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Saturday 21 September 2019
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More than a teacher

Culture Matters

WHAT IS the connection between David Bowie, British music icon and Stephanie Shurland, revered teacher from Bishop Anstey High School? Mainly, it’s the memories that played in my head on learning that my former principal passed on Carnival Tuesday.

The news of her passing took me back to those days when we were all just starting to find our place in the world. The music of the 80s was a large part of that journey, created by artists who seemed capable of peering deep into the minds of young girls. David Bowie had that ability.

I do not remember how it started, but a group of us girls were gathered by the stage in the hall. Suddenly, Bowie’s hit Let’s Dance was playing, and we were singing it at the top of our voices, moving together as one, as if taking part in a choreographed dance. By the time the song came to an end we were drenched in perspiration, giggling at each other.

I doubt Ms Shurland would have approved of such a display. Perhaps it only happened because by the time that song came out she had already left the school. But if she were there, I am sure we would have been able to hear the clackety-clack of her square-heeled shoes coming towards the hall, even over Bowie.

As I remember it, Ms Shurland had the ability to materialise in the corridor. Typically, her appearance would have the amazing effect of making dozens of girls disappear into classrooms, perfectly seated and still in a matter of seconds.

Usually, I would make it in time, but one day I actually saw her coming down the corridor. She strode rather than walked, unsmiling and purposeful. The sighting was brief but powerful; I froze momentarily and then fled like everyone else, hoping that she would not be able to identify me if she came into the classroom.

“Fearfully respected,” “firm,” “strict” are the words usually used to describe Ms Shurland. In reading about her this week, I was surprised to discover that she had a softer side and always had the interest of her girls at heart. She was a disciplinarian, but forgiving. She viewed a mistake as an opportunity to teach important lessons and believed in the importance of mentoring.

Former students willingly admit that they were “terrified” of her, but acknowledge that she pushed her students to think and behave like leaders. So in many ways, the fear came from trying to live up to her expectations, not wanting to disappoint her.

Have teachers like Ms Shurland disappeared, or are they too few to make a difference? Should we leave educators like her in the past? Teachers are described by the United Nations (UN) as “one of the most influential and powerful forces for equity, access and quality in education ...” However, the UN also points to the reality that some “250 million children cannot read, write, or do basic arithmetic, although many of them have been in school for some years.”

Statistics from the education sector in TT consistently point to similar performances gaps, whether between different kinds of schools, gender or even across geographic regions.

Against this background, it should be clear that we need to adopt another approach to imparting knowledge and information to young people. Teachers are still not equipped to incorporate cultural solutions as part of their teaching methodology. Technology, though unavoidable, is treated as an evil distraction. We continue to miss opportunities to pioneer our own disruptive techniques that support education goals, while furthering the survival of our culture and heritage.

Today, we honour the memory and celebrate the life of Ms Shurland. Having learned a bit more about her, I think she might have rebuked us that day for dancing and singing to David Bowie so loudly, but she would have understood that we were just expressing our youthfulness.

Undoubtedly, she would have recognised even better than us, the pathos and levels of meaning in Bowie’s words – “Let’s dance/ Put on your red shoes and dance the blues/ Let’s sway/ Under the moonlight, this serious moonlight …” And maybe, just maybe, after marching us back to our classrooms, she would have walked back to her office, the clackety-clack of her sensible shoes fading down the corridor. She would close the door, allow herself a small smile and hum some Bowie as she resumed her duties.

Rest in peace, Ms Shurland, and thank you for defining the true essence of a Bishop girl.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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