but the child as a whole.
"We cater to all aspects of the child's life, spiritual, values and attitudes, physical and cultural; we have a track record of producing well-rounded students," she said.
While Bisnott is in the private school system, she said she hopes to see a greater interaction between private and public schools, where teachers can share in order to get the job done. She explained that the reality is that currently the grades four and six results are where they are because of the inclusion of the private schools results. But she feels that more can be done to assist the students, especially in the public schools, because one of the reasons for the underperformance is overcrowded classrooms. Teachers are unable to pay individual attention when they have to deal with a class of over 40 students. However, Bisnott applauds the ministry of education's ongoing efforts at improving literacy.
"We took a long time to get to that place and have lost many children in the battle against illiteracy in the past. Now, we have to work harder at reducing the number of children who can't read."
On the personal side, Bisnott is married with two children, her 18-year-old son attends the UWI and her daughter, 15, is at Wolmer's High School for Girls. Though she has her plate full, she still makes time to teach music and play the piano and organ. A former president of the Jamaica Independent Schools Association, she also sits on the board and is the choir director at her church. At the end of a hectic day, she unwinds by listening to some good music.