Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Education in Belize: Breaking Free (Part II)

This past week I received very many emails and Facebook messages with readers’ comments regarding my thoughts on Belize’s September celebrations of Independence, and on its “Breaking Free”.  Since this topic resonated with many readers, especially Belizeans who shared their many thoughts on the subject with me, this week I offer more ideas along these lines.

To break oneself free of a habit or custom, whether it’s positive or negative, is by far much easier said than done.  Adapting to change is never easy for anyone, especially when he/she is set in his/her ways.  (To both my young adult sons, I humbly and publicly offer my “mea culpa”.)  Painful examples of peoples and countries throughout history that chose to break free of domineering rulers show that they went to great lengths, including fighting (civil) wars that incurred many deaths and great suffering, before being able to freely choose their very own path(s).  Moreover, people throughout the world who were once enslaved also had to fight and suffer greatly for long periods of time, both physically and emotionally, before finally gaining their emancipation and freedom. 

Breaking free of habits that have made us set in our ways requires the same powerful determination and inner strength to even start to change and move on with our lives.   Examples that come to mind are the continuous determination and hard work required daily of cigarette smokers, drug users, or alcoholics who want to “control” (end) their addictions or uncontrollable habits.  The original decision is usually made for health reasons.  Nevertheless, an addict’s long and difficult journey to change must begin with one very first step: wanting to be free of the addicted habit(s).  Without that powerful inner desire to want to change, no addict ever changes or controls (ends) the habit.  And, if someone else forces an addict to end the addiction, it’s almost guaranteed that the addict will eventually slide back into the addiction. 

Albert Einstein’s widely used description of insanity is, “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results”.  This description is posted throughout various social media networks on an almost daily basis.  So, what does all this have to do with Education in Belize?  First of all, we are currently living in the 21st Century, no longer in the 20th.  It is only logical, then, that we should have Education systems today that can produce students who are capable of living and working productively in the 21st Century.  If we do not have such systems, then it’s imperative that we create them!  Prime example: In today’s Belizean workplace, computers are NOT a luxury, but a necessity.  Do schools in Belize accept this?  Are they willing to prepare all students, starting from in Primary school, to work in a computer-dominated world?  One or two classes a week, only in high school, can never possibly be enough!  Moreover, we do not wait for several years after a student starts school to teach him/her to read and write.  We start from day one!

Specialists who teach computers must also “constantly” keep learning how to use new applications in order to be able to teach students how to use them.  New computer programs are introduced almost every year, if not more often, throughout the world.  However, based on Belize’s current economy (in the red), and on an overall dismal sense of public satisfaction throughout the country, are our schools preparing students/graduates to work, and succeed, in Belize’s computerized workplace today?  If they are not, what are they waiting for?  Also, how do our students and graduates today compare “in the realm of technology” with other students and graduates from throughout the developed and developing world?  Is the comparison positive or negative?

Above all else, in order to accept and adapt to current global change, school policymakers and educators in Belize cannot be forced to change; rather, they must first want to adapt to changes -- for the good and improvement of the country, if for no other reason.  Admittedly, that will never be easily achieved.  However, those of us (especially parents) who see the need for and want change must also be willing to keep presenting our expectations or demands with “great effort”.  As I do in all my articles, we must live that battle cry of “never giving up”.  Also, interested parents, employers, and each stakeholder in Belize’s successful future must keep abreast of, and participate in government, church, school, and Board meetings, and keep giving positive input to educators and policymakers to show them that even though genuine change cannot be forced on anyone, it is achievable and attainable.  Too many parents mistakenly believe that just because they demand change in school systems it must and will be granted.  In other words, whoever wants to see positive changes in Belize’s Education system, must be willing to work for it, and not give up when/if no changes are adapted. 

The key to be able to adapt to any positive change is to have a flexible “attitude”.  Therefore, before any 21st Century change is made or welcomed into Belize’s Education system, previous and current attitudes need to be flexible or willing to be changed.  Example: Other than just investing more money each year in schools, policymakers (private, government, church, and Boards of Directors) should also be designing some form of flexible school improvement standards and accountability standards.  In keeping up with the times they must be willing to listen to others, have open minds, and when necessary, be willing to “try other ways to see which is better.”  School standards today in Belize are almost the same as they were in the 1960’s.  Those standards may have worked back then, but they certainly won’t today.  Who, though, will be brave and flexible enough to first “want” to adapt changes in school standards to meet Belize’s workforce needs today?

I vividly remember starting high school in 1965.  The older generation in those days constantly kept criticizing our younger generation for trying (and enjoying) the new fads such as dancing the twist, rock and roll, girls wearing mini skirts, boys having long hair etc.  Now that I am older I look back on those days and quietly smile!  However, I doubt that young Belizeans can possibly survive 50 years into the future to look back fondly, and say, “Oh the digital age; we remember when no one wanted to accept it 50 years ago.”  In other words, when we fall off a boat and into deep and rough seas, we don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to swim or not.  We must swim for dear life! So, when I insist that Belize break free from complacently adhering to former Colonial (Commonwealth) systems of Education, it’s not because I don’t like Colonials; rather, it’s because our Education systems today are not adequately providing our Youth with survival skills to live in this new digital and global world.  We must accept that Belize, our jewel, is no longer one of Huxley’s “ends of the earth”, and will only survive/succeed as a country by being a part of all things global.  Scouts motto:  Be Prepared!

