Sunday, October 27, 2013

Education in Belize: Difficult Students (From Challenges to Solutions)

In previous articles I reviewed both positive and negative ways to deal with “Difficult Students” who constantly misbehave at school.  Dealing with Difficult Students   Effective Ways to Deal with Difficult Students  Dealing with Loud and Playful Difficult Students  I encouraged teachers to have unbending and effective classroom management, and I suggested positive ways for them to deal with repeated and distractive behavior of students.  However, several parents recently contacted me to complain about several difficult students whose constant power struggles with teachers at a high school in Belize City hamper the learning process of other students. 

While re-reading my previously published articles, I noticed a reader’s comment to suggest that today’s difficult students need “a good paddling” as they used to get in the past.  Once more, I remind readers that we cannot live in the past!  This is 2013 and we need to adapt classroom management methods that are in line with 21st Century ways of living and learning.  Previous civilizations constructed huge temples and pyramids (Maya ruins in Belize) by using slave labor forced out of thousands of its citizens; however, no matter how magnificent those temples and pyramids turned out, we do not build monuments that way today.  Likewise, many teachers used the paddle regularly 50 years ago to “straighten out students”; but teachers do not use paddles today for many reasons.  Many research studies, conducted by well-respected professionals and many books that followed, show long-term negative effects of corporal punishment. 

According to current law, corporal punishment is not allowed in schools in Belize.  In other words, even if paddling was used (or worked) in the past, it is not a viable solution today to stop unwanted student misbehavior.  So, do we simply throw up our hands and let misbehaving students do as they wish at school?  The answer is a loud and resounding NO.  Loud, distracting, and unwanted student behavior at any school is as totally unacceptable today as it was in the past.  It impacts others negatively, and it totally disrupts the learning process of the entire class, including the perpetrator(s).  Not only does it show total disregard and disrespect for teachers and for the other students, but it goes against school rules and regulations.  Rules and regulations, after all, help to keep us civilized as opposed to barbarian!

We educators know that managing student behavior is a complex task, one not as simple as “follow steps 1, 2, 3”.  Actually, the lack of simple formulas for enforcing effective classroom management explains why many difficult students often surface (even thrive) in schools.  Some educators today ignore the misbehavior of difficult students because they don’t know an easy way to end it.  Demerits, detentions, and suspensions are temporary interventions to temporarily slow or halt misbehavior; however, they don’t address the root causes of why students break rules, or chronically and aggressively misbehave.  Other than ultimate expulsion, there is no guaranteed solution to permanently end student misbehavior.  Nonetheless, we should always make every effort to halt student misbehavior at school as soon as it starts.  Immediate and/or temporary interventions work for a while, but they are not enough.  As educators, parents, and as a community we also need to address “head on” the actual roots that create difficult students.  After all, no one is born a difficult student, but rather is created out of, shaped by, and continuously nurtured by his/her home and surrounding environment. 

Many schools claim to have outright “Zero Tolerance” for any type of misbehavior from a student.  However, life is not black and white.  For this very reason, teachers and administrators (who are the ones who usually know students best) should be allowed flexibility to deal with difficult students.  Who better to work effectively with them?  Many graduates (and their parents) of the last school where I worked have high praise for their former principal.  He was quite creative in doling out punishments for difficult students; however, his hands were not tied as to how he could deal with them. His many forms of creative discipline “worked” because he was free to discipline students in many ways, and still be able to respect their dignity. 

So, yes, let us immediately address any unwanted behavior in students, and nip it in the bud; but let’s not stop there!  By looking deeper we’ll realize that loud and misbehaving students are screaming out for attention, and from a total lack of dignity – they have none or have never been shown any.  These are students who, deep inside, believe themselves to be inferior, inadequate, and unworthy. They’ll hide and mask these confusing and unhealthy feelings from themselves by trying to always “be in control” -- hence their constant, loud and destructive behavior at school.  (Are there any difficult students who are high achievers?)

