Flavian Isembert, Anse la Raye Elementary School Principal and Global Volunteers Community Partner, sat down with our November volunteer team to answer questions about the challenges of leading an under-resourced school, and volunteers’ role in improving students’ literacy. Throughout, he stressed that in the face of inevitable setbacks, the outside assistance of patient and caring volunteers transforms students’ learning environment. Why? Because they motivate children to learn…and to read. His interview is your invitation to join this life-affirming investment in St. Lucia’s future leaders.
“I am one who believes that if you can read, the whole world opens up before you,” Mr. Isembert asserts. That world often seems unformed, and even scary, to an 8- or 10-year-old, he confesses. And in the precious elementary years, children need structure and personal confidence in their abilities. When they don’t have that at home, he says, teachers step in and can nurture much – but not all – the natural capabilities that form a child’s academic future.
“Some of the students 7 years and above can’t read when they come to our school, but by the time they are ready to graduate, most can read at a grade 6 level. And that is one way that Global Volunteers helps us. With the students who are unable to read, now they can read.” He says the one-on-one tutoring and personal attention the volunteers provide makes a significant difference to a child who is struggling with phonics, comprehension and motivation. Currently, several students in every classroom need intensive assistance that the core faculty can’t provide without help.
Remedial assistance in foundational skills at formative times can prevent a child from falling behind – and perhaps even failing a grade, says Mr. Isembert, who has taught at the school for 33 years. He’s witnessed that in the years following Global Volunteers’ arrival at his school in 2012. “It was clear that students who worked with volunteers were benefiting. Sometimes we had five or six volunteers each day.” He regrets that the number of volunteers dropped off during the 2018-19 school year, and since the pandemic, the number hasn’t rebounded. “Their presence used to be continuous, but now we don’t have that. Instead, we have volunteers every once in a while. It isn’t as predictable as it was before. So, we’d like to return to that time when we had volunteers every month.”
At that time, he said, the volunteers also engaged parents in planting Earthboxes, a type of container garden, to teach the fundamentals of nutrition. “That was very beneficial to the people of Anse la Raye, and ultimately, our students,” Mr. Isembert states. “Because I believe that if you can get the parents involved, then half the (education) problem is solved. Parents are critical to students’ education. There is evidence that children can do very well, and will stay in school when they have interested parents. And, we’re not talking only about elementary school. It goes from kindergarten through elementary, high school and secondary education. So, involving the parents is number one. Of course, they want their students to have good teachers and a good academic outcome.”
A Prickly Pressure Point
But, most parents are far less involved in school life than Mr. Isembert wishes, and the students need. Because of parents’ disengagement, he says, some students lack the motivation to learn, and can quickly fall behind their grade level. Volunteers help span the gap, he says, between home and school when serving as classroom resources. Starting each day with a motivational assembly, he says he weaves encouragement and optimism into every contact with students. Infusing classrooms with volunteers’ positive energy builds on his strategy. Glancing through classroom windows, the broad smiles of the students are returned by reassuring smiles of their volunteer tutors.
Yet, he’d prefer to see the parents’ faces on campus more regularly. “If I have 30 to 40 percent of the parents involved, that’s a lot. But, despite that, we’re still ranked number one for academics in the district. I tell the parents, ‘Look, we are first in the district. We are doing very well. What if you were supporting us? We could be Number One on the island. I am wondering why young, educated people are not involved in their child’s education,” Mr. Isembert laments. “That is what I’m trying to do; to teach them the value of education. Once they get that, I think they will be prepared to motivate their children.
“We sat down and put together a program for them, hoping that they will come,” he continues. “And imagine, 50 parents signed up to attend the program, and only six came, and only two finished. So, that’s a big challenge. They agree to come, but they don’t show up and they leave. So, that tells you where their interest lies. It is a lot of hard work trying to convince them to motivate the students, and to bring them on board to be part of their education,” Mr. Isembert reflects. “How can you convince people you believe should know better to get on board so they can assist their children, and by extension, the community, St. Lucia, and the world?
“So one of my greatest challenges is motivating students who are not motivated at home. I do that on a daily basis; every morning for 5-10 minutes at assembly, and then throughout the day.” Referencing his school’s motto, “The difficulties in my path will not defeat my ambition,” he says, “I’m one who believes that if you dream it, you achieve it. If you can believe it, you can achieve it.”
Appealing to Altruists at Home and Abroad
Added to the lack of parent support is lack of resources. “We don’t get much to run the school. We have to look for donors. What we get is staff, and we end up, for lack of a better word, we end up begging. We have to write letters, we have to write proposals, and I can say we get assistance, but not as much as we need or like.”
A good part of his week is devoted to finding financial supporters and planning fundraising events, such as bingo nights. “Depending upon the corporate citizen, and the goodness of their hearts, they will assist us on what ever they can. Surely and slowly, we get there. We are hoping that one day, before I retire, the government will be able to provide us with almost everything we need. If that ever happens, I don’t know what we’ll do!”
In the meantime, he takes great pride in the role he and his faculty plays in student’s successes, pointing to graduates who have become community leaders. “Some of them are doctors, some of them are bankers, some of them are police officers, and some of them are doing extremely well, and it makes me feel very good. That is the satisfying thing about this profession, you can groom that person that you assisted, and now they can contribute many things to society.”
“I’m one who believes that if you dream it, you achieve it. If you can believe it, you can achieve it.”Flavian Isembert, Global Volunteers Community Partner
“I enjoy working with Global Volunteers because I know that you have the same goal. At the end of the day, it’s not for me, but to assist the children from one level to the next. So I rely on collaboration – working together as a team. Throughout Anse la Raye Primary, it’s not me alone, but all my teachers are responsible for different aspects of running the school. That makes my work easier. I don’t have to do everything; we work together. And when you, the volunteers, come, the teachers have persons to rely on in order to carry out their responsibilities.
“I trust and believe in my teachers who, at the end of the day, want our school to be one of those that are ‘up there’ not only in our district, but in the community of St. Lucia. When we took this job, one of the promises is to make sure that our students perform to the best of their ability. And therefore, we do everything we have to do to help them.” Pausing contemplatively, he adds: “That is the reason why I’m still in the profession. I can make a difference in the life of one or two persons. It may not be everybody, but, if it’s two, or four, or six, that is a start. Our students are our future. They can contribute positively to society. At the end of the day, can you really ask for more than that?”
Mr. Isembert emphasizes that volunteers of all backgrounds and skills are welcome at his school – current and retired teachers as well as students, parents, grandparents, homemakers, artists, health care professionals, and professionals in all industries. No previous teaching experience is required to tutor students and supplement school-based curricula. Learn more how you can join a team of volunteers in St. Lucia or to donate to support Anse la Raye Primary School.