Thursday, May 30, 2013

Common Misconceptions of Education

Previously, we discussed the issue of parents and guardians who seem neglectful and show very little, if any, interest in their children’s day-to-day work, or lack of work, at school.  However, I made it clear that there’s nothing to be gained when educators or PTA parents point fingers at students’ parents who do not regularly participate in school activities, or communicate regularly with teachers, or attend school and PTA meetings.  We do not help students to learn by judging their parents or by comparing one parent to another.  How, then, do we constructively help parents and guardians to replace any misconceptions they may have of the schools where they send their sons or daughters everyday, i.e. viewing schools as daytime babysitters?  How do we motivate parents to become involved and be a part of their children’s day-to-day education, and not feel like “outsiders” in the Education process?  How do we help parents to see and feel that they are an integral part of how their children learn everyday as they grow in body, mind and soul?  As often as I unabashedly urge everyone to welcome “change”, I admit that these are not easy paths to follow. However, let us first examine some common misconceptions that many of us may have about schools, teachers, and administrators -- about Education in general.  Before we attempt to develop positive solutions that could encourage more parent participation at school, let us review how/why the many labels and misconceptions of Education might have become ingrained into our culture.  Perhaps once we understand the origins of these labels/misconceptions we can then replace them with progressive and practicable concepts of the true nature of Education.

According to recorded History the early development, growth, and management of Education in Belize (British Honduras) is credited to pioneering initiatives of the Church.  There continues to be a church-state partnership in Education in Belize today, but the Government asserts control.  We salute and thank churches that developed and improved standards of Education in Belize from its early colonization days as British Honduras up through today as Independent Belize.  Nonetheless, therein also may lay the roots of the misconceptions that schools alone are responsible for the development and management of a student’s education.  Perhaps, many parents have always felt, or still do, that they are not supposed to intervene or meddle with (church) schools to educate students, i.e. to help them develop critical thinking and self-discipline.  Consequently, many parents choose to stay out of their children’s Education process and let the church/school alone handle it.  As a result, these parents may seem not to care about their children’s schooling, even though the parents really do care.  Moreover, there are parents who were not privileged to obtain a formal academic education (i.e. Primary School only) and perhaps they feel that they are nowhere as qualified as the Church to “take charge of”  their children’s Education -- that’s for church/school, not parents, to do.  How do we, then, remove the misconception that some parents may have that their participation in their children’s education is much less important than that of church and school?  Another misconception that many parents/guardians have is that they have no say in how a student learns at school since that is a church/state responsibility. To counter this, schools, especially Primary/Elementary, could include frequent parent classroom participation as a part of a student’s daily learning process.  By being fully aware of each other, schools and parents can motivate each other to be a part of a student’s daily learning process, inside and outside of school.  

What, though, constitutes active parent participation in a child’s Education?  Is it picking up report cards, knowing our children’s teachers, and attending school or PTA meetings?  Is it paying school fees and tuition on time?  Is it making sure that our children go to school (in uniform) everyday and complete homework everyday?  More than all that, it entails “being a part of” our children’s daily learning experience!  From their entry to exit of a school, we parents can develop a partnership with the school (teachers and administrators) to help enrich our children’s learning opportunities.  That includes constantly monitoring our children’s progress or lack of progress at school.  Nevertheless, “partnership” involves two sides: parents and schools.  Thus, schools also should monitor students’ progress, or lack of progress, at home.  Schools and parents, as well as the entire community, need always remember that Education (learning) is given and received not only within school walls!  Yet, educators may ask, “How do we work at school with students whose parents seem to have wiped their hands of all responsibility to their children?”  What’s to stop teachers from doing the same?  Furthermore, it’s commonplace today for both parents to work (outside the home) everyday.  How then can parents and schools establish/keep working partnerships when today’s family dynamics and structures have changed so very much from what they used to be? There are no simple answers to these questions.  Nonetheless, these are issues that as a nation we cannot ignore or expect only one side to solve.  Let us address these issues by keeping informed at all times and never assuming to know what goes on at school and at home!   