I suggest that we firmly discipline difficult students by enforcing strategic and effective interventions, not packaged methods, to show them that each action, good or bad, bears a consequence.  Let’s show them how to rise above their negative behavior at school by acknowledging, not condoning, their individual needs and out-of-school triggers of constant misbehavior.  Yes, firmly discipline them; but also model for them how to deal with conflict -- they don’t know how.  Modeling, however, will not be successful if it’s full of implied threats, is militaristic or mindlessly robotic.  Chronically misbehaving students usually live fully rooted in confusion and want to know that someone cares about them in life.  (More intense or aggressive behavior may indicate a desperate need to know!)  We show care by teaching them how to develop responsibility, i.e. for actions and consequences.  (Does paddling do that?) 

“In School Suspension” provides several forms of effective and much-needed discipline for difficult students; it also affords the dignity that these students crave and desperately need.  San Pedro High Introduces New Suspension Program  In Belize, rehabilitative discipline is widely misunderstood.  Most administrators, teachers, parents and students protest that not enough punishment is involved.  So, by not intervening and helping difficult students while we can, do we “cut off our nose to spite our face”?  Countless research studies in developed nations show that rehabilitation (for criminals or students) benefits society in the long run, whereas punishment alone does not.  Does hard labor punishment, repeated detentions, or ultimate expulsions help difficult students rise above their misbehavior?  Harsh punishments may appease administrators, the community, or school by giving them a feeling that justice and restitution is served.  However, after difficult students serve out punishments, no matter how harsh, or are ultimately expelled, they’ll go right back to being their old selves – or perhaps worse.  If no one cares (enough to rehabilitate them) why should they care?  Unfortunately, society pays the ultimate price.

Already, I see the many comments, “Ah, the good old days when I went to school!  We knew what to do then; we did not have all the problems that schools have today.”  Effective and strategic interventions, not memories, will help difficult students -- and ultimately society.  Already, I can hear that all-too-familiar question posed to me so many times by educators in Belize, “Whose side are you on?”  Learning neither chooses sides nor good guys over bad guys. We may have the most qualified teachers in the world, but if no learning takes place in their classes, we have no Education.  Wherever difficult students seem to be winning their power struggles with teachers, it’s time once more for us to Wake up and smell the coffee.

Monday, October 21, 2013


In many of my articles I focus on suggesting urgent changes that should/could be made to Belize’s Education system.  I also encourage Education policymakers and educators to stop living in the past, and start adapting teaching methods that are more in line with 21st Century ways of working, learning, and living.  However, I realize that being human we tend to be very sensitive, and my repeated promptings, i.e. “we should or should not” and “let us or let us not”, may eventually end up annoying the very people who the promptings are meant to inspire and/or stir to action.  Therefore, this week’s article focuses on highlighting positive actions that are/can be taken by many parents and educators in Belize who work everyday with young people.  Stressing the positive to our Youth, through our actions, is most effective, and provides them with memorable consequences and lessons that can help them grow and mature.  Parents and educators who make concerted efforts everyday to provide positive examples, at home and at school, for young people to follow are Belize’s greatest heroes.

October is recognized as “Bullying Prevention and Awareness Month”.  Parents, educators, and students who bravely address this very real and extremely harmful issue, that surfaces almost everyday in homes and schools across the country, strengthen the very foundations of our society.  Positive actions against this unwanted, violent, and self-deprecating occurrence that surfaces everyday throughout society, including in politics, can be as simple as recognizing and reporting those who display bullying behavior.  On the other hand, standing up to one or more bullies for one’s and/or someone else’s safety and dignity is never easy; we may actually be physically hurt each time we choose to “stand up” and refuse to be a mere bystander to bullying behavior.  Reporting or standing up to bullies, nevertheless, helps immensely to create emotionally safe schools and communities.  Without physical and emotional safety, learning is almost impossible.

