Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Education in Belize: 2016 New School Year (Students Classroom and/or Learning Challenges)

As we start a new school year in 2016, I salute and validate the hundreds/thousands of teachers and educators in Belize who work enthusiastically everyday to help young Belizeans keep alive and  glowing that spark of "wanting to learn".  I will always cherish the experience of working closely with young people, starting in 1978 in Belize as a high school English and Spanish Language/Literature teacher, up to 2010-2012 as high school guidance counselor.   A large part of any attempt to educate young people, in both Primary and Secondary schools, includes never ever giving up on trying to understand why/how, day in and day out, so many students must struggle so hard to learn.  Why is it that some students behave so very well in school, and progress each year with hardly any problems, while others seem so hard-to-handle/teach?  Why does learning just never come to some students without a multitude of problems? 
Without a doubt, trying to understand and then help students everyday try to overcome their learning challenges can be very challenging and exhausting -- for teachers, administrators, and especially parents.  Nonetheless, my own experience as teacher, guidance counselor, and parent in encouraging and helping young minds confront, understand, and overcome their struggles so that they could keep learning, always rewarded me with the most positive and fulfilling feelings in the world.  (Although, it really never brought financial fulfillment.) 
Teachers and educators in Belize, thank you for recommitting yourselves to the Education process in this 2016 school year.  You have chosen a most noble profession: helping and enabling students to learn each day. 

Students:  Welcome to a new school year.  Many of you are now attending a new (high) school, and obviously have every reason to be fearful of what/who you do not yet know.  That, believe it or not, is quite normal for anyone who attends a new school - no matter what level.  My experience of many years, working in various types schools (private, public, charter, continuation) and with all kinds of students, has proven that you will quickly forget any such fears.  Before you know it, perhaps by the end of September, you will have made dozens of new friends of all ages, especially your own; and, you will each have met new teachers, many of whom you will like and find to be most inspiring. 
Moreover, for those of you who are afraid that, perhaps, you are not good at, or will have a hard time memorizing new materials, please realize that there are many ways to learn, other than just by memorizing the material and/or learning by rote.  In school, you will be presented with many fun ways to learn, whether in the classroom, while participating in athletic/sport programs, and/or during extra curricular activities. 
Please know that many teachers today are aware that standardized testing may not always measure a student's intelligence and/or learning abilities.  So, always feel free to reach out to your teachers and Administrators/Principals at school.  They are there to help you!  Remember, getting a good education means much more than just getting good scores on tests.  Your professional educators at school are well-trained and have devoted most of their lives to helping each of you learn. 
Most importantly, realize that your (new) school is also your very own community!  Both you and your school exist to strengthen, validate, and improve each other now.  Be ready to grow at school: physically, emotionally, academically, and in so many other ways.  Above all, be ready to enjoy your school career.