My experience, inside and outside of Belize, as student (Primary/Secondary/University), as teacher and guidance counselor, and as parent has proven that one of greatest tools educators can use, and the best motivation that schools can offer students and their parents is to make school a positive experience every single day.  That keeps everyone interested and involved at school.  Yet, that is quite a large order for any school.  Surely, routine teaching and testing, teaching and testing, teaching and testing is not enough to provide a positive experience everyday for students, teachers, or parents. This is why non-academic (no grades) or extra curricular activities, including Sports, are offered and help enhance each student’s daily learning experience.  Moreover, extra curricular activities for students also encourage more parents to participate in school activities.  What parent does not want to see, even help, a son or daughter give a speech, act in a school play/drama, or play competitive football, basketball, or volleyball against another school’s team?  Also, throughout the length of a student’s career in school, healthy competition can be encouraged, not only in the area of grades but throughout all extra curricular activities where students can compete against each other and/or against other schools.  Finally, in reviewing my previous experience as an educator since 1978, as teacher and guidance counselor, I feel that positive experiences for me occurred at school especially when I was most “prepared”. Therefore, let us thank administrators and teachers for being prepared, and above all, for having patience.  Patience, more than any academic preparation, is what best enables teachers and administrators to ‘connect’ with students in order to try to understand them and help them.  (Of course, we should all strive to keep that in mind when dealing with each other – whoever and wherever we may be!)

Yes, let us clarify many misconceptions that exist about teachers and schools by involving everyone in our systems of Education.  “It takes a village!”  All of us, not only schools and parents, have important roles to play in the process of helping young people (our children) to develop physically, socially, psychologically, intellectually, morally and ethically.  First, though, we must accept that Education involves not only an accumulation of knowledge, but also the day-to-day “practice” of what we learn. Let us disregard old labels and become motivated to be actively involved in our children’s daily learning experience.  Parents and educators: let us stop looking at each other as suspiciously as we have done in the past or as many of us still do today.  The best education that a student could possibly receive is one given by home, school, church, and the entire community actively working hand in hand to continuously learn from each other while helping students to learn and grow everyday. Education, after all, is not so much about successful teaching as it is about genuine learning.

Final word:  Excuses do not solve problems.  Parents who may think that they have acceptable excuses for not being a part of their children’s learning process (Education) are basically choosing to avoid the challenges of parenthood and of today’s rapidly changing world.  Schools that do not engage students’ parents and the entire community from the beginning of a student’s career, or are too engaged in the mass production of graduates, need to reorient themselves to integrate school and family, as well as policy makers and the (faith) community.  As individuals and as a nation, as a jewel, let us emphasize teamwork and humane progressive education, at school and at home, instead of emphasizing Education as rote learning and diplomas.  Let us, whenever we consider our children’s Education, eradicate from our vocabulary the phrase “their job” and replace it with “our job”.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Wake Up And Smell The Coffee -- Again!

This week’s article focuses on an issue that I have been asked many times before to address.  Since 1978 I have worked as a professional educator, both as teacher and guidance counselor, in high schools and classrooms throughout Belize and in the United States.  Working alongside students, fellow educators, and many concerned and hard-working parents in Parent Teacher Associations, I have tried repeatedly to address this situation that continues to baffle many teachers.  The issue I refer to affects both students and educators every single day, and is a frustrating classroom management issue that can also limit students’ entire futures.  I am referring to those parents and guardians who show no interest whatsoever in their children’s work, or lack of work, at school.  It simply does not seem to matter to these parents whether their sons or daughters are progressing at school, are on top of the class, or are failing one or more subjects in their class.  School, to these parents and guardians, is merely a place where we send our children everyday; once our children are in school everyday, educators/teachers will take care of them and deal with whatever issue(s) the children/students may have because that’s just what educators/teachers are supposed to do.  How, then, do we educators, other concerned parents of students, and the community at large motivate these indifferent parents or guardians to actively participate in (care about) their children’s education?  A lifetime career as an educator, while also being a parent, has shown me that when our children fail in school, we too fail as parents (or guardians) and the entire country loses; however, when our children shine at school, we parents also shine and the entire country wins!

Actually, there are several issues involved here, not just the constant need for parents to participate in students’ education.  The proper parenting of students, or lack thereof, is a moral issue just as much as it is a legal one; as such, it is neither an easy nor clear cut matter to discuss.  Nevertheless, lack of parental participation in students’ education is an issue (like so many others) that we cannot ignore.  I encourage discussion of this issue, and welcome feedback from new and/or returning readers, and especially from parents of current students.  Your suggestions can be a first step in a difficult but feasible journey to pave a positive path for students, educators, and our jewel: Belize

First of all, though, I am adamant that no one should ever point fingers at students’ parents, or judge them or compare them to other parents.  Although, educators who work with much dedication everyday to educate students, only to notice that their devotion and continuous hard work with those students remain totally ignored by the students’ parents, may find it difficult not to want to judge.  Nonetheless, despite how indifferent the parent(s) of a student may be, judging a student’s parent solves nothing nor helps educate anyone!  Rather, just as the core of an educator’s work everyday is to motivate students to want to learn, likewise, we could keep finding ways to also motivate students’ parents to want to participate in their children’s education.  We could have exciting (not boring) Open Days at school and PTA activities; we could send regular letters and notes to parents to keep them apprised of their children’s activities at school.  We could encourage students’ parents to participate in and enjoy student field trips, instead of asking them to chaperone only.  An important step in trying to motivate parent participation in our students’ education is including them in the “fun” of Education.

