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By Lane Hartill
Don’t interrupt the students.
The Great Linel is presiding.
He’s the man at the front of the class, the one with the chalk all over his pants, the one bouncing around the room, shouting like an old-time preacher, lighting up the room with his nuclear smile.
He commands attention, even when it comes to diagramming sentences.
“Give me a sentence!” he thunders.
“The hippopotamus is the first animal of the earth,” mumbles a girl.
“What’s the subject?” he booms.
“Hippopotamus,” the class says in unison.
A hand goes up.
“What,” asks a confused boy, “is a hippopotamus?”
The Great Linel can’t help but laugh. There are no hippos in Haiti.
He’s part preacher, a dash of comedian, and pinch of performer. But he’s no side-show circus act. He’s a sixth grade teacher in one of the rougher parts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. To get his students’ attention — especially this bunch of preteens — Linel brings his A game every lesson, every day. If he doesn’t have a healthy dose of entertainment, he loses them. And it’s tough to get them back.
It’s hard not to. Linel is addictive, a drug that kids can’t get enough of. And that’s exactly what Haiti needs more of: Teachers who capture the imagination of students.
Frederick Celner, the dapperly dressed principal of the school, Ecole Splendeur Mixte, agrees. Linel is one of their best.
“A good teacher should have a hard hand in a smooth glove,” he says. “Before you start (a lesson), there are things you should do, You should captivate children’s minds. Once you do that, you have all the students hooked. (The other teachers) don’t have the same passion as Linel,” says Celner.
In Haiti, that’s not always easy to find. Students are often crowded into sweaty, cramped classroom, wedged onto benches, squinting at scarred blackboards hovered over by monotone teachers.
That’s if they’re lucky.
If they’re really lucky, they get someone like Linel. He’s just one of hundreds of teachers Save the Children has trained since the earthquake. Most of the teachers in Haiti desperately need it. The average primary school teacher has completed just one year of secondary education and only 11 percent of primary schools are licensed by the Ministry of Education.
The problem is compounded by a lack of schools. After the 2010 earthquake, Save the Children estimated that 90 percent of schools in Port-au-Prince alone have been damaged, affecting approximately 500,000 children aged 5 to 14.
Save the Children saw the problem and addressed it. So far, we have built more than 38 schools and trained 2,300 teachers. Linel was one of them. Save the Children taught him about interactive lessons, lesson plans and how to present material.
The physical punishment has also stopped. Director Celner sheepishly says, yes, they used to whip the kids. Now Linel punishes students with extra homework. Or old-fashioned copying sentences such as “I will not talk while the teacher is teaching.” A beating was fleeting. But homework stings a lot longer, and Linel says students learn Save the Children’s training is working. Last year, the school sent 53 children to the required state exam after the sixth grade. Fifty of them passed. That ranked Ecole Splendeur third out of 100 schools.
Linel grew up in Baradères, a rural town in southern Haiti. His parents were illiterate farmers, but they understood the importance of education. Linel spent his days in a run-down school house. In the afternoons, he pulled weeds and turned the earth in the corn and bean fields with his parents. At night, he huddled next to a tin can filled with paraffin, a homemade candle, the only source of light in their house. Despite their poverty, his parents always somehow found the money to pay for the school fees for him and his five siblings.
“My parents cut down a lot of trees (to make charcoal) in Nippes for me,” he says, referring to his home province. Charcoal sales funded his education.
Parents’ lack of money is often the dream killer for students here. In Port-au-Prince, school fees vary widely, but can easily exceed $200 a year when you count the tuition, uniforms and supplies. For Linel, his parents always came through.
Linel was a good student, passing the exams and always advancing to the next class. When he was 18 year old, he moved Port-au-Prince to live with his aunt and finish his studies. But he was unable to afford the high school fees, so he dropped out as a junior, swallowed his pride, returned to Baradères and moved in with his parents. He returned to his grade school where he got a job. He made about $60 a month, saving a little each month in hopes of completing high school and going to university to get his bachelor’s degree in teaching.
After four years — by now married with a child — he returned to Port-au-Prince. With his teaching skills honed, he started working at Ecole Splendeur.
He hasn’t given up on his dream. After he teaches all day, he rushes to his senior year of high school, arriving home to his wife and child, Godson, at 7 p.m. Then he hits the books until 1 a.m. He’s up early preparing lessons for his students. In a few hours, at the front of his class, The Great Linel will take the stage.