Is it Still 1984? Reflections of a Untrained and Unqualified Teacher

How an eager 22-year old with no knowledge of teaching learned from her students at Campion College in Jamaica and became an advocate for teachers.

September 09, 2014 by Mary Burns
14 minutes read
Jamaican Students. Credit: Mary Burns

Thirty years ago this month, I began my career in education. With a group of Boston College (BC) graduates, I moved to Kingston, Jamaica to teach, for $90 a month, at Campion College. I was 22.

Like many teachers across the globe, I became a teacher by accident. I had never entertained the notion of teaching—I wanted to go into the foreign service, but an intense winter-break volunteer stint at a hospital and orphanage in Haiti compelled me toward what I would later realize was “development” work. When my university, on behalf of several Jamaican schools facing teaching shortages, advertised for graduates to teach in Jamaica, I applied.

“What are A-levels?”

On my first day I was given a box of chalk (to last the year) and an exercise book (I had a copy; my students did not). With no education training, save for a two-day BC retreat on learning objectives (whatever those were), I began my teaching career.

Given my lack of preparation, I did what every new teacher does—I taught the way my teachers taught me. I was very strict (I had Irish nuns—was there another way to teach?). I taught via rote instruction—writing French vocabulary words on the chalkboard with students repeating them in choral fashion. I was responsible for preparing a group of 6th formers (last year of secondary school) to pass their A-level French literature exam in 8 months. 

“What are A-levels?” I asked on the first day of class (not surprisingly, no-one passed). At one point I introduced simple vocabulary games which my 2nd and 3rd formers (equivalent to grade 8 and 9 in the US) enjoyed. The head teacher told me to stop. With O-levels, results of which would determine their academic future, “only” 2-3 years away, students needed to focus on memorizing information. This was my first lesson that assessment drives instruction.

Untrained, unqualified, unsupported

On Wednesday afternoons, as part of a Big Brother/Big Sister program, I took my students to a nearby primary school. The principal would invariably ask me to fill in for an absent teacher in the afternoon shift, handing me the requisite teaching materials—chalk and a switch.


From 2 to 6 pm, I would try to teach 75 first graders—who were hungry, who had no books, who had all sorts of undiagnosed learning disabilities, and who sat atop one another—how to read. Not surprisingly, the class was out of control.


I would restore order, momentarily, as teachers often do minus classroom management training—by threatening my students, suddenly and forcefully snapping the switch on a desk. Seventy-five little bodies would freeze and fall silent, wide-eyed and frightened….for about 3 seconds. I am fairly certain no one learned to read under my watch.

Campion College now, from its website, seems to be a modern, well-equipped school, but in 1984, I had almost 300 students, taught in a noisy, hot, over-crowded classroom (45 students but far fewer desks), with no teaching and learning materials, no technology, and a territorial goat that I chased off each morning.

I wasn’t awful—in fact, given the incredibly low standards by which we were measured, I was hugely successful. I was one of the 50% of BC teachers who stayed past the first year. I was a popular teacher. My performance may have been best summarized by an ex-student whom I ran into years later on a plane to Barbados: “I don’t know how much we learned in your class, but we had fun.”


But, like many new teachers across the globe, I had no idea what I was doing, no knowledge of how children learn, and no real idea of how to teach them. There was no induction program, and in two years at Campion, not once did we receive anything resembling professional development.


Nor, if someone had told me what that term meant, would I have wanted it. I oscillated between the supreme self-confidence that youth and ignorance confer, and sudden, galvanizing awareness that I didn’t know what I was doing. I was terrified that someone would come into my classroom and tell me how badly I was doing. Even if I had gone to a “training” I would not have known how to even begin to implement what I learned. In short, I was not so different from so many of the teachers across the globe with whom many of us work.