I wrote my very first online Guidance Counseling article, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, Oct. 2011 to stimulate discussion about a key issue in the education of high school students where I worked at the time.  Similarly, that first article discussed the issue of parents who were not actively involved nor seemed to care about their children’s day-to-day education.  I argued then that most parents assumed that the newly introduced “In School Suspension” would not work simply because they themselves had never been exposed to it when they were in school umpteen years before.  I asked parents then to consider the program and review its Pros and Cons before jumping to conclusions – which most parents had already done.  This week’s topic has a similar assumption: my parents did not actively participate in my education, and I turned out all right, so that means that neither do I as a parent have to actively participate in my child’s day-to-day education.  As a school psychologist, teacher, and parent I repeatedly and unabashedly remind all parents that they do not ever have any right to assume that any student must do what the parents did 10, 15 or 25 years (or longer) ago in school.  That line of thinking is totally illogical, makes no sense whatsoever, and proves nothing to no one.  That line of thinking merely allows parents to conveniently feel guilt-free for not participating in their children’s education; and, of course, it also allows parents to have more “me” time to enjoy themselves.  That, however, I see as selfish.

As a fellow parent, not as an educator, I often remind the parents of students wherever I work that no child comes into this world with a “To Do” list for parents to follow.  However, once a child is born to us, we parents proudly take on the responsibility to protect and guide him/her into adulthood.  A large part of the responsibility includes making every effort to educate our children and help them to develop mind, body, and soul -- for longer than the law may require.  The fact remains, though, that throughout the entire world, including Belize, not every child is born into ideal circumstances or ideal families, whether rich or poor.  For that very reason I always encourage new parents to start considering decisions regarding a child’s education right after the child is born, and not to just leave such decisions to the haphazard rule of “we’ll deal with it when the time comes”.  In countries like Belize, where Education is not free nor automatically provided to everyone, planning an education is very important! (In 1978 the University of Wisconsin published my pioneering 12 month research study of Seniors in 3 high schools in Belize on this very topic; and in a recent online article I pointed out that “Learned Helplessness” is perpetuated from generation to generation when parents simply live from day to day, hoping blindly that perhaps somehow and sometime in the future something will work out to their benefit – but actually doubting it all deep inside everyday.) 

Yes, parental participation in a child’s education is very much a moral issue, more so, perhaps, than it is a legal one.  However, each individual parent has to make his/her own decision about just how much he/she wants to get involved in each child’s education.  Moreover, I strongly believe that no educator or PTA member should ever attempt to coerce or guilt another student’s parent(s) into participating in their child’s school activities.  Why?  In the same way that educators cannot force any student to learn, because genuine learning can only come from within (is inherent), neither can educators ever force parental involvement in any child’s education.  The key to promoting any student’s learning, and at the same time encouraging his/her parents’ involvement in the student’s education is “motivation”.  (Already, I see a flood of comments from readers to point out to me that educators’ responsibilities are to students, not to their parents!)  Nonetheless, even if I must step on toes (educators’ or parents’) to discuss this issue, I remain convinced that active parental participation in each student’s education is an important issue that needs to be discussed and encouraged, rather than ignored or filed away somewhere in someone’s old PTA meeting notes. 

In view of recent “en masse” high school suspensions in Belize City I strongly encourage readers, especially local school administrators, to review in Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, Oct 12, 2011 and San Pedro High Introduces New Suspension Program, Oct 4, 2011.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Technology To The Rescue!

Some people may consider it as pathetic, even disgusting perhaps, that today’s super-advanced mobile technology has surpassed and replaced everyday human interaction. Raging over the internet this month is a picture of Albert Einstein, with a caption next to his picture, “Has this day arrived?”  The controversial saying that some people attribute to Einstein, although it has not been proven, is one wherein he predicts that technology would surpass humanity and eventually create a generation of idiots.  The fact is that today’s advanced technology is no longer science fiction, as it may have been in Einstein’s time, or even only 25 years ago.  Regardless of whether we understand or accept it, advanced technology is now everyday reality in all corners of the world, including Belize.  To know what I’m talking about, simply step onto any crowded bus, train, or mass transit system; walk through any open grocery store or mall; enter a crowded bank or Post Office to transact business; enter any popular restaurant to enjoy a meal, and casually glance around you.  It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll see more people talking into cell phones, or checking Facebook and email on a Smart Phone or some type of hand-held mobile electronic device than you’ll see people chatting face-to-face with each other or looking directly into each other’s eyes.  Casually look around in any public place and you’ll see a majority of people, young and old, with their faces buried in the latest hand-held and touch technology mobile fad; many of them will be seen and heard talking loudly into the cell phones, and paying no attention whatsoever to anything or anyone around them.  What then has happened to everyday human interaction? Has it now been replaced by advanced mobile technology?

