Jenel Lewis – making a  difference in the classroom
October 26, 2012
Jenel Lewis – making a difference in the classroom

Jenel Lewis wants to be a mathematics teacher for the rest of her working life.{{more}}

She does not aspire to be a principal or any of the high profile positions within the offices of the Ministry of Education.

“It may not sound ambitious. And friends say, ‘Oh, you are just a teacher’, and it stings. But it is something I love doing and I want to continue to do,” she told SEARCHLIGHT in a candid interview on Sunday.

The 35-year-old Kingstown Park resident has been teaching at the Girls’ High School for the past three years. She also had a stint at the Campden Park Secondary School.

She feels the classroom is where she can make a difference, especially for students who have difficulties with mathematics.

Just over one quarter — 27.99 per cent — of the nation’s secondary school leavers this year passed math, a compulsory subject.

And Lewis said there must be “a reason why they are not getting it.

“We have to find a way to reach those students. And it pains when I can’t … I have to find a way to break down those walls,” she told SEARCHLIGHT.

Lewis, daughter of retired police officers Parnell and Genita Lewis, obtained her primary education at the Kingstown Preparatory School.

She attended the St Joseph’s Convent Kingstown, followed by two years at the St Vincent Grammar School, where she did her ‘A’ levels.

Her first job on leaving school was at the Campden Park Secondary School as a relief teacher. After one year, she entered the St Vincent Teachers’ College, and graduated with a Certificate in Education (Teaching).

She returned to the CPSS for a few years, then was transferred to the Ministry of Education, where she worked as a statistical officer.

After a few years there, Lewis knew for sure “desk work” was not for her.

“I was bored. I had to do something … It (the work at the Ministry) was driving me crazy!”

So in 2005, she commenced studies at the University of the West Indies St Augustine Campus in Trinidad, where she read for a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, with a minor in statistics.

But it was not all smooth sailing at the UWI.

Lewis said she was “lectured” rather than “taught”.

“I felt lost and I was about to come home.”

Things changed for her, however, when a friend on campus offered to help. She was also reminded of the power of prayer and Phillipians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

“That kept me throughout university, and the fact that Jesus loves me.”

Lewis graduated in 2009, hoping that on her return, she would not be placed at the Ministry of Education.

“When I came back, I prayed and said ‘I don’t want to go back to the ministry!’”

And about a week after Lewis returned to work, Louis deShong, then deputy chief education officer, asked if she wanted “to go to hold on at the GHS,” as they were short of a teacher.

“He knew my desire to go back into the classroom,” Lewis recalled. “That’s it. Since then I am at High School; I never went back to the Ministry!”

She is thoroughly enjoying her assignment at the all girls school and her students have rewarded her efforts with excellent results.

For the past two years, she has entered two of the school’s six fifth forms.

In 2011, her students returned 100 per cent passes at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate Examinations (CSEC) mathematics exam.

This year, 45 of the approximately 50 students Lewis taught passed.

But despite the 90 per cent pass rate, Lewis was not happy.

“It depressed me for a while,” she said.

The soft-spoken young woman paid tribute to the assistance given to her by the head of the mathematics department at the GHS, Gillis Francis.

“I may not be the [most] fluent teacher. I may not know all the content areas. But I am a person who is willing to learn and I ask for help.

“… When it comes to children, children have a special place in my heart. I am very, very fearful that I would damage them, so I try to be very careful about what I do around them. So, if I need help in anything, I ask Mr Francis, who is very good.

“I would say, ‘Mr Francis, I need help on this particular topic, how should I approach it?’”

Lewis said Francis has set a goal for his department of a 98 to 99 per cent pass rate for mathematics in regional high school leaving exams next year.

This year, the school’s math pass rate was 91.41 per cent.

“… We are not saying we are perfect, but he said he wants a 98 per cent pass rate this year. We always rise to the occasion,” Lewis said, adding that the six teachers in the school’s math department “work together very well”.

“We have a good communication and we share our work and so if he says that, he is the head, we are just his followers, so we have to make sure we do our work to get that”.

But Lewis has also told her student that the 98 per cent or even 100 per cent pass rate would not be enough.

“… we are not only going to pass, we have to improve the quality of our passes,” she said.

She added that she is also aiming to improve the quality of the knowledge that the students gain from learning math.

“Students very often say we are not going to use this in life, but I tell them you never know. Even if you don’t use it in future studies, in life, the foundation is good.”

Lewis advises students who have not been performing well in math to work hard.

“I love to see children work hard. I like to see students inspired. You know, children who had a fear of mathematics, and then they want to try.”

She also firmly believes that having strong faith in God and conditioning the mind help students’ performance.

“I always encourage them to pray, … and I tell them to look in the mirror and say ‘I love math’,” she said.

“If you condition, you may actually try.”

Lewis also observed that most people do not seem to attach the same stigma to not performing well at math as they do with English language.

“People are more ashamed to say I can’t read… but they are quick to say I don’t like maths, I can’t do maths. It’s almost like if they are happy they can’t do maths. The attitude has to change,” she stated.

She also advised teachers to encourage students to “write

the mathematics properly and show their working and give reasons for their answers”, saying

this will develop students’ understanding.

The importance of practice should never be underestimated, she said, and advised students to dedicate one or two hours everyday to practise their mathematics.

“Practice has worked for the GHS,” she said.

“I give worksheets almost every week. When I give an exercise, it is not only on the topic we are presently doing, but also on topics we did before. This keeps the maths topics fresh in their minds. So, it becomes like second nature to them,” she said.

She encouraged students who are having problems not to give up.

“I was not the brightest student. I never came first, I always wanted to … At ‘A’ level, I got a Grade E for math.

“If you try, if you work hard at it … you will be successful.”

She said sometimes mathematics teachers at other schools say the students at the GHS are the “cream of the crop”, so they do not have the issues other students have.

“I hate to hear that … We have our struggles too, in getting them to understand various concepts.”

Describing herself as a firm believer in professional development, Lewis said she would like to pursue postgraduate studies in an area which would help her to address learning challenges in mathematics.