Heritage International Teachers Award 2010

Heritage International Teachers Awards for Teachers in Early Childhood Education - A teacher's lesson of love

Source: The Gleaner

Friday, June 11, 2010


Desrene Mitchell says teachers must be prepared to be everything to their students. - Photo by Sean Bennett

Patrina Pink, Gleaner Intern
It was 1988 and Desrene Mitchell didn't want to appear presumptuous or plain 'extra'.

A former saleswoman, she was interested in having special classes with a five-year-old student whom she believed had exceptional potential. However, the young woman had just begun volunteering at Kintyre Basic School and was afraid of overstepping her boundaries and upsetting her superiors.  

So, like a true revolutionary, she went underground and with the permission of the child's mother, taught him in secret.

Two decades have passed and that five-year-old is now moulding minds at Jamaica College. Mitchell, now principal of Kintyre Basic School, has since graduated from teachers' college and has been recently nominated for an International Excellence Award in Early Childhood Education.

The early childhood education awards, issued by the Canada-based Heritage International Scholarship Trust Foundation, are intended to honour talented, inspirational and dedicated preschool-to-grade-six teachers whose efforts often go unacknowledged.

Safety first

Mitchell's years of service to Kintyre, particularly during the lead scare that occurred in the late 1990s, has been critical in ensuring the safety of students.

"I'll do anything for my students, anything that will make the lives of my children more comfortable," she said.

Her conviction was definitely tested as scientists from the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences (ICENS), based at the University of the West Indies, Mona, relied on her as the main mediator between themselves and parents of the basic school students.

"I had to relay what they (ICENS) were saying in layman terms for some of the parents to understand. Some were nervous, as you must understand. They had to do blood tests on the children to ensure that they were safe. The community was very stand-offish at first, but they eventually came around," Mitchell said.

Kintyre was on the tip of everyone's tongue for almost a decade when it was discovered that a mine formerly operating in Hope Flats in that community had dumped lead on to property where homes and schools were sited. A relatively large number of the children had unsafe levels of lead poisoning.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, "Persistent toxicity of lead was seen to result in significant and serious impairment of academic success ... failure to graduate from high school, impairment of reading skills, and deficits in vocabulary, fine motor skills, reaction time and hand-eye coordination."

In essence, lead poisoning is a teacher's nightmare. However, Mitchell believes that the school has been truly blessed.

She recounted one instance in which a child exhibited such high levels of poisoning that it was startling to the ICENS crew that the young girl, who was five years old at the time, was doing so well academically.

"It was a shock to them. They were amazed that she learned so much and was doing so well in class, because she had so much of the lead in her blood."

The grounds of the school have since been sealed, trapping the lead underground.

Sponsorship from the Lions and Kiwanis clubs enabled Kintyre Basic to provide the protein-rich meals needed to combat the lead levels of children of the community.

Mitchell has now successfully steered her children out of a danger that might have been too great a challenge for the average teacher.

"If you are going into early-childhood education, you can't come thinking you're just gonna teach and leave. Don't bother. It's more than that.

"You have to think of yourself as a mother, social worker, health-care worker and many other things. You have to prepare yourself to be everything."

Superwoman attitude

Perhaps it is the superwoman attitude that Mitchell portrays that inspired members of the ICENS staff to nominate her for the excellence award. Though she knew nothing of the Heritage Foundation prior to receiving the nomination, she is grateful.

Mitchell remains humble and notes that the award is not the highlight of her career.

"The greatest part of being a teacher, for me, is seeing them grow up, watching them form words and seeing those words become sentences. Working with young children is really fulfilling."