Teachers and Administrators/Principals:  Welcome to a new school year and to the challenges of  working closely everyday with hundreds of (new) students:  helping them to learn and master a new curriculum, and encouraging them to understand themselves and perhaps rough periods of their unsteady growth. 
I am sure that you each already know what a large difference you each make in determining whether these young people will choose to improve their lives and ultimately prepare for a productive career, or whether they will opt to simply give up on themselves, after but a short time in school, and choose an easy way out: dropping out of school to join an illegal/criminal gang that promises to "have their back" and sustain them.   Thank you each for positively influencing their young minds, and helping them to have confidence in themselves and in a promising future. 
In addition, allow me to forewarn each of you that it will be quite tempting to fall into the trap of  (mis)labeling students, especially the new ones, within the first few days/weeks of school.  It is no secret that first impressions, especially negative ones, of students crowded daily into packed classrooms are never easy to brush aside or forget.  Yes, there will be those "hard-to-learn" students, perhaps "troublesome" ones, perhaps those who simply "do not seem to care" about schoolwork, and/or those who refuse to participate or volunteer.  Even if you are tempted to (mis)label students, remember that it helps immensely to start each day by reminding yourself that your students  look up to you as their very own leader - and hero.  With this in mind, you might take a step back from looking merely at their (mis)behaviors and (mis)labels and choosing to see instead students with learning challenges.  You can then encourage them to learn, despite their struggles, by showing them that you too must/can learn how to deal with others, even those who (perhaps you mislabeled) make you uncomfortable.  Remember that a school is always a community of learners, never a one-way street.  Just as students may have different rates of learning, so too you teachers will each need to keep us with different rates of training.
It will help tremendously to understand that your students' learning challenges may range from the quite simple to perhaps the rather complex.  Some students may have visual problems and not see well; eyeglasses and or sitting near the front/back may help.  Some students may not hear well; hearing aids and/or providing additional writing material for them may help.  Some needy students may even come to school hungry; perhaps a free or low-priced school lunch program may be beneficial.  On the other hand, some students may have unique learning styles; and, where some of them show strengths others may show weakness.  Just because they may be different from each other, though, does not make any one better than the other. 
Students with behavioral problems/challenges should be referred to the guidance counselor; if necessary, these students should be referred to outside professionals when/if necessary.  Remember, step one to being able to help students is always by trying to understand them.

Parents:   Above all else, your children look to you today for direction and structure.  If you think that sometimes your children drive you crazy at home, imagine what their teachers at school think of them...   Understanding and accepting your children for who they are will always be paramount if you are to nurture and support them. 
Without a doubt, you each have one of the most important jobs in the world: building/shaping the future of your children, and of Belize.  No one ever said it would be easy; but the rewards and a productive future will be priceless!  As we start this new school year, we also start the daily weekday morning madness/rush to be off to school on time; the noon rush home for lunches; the students' room messes/disasters and never-ending homework; the sibling rivalries and conflicts, inside and outside the home, including sometimes anger and/or aggression; the push to get your children to help to some degree with housework when they are not attending school; and most importantly, the effort to support their teachers and schools who are working hard to help your children learn.
Thank you for all that you do to help your children succeed at school.  Thank you, especially, to each parent who makes every effort to establish effective and ongoing relationships with teachers and schools for the good of your very own children. 

Communities:   Your Indo-European roots, kom (everyone) and moin (exchange) originally came together to mean "shared by all".  Latin communis (source) was then adapted by the French to become communer (available to everyone).  So, when we refer to communities today we are not referring merely to specific physical locations, i.e. cities, towns, or villages in Belize.  Rather, we are referring to places where daily life is shared and exchanged.  "The community that lives together, learns together."  This, in other words, is another way of stressing that each community should share mutual commitments with its schools.   
As with parents, communities need to be nurturing and supportive of its young people, no matter how challenging this may be.  Today, in this ever-changing 21st Century, all forces in each community in Belize needs to join together to help our young people meet the challenges of growing and learning.  Integrating family, school, church, businesses/ professionals in their respective communities will go a long way toward establishing the much-needed leadership and teamwork needed to help young students (Belize) learn and grow.

May this new school year be a good and successful one for all teachers, students, parents, and communities in Belize!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Education in Belize: Breaking old habits

"We need a lot more serious thinking about the present and the future, and a lot less time and energy spent on the past."   Thomas Sowell, Stanford University

