Friday, January 31, 2014

Education in Belize: Next Steps?

“The only thing harder than letting go is moving on.” 
We have tried to identify Who’s the Enemy in our Education Systems in Belize and open our eyes to why so many of us live desensitized to daily life in this new global and digital age.  Now, it’s time to move on to the next stage.  Are we ready and willing?  Mega-sized problems that continue to plague our nation everyday lie not only in areas of Education but in other key areas that prevent us from improving our standards of living.  Quality health care is not available or affordable to everyone throughout Belize’s cities, towns, and rural areas.  Employment for professionals is not available on a competitive basis, but rather only to the few who (whose families) are lucky enough to have the right “political connections”.  The fact remains, though, that even if our Education systems do not meet all the challenges that confront an Independent nation, teachers in Belize remain grossly underpaid, undervalued, and unappreciated by too many.  I extend kudos to BNTU and to all educators who are bravely fighting (the government) and trying to improve this unjustifiable and unfair condition. 

Most students and educators in Belize know well that since our Independence in 1981 the country's Education Systems are due for a total revamping and upgrade.  Outdated and ineffective Colonial Systems of Education that we (Government and Church) insist on maintaining and following no longer meet all our nation’s pressing needs in this global and digital Age.  If indeed they do meet all our nation’s needs, then where is the growing network of successful vocational, technical, and scientific professionals “educated in Belize”?  Where are the dozens of successful “educated in Belize” entrepreneurs who continue to receive every incentive possible from the government to build and boost the nation’s economy, year after year?  Why don’t we have enough tax revenues from successful industries pouring into government coffers to be able to provide free education up through university level to all our Youth?  Where is that thriving network of “home-educated and prepared” business professionals in the financial field who are steering Belize toward becoming an exemplary “success story” in the Caribbean?  Where are the professionals, “educated in Belize”, who maintain a thriving Industrial Base in this jewel of ours?  Where are the local graduates of Technical and Vocational Schools throughout Belize who everyday build, fortify, and enhance our growing cities and communities in all six Districts, from North to South and East to West?  As an Independent nation we ourselves, not only immigrants and foreigners, must be able to build, support, and invest in our communities -- business wise and in every other way.  An abundance of legal professionals trained and educated abroad and working in our midst is not enough to steer us into prosperity.

Teachers could work much more effectively in classrooms everyday (Primary or Secondary) if they did not feel that they had to coerce students to memorize Math and Science sections of a government-mandated or Commonwealth-copied curriculum, just long enough so the students might pass government-required examinations.  Moreover, students may be able to memorize lessons just long enough so they can pass exams, but many of them do not understand or “learn”.  Worst of all, even though we can now boast of having our very own institutions of higher learning, universities in Belize, hundreds of their graduates each year cannot enter (find work) into the country’s workforce of professionals.  So, where can/do they each go after graduation?  University Degrees are not awarded only to be framed!  Our young people work very hard and incur many debts to be able to obtain a quality/higher education -- they want and need to work and use that education “in Belize”.

Beyond the profound issue of Learned Helplessness being perpetuated by non-changing Colonial and Commonwealth-copied Systems of Education in Belize, no one wants to live within the confines of a sluggish economy, a staggeringly expensive health care system, and growing unemployment.  We want and need Education Systems that can deliver and produce graduates who are eager, ready, and qualified to take over the reins of the country.   On the other hand, those who have controlled those reins (or still do) also need to hand them over to qualified and home-educated Belizeans!  Those of us, especially the policymakers in government, who have grown used to accepting hand-outs, must also realize that no one will hand us on a platter: neatly typed, fully explained, and ready-to-use Education systems to match many of the needs of Independent Belize today.  We must first want such systems and then work hard together to create them!  We parents, educators, the government and Church policymakers have to break free from that Colonial mindset of learned helplessness that perpetuates the belief that only “Massah’, or someone from abroad, has all the answers.  Let’s not continue to live hopelessly out-of-touch and blinded to the truth that we are now “on our own” -- simply because it’s convenient to remain idle!  No country ever achieves success by copying and pasting another country’s (someone else’s) version of success, whether in Politics, Economics, or in Education.  So, yes, it’s time to let go of any old Colonial ways that no longer serve us; but let’s not then hopelessly and pitifully wait for someone else to move us on.  Only we can move ourselves forward!

