Minister of Education Nyan Gadsby-Dolly inherited a ministry burdened by a pandemic, burnt-out SEA students and their disgruntled parents, and an education system struggling to navigate a new virtual environment.
But, no stranger to education, she hit the ground running the day after being sworn in as minister, with school visits to SEA students on their long-awaited exam day on August 20.
Gadsby-Dolly has over 15 years' experience in education, teaching at both secondary (St Francois Girls’ College) and tertiary levels (University of TT). The San Juan native also has a post-graduate diploma in educational technology and is certified as an online instructor.
This is her second term as a government minister – she previously served as minister of community development, culture and the arts.
Gadsby-Dolly had no choice but to get straight to work preparing for the new school term, and has been in and out of meetings over the past two weeks with education stakeholders.
“It feels more like a month,” she said with a laugh about her first days on the job. “This ministry has had a really tumultuous time during the covid19, so it has been a steep learning curve. It's been one where important decisions had to be taken in a short space of time.
“I'm really looking forward to what this ministry holds. Being here at this time is really a privilege and an honour.”
Although the government had already decided students would resume face-to-face classes in September, an unprecedented spike in covid19 cases in the weeks leading up to the new term pushed them back into the virtual classroom. They had been there since the first wave forced schools to close in March.
Gadsby-Dolly said the first week was a lot of hard work.
“It was a lot of reading, talking and pulling together of a lot of strands to get a proposal to move the ministry forward.”
Despite frenzied preparations, she believes stakeholders are comfortable with the proposal.
“It is a diverse group of people coming from different perspectives, but one thing we can all agree on is that our children cannot suffer.”
The minister and motherhood
During the swearing-in ceremony, the Prime Minister said he had put the nation’s children in the hands of two mothers, “…and I trust they could not be better placed…They are responsible now, not just for their own family, but the families of the children of TT.”
He placed this trust in Gadsby-Dolly and Lisa Morris-Julian, minister in the ministry.
The mother of three teenagers, Gadsby-Dolly has learned to juggle her duties.
“Any working mother would have challenges. As a minister, you have to meet needs of your constituency as well as your family. My husband is very supportive and my (extended) family all have a role to play in assisting with my children.
“My children are very understanding, thank God, and they know when Mummy isn't around, it is for a reason.”
In spite of her busy schedule, she said her family always makes sure to spend time together at least once for the week.
“Even though we do not have as much quality time as we would like, we make each quality moment count.”
Gadsby-Dolly said being a parent and her experience as a teacher put her in a unique position to understand things from the viewpoints of both parents and students.
“I understand the different backgrounds children can come from.
"The same end point that I want for my children is what I want for every child. If my child, for example, is taking part in the online environment, which they will be, I would want teachers to alert me or my husband if they are not fully engaged, if they are not working.
"I know other working parents would need that, especially if you don't have an older sibling (or other relatives) to look over their shoulders.”
The ministry and special education
After visiting special schools in the first week, the minister said there is a lot that needs to be done for children with special needs. In speaking to administrators and parents, Gadsby-Dolly said the assessment process for students must be revisited.
She said she will be looking into a more collaborative effort among the ministries of education, health and social development.
She explained assessment and diagnosis of special needs children are under the purview of the Health Ministry and access to grants is done with the Ministry of Social Development.
“From the education standpoint, we would be at the point when the child comes in the system.
“Although the initial assessment doesn't necessarily fall under the Ministry of Education, I think some discussions would be fruitful.
“Once the child is identified as one requiring special needs, there should be a continuum of care, including assessment, schooling and everything else the child would need. It should be something that is seamless and not so difficult so parents have to deal with a whole mountain every time.”
Education after covid19
“Best practice for the education system leans towards blended learning,” said Gadsby-Dolly.
She said the ministry's learning management system, implemented in March to help teachers navigate online platforms and resources, will be optimised for all schools to use in their classrooms.
“(Blended learning) gives you the richest experience for students. That's what we’re aiming for.”
She said blended learning also allows for e-books, which the ministry is moving towards.
“It gives our education system greater flexibility (and) makes it easier for a teacher to interact with the class.”
Using online platforms, she said, has other benefits, such as assisting with homework, virtual field trips, and allowing students to delve deeper on their own time.
“It opens a whole new world that benefits our students. That is the goal.”