Finally, as a proud Belizean parent, I remind all readers that no matter how very much we love our children, we raise them  “to eventually let them go”, not to hang on to them all the days of our lives.  Believe it or not, they too (like we did) will find and make a life of their own!  Belize, you are now an Independent country: let go of your parent’s ways and start finding your own way in life -- starting with how you choose to educate our Youth!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Education in Belize: Breaking Free!

September in Belize is a month for celebrations!  Many festivities lead up to Sept 10th to commemorate the “Battle of St. George’s Caye”, a day that has been celebrated each year, and long before the country achieved self-governing status in the mid 1960’s and Independence in 1981.  Each September includes many talent competitions throughout Belize, then a festive Carnaval, then the nationwide celebrated Independence Day on Sept. 21st  to top a full month of festivities.  In our many September celebrations throughout the country, we celebrate many forms of “breaking free”, whether from Colonial masters or from whatever may have once held us back -- as a country and as a people.  We even broke free from our former name, British Honduras, and have proudly made ourselves known throughout the entire world as: Belize.  Certainly, we have every right to celebrate all the changes and advancements in Belize today. 

It is unfortunate, though, that Belize insists on remaining very disadvantaged as a young developing country, because since gaining Independence we adamantly refuse to break free from adhering to former/existing Colonial (Commonwealth) systems of Education throughout the country.  Yet, our Education policymakers (government and church) seem unable to understand why a majority of young Primary school students in Belize score so very lowly on annual Proficiency examinations, i.e. PSE, each year.  Until we break free of antiquated Colonial systems of Education we cannot adequately provide our Youth with survival skills to live in today’s new global and digital world!  What, pray tell, are we waiting for to WANT to break free of old systems of Education, and set our very own Belizean 21st Century standards?  Money is certainly not an excuse because in Belize hundreds of millions of dollars are made and change hands each year.  Yet, Education still is not top priority among the many new government, church, and business projects each year.  (Am I the only educator who questions this?)  Moreover, there are many talented and professional (young) people living and working in Belize today!  The country now boasts more than one university, and each one produces highly proficient and professional graduates in ever-increasing numbers each year.  Yet, the majority of our Primary/Elementary school children are not reaching where they should be, literary wise, compared with the rest of the world.  Why?  It simply cannot be that all our young students are lazy!  Who, then, is?  (Learned Helplessness)

As an Independent nation today, Belize offers its young people more occupational, career, and educational options than at any other time before.  However, along with all the new opportunities available today, there exist far more problems in our society than we have ever seen before: ever-increasing daily crime, violence, drug abuse and peddling to all ages, poverty and unemployment, and an overall sense of hopelessness from thousands of people throughout the country.  Many of us struggle, day in and day out, to survive ever-increasing “hard times”.  Yet, during these very difficult times, the rich get richer, a middle class borders extinction, and life keeps getting harder and harder for the growing number of poor people with each new day.  As we press on through these seemingly insurmountable and Dickensian times, how are we helping our young people to truly “prepare” for life in the next 10 years?  Trying to educate them by using someone else’s standards simply is not good enough!  Neither can it show them how to lead meaningful and satisfying lives while they try to learn each day in school.

As of today, what public actions are being taken to try to lower Belize’s extremely high unemployment rate (especially among Secondary and Tertiary educated citizens) and widespread poverty?  How are we trying to stop gangs from openly and violently taking anything and everything they choose from hard-working Belizeans, many violent murders, and increasing closures of what once were successful business establishments?  We could address it all by first positively reforming our Education systems throughout the entire country!  It seems though, that we have all inexplicably chosen to accept our current pitiful and miserable, at times even violent, situations as being our uncontrollable destiny.  So, as of this September, what better and more improved Education is now available to our children that we can celebrate?

Old and new schools, whether in Belize or not, are not just buildings and institutions that provide many teachers and professional educators with jobs.  Schools provide and promote efficient Education for students, and prepare them to live and work in today’s world!  Better-prepared graduates and a better Belizean workforce also translate into a more robust Belizean economy.  Yet, an improved 21st Century Education just is not top-priority in Belize today, nor has it become fully non-negotiable for everyone.  It certainly is not surprising, then, that several private (and expensive) and successful schools have emerged in Belize during the last 5 or 10 years.  Basically, private schools will always be accountable to parents who can afford to pay expensive monthly tuition, to no one else.  To whom, then, are public schools accountable today in Belize?