While I worked as a teacher and Vocational Guidance Counselor in both American and Belizean high schools, at the beginning of each school year I encouraged each student to set SMART goals for himself/herself: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-Oriented, Time-Bound.  No one simply hands out success to a student; rather, he/she must first set himself/herself on a path to success and then work steadily to achieve each goal set -- no giving up no matter how rough the school year may get.  Likewise, no one will simply deliver productive Systems of Education to Belize’s policymakers, administrators, and educators.  First, we must want systems that are fully functional and able to produce the educated and professional citizens we need to support and develop the nation.  Second, we proceed to create working systems by gathering input from everyone, including parents and educators, not only from the government, church, or professionals in the field of Education.  Third, we put the systems in effect, work with our students and continue to learn and grow with them, and finally we amend them as often as we may need.  Let us, today not tomorrow, take the next steps to strengthen our obsolete and cut-in-stone Systems of Education so they can serve us much more effectively and productively.

Author’s Note:

These articles are not intended to be comprehensive or complete.  They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable discussion amongst educators, students, and the community.  If we discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the ways in which we currently try to educate them, then we can learn from our mistakes as well as success.  Way to go, fellow educators!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Education in Belize: Who's the Enemy?

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Walt Kelly

As we start a new year in this rapidly-advancing Age of Technology, the Belize National Teachers’ Union is once more trying to “raise awareness on key national issues”, and is “seeking justice for the work that teachers do”.  Thinking along those same lines, to raise awareness and seek justice, I wonder what classrooms in Belize today would look like if the powerful school policymakers from the Ministry of Education and Education Department were brave enough to switch places with teachers and school administrators for a day.  Likewise, some teachers could also switch places with students for just one day.  Switching places in the classrooms between Education policymakers and teachers, if only for one day, would provide an eye-opening opportunity for policymakers to understand what really happens in classrooms everyday vs. what they think or expect happens in classrooms everyday.  Likewise, it might be quite eye-opening for our very hard-working teachers to also experience first-hand what many students deal with everyday in the classrooms in 2014.  After all, students throughout Belize today also need to know who “gat yu back” (“has you covered”).

I strongly believe that a one day switch between Education policymakers and teachers could serve to encourage the “powers that be” to want to look for more productive ways to help teachers challenge students today to learn.  After all, a fair salary for teachers is but one of many other valid reasons for the current BNTU impasse at the negotiating table with the government’s Ministry of Education.  The “teacher for a day” experience might also open stubbornly and tightly-closed eyes to appreciate just how difficult it is today for teachers to motivate and enable students (all levels) to effectively learn.  This experience could also show MOE policymakers why many Primary and Secondary students in Belize’s classrooms today do not or cannot learn/master so many parts of a curriculum that is totally non-Belizean, and offers no value to them.  Perhaps, after a one day MOE switch with teachers, BNTU officials  may never again have to ask the Minister of Education, “…weh happen to you, weh happen to you”.

Before making the one day switch, however, I would encourage policymakers and administrators as well as teachers to review Strengthening the Balance, Part II (Leaders) to review key goals that both students and teachers should concentrate on each day while in school in order to keep fully focused on Education and learning.  2013 End of Year Notes could also remind educators and policymakers of the importance of our always trying to empathize and be sensitive to each other’s thoughts and feelings.  Most importantly, though, they must always keep in mind that Education and learning is not only what transpires everyday between a student and teacher.  It takes a village!

