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!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Education in Belize: Unrealistic Systems of Education

"All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason.  There is nothing higher than reason."   Immanuel Kant

Throughout Belize during the month of May, thousands of teenagers anxiously and excitedly look forward to their high school graduation.  After four years of hard work, they will finally be able to "breathe" from under the daily scrutiny of teachers, school administrators, other students, and parents.  For many Seniors it's also time to start taking O'level examinations.  Unbelievably, as in Colonial times, throughout Belize and most of the British Commonwealth it really is not the total high school education provided and completed, but rather the outcome of O'level examinations (how many subjects are passed) that will determine which high school graduates get what jobs, and who will be admitted to local or British Commonwealth tertiary (post high school) institutions.  After their high school graduation, some students who pass enough O'level examinations will qualify to go on to continue higher studies at home or abroad, if they can afford to pay the expensive tuition; some graduates will immediately start to look for and compete for an "increasingly limited" amount of potential full-time or part-time employment in Belize; and unfortunately, some graduates will merely linger around their communities for who-knows-how-long with no idea what they can/should do in life.

Regardless of whichever path most students in Belize may choose after their high school graduation, will they be prepared to go out into society as adults?  As we prepare to congratulate thousands of excited high school graduates, as the graduation excitement mounts, as impressive graduation speeches are prepared, as we eagerly await Belize's young 21st Century adults, we dare to ask:  What have they learned in high school?  Are they prepared now to use their unique talents to daily confront and tackle Belize's ever-mounting and pressing problems?  Has a Secondary Education prepared or qualified them to be able to carefully consider pressing issues (to think) in real life - outside the four walls of a classroom?  After all, when most of them vote for the first time, totally unlike school examinations, there will be no right or wrong answer.  Once any political candidate is elected there is no telling what he/she will do with the acquired power.  O'level passes validate that high school graduates knew sufficient facts to pass examinations, organized around subjects, at a specific sitting.  However, what does a student's high school diploma in Belize today validate or guarantee?

This is more than just not another Guidance Counselor attack about what is lacking in our Education System in Belize, or with those who manage it.  Without a doubt, Belize is blessed with many outstanding and dedicated Educators - past and present.  They will always be our unsung heroes.  However, graduations are the appropriate times to urge Education policymakers, and governing legislators who control and administer our Education Systems, to "wake up"!  Too many young Belizeans today cannot or do not dream big, either after dropping out of and/or after graduating from high school.  Why?  Too many of them look to their future through eyes of limitation, not opportunity.  A quick glance at the lives that many young adults, especially males, lead in any city or town throughout Belize today is certainly not a reflection of "dreaming big".  Young people's mounting alcohol abuse, illegal drug use, crime/murder rates, staggering poverty, and unemployment today are not reflections of "dreaming big".

Belize became a fully independent nation in 1981.  Yet, since that time, what positive change(s) have we introduced into our country's Education system to enable high school graduates to leave school with the ability to positively interact with and ultimately improve their nation (Jewel) and themselves?  Other than silos of subject-based information that we teach students (to use as future assets, i.e. O'level examination passes), what intelligent capabilities do we offer young people in secondary schools today?  Are we teaching them how to think effectively in order to improve themselves and their communities, or merely how to memorize in order to pass examinations?  Are we encouraging them to never ever fail by always testing and publicly grading them?  Learning, throughout our lives, is triggered and enhanced by failure.  "We learn from our mistakes."  No baby learns how to walk the very first time he/she is placed on the floor; we anticipate that many falls and clumsy trial walks will come first before baby acquires the skill to walk - with no grades.  What important life skills, not grades, do young people learn or acquire in high school today?  

Each student's high school graduation marks a very important milestone and much-anticipated rite of passage and transition into adulthood and society.  In today's rapidly developing and increasingly global and digital society, what significant improvements have we introduced into our Education system to meet 21st Century unique needs of each student?   Newsflash for those who adamantly refuse to accept or introduce any "change" in our Education Systems, especially many traditionalists who insist that schools should forever stay the same as "when they were there":  The education that we provide young people today is an investment in our present as well as future.  The biggest investment in our high schools today, therefore, should not merely be more money, i.e. the type promised by politicians before/around election times.  Our biggest investment in Education should always be that of helping students learn how to think effectively!  Such an investment requires positive input from "the entire village", including government policymakers, administrators and educators, students' parents, and the communities where students live.

