Olwyn McCabe stood at the front of the classroom, rows of social distanced desks laid out in front of her. This was a stark difference to the layout of her classroom from years past. Multiple fans were spaced out around the room for air circulation, and wipes were on almost all the tables in the classroom. Most concerning: there were no students.
Although many aspects of McCabe’s classroom environment were different due to Covid-19, the ambience, decorations, and modifications that made the room her own hadn’t changed. Her walls have been covered over the years in newspaper clippings of articles she found interesting. Artwork also adorns her walls, including a poster of Degas. The feature she is most passionate about is a poster from a trip to England when she was a child, where she saw the famous British actor, Timothy Dalton, perform in Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford upon Avon. McCabe has decorated her room over the course of years to show her love for education. That love is rooted in her experiences as a youth.
A child of European immigrants, McCabe always was taught the value of education. Both her mother and father became teachers, but her father’s story overcoming adversity inspired her from a young age. When her father grew up in the United Kingdom, one’s life path and college opportunities were determined by privilege and test scores, which resulted in many underprivileged students dropping out and doing manual labor. Moving to America, her father became the first person in his family to attend college. The American educational system seemed to provide more opportunity. She feels privileged to have had the opportunity of being educated here because the things she learned in the United States are not available in other parts of the world.
In her youth, McCabe was in the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps was a popular way of getting professional experience and helping the global community. McCabe was 20 when she joined. As a member, she taught at Bishop Jule School in Zwedru, Liberia, where she lived with nuns in a convent. They dedicated their lives to teaching and God. The kids she met dedicated themselves to education. Some left their families and communities to go to bigger villages in order to get an education.
The teachers were disciplined. McCabe says they seemed like “pillars of learning.” McCabe was in the Peace Corps for two years. Seeing her students and colleagues’ devotion to education shaped her outlook. She better understood the lengths to which people will go to get an education; she discovered the lengths to which she would go to give them one. Her experience in the peace corps helped her learn more about others’ experiences and how to be more compassionate and understanding of others’ struggles.
McCabe did not want to be a teacher growing up. She believed that a field involving animals such as farming would be a better fit for her. However, after spending time teaching in the Peace Corps, she decided to devote her life to teaching. McCabe believes that education is a tool to gain opportunities. It opens doors to different career paths and allows students to have a greater voice in their futures.
In Europe, teachers are revered and education is considered one of the most important career paths in society. Considering her understanding of the reverence with which teachers are treated in other parts of the world like Europe and Africa, she is disappointed in the lack of appreciation and respect teachers receive in the United States. McCabe has heard people blame teachers for distance learning, even though they can’t control the actions of the bureaucrats in charge. Other smaller things are also blamed on teachers, such as bad test grades.
Teachers’ working conditions are insulting, and not conducive to good education. Most teachers care about their students’ success, but the burden of teaching to a test in a pandemic can be too much.
Olwyn McCabe has taught at many public schools in Providence and all over Rhode Island, including Esek Hopkins, Roger Williams, and Cranston West. She has found that Classical is different from these other schools. “The difference between Classical and other public schools in Providence is the motivation that students have because of the required entry exam. Kids tend to do well because they work hard,” McCabe says.
During the pandemic, teaching has been a lot more difficult. She thinks that schools aren’t funded as they should be due to a lack of resources, but RI did a particularly good job of providing teachers with laptops, webcams, and training to teach on Zoom, especially at the start of the pandemic. McCabe says that classes are definitely not getting through the material fast enough and that some of her classes have gone through less than half of what they would in a normal school year.
She feels this represents a deeper issue this year: freshmen haven’t met most of their peers in person, clubs haven’t been around, the community hasn’t been engaged. In a normal school year, group activities help promote class identity, but due to the pandemic, that has proved difficult.
McCabe’s love for providing educational opportunities is not limited to school hours. In her time here at Classical, Ms. McCabe has enjoyed running many clubs. She ran the Manga/Anime Club, the Social Action Committee, and the Chess Club.
To McCabe, clubs are one of the great losses of COVID. McCabe remembers what previous years used to look like: students laughing and hanging out together after school, someone skateboarding in the hallway. She misses the vibrance and chaos of kids having fun together after school.
McCabe is known for offering snacks to students and keeping her room open as a safe space. She wants students to feel supported inside and out of the classroom.
“Remember your grades matter and that every day of every year counts…” Ms. McCabe says. She takes care to remind students the value of education and hard work, “you may not feel important… but this year is a building block. It’s important to try and do well and commit yourself to learning.”