Positive vibration

I fell in love with Jamaica—a land of extraordinary beauty, as well as violence and poverty. The lilt of the Jamaican accent reminded me of the cadence of County Kerry, Ireland, where my father was from.  I fell in love with the amazing sense of humor of Jamaicans and the richness of patois, which, when used in tandem, elevate the art of insults to an unparalleled level. “Yah face bright like stadium bulb!”— a student blurted out one day in response to a stern scolding—an obviously disparaging commentary on my complexion. I burst out laughing. Whatever moral lesson I had been trying to impart was trumped by the rich imagery and verbal brilliance of his put down.


Mainly, I fell in love with my students (like Katie and Rohan), with teaching, and with being a teacher. On my last day in Jamaica, a parade of students came by the house. “Thank you,” said one. “I learned so much from you—not just French.” When you are a teacher, these are words you live for.


Students at Campion College. Credit: Mary Burns

Jamaica changed my life trajectory. I stayed in education. I finally learned how to teach and did so for a decade with students in US inner-city schools and at the Tec de Monterrey in Mexico City, and another 17 with teachers all over the world.  I developed a strong professional identity as a teacher, which I retain to this day. I finally learned about education and what good teaching involves and what good teachers do.

Is it still 1984?

I write here of events and mindsets of 30 years—a generation—ago. I’m guessing that a school like Campion would be loath to take on another group of young, untrained foreign teachers, and in many places requirements to teach have become more stringent. But in many places they have not—in so much of the globe, it is still 1984. When I watch 14-year old girls in Baluchistan, with nothing more than a switch and a piece of chalk, try to instruct 60 first graders, I see myself at 22 in Jamaica.


When I witness a teacher in northern Ghana beat a child with a tree branch, I remember, with shame, that I too once hit a student, because in the absence of training in communication, classroom management, and conflict resolution, teachers often give in to our frustrations and take the lazy and damaging shortcut to physical coercion and violence.


When I read about states reducing teacher licensing requirements, I realize that the same doublethink (really, you had to expect at least one Orwell reference…) of 1984 still persists in 2014—that quality teaching is important, but that it is easy, that anyone can do it, and that little preparation is needed.

Beyond untrained and unqualified

Teacher shortages, as Jamaica faced in 1984, prevail still in many places. But placing untrained teachers in a class doesn't solve low educational quality; it exacerbates it. As one who was untrained and unqualified, I offer the following three reflections:

First, teaching is more than art; it is also science: I had the “art” part of teaching back in 1984—commitment, caring, charisma—in spades. These qualities are certainly important—I don’t know if they can be taught, but they certainly must be learned. But I lacked the “science” piece of teaching. I did not have mastery of my content or know how to teach it or understand how children learn. And ultimately it is this—the science of good teaching—that benefits students academically. I worry about the current mindset that art—youthful energetic, caring teachers—trumps the science of experienced, skilled (and often older) ones. This gives ministries of education, school districts, and schools cover for failing to carefully recruit teachers, for failing to pay them an attractive wage and pension, and for failing to provide them with ongoing professional learning and support.

Second, new teachers will fail—a lot. It is part of being new: Schools and school systems, even in the poorest places, can mitigate the poor or uneven practice of new teachers by offering novice teachers support, mentoring (through head teachers or experienced veterans), opportunities to see other teachers in action, and clinical supervision.  Such interventions have been shown to improve the low instructional quality and reduce the high attrition rates so commonly associated with novice teachers. But when we place any new teachers in classrooms and then fail to help or support them, we create a cycle of failure among teachers and students. We communicate the message that good teaching doesn’t matter, that improvement doesn’t matter, that being a teacher is not an important profession, and that student learning really isn’t that important. Helping new teachers get better requires investments in educational leadership so that principals and education officials—not just teachers—are made accountable for quality instruction.

Finally, the world’s poorest children deserve the world’s best teachers: Birth and opportunity are often determined by some great cosmic roll of the dice. For children born to wealthy, educated parents, the stakes are lower—wealth and privilege confer choice and opportunity and, while a mediocre teacher hurts such students, it doesn’t debilitate them, because they have options and opportunities. Poor children have no such advantages. Education often represents the only opportunity these children will have to attain some kind of a better life. But unless poor children have access to the very best teachers, that wealth gap will only expand, not contract. The stakes could not be higher for these kids.