Virtual communication, or instant messaging by robot-like people, during every hour of the day or night seems to have taken over humanity.  Actually, even during church services, many times you will hear a cell phone ring loudly or chime out some disgusting show tune.  Even more embarrassing, many times the owner will be heard screaming loudly into the cell phone, “I’m in church; I can’t talk!”   All of this keeps happening, even after public announcements are repeatedly made at the start of each church service, “Please turn off all cell phones.”  Even schools, starting as early as Primary, have had to introduce very strict “No cell phones or hand-held electronics” rules while trying to educate students everyday.  Yet, many students keep looking for every excuse under the sun to justify bringing their cell phones and electronic gadgets to school.  Worse yet, as unbelievable as it may seem, more and more tragic and fatal road accidents are repeatedly being caused, in large and small countries, by motorists of all ages who insist on communicating by cell phone or composing and sending text messages while driving.  These are the stubborn and careless drivers who choose to remain totally distracted by technology from what they’re supposed to be doing: concentrating on driving and maneuvering safely on the road ahead of them.

Nonetheless, even though technology should not replace humanity, when harnessed properly (used at the right time and right place) technology can be used to help enhance one’s education, and help save our unique Belizean languages and cultures.  The majority of young people in Belize today cannot fluently speak or understand the Maya, Kekchi, or Garifuna languages.  In this new century these languages are spoken by a smaller and smaller handful of middle-aged and older Belizeans.  How, then, do we get our young people interested in learning, using, and preserving these languages that are not taught in our schools?  How can we save our native languages and cultures from extinction?   Technology can be a tool to help us preserve and pass on our rich native languages and cultural traditions to future generations.

Many Native American Indian Tribes in the United States have turned to modern technology to try to save their many tribal languages and prevent them from becoming extinct.  Belize should do likewise, and turn to technology to help preserve its native languages that are not taught in schools, and that are slowly phasing out as more and more of our older Maya, Garifuna, and Kekchi people grow older and die.  What I especially like about the idea of turning to technology to help save our own languages is that it can also be a way to conquer the huge divide, or gap, between our young and our old people.  Young people can provide the technical expertise to create game shows in Maya, Garifuna, or Kekchi; and our older people can provide the linguistic expertise – questions and answers in each native language.  There are You Tube videos that can be made of older people speaking in Maya, Kekchi, or Garifuna.  These could be uploaded or downloaded for everyday use, especially for young people who do not have access to, nor live near to anyone who speaks Maya, or Garifuna, or Kekchi.  We could try to get our Belizean youth fully engaged in using flexible applications that can be downloaded onto their iPods and iPhones.  We could use applications that our young people are already well-acquainted with and would use.  Why wait only once a year to see annual Festival of Arts productions of Belizean songs and dances (folklore) to appreciate our varied cultures and languages when we can access them everyday through the use of free or low cost technology?

Yes, advanced technology has its pros and cons; but it can be a very powerful tool to use in order to help revive and revitalize Belize’s endangered Maya, Garifuna, and Kekchi languages.  I am not a professional linguist, nor do I profess to know all the native languages that we speak in Belize; but as an educator I will continue my unabashed polemic cry for change in our education systems.  I recall, with envy, the many hours that my father used to spend conversing in fluent Maya, with his many older friends who would visit Belize City from Louisville, in the Corozal District up North (bordering Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula).  Though I never understood a single word of Maya, I was always impressed with my father’s polylingual abilities.  Having been born and raised at Louisville Farm (now a town) in the Corozal District he fluently spoke Maya, Spanish, and English, even though he attended but one year of high school – a boarding school in Belize City at the time.  I also fondly recall my mother’s many tales of young children passing her home in San Ignacio, Cayo District every Halloween night during the 1930’s, with cups in hand, begging for “Ish Paza Pa La Calavera”  (sp?) which was a type of corn meal.  To conclude, as with any use of technology, we should always keep in mind that any instrument of modern and advanced technology is just a tool, never a substitute.  So, in order for us to learn and properly use any language, whether old or modern, we must first have genuine will power and discipline to study and learn that language.  Most importantly, no tool of technology should ever be allowed to replace our genuine humanity.