It’s almost impossible to conceive of any one person being born a bully.  Bullies, just like difficult students, (not synonymous) can be found in almost every school today, starting with very young students all the way up to adults.  However, they are not born that way; as they slowly grow, they learn to mimic the negative, abusive, and violent behaviors around them, starting from in their home environments.  Unfortunately, each time we label them, we conveniently place them in unwanted categories, and without realizing it perhaps, enable them to keep digging themselves deeper and deeper into very lonely holes everyday – at home, at school, and throughout the community.  Conclusions of many well-documented research studies carried out by educational psychologists show that the more we refuse to be truthful, direct, and positive with bullies and difficult students, especially at school everyday, the more they seem to lose any sense of dignity they may have and desperately want, and the more they keep reaching out in all the wrong ways to try to get our attention.   Being positive, therefore, means trying to help both sides: bullies and victims.

Bullying is not just shoving another student in the hallway at school, or physically abusing and hurting another student as a way to get attention.  Bullying includes writing nasty notes, gossiping,  hiding books from students, and taking their lunches; it goes all the way up to cyber bulling on the internet (now accessible on cell phones and I pads) and outright gang intimidation.  Bullying by educators includes aiming unkind and harsh comments to students to humiliate them in front of their peers.  It is totally unacceptable that today young students all over the world today are being bullied mercilessly to the point of committing suicide when they can take it no longer.  Being positive means choosing to address, not ignore, this behavior!  It means not readily stereotyping bullies or victims.  It means addressing an actual person and his/her behavior, everyday, not just addressing a label.  Most importantly, it means not remaining silent, but being willing to intervene and accept the challenge of working with both bullies and victims to help them (re)gain the dignity they so desperately need and want.  It means finding ways to discipline our young people, starting from birth, no matter how challenging that may be, but with dignity.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Education in Belize: From Vulnerability to Growth!

Since I started publishing short articles to describe, not define, past and current Education systems in Belize, some educators claim that I seem unfair and ungrateful to them, and that I should criticize/blame no one other than students themselves for their failures at school and during the learning process.  I have stated before, and now loudly repeat: I highly admire and respect all teachers who devote their professional lives to helping educate others, especially young people.  Anyone who chooses to pursue the teaching profession as a career deserves the maximum respect and appreciation from every member of every community throughout the world!  Teachers in Belize and throughout the world: you have my utmost respect and admiration!

Now, having said that, where I see an impenetrable wall of confusion being perpetuated by many Education policymakers and educators, especially in Belize, is through the adamant refusal to change and/or adapt to 21st Century times.  That wall will continue to grow, as long as educators refuse to be seen by others, especially by students, as vulnerable.  No one is perfect, and that applies to each educator, parent, student, or community member.  Yes, it is vital and necessary for each teacher to be well-prepared and qualified in whatever subject(s) he/she teaches, and in all areas of classroom management.  However, it is human and acceptable for professionals to also be vulnerable.  We educators, therefore, should be willing to accept that we may not know everything (i.e. technology) or be able to handle every single situation that arises, inside or outside the classroom.  After all, there is no law (written or unwritten) that says educators must “know it all”.  It takes great courage for us, as professionals, to accept being vulnerable.  However, in the same way that students can/should learn from their vulnerability, we too can learn from ours.  What a great example we set for students when we show them that we too are vulnerable, but we can and will learn and grow as a result of it.

I recall how vulnerable I felt (and was) while working at a new job, on a small island, at a school that was located thousands of miles away from my wife and teenage sons.  Nonetheless, the more I reached out to students and staff, and showed them my vulnerability, i.e. working with a computer that never could do what I wanted it to do, or simply in learning how to send/receive texts on a cell phone, the more at ease I noticed they seemed while working with me, the school guidance counselor.  I realized that even if I had a vast amount of Education experience and knowledge to share with the school's teenage students, and the staff, they at the same time also had so very much to teach me, another human being, in my role as counselor and administrator.

Guidance Counseling is a fairly new area to many schools in Belize.  Few Primary schools, if any, have school counselors.  Thus, when students reach high school, they may view counselors rather suspiciously; why, even some teachers do likewise.  So, when I worked as a counselor at a high school there, I realized that my first hurdle was to gain overall acceptance from students and staff.  How else could I offer them any emotional support, or helpful lessons in coping/dealing with stress, or understanding the changing role of a school today, if I did not feel accepted, or that I was an integral part of the school? 