I commend the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) for defiantly standing up to Guatemala during its escalating armed border incursions into Belize.  An age old, yet formerly non-violent, border dispute has now turned violent.  Guatemala has defiantly stationed its military at Belize's Southern Sarstoon border, and may want to push armed contingents even further into our Southern and Western borders.  Our government  ignored the first armed encroachment, and then urged Belizeans to stay away from the Sarstoon border.  Yet, we now have incurred loss of life on both sides.  Many Belizeans have reached a boiling point (against their own government as well as Guatemala), and are taking defiant actions to protest Guatemala's armed bullying and the Belize government's sudden Sarstoon Prohibition law.  BNTU members/teachers have set a positive example for thousands of students in Belize, and showed them the importance of "taking action".
Are we smelling the boiling coffee yet?  We are now well into 2016, five years since my original outburst in Wake up and smell the coffee.  Our peaceful jewel has now been jolted into reality!  We  always expected global authorities (our previous owners?) to defend us and take our side against Guatemala; but that is not happening.  Are we losing Belize, or parts of it?  Is the rest of the world sleeping, or is Belize sleeping?  Either we were too busy since 1981 to actively pursue non-stop a definitive/final solution to Guatemala's claim over Belize; or, by habit, we were content with a mere "wait and see" attitude.  Now, in today's frightful situation, we might see a need to break old (Colonial) habits of inaction.  Belize can no longer ignore this claim, just because that's how we've mostly dealt with it.  Similarly, especially during this graduation season, we might realize that thousands of students are entering into a very competitive world, ill-equipped to survive and thrive as independent adults.  Why?  We have not embraced radical change in our education systems.  We are living in a new and global world, not in Colonial times.  Failing to break old habits and replace with better ones  is dangerous, and ultimately leads to unwanted results.

Nonetheless, what does today's escalating Belize vs. Guatemala conflict have to do with how Belize operates its education systems or schools?  Both are very different topics, but the parallels and effects of not breaking old habits are striking.  I am no politician, nor represent any political party.  However, I am fully aware that Guatemala's armed military at Belize's Southern (Sarstoon) border is no "lee sea breeze" that will soon blow over.  We no longer can ignore Guatemala's claim to Belize, an independent nation since 1981, just because we previously did so.  What if they push our borders further back, or...  Now, we have to act!  In comparison, we cannot continue to educate students the same way that we, our parents and grandparents were schooled, merely because that's how schools have always been run.    We must act to bring change to our classrooms.

Merely ignoring Guatemala's long-held claim to Belize will not help us to stay free, independent, globally recognized, and protected today.  Keeping schools the way they always were, i.e. "like when I was there", will not make time stand still in Belize in today's rapidly evolving global world.  (See Breaking Free Parts I & II)  Either we keep schools the same, which requires no additional effort from government/church policy makers, parents, or educators, or we embrace change.  That is not easy.  Clinging to pre Independence (1981) colonial systems of education, and refusing to update our education systems, strategies, and practices will sooner than later jolt Belize into reality, just like Guatemala suddenly did at our Southern border.  Of course, we do provide thousands of students  with an education, and they do graduate each year.  But, does that education include learning how to tackle and solve sudden difficult problems that life may throw one's way?  It should, if we want to ensure that our jewel Belize will survive, compete, and thrive in this global 21st Century and beyond.

A legacy of inaction and political indifference to Guatemala's claim to Belize is now costing us dearly: human lives, armed border infringements, and perhaps more.  Our indifference to embracing change in 21st Century education systems in Belize is also costing us dearly today.  We are not providing students with the requirements for a global education in this new age; we are simply running schools the way they always have been run.  Are we teaching students how to actually think for themselves, or merely asking them to memorize answers in order to be able to pass standardized colonial type examinations, year in and year out?  Our elected leaders today are educated; some have degrees.  Will/can they think critically to finally resolve Belize's age-old dispute with Guatemala?  What's the acceptable solution for both sides?  Perhaps, the answer to this problem was not provided to them to study/memorize for today's very difficult test.   
Students:  when we enter an election booth to vote for politicians, there are no right or wrong answers as in most classroom tests.  Rather, before we cast a vote, we must carefully consider current issues, politicians' qualification, character, past history, success or failure(s), perhaps the feasibility of the many promises they may make.  Or, we can merely vote the way our families and friends have always voted -- perhaps by habit like we've always done.  Today, perhaps we see the consequences of choosing to always vote by habit, and along the usual family or party lines.  Citizens should always choose leaders who are able to think critically and tackle problems -- like having to defend us against a bully.