Jamaica taught me that when we teach students well we improve the lives of those students. Working with teachers taught me that when we teach teachers well we improve the lives of thousands of students.


To my students at Campion College who made me a better teacher, and who taught me so much about myself and about life, thank you, Cool Runnings, and Fortes in Fide et Opere.

Quality teaching
Latin America and Caribbean: Jamaica

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Your poignant reflections and pointed comments clarify an vital issue. In both the art and the science of your article you bring to life the situation and present a compelling call to action. Well done.
Thanks for sharing.

I started KB Empower Teachers to Empower our Youth , in Northcoast of S Africa. The program has spread to three other provinces. My main focus is giving teachers the tools to reach our children. The majority of my teachers got their "credentials" from online schools. No practical experience.....I could go on and on, the fact is that until governments and dept of education, and powers that be realize the importance of TEACHERS, until teaching becomes a respected profession, until challenging our youth is recommended and not holding them back...

Jay and Karenne,

Thank you both for reading and commenting.


Oh so succinctly and compellingly put! At 67 and winding down as an education consultant I realise I probably had some 'art' but was pretty light on the 'science!' I loved teaching and most of my students got infected!
Learning is quietly being revolutionised with technology making knowledge and understanding so accessible. But nothing beats a great mentor, encourager, learning designer and someone who can crystallise the critical, fundamental and strategic aspects of learning from the volumes of facts,knowledge and minutiae which contaminate what's important.

Thanks for reading and commenting, Russ. You are an honest man, but given that admission, I am betting you were far more skilled than you let on. I agree with your comment...the relationship that students and teachers form around learning, learning to learn, learning to do, and learning to be is pretty amazing. I have done lots of things since I was a teacher, but none as special or powerful as working with kids.

Years ago, Mozambique has also recruited untrained teachers and has also used unqualified teachers for certain levels (specifically in low secondary level). For untrained and unqualified primary teachers the government has developed an in-service training as way to ensure that all of them become trained and/or qualified for the levels their are teaching. This in-service training is developed through the Institute of Distance Education (IEDA), which has representatives in all districts.
Regarding the new teachers at school, I agree that they can fail to succeed when the school organization climate shows the school failure. A new teacher doesn't have a voice at school. He ought to agree with the ideas of old teachers or the teachers who were there before him/her. He has to do everything as they do. Anything different he does at school, even for the better name of the school, is seen as sign of ambition.
I think that the great challenge we have in this regard is to change the minds of the school managers and all other stakeholders, as a strategy to ensure that they can understand that being new at an organization doesn't mean to be an irrational and thinking differently doesn't mean being ambitious.
I think also that is fundamental to improve the monitoring system in order to identify the difficulties faced by the school managers, teachers and new teachers and together discuss and try to find out solutions for the prevailing problems. The school managers are the first supervisors, monitors who has the responsibility to guide all the teachers, specially the new teachers to help the school to reach the desired goals.
We need also to have a look at our institutional framework in relation to the teachers training, recruitment and selection for training and recruitment and selection for working as a teacher.
The schools must also be organized in a way that when new teacher arrive, is involved in an integration process, in which he is adapted to the school reality, school as a micro world, which will allow to understand the school as a social organization, a social institution and a social system in practice.

Ola Armando,

Obrigada pela mensagem. So wonderful to see an email from Brazil.

You raise so many good points. Countries need minimum standards for teacher qualifications that are linked to teacher in-service education programs. And within those teacher education programs they need people who are really skilled pedagogues and androgogues, for want of better terms, who really understand how to model effective teaching practices for children and adults. And yes, an intensive induction system that combines strong orientations, additional coursework, mentoring, monitoring and supervision with corrective feedback. There are places, like Scotland, that have very high quality induction programs with research bearing out improvements in teacher quality and decreases in attrition. Many more places have more "light" induction systems, like an orientation, and I am not really sure what impacts of these are. I imagine better than nothing....