Vulnerability can be described as “openness to being wounded” or “acceptance of imperfection”.  I feel strongly that one of the main reasons why many educators and school policymakers in Belize are hesitant to consider change, and/or adapt the Education process to meet the needs of students in today’s 21st Century world, is perhaps because they do not want (may be afraid) to accept or show their vulnerability.   However, adapting to change in various areas or fields does not indicate nor suggest that we change because we are/were weak or wrong.  Rather, a willingness to change merely signifies that there may be a better way to accomplish what we want, and we are willing to investigate or try it.  The entire “successful” Industrial Revolution of the previous century, and current continuous Technology advancements, blossomed from a simple premise: let’s try a new way, and if the change is advantageous and leads to increased productivity, then let us pursue it, and not stop there.

It is only natural that young people are drawn to investigate and explore all things new.  (Young babies when they first learn to craw will go any/everywhere if not controlled.)  Perhaps, that is why most young people today are always “ahead of” older folks (like me) in areas of using technology.  But, that’s only normal -- so what?   Although many young students may be ahead of older educators like me in the realm of exploring and accepting technology, students will always look to us, especially while they are in school, for acceptance as well as academic and emotional support.  They need us to teach them “how” to think, not “what” to think.  So, no matter how vulnerable we educators and teachers may be and/or seem to our students, they will always need us to show them how to build on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.  Let us, therefore, not be afraid to accept our vulnerability, and show the world, especially students, how to learn and grow from our openness or acceptance of imperfection.

I am most grateful that, vulnerable as I was/seemed as guidance counselor at my last job, my school’s staff and student body allowed me to address, and help them explore, their emotional safety; and, in so doing, they allowed me to contribute to the positive emotional climate of the school.  Our mutual acceptance of each other encouraged us to explore and grow in many areas, including, conflict resolution, coping with stress, drugs, bullying, violence and abuse, and in many other areas.  Notwithstanding the many discipline issues that surfaced (“Brownies Time”) our school was able to keep its strong sense of community and explore many other instructional strategies to help the educational institution grow, change, adapt, and continue to learn.

Sunday, October 6, 2013


This past week I saw electronic media postings by educators who complained that, and seemed to know why, students today are failures.   As is usually the case, whenever anyone (parent or teacher) complains about students, whether today or a hundred years ago, the overwhelming reason always is: “they no longer (are allowed to) teach the way they used to”, in other words, “the best way to learn will always be the way that I learned”.  How very egocentric.  The postings also triggered many memories in me!  That very old school line of thinking had originally inspired me to write my first article (Education in Belize) back in October 2011: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.  I wrote it in response to the community’s extremely negative response to my previous announcement, as Guidance Counselor, that San Pedro High School was replacing 2 weeks out-of-school suspension (vacation) with 2 weeks in-school suspension or ISS.  My articles on Education are now regularly posted online by other media sources, and in my personal Blog.  It’s time now for a 2 year anniversary follow-up.

I admit, though, how gratifying it is for me to see teachers/educators and parents now actively participating in and reacting to the Education process as practiced today in Belize.  No matter where we may fit on the broad spectrum of ways to teach/learn, whether old school, new school, or anywhere in between, it is ultimately most productive that we each regularly provide our input, express our opinions, and “act” on them!  The other alternative is to sit back and do nothing but continuously complain about students and/or schools. I wholeheartedly congratulate each parent and teacher/educator who voices his/her concerns and suggestions, and actively follows them up in an effort to try to improve the Education process in Belize.