For the record, trading places between some educators and students has been done before in other schools, though probably not in Belize.  However, the results of trading places for a day in schools throughout Belize would be rather interesting, I am sure.  It should, though, be done for one main purpose only that has nothing whatsoever to do with politics: to encourage policymakers and educators to want to understand and fulfill the needs of students today.  In this new age, feeling empathy for students is but the first step in a long and difficult journey that our Belizean educators and policymakers must stop putting off and putting off!  That “lee sea breeze” of teachers’ industrial actions and discontent will not just gradually blow away.  Actually, by continuously ignoring our young people’s needs, year after year, election after election, we have created our own enemy – one that has become far more dangerous and destructive to our people than any hurricane that has ever reached Belizean shores. 

So, what happens after we attempt to walk in students’ and teachers’ shoes for a day?  A benefit might be that students who switch places for a day with educators would get a true perspective on just how difficult and challenging a teaching career really is.  In turn, teachers might get a much better understanding on just how difficult it can be nowadays for students to stay focused in the classroom.  What might school policymakers and powerful politicians learn as they try to walk in teachers’ shoes for a day?  (Note: Teachers from 25 years ago do not automatically know what a teacher today must deal with in the classroom.)  Most importantly, politicians and policymakers would see that teaching is not just a job but a vocation!  Teachers are paid to work in schools during a school year; nonetheless, most teachers never stop working, even after they leave school after a full day of teaching.  Inside and outside of school, they keep striving to find better ways to involve and motivate their students – help them to learn.  Many teachers spend their own hard-earned money from meager salaries to buy class materials to enhance their classrooms.  Moreover, if students keep failing (are not learning) teachers will struggle, inside and outside of school, to find out why, so that they might try to “fix the problem”.   How many teachers in Belize are provided with continuing education on how to effectively teach?

I know from lifelong experience that teachers work late into the night correcting students’ papers and preparing detailed lesson plans to help students learn. I wonder if highly-paid school policymakers, i.e. Ministry of Education, work day and night to prepare and/or improve Education Systems that enhance classroom learning.  Do/would they spend their own money to meet teachers' and students’ ever-changing and mounting needs in Belize today?  Just how much responsibility must we each assume/take on to ensure that our young people learn today so they may lead us tomorrow when we need them?  

Now, in this growing conflict of “ignoring students’ needs” where do parents fit?  What blame, if any, do they share?  Are they also a part of the enemy confronting students today?  Too many times parents are quick to accuse and/or blame teachers and schools for students’ failures.  It’s much easier for a busy parent to point fingers of blame at teachers, whenever the son or daughter is having difficulties (academics and/or behavior) at school, than it is for the parent to make every effort to find the cause(s) of the child’s problems at school.  As an experienced guidance counselor and teacher, as well as parent, I feel strongly that too many parents in Belize (and throughout the world today) have no idea what growing problems are preventing students from learning everyday. 

Education is successful and productive only when all sides, not just student and teacher, participate in the process of learning.  All sides include Education policymakers, parents, and an entire community; and each side needs to participate and contribute its share to the learning process.  Productive schools are not those that merely graduate thousands of students who can pass multiple local and foreign examinations.  Productive schools successfully motivate students to always want to keep learning, so they can be productive for themselves, for their country, and for the world.  This is a basic fact of why and how we learn that too many people, rich and poor, refuse to accept.  Unfortunately, too many Belizeans prefer to accept a simpler definition of Education:  being able to pass many examinations.

Who, then, would be willing to try the above-suggested classroom switch scenario?  I am sure that the one day switch would result in chaos.  However, with or without such a switch, school policymakers, parents, and entire communities throughout Belize must stop assuming they know what goes on in schools, or what “should” go on in schools.  That assumption is but mistake No. 1 in a long line of misconceptions that contribute to an unproductive Education System in Belize that does not serve the nation (jewel) as it should! 

Author’s Note:

These articles are not intended to be comprehensive or complete.  They are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable discussion amongst educators, students, and the community.  If we discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the ways in which we currently try to educate them, then we can learn from our mistakes as well as success.  Way to go, fellow educators!