In so many places still though, there is no formal system for preparing teachers, especially at the secondary level. Here in the eastern Caribbean, where I am at the moment, elementary teachers go through a teacher training college. Secondary teachers, as long as they have a degree in content from a college or university, can walk right into teaching ( like me. I had a degree in French so was allowed to teach French). But they struggle with the pedagogy. I was talking with secondary teachers here in Grenada yesterday and they say they struggle with methodology and they want courses in pedagogy. They teach one way...via lecture and I did 30 years ago.



You understood what so many countries (even "advanced" ones) have not: content knowledge is good but if you don't know how to convey that knowledge to another human being in a human way, no learning will take place. Years ago, in my first teacher's training, I took a semester-long course learning to talk to children and talking to their parents - nothing else. This course is what helped me the most in a career as a teacher.

In reply to by Sylvaine von Mende

thank you Sylvaine for reading and commenting. knowing your work, and the extraordinary high quality, I am really honored you would read and write about this.

alas, as you say, everywhere people still believe that content knowledge is enough. It is important. It is a foundation, but there is a whole panoply of other skills, many of which can be learned and many of which can,t that create effective teachers. I always say that it is part chemistry and part alchemy.

Merci bien, Sylvaine, et bonne chance avec tout.


I am actually one of your former students from Campion College pictured in the second photo - peace sign at the pole.

We have a lively group of alumna on Facebook and in fact just a couple weeks ago - someone talked about how fun French class was with you.

You'll be happy to know that I maintained fluency over the years and consider French to be a great asset as a second language.

So great to read of your adventures in academia. I have fond memories of 1985.

Wonderful to be able to say that after 29 years!


Hi There - I remember by first class with you (French) at Campion and you really made an impression on me then that probably cemented my love of languages.
Thank you for coming to our island and enriching our lives.. Teachers like you touch us, mold us and shape us in ways we only understand much later.

Again. Mille fois merci!

Miss Burns - even as an adult, I can't bring myself to call you Mary - thank you for including us in your memories. I will not pretend to be interested in discussing pedagogy or any profound educational strategies. I simply want to thank you for coming to us, young, fresh and green, as you did those years ago.

As Campionites we were always fortunate to have teachers in times many schools did not. Our school was then and is still the cream of the crop - THE best high school in Jamaica. Can you imagine if you had been forced to experience the REAL overcrowding of another? Yep, there were worse ones then and there are worse ones now. :) (A small correction. Our classes never, ever went beyond 35 students.)
For many of us, the memories of our days in the pre-technology classroom age are the ones that have remained with us as our most defining moments. We have reminisced often about the young American teacher we loved to tease. For me, the simple introduction to the French language that you provided, led to a lifelong love affair. Merci, beaucoup.

You may not have planned to be a teacher but you managed it just fine. Wherever you may be now, continue to leave your mark even with the little things.

Thank you so much for the photo in which I am able to see my scraggly, squinting former self and smile. :)


Hi Ms Burns, I was in your 1-3 for French back in 1984. I smile at your perspective because our school Campion College was considered (and still is) considered the school of the privileged. Consider the lack of resources in other schools back then if you think we were a school of mere chalk and blackboards! We always wondered what happened to you. I wish you all the best in your endeavors.

Hi Miss Burns,
I don't think you remember me, but I am one of your former student from Campion College Form 2-6 in 1984.
Collette posted your article on Facebook and I had to read. It brought back good memories and I want to say I fell in love with french because of you. I did learn a lot. I don't teach but my love for the language has caused my 14 years old niece now in the 10th grade to love it. I did learn a lot and not just french. I want to say thank you.

Wow!!! I am at a loss for words ( and THAT never happens!) I have heard from people privately ( Colette, you will be happy to know that Rohan Lewis chided me for 35 students, but in fact in year 2, I had more). I am so touched and honored that so many of you would write...and of course, I remember you! If you fell in love with French because of me, I fell in love with teaching because of all of you.