We should always expect that each high school graduate has learned how to think effectively, regardless of grades, and that he/she has an understanding of where each of us fits in our communities.  Regardless of how many O'level examinations a high school graduate may have, or not have, we trust that after four years exposure to learning each graduate is capable of setting clear goals to be able to live and get ahead in 21st Century Belize.  Most importantly, we should expect that high school graduates' experience has encouraged them to understand and accept the many roles of others around us, i.e. educators, parents, business men/women, politicians, and their very own roles as a young adults in Belize and the world today. 

Kudos and Congratulations to each high school graduate, his/her teachers and parents, and to everyone who helped each student to reach this important milestone!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Education in Belize: Bullying in Schools / Need for Empathy

"Bullying... a public degradation ceremony in which the victim’s capabilities are debased and his or her identity is ridiculed."   Alan McEvoy, Ph.D.

October is recognized as National Bullying Prevention month each year in the USA.  The entire month is dedicated to combating bullying in Primary/Elementary and Secondary schools -- by placing a spotlight on, and educating others about bullying, in all its ugly forms.  Whether physical, emotional, or digital, i.e. via online social media, bullying envelops its victims with many negative and harmful academic, social, and lifetime consequences.  Is the pervasive problem of bullying in schools ever accidental, or fully intentional?  Does it ever rear its ugly head in schools in Belize today?  If it does, is bullying a reflection of our society and/or living conditions?

Belize is a small country and is made up of a blended mix of under 350,000 multicultural/multiracial peoples and ethnic groups.  In some tourist brochures we boast to the world that in Belize our varied cultures and ethnic groups of people coexist peacefully, and live harmoniously side by side.  That is quite a proud claim.  But, do our schools have "working" and effective (not just written) policies and responses to reports of abusive behavior by bullies, regardless of whether they be peers (other students) or perhaps even staff?  What educational or social research project has ever been carried out in Belize, or published, to document the nature and extent of bullying, or absence of bullying, in our schools?  Do we have policies on bullying in all our schools, or offer continuous staff training to deal with bullying of/by student peers, or provide any intervention or prevention programs in primary and secondary schools throughout our multicultural and multiracial jewel, Belize

During my first year of high school in British Honduras, in 1965, I experienced and suffered hurtful emotional bullying.  I will not hide or bury that fact.  Perhaps, because I started studying at an all-boys high school at the young age of 12, when most of my student peers were much older than I was then, that set me up as an easy target for (older) bullies.  Nonetheless, bullying against me back then went mostly ignored by everyone else, including staff; so, my only choice back then was to try adjusting and studying in what at times felt like an insecure and untrustworthy place.  Thankfully, long sessions each weekend, to study and practice the art of meditation and Judo, did eventually prove to be of great help, and encouraged me to be comfortable with my young self.  (Kudos to Dr. D. F., my Judo instructor then, and also my very first ESL student/client in Belize -- student teaching student!)  Because I once was a victim of  bullying, I have always made every possible effort, as educator and administrator, to immediately step in and stop any perceived bullying of a student, male or female, by another or by various others.   Moreover, I have provided workshops to students, where each student had to live in a stranger's shoes for an entire day.  These workshops have  been extremely helpful in introducing the concept of empathy to students.

However, based on my experience since 1978 as a professional educator, what is even sadder than observing a total lack of empathy in some students, is observing how many times students and staff opt to ignore public bullying at schools.  Unfortunately, indifference and neglect by student peers or staff can be just as damaging to a victim of bullying as the very abusive and degrading act itself of public bullying!  Many times students/staff choose inaction (i.e. not my problem, so why get involved) or at times even outright complicity.  I feel strongly that by providing continuous education to students about the root causes and negative effects of bullying, we can help students to better understand and accept each other, and combat bullying and discord in schools.

