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Teacher's Intolerant Tirade Raises Questions About Education in Trinidad & Tobago

Two students on their way home from school in Trinidad and Tobago. Photo by Georgia Popplewell, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Two students on their way home from school in Trinidad and Tobago. Photo by Georgia Popplewell, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

A secondary school teacher has become the focus of frustrations with Trinidad and Tobago's education system after audio of her disparaging gay people and atheists and accusing a student of drug dealing was publicly shared on Facebook.

The teacher, Nadira Nandlal, was having a follow-up discussion with her class at the all boys Naparima College on public comments she made the week before — during a school assembly — vilifying homosexuals within the school body and making reference to one student in particular. Acknowledging that some of her peers criticised her for her statements, she held her ground, going as far as to say that if given a gun, she would “fix the problem” of homosexuals and atheists. In the recording, which could have slanderous implications, she also identified a student whom she alleges is into drug dealing.

After the recording of what is being described as “a rant” went viral, the school referred the matter to the Ministry of Education. Thus far, no definitive action has been taken against Nandlal, although it appears that she has not reported for duty since the incident.

For her part, Nandlal justified her position as nothing other than a fierce commitment to protect her young, impressionable charges.

‘A good example of why the T&T education system is in such an abysmal state’

Social media, meanwhile, went ballistic. Structured on a system that focuses on passing a placement exam in order to enter secondary school, education in Trinidad and Tobago is grappling with poor academic performance, teacher absenteeism, violence and lack of discipline.

For many, the recording seemed to exemplify some of these issues. Posting on the comments thread of the Facebook recording, Jason Dookeran said:

[…] she is a good example of why the T&T education system is in such an abysmal state. […] The more I listen to this thing, the more I believe that she doesn't understand what she should be doing in a school.

Others posted an image of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) guidelines on teacher responsibilities:

Teacher guidelines; image widely shared on Facebook.

Teacher guidelines; image widely shared on Facebook.

‘Trying to paint the oppressor as the oppressed’

It seems a number of her students do not feel the same way — they soon launched an online petition supporting her that garnered just over 1,000 signatures in two days. In it, the boys called her “sincere”, “generous” and “loving” and said the impressions of her on social media and in the news were “misleading”:

From the perspective of an uninformed outsider, the statements made by Miss Nandlal which were unwittingly captured on the voice recording could be viewed as being radical and extreme.

Such a viewpoint is of course, understandable, but what is not, is that persons who have taken their personal issues with Miss Nandlal to the internet have served to misinform the public, and guide their opinion toward pronouncing unfair judgment upon this woman.

Those students who have been in her class and have interacted with her during their stay in Naparima College can testify that Miss Nandlal was simply using some harsh euphemisms given the context of the situation.

To many social media users, this display of support — from the school's students and from other netizens — has been one of the most astounding aspects of the situation. On one comments thread, nvllivs_in_verba countered many of the points made in the petition statement:

So I guess this means that the recordings have some how rendered Ms Nandlal's message out of context. Because we all know there are some contexts in which a teacher making targeted verbal attacks at a student, calling him names and implying harm upon him and his guardians can be justified. […]

The reason I am suspect of the petitions motive is due to the fact that nowhere have they tried to show any sympathy for the targeted student. They are unapologetic and are attempting to shift the victim role from the student to the teacher. They are trying to paint the oppressor as the oppressed. And this is what I take issue with.

In a telephone interview, teacher and Facebook user Patrice Cox-Neaves — who emphatically stated that she felt the teacher needed to be removed from her post — noted two areas of concern. One had to do with the fact that Naparima College is a school which falls under the purview of the Presbyterian School Board, which so far, has not made a statement on the issue.

In the cases of religious denominational schools like Naparima College, while the country's Teaching Commission may interview prospective teachers, the relevant denominational boards also conduct their own interviews — and teachers are only appointed if these boards approve the candidates. In this case, Cox-Neaves feared that the board's silence may be consent.

She also made the point that while Nandlal may be a good teacher “in the generic sense of the term”, her statements prove her “mastery of the hidden curriculum”:

This is the end result of a long story that we don't know about. The fact that [Nandlal] feels safe to stand in front of a class and say what she did tells you something right there. I find it worrying that she has student support, but at least one student — the one who made the recording — felt otherwise. You must always be aware of the influence you have over your students and use it responsibly.

Angelo Bissessarsingh, a past pupil of the school, wrote in a public Facebook post that Naparima College wasn't always a “haven to bigotry and intolerance”:

Now that the matter has come out into public domain, I can address myself fully to the erring teacher, Ms. Nandlal and those lads who blindly threw themselves behind her. I have this to say, YOU SHAME ME and generations of your predecessors.To even contemplate that an educator in this noble academy could publicly utter words of hate and derision against a student for his personal preference is unthinkable. In my time , there were schoolmates who were obviously gay, but NEVER in the seven years I spent on Paradise Hill did I bear witness to even a hint of victimization from students far less a teacher . Our tutors were to the last-young and old-committed to their charges above and beyond the call of duty and my old comrades and I count ourselves fortunate to have been guided by them. Even the cranky few bore an inherent nobility of spirit which made their chastisement morally sound. It pains me to now assume that the Naps I knew and loved is now haven to bigotry and intolerance unheard of in my time.

Youth advocacy group The Silver Lining Foundation also voiced its concern:

School should be a place where a student is free to grow and learn in a safe, caring environment. That safety should apply to all students regardless of their sexuality or religious beliefs.

The student speaks out

Finally, in yesterday's Sunday Guardian, columnist Kevin Baldeosingh wrote that “the student at the centre of this issue sent me an email on Wednesday to give his side of the story”:

‘The comments made by (the teacher) on that tape are unfounded and untrue about myself and my parents,’ he wrote. ‘I am not gay, I embody an all encompassing view of human beings; I am not God to be the judge of anyone.’

He told me that he was being persecuted by some students who agreed with the teacher’s comments and he had also been targeted by cyber bullies. ‘(Her) comments was the impetus that led to me and my family now being placed in serious danger of being attacked by an ill-informed and hostile bunch of people who have labelled me as gay and my parents as atheists.’

So here is a young man who thinks for himself, who made a stand for tolerance, and who is now being vilified for it. That is the hypocrisy of this country’s education leaders, who claim to want more people like him but who promulgate a system which fosters and indeed rewards ignorance and intolerance.

Trinidad and Tobago's education system may indeed be at a crossroads.

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