Jamaican Teacher Turns Kingston Walls into Blackboards for Students

Sheri-Kae McLeod

Educator Taneka Mckoy Phipps teaches a lesson with a blackboard painted on a wall, in a low-income neighbourhood, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kingston, Jamaica October 27, 2020. Picture taken October 27, 2020. REUTERS/Gladstone Taylor

With most schools in Jamaica still closed due to the pandemic, schoolteacher Taneka Mckoy-Phipps has found one practical way to deliver lessons to students in Kingston.

Every day, McKoy-Phipps trudges around several inner-city communities in Kingston to write lessons on blackboards painted on its walls.

The teacher was a recent guest on the Game Changers podcast hosted by Fabian Lyon, alongside Jamaica’s Consul General in Miami, Oliver Mair, Dr. Justin Peart and member of the Wolmer’s Alumni Association Fundraising Committee, Tricia Chung-Foster. She explained how her curbside classroom initiative started.

“I was at home one day and I heard a lot of noise coming from children on the street. I took responsibility because I’m a teacher and I felt like they would’ve been in the classroom had it not been for COVID-19. Right there, I felt like I had been failing and I knew I had to do something,” McKoy-Phipps said.

“The idea came to me to paint blackboards on the walls. So I went into the communities and asked permission and when I got it, I put up the work there for the children to see,” she explained on the Facebook live session. The lessons go up as early as 6:00 or 7:00 AM so parents can copy the work and assist their children before heading to work.

McKoy-Phipps has targeted primary and high school students through her initiative. One of her students, 15-year-old Gorshell Brown, a student of Mona High School in Kingston, explained how the project has helped her.

“The initiative is helpful for when I don’t have anything to do,” she said. “Not all of us have WiFi at home. I don’t get the lessons on the board but she gives us (the older children) worksheets with Math and English. It really helps a lot.”

In addition to blackboard lessons and worksheets, students are also provided with meals as a substitute for lunches they would have gotten at school. McKoy-Phipps said that she had initially been providing lunches to 100 students, but has since had to cut the number down to 50 because of financial constraints. She also tries to give the children healthy meals, “cabbage, callaloo and other greens”, which they may not get while at home.

Consul General Mair lauded McKoy-Phipps as a “hero” and pledged his support for her project.

Dr. Justin Peart, the President of the Wolmer’s Alumni Association in South Florida, also applauded the 39-year-old teacher for her efforts, saying that he was impressed with McKoy-Phipp’s simple solution to a massive problem.

“With the Wolumer’s Alumni, at the high school level, we’ve been pushing for tablets and hi-tech devices. But this was a really simple idea. Just to reach out to the many students, which could be the majority in some communities, that don’t have devices or WiFi connection. She was there to close that gap and provide opportunities for students who don’t have much to start off with,” he said.

McKoy-Phipps has now been joined in her mission by other teachers, including her 23-year old daughter, Shereece, a recent graduate from The Mico Teacher’s College in Kingston. She estimates that she is now reaching over 100 children.

The hosts of the podcast say they have received much support from the diaspora to help McKoy-Phipps and her team.

The initiative has gone viral nationally and McKoy-Phipps has met with Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness to discuss her efforts. The initiative has motivated the private sector to provide financial support and supplies.

“For some, teaching is a calling, and she exemplifies this,” said Rebecca Tortello, education specialist at the Jamaica branch of United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) in an interview with Reuters. “We… are liaising with the government to see if, and how best, her innovative and practical process can be scaled up.”

McKoy-Phipps says that among her most urgent needs are food items to continue delivering meals, computer devices for the teachers who assist her, as well as additional school material for the students.

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