First and foremost, I fully agree with old school teachers and parents: YES, discipline is an extremely necessary factor to keep the wheels of learning greased so they keep turning smoothly and successfully every day.  However, I disagree fully with the many punitive ways by which many old school people choose to define discipline.  Corporal punishment (whipping and lashing), screaming at, insulting, and belittling students in front of others may have been used as “discipline” in the past – perhaps may have even encouraged some students to study – but they are NOT going to work in the 21st Century to motivate any student to want to learn.  Actually, I prefer to use the term “structure” instead of “discipline” to describe the process that we can use to motivate students to want to learn.  Structure has nothing whatsoever to do with punishment.  On the other hand, most students think of discipline as forms of punishment.  To keep structure in the learning method requires/places responsibility on teacher/educator as well as on student.  Note: Certain youth from previous generations chose to take several years to travel the world as hippies “to find themselves”; others chose to follow a structured path of studies and/or work.  I do not pass judgment on anyone, but merely use this example to show the difference between structured learning, and non-structured learning.  There is also structured classroom learning and non-structured classroom learning.  Teachers, of course, always make the difference!

Today’s 21st Century world is TOTALLY different from the world of previous generations, and from the world in which I, and most of today’s teachers/educators, grew up.  Why, then, can’t we learn to “break free” from the past and change or adapt old patterns/behaviors to match students' needs today, and enhance teaching and learning in today's world?

Many teachers, especially in Belize, openly disagree with my preferred methods of teaching and learning (for students), and often accuse me of unfairly siding with students instead of with teachers – as they claim I should.  For the record, I feel strongly that learning has nothing whatsoever to do with whose side you’re on, but rather, could be seen as a constant struggle to overcome and conquer the unknown (what we want/need to learn).  However, the environment around us, both physical and emotional, will always greatly influence, positively and negatively, our process of struggling to overcome and learn.  Here, also, I disagree greatly with many old school lines of thinking that claim that teachers and students should “make” their environment.

The 21st Century world today is unlike any that ever existed before. So, why do we need to change/adapt our previously set habits and behaviors?  Take a look at the world around us today:  a large amount (majority?) of adults and young people are constantly stressed out
  • We do not get enough sleep at night.  There’s so very much to see and do in this Age of Advanced Technology that sleep is considered by many as a “waste of valuable time”.
  • We lack proper nutrition and exercise.  Who has time to prepare home-cooked meals, eat them slowly, and exercise regularly when there’s so much else around us to see, hear, and do?
  • A large amount of us are overweight today.  In our haste to eat any/everything, especially if it can be ready (fast food) in an instant, we have forgotten when to stop.
  • We are today one of the most competitive societies ever on earth.  In our haste to always “be first” we rarely ever stop to “breathe”, and celebrate our smallest achievements.
  • Advanced technology has made life so interesting for everyone now, that anything moving slower than “fast technology” is considered totally boring.  Might this be why youngsters today spend such an exaggerated time “sitting down” in front of screens instead of moving, exploring, and actively learning?
  • Today's family structure and mechanics have totally changed from what they used to be.  Both parents usually work today, and many times youngsters are "on their own".

And the list can go on; but I feel that I have made my point.

In order to fully embrace and use discipline (structure) in today’s classroom, why not use the very things that are distracting students to more fully engage them in learning?  I recall how from January 1992 to June 1994 I used to take my high school classes outside the building on hot afternoons, and we would go under a shady tree to read, and have active discussions about the literature that we were reading and from which we were trying to learn (Literature).  My students accomplished so very much during those classes, and they always looked forward to having them.  They never seemed bored during those classes. Sadly, many teachers today insist that only good old-fashioned whipping, and/or drilling hours on end, along with some good “putting them in their place” is what will make students learn today.  My response: we cannot make anyone learn; but, we could find various ways to engage students, and keep motivating them to want to learn more and more.  Just because certain methods worked on/for you does not automatically mean they will work on all students today.  As I have mentioned in previous articles, we should all make every effort to keep our attitudes “flexible” if we are ever to adapt, change, and be able to grow and keep learning in today’s world.  (Only God need not ever change attitude -- there is but one!) 

One final reminder for teachers/educators: we easily break free of set habits, attitudes, behaviors, classroom management techniques, and set methods of teaching after we determine why we want to change – never because others may force us to change.  If, however, we insist on “doing the same thing over and over again”, don’t expect different results.