And though I never use Facebook, I am planning on writing each of you individually there ( so set up your blocking now!) I am in Colombia at the moment but will write when I return.

Thank you so much for reaching out to me and for your kind words. I have the biggest smile on my face...and I am incredibly touched. Fi true!

Ms. Burns (Mary)

Wow, Ms Burns. This article had me laughing with tears because of the memories and your "confessions". There I am front and center in your first picture. You were the one to introduce me to peanut butter and jelly sandwich.I did continue French and got a distinction in O'levels (final year in high school). You definitely made an unforgettable impact on us as you can tell from the comments. A number of your students have moved on to other countries but a lot of us are still here. Do come visit Jamaica and we will be sure to come see you. I hope your face is still as bright as the stadium bulb and even brighter now :). See you soon.

In reply to by Carolyn Ferguson

Carolyn, this is too good to face is still as bright as a stadium bulb (though less so since I am living in Panama for a few months) and it still "favors duppy" as another student once told me. :) At least you didn't call me "pink lady," which I often heard on my way back from the beach with students. This usually led me to retort, "Man mi nah pink, mi beige!")

You still seem to have the same, bright sunny match your big, warm smile. :) I'll write you at your email later. Thank you so much for writing me.

I just wrote a post here last month for World Teachers Day on how amazing the teacher-student relationship can be. These comments are like a case study in this. You've all made my day, my week. I am so touched and so honored.

In reply to by Mary Burns

Hahahaaa! It is just past 3 in the morning, all is quiet and I literally laughed out loud (REALLY LOUDLY) at this!!! Love the "facety comment" response to the facety comment. (Carolyn is on the next street - a block away - from me right now. I'm pretty sure she heard me.) Thank you both for a good laugh! Miss Mary Burns do come back so we may have a great excuse to throw a party! (As if we even need one!) I'm sure if you had more than 35 students it's because the word spread that you were awesome after the first year and the extras HAD TO get into your French class...You may very well have been the only teacher suffering that terrible fate! ;-) Looking forward to hearing from you.


I cannot resist the chance to reach out to the unforgettable Miss Burns.

While not pictured above, I was one of your Campion students -- one of your worst students. I took French because it reminded me of my other home in Canada. However, I was terrible at it (and still am, much to the amusement of any Quebecois friends. Yet, I persevered for two reasons: 1. Your classes were fun. Those "Bizz Buzz" type games (sometimes in the pagoda) of learning were a highlight to any school week. 2. I was terribly infatuated with you. It was one of the most cliched yet formative school experiences I ever had but there it is. Ugh, I must have been cloying!

It was my crowning achievement to have been allowed to deliver the going away speech AND be taught a dance step or two at the going away party held in honour of you, Miss Moran, and Mister Witherell. The whole dancing thing did not help the infatuation, in case anyone wondered.

There are many teachers who had an impact in my schooling and, ultimately, in my life. One my takeaways was something I would not come to realize until years later. Teachers who care are invaluable. This is by no means a condemnation of others (especially those who, as you described, are often unsupported or overburdened) but there are teachers whose capacity for empathy and individual attention are noticeably greater than the average bear's. In my memory, biased though it may be, you were one of those.

My older brother is now a veteran teacher of several decades, and of him I am proud. His dedication and care for his profession continually amaze me since you, along with other memorable teachers, made me understand that to a student there is a great difference between an instructor and a teacher. A great difference indeed.

While I also lament the danger of teaching-to-the-test and other crippling policies in NA (and anywhere, really) which cultivates instructors over teachers, I still have hope that the majority of those drawn to the profession would prefer to be remembered as teachers who cared about their students and not just those trying to get through the lesson plan.

That you continued in your quest to teach and made it your life's accomplishment is of little surprise to this (infatuated yet terrible) former French student.

Salut, madame! Puissent vos succès continuer et merci pour votre temps. (Yay for Google Translate!)

-- Angelo

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