I am proud to have worked in the education systems in Belize, starting in 1978 as at teacher at St. Hilda's college, and most recently (2010-2012) as guidance counselor at San Pedro High School.  While working with hundreds of students I protested vigorously that our education policy makers and administrators showed little, if any, effort to embrace change in the education systems.  Adding many new schools (buildings), opening universities, increasing education funding, and including new subject matter in a curriculum is all very helpful to the country; but it's just not enough.  The "how" and "why" we teach students must also change, just as often as "what" we teach them -- if we want their education to grow and be productive.  Every year there are thousands of students who leave (graduate) our schools, as new ones enter; yet, few changes are offered in the "how"  and "why" they learn.

Now is such an appropriate time to remind students that in life they will be confronted with many situations that have no right or wrong answers, or simple and easy multiple choice guesses.  Consequently, in schools we educators might want to use less "right or wrong" tests to grade and advance or fail students.  Rather, from the earliest age possible, show and encourage them to think critically in order to learn, instead of memorizing "correct" answers.  The high dropout rate in schools, especially among boys who are unable to sit still all day in a classroom, or memorize lessons, will decrease the more we give them creative reasons to be in school, rather than merely having to be there.  In this fast-developing technical world, let's break age-old Colonial classroom habits; provide students with more process-based (problem solving) instead of knowledge-based (memorizing facts) learning.  Students may want to learn more by having to analyze (Math and Science) problems for themselves, by having to research the internet repeatedly for solutions to problems with no known answers, by being allowed to work directly and under the guidance of successful entrepreneurs -- instead of merely sitting in a class all day or memorizing book answers.  Learning could be more creative if it's not bound by what the book or teacher says.  So, let's break the old habit of advancing (or not) students through school only when they pass tests based on memorized facts.  Or, we can  keep schools  just like when I was there.

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 among educators, students, and the Belizean community.  When we discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the ways in which we currently try to educate them, we can learn from our mistakes as well as success.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Education in Belize: A Legacy of Inaction

"A school is a place; people speak of 'going to school'.  Yet a school is not  entirely bound by its building."  Peter Senge, Nelda Cambron-McCabe et. al.  Schools That Learn
We are now living in the first month of 2016 and further into the 21st Century.  I thank readers who follow my and Guidance Counselor columns, especially for their comments on each article.  Thank you readers from Belize and from developed and undeveloped countries around the world.  Your comments, positive or negative, regarding education systems in Belize reflect a genuine concern over whether or not schools educate students effectively today.  They are, after all, the present and future of Belize, not the past. 

I emphasize, as I did in previous articles, that a majority of us remain indifferent to the types education that our schools provide, or don't provide, students today.  Keeping schools the way they always were, i.e. "like when I was there", is easy because it requires no additional effort from policy makers, parents, or educators.  However, clinging to pre-independence (1981) colonial systems of education does not make time stand still in Belize, in a rapidly evolving world (See -  Breaking free).   Updating our education systems, strategies, and practices is no longer simply an ambitious suggestion; it is vital to improving student outcomes that will ensure that our jewel of a country survive and thrive.  A legacy of inaction and indifference to today and tomorrow is costing us dearly.  What are our visions for 21st Century Education in Belize?  We are not keeping up with requirements for a global education in this new age.  Government's increased funding of education, or promises, and the creation of a university do not automatically improve education systems or make them more productive.   
Previously, a reader asked me what needs to change in our schools today, and why.  My response, like a knee jerk, screams out when we highlight the ever-slumping economic situation of our country today, its sinking tourism industry and fast-growing annual deficit; when we look directly into the face of today's frightening and unbelievable poverty across the entire country; when we question the rampant criminal behavior and murders (of locals and tourists) in both urban and rural areas; when we dare to question why a majority of small and local businesses have "closed shop", and are now replaced by non-natives; when we accept that Belize, once world-renown for being home to various cultures living in peace and tranquility, is today listed among the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world; when we realize that a growing number of students, especially males, drop out of school each year; when we admit how very few graduates, high school or university, are afforded opportunities to establish a career in Belize each year; and finally, when we dare challenge the fact that despite having full control our country's destiny, despite a growing poverty that has swallowed an entire middle class, we pay exorbitant and outrageous monthly tuitions and fees, especially for imported textbooks, for our children to attend a high school.  Each highlight screams overwhelming change.  Yet, in essence our education system today remains fairly similar to the one of 50 years ago, when Belize was a British colony.     