As a Belizean, I am quite serious when I say/write that our number one goal should be to provide a better Education to our children; it must be better than what we have provided since before we became Independent as a country.  However, any reform whatsoever in our present Education systems requires input from ALL stakeholders: parents, teachers, business community, government, church, and the entire nation.  Most importantly, we must all be serious about wanting to improve our students’ performance and educational outcomes.  I look forward to having so much more to celebrate next September.  Congratulations Belize!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Education in Belize: Enthusiasm! How long can/will it last?

A family member of mine recently commented to me how very enthusiastic his youngest son is to be returning to Primary (Elementary) school this week, after a long summer vacation away from school.  My first thought about that comment: How wonderful to see a young student enthusiastic about returning to school to continue disciplined learning!  My second thought: I wonder how long that enthusiasm will last…  My concluding thought:  What should we educators and parents keep doing to instill and maintain that enthusiasm for learning in all students, everyday all year long?

It is very sad that today Education and learning do not always conjure thoughts or feelings of enthusiasm in many students and/or parents.  However, we are living in a difficult and complicated age now in the 21st Century, not in Utopia – whether we live in Belize, a Third World (underdeveloped) country, or in a developed country.  When the majority of working parents must think of Education (especially Secondary) for their children in terms of, “How will I be able to afford tuition, books, fees and all the many expenses just to register my child for a new school year?” there is not much room left for enthusiasm about learning.    How then, do we adults, parents or educators, feed our children with enthusiasm for school and learning, no matter at what level they may be studying, and keep it alive and robust all year long?

Politicians and policy makers of Education generally concentrate on budgets and costs per student; educators concentrate on using successful methods of teaching and on setting a proper and detailed curriculum to help students advance each school year; parents concentrate on making sure students attend school daily, and on finding ways to pay for their children’s education; students are encouraged to concentrate on disciplined learning.  However, the one goal that we all (politicians, educators, parents) share is to keep doing whatever it takes to make sure students enjoy something about being at school, especially in the classroom.  Parents, just as much as teachers who work with students daily in the classrooms, equally share this sacred responsibility!  Parents who show no interest whatsoever in their children’s “life at school” will instantly kill whatever enthusiasm a student may have for learning, and for being in a classroom to learn something new everyday. So, p l e a s e, I strongly encourage all parents, starting this very first week of school, to set the tone for your children and share in their enthusiasm for whatever they may learn in school everyday!  Keep in touch regularly with your children’s teachers, and stay abreast of their achievements (and their most difficult times) at school, and you will help much more than you may realize to keep that enthusiasm for learning alive and robust all year long in students!

There are always excuses; however, excuses will always be excuses -- nothing else!  Having been an educator since 1978, I have heard them all.  Parents:  I don’t have the time.  I must concentrate on making the money, and work my … off everyday to pay for his/her education.  I never went to school, so why am I expected to know what he/she is doing in school?  What more do you expect from me?  I am not God!  Teachers’ excuses may run along these lines:  It’s not my problem if he/she does not want to learn.  Let his parents worry about him/her; I am not the parent.  My job is to teach; that’s what I am being paid for – nothing else.  If his parents can’t handle him/her, how am I supposed to handle him/her? There’s only so much I can do, especially in such a large class.  Politicians:  We spend so much money on Education – more than any other Cabinet Ministry or Department!  What else are we supposed to do?  We cannot learn for them!  Stop blaming us, and thank us for all the money we spend on your children.  So then, if we all have so many other pressing responsibilities, who should be responsible for, or will ever have the time to instill a love of learning in our children?  Really though, after everything is said and done, whose problem is it?

There are entire volumes of books written today about the “difficult” student, and how he/she should be treated at school to best help him/her learn.  However, I believe strongly that long before any student ever reaches the stage of being “difficult”, or ever gets placed into that category for whatever reason, a genuine love and enthusiasm for learning from an early age would keep him/her inspired enough (fired enough) to like something/anything, no matter how small, about being in school.  Many students love sports, or participating in other extra curricular activities at school.  It would be great if we could somehow manage to spread whatever enthusiasm they may have in one area throughout all areas of their entire school career. Perhaps that's why students in vocational or trade schools often do well:  they enjoy what they do!   Hence, my loud and continued cries for ongoing reform in schools today so that students will be able to embrace and remain enthusiastic, no matter to what degree, about whatever they may be learning, or may be required to learn. 

Finally, I want to make it quite clear (once more) that we cannot ever pressure anyone to be enthusiastic about learning.  That’s simply not possible.  However, whatever reform(s) in Education that we all work toward achieving, starting today and especially in Belize, must ensure that students always are encouraged to have/maintain some form of overall enthusiasm for learning – in disciplined and undisciplined ways, inside and outside of school.  We are now living in a digital and highly technological age.  Our challenges in learning today are NOT the same as those from yesteryear.  For those who insist on living in the past:  Wake up and smell the Sanka!  For those who are not afraid to face the present:  Wake up and smell the coffee!