(JamaicaObserver)A heavy cloud of grief hovered over staff and students at Jack’s Hill Primary School in St Andrew on Monday as they started the new academic year without their principal, Donnette Witter, who died suddenly last Thursday.
Witter, who would have celebrated her 41st birthday on November 17, reportedly woke up complaining that she was not feeling well. Shortly after, she died, plunging the school community into shock and mourning.
The tragedy resulted in Education Minister Fayval Williams visiting the small campus on Monday during her now customary visit to schools at the reopening of the academic year. She offered her ministry’s support to students and staff.
“This morning is a sad one for your school community. I can imagine the sorrow and grief you are feeling right now, but despite this you woke up and you are here. I applaud you for that. It is one thing to get [sad] news about somebody who was ageing or who was sick, but to get news of somebody who is young and otherwise healthy and vibrant just throws you off. We serve a living God and it is in moments like this that we can look to Christ for solace, even when we don’t understand everything that is happening around us,” she said.
“You can count on the ministry to continue to provide emotional support and grief counselling as you go through this period. It is my first time to Jack’s Hill Primary. This is a pretty small school but it serves an important need in a community that is far away from the urban centre. We want to assure you that we will continue to provide as much as we can within the budgets that we have. We have a lot of schools but we know that this school will continue to grow and prosper and serve the communities around it. Thank you again to all the teachers who take part in building a nation,” the minister said.
Valerie Walters, the senior teacher who is expected to act as principal, fought through tears as she remembered Witter.
“I have been a colleague of Miss Witter for 17 years. I have known her since she came here. I have seen her development, straight from grades one and two up to where she was before she left us. Working with her was really a good thing. We got to know each other and we did numerous things together, like workshops and various activities,” Walters said.
“Her biggest impact, to me, was the way in which she treated her students. She had her little way of getting through to them to get them to do what she wanted them to do and to get them back where they ought to be. We sometimes get some students who give us a warm time, but she would give her all. The relationship we had was very good,” Walters shared.
According to Walters, Witter was always intimately involved in activities at the school that augur well for the development of the students and staff.
“I will never forget last Teachers’ Day when she brought us together and we were just one family and there was no separation or hierarchy,” she said, adding that the last meeting the staff had with Witter was held online the day before she passed.
“I am just sorry that we didn’t have a face-to-face meeting on Wednesday,” Walters said.
“She encouraged, and she was someone you could talk to. She gave direction and she did not have any qualms about her position or anything. She was working with us for the betterment of the students and staff and so, again, I say, I miss her.
“We really appreciate the support we are getting from the ministry to help and settle us and the students. We would not have been able to do it on our own. We are not in the frame of mind, so we really appreciate you,” she told Minister Williams and her team from the ministry.
Keisha Reid, who said she has been teaching at the school since October 2021, shared that Witter always encouraged her.
“I could go to her and I could call her at any time and she would be there for you. Sometimes in the classroom it was really challenging. Whenever I went to her office to express a problem, she always responded when things got challenging for me,” she said.
“Working with her, I found her to be a very calm, genuine person. I am from St Mary and when I am travelling from that end to Jack’s Hill, I had to get up very early and come to town. She encouraged me to get a place in Kingston. She was searching around for me. When I told her that I found somewhere, she said that was very good, despite the high cost of the rent. She was like a mother to me. I am new to the system so when I needed help, I would go to her and she did not deny me of it. That is what I loved about her,” Reid told the Observer.