The aims and goals of schools should not focus only on preparing students to pass examinations.  Rather, schools need to expose and help students learn how to think critically, instead of asking them to memorize information and grade them on well they remember it.  A continuous development of critical thinking prepares and empowers students to face, tackle, and overcome whatever is negative in our communities, that which sinks Belize deeper and deeper into debt.  We leave the next generation no choice but having to overcome the many problems that we ignore today.  Let's prepare and enable them to fill new and older occupations that may exist, despite any preconceived notions we may have of those occupations.  Let's provide them with multiple trade schools and vocational training that are as vital as university training, sometimes more.  Let's keep encouraging them to live Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, to "have a dream".  

There are several ways to measure the effectiveness of secondary or tertiary education we provide in Belize.  Determine what percentage of students who graduate become the professionals that we urgently need to develop a small and undeveloped nation; that go on to become financially productive members of our communities and help the economy grow; that graduate but then become but a mere statistic in today's high rates of unemployment and/or crime; that become illegal drug pushers because there is no other available work they can find.  A simple measurement tool is to poll local employers to ask them how many new employees (student graduates) today meet basic requirements of 21st Century jobs, i.e. in Belize's tourism, healthcare, financial, or communication industries, especially in the field of software and technology.  The most important measure of a school's effectiveness is found, not in diplomas or exam passes, but in determining whether, after 12 years or more behind a desk, students are prepared for today's global way of living.  How many students who graduate college feel prepared?  Their opinions/suggestions regarding the preparation they receive can be helpful.  Of course, if all the measurement tools reflect effectiveness in our school systems, there is no need to take any action. 

How do we educate students in Belize today?  Have schools changed goals and objectives from 25 and 50 years ago? Above all, what stands out is the restrictive cost for a student to attend high school today.  High schools are still run by churches and funded partially by the government.  Secondary education has never been free.  Yet, each year graduating classes are prepared mostly to sit O'level examinations in a variety of subjects.  The very same O'level examinations were used 50 years ago, under a different name, to measure a high school graduate's academic knowledge in one sitting.  (Despite breezing through graduation in 1969, my O'level exam results were disastrous; however, I refused to let those test results end or determine my academic and professional career.)  No examination pass guarantees the learning and preparation that a student needs to survive today.  We compete to survive in a world of computers and technology, of new occupations that keep growing, of entrepreneurs who help keep us on the map, and of much-needed business and health professionals -- not in a society of O'level examination passes.  Thus, schools today need to focus on providing students with learning that helps them to adapt to a new and global way of living. 

British Honduras, our name in colonial times, is now but a memory and not found on any map.  Nonetheless, a majority of us still refuse to wake and smell coffee or admit that leaving a legacy of inaction is leaving a legacy of failure.  One article cannot possibly list detailed problems and solutions to change our education system; but, this clarion screams out, for our very survival, that we update ineffective colonial education systems.  Our children's future, Belize's future, depends on whether we dare confront today's challenge to update our education systems and provide 21st Century, affordable, quality, and effective education to students throughout the country.  I strongly encourage government and church education policy makers to address these concerns today and  reverse a legacy of inaction.  Unlike an often-used/over-used Belizean saying, education reform is not a "lee sea breeze that will soon blow over".

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 among educators, students, and the Belizean 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!