I contend that whenever a male student, regardless of his age, is being publicly bullied, whether at school or anywhere in the community, that is NOT the time or place for anyone to encourage him to "learn to fight back like a man", or "work it out".  Too often, bullied students (victims) throughout the world have gotten these type messages thrown in their faces; and unfortunately, in trying to "fight back" or "work it out"  too many victims of bullies have ended up slaughtering dozens of innocent others, including their very own selves.  We are now living in the 21st. Century, not in Ancient Sparta where young boys (Spartans), starting from the earliest age possible, were purposefully raised in environs of uncompromising brutality so that they could learn how to become ruthless and vicious killers and gladiators.   It is illegal to raise dogs to fight viciously today, even though some heartless owners do it anyhow -- for their own sickening entertainment and betting purposes; so, why suggest learning to "fight back" as an option for young boys who are victims of bullying?

Many world-renown neuroscientists, psychologists and educators have pointed out that it is possible to reduce bullying and other kinds of violence.  How?  After conducting many scientific research studies of students and societies, these professionals conclude that we should introduce empathy to our children at a very early age -- starting in infancy.  Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes, in order to be able to comprehend what that person may be feeling, or going through, at various times.  I have stated in previous articles/blogs, that I fully support the findings and conclusions of these professionals: empathy is not only helpful for, but a basic requisite of productive human social interaction.  Practicing empathy helps us to develop a sense of morality, as opposed to living like wild animals or gladiators. 

So, if indeed we all do co exist so peacefully, side by side in this jewel of ours, Belize, then WHY are our violent crime and murder rates up so high?  Do people always murder, steal, or refuse to trust one another as a direct result of having to live under/with high poverty and unemployment rates?  Is the bullying of young people and students (unlike many past/present major political or public scandals in Belize) a "lee sea breeze" that can/will quickly pass over and eventually be forgotten?  Repeated bullying of a student can lead to his/her very severe and negative sense of hurt and depression; and, as we have seen many times before, some victims (who feel totally unaided and ignored) ultimately and hopelessly seek revengeful destruction of property or life -- and  suicide to end their pain.  So, in addition to reacting to public bullying of young people in our schools and communities, lets try to prevent it from ever occurring.

In addition to introducing and encouraging empathy in our children from an early age, what else can/should we parents and educators do to minimize bullying or bad behavior of children? Are there preventive measures that we could introduce from in early childhood to stop bullies from ever emerging to physically or emotionally abuse their peers, or those who are different from them?  I have said it before, and say it again:  In order for Education (learning) to be successful, we parents and educators should first make every effort to try to understand and accept our youth for who they are; more importantly, we need to also strive to teach and encourage them to understand and accept themselves.  Perhaps, when/if our youth feel accepted, they will be likelier to make an effort to understand and/or accept behaviors of other "different" persons -- no matter how different in age, physical size, race, sex, etc. others may be.   In simple words, we parents, educators, and entire communities could set the examples for our youth today, by first walking the walk with them, instead of merely talking the talk down to them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Education in Belize: Effective Discipline

“If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.”  

What constitutes effective discipline?  Why should we raise our children subject to some form of discipline?  How do we properly enforce discipline everyday in our homes and schools?  If we do not continuously discipline young people how will they comprehend that there are always consequences to any bad choices they make?  We cannot address these questions comprehensively in just one article; however, we can discuss what discipline is about vs. what it is not.  Most parents and teachers think of discipline as the system of (self) control that we use to bring out the best behavior in children and in ourselves.  Schools focus on discipline mostly as a system to prevent and/or cope with students’ behavior problems.  However, no matter which definition we use, I feel strongly that we should not consider discipline to be merely a system of punishment for adults or children, or have punishment be its major purpose.

Unlike half a century ago, and before Belize became an Independent country in 1981, today we are an increasingly multicultural and multiclass society with ever-growing and changing needs.  The largest and most notable change throughout our jewel today is that now we are very much part of a digital and global society in a fast-advancing Age of Technology.  Consequently, to the dismay of many (older) adults and schools, and very unlike the past, there can no longer be a simple approach to raising children and providing them with effective discipline at home and in school.  Nonetheless, despite whichever age we live in, if we want to raise and teach our children effectively and responsibly, we cannot ignore their unwanted or unacceptable behaviors.  From the time our children start to creep we should start administering some form of discipline to them in order to introduce and keep structure and order in their lives.  Adults who provide no form whatsoever of discipline to children only increase and multiply the chaos and frustration that already exist in every home and classroom throughout society.

As young Belizeans struggle to develop from infants into mature adults, one of their very important daily needs is for adults (society) to guide and monitor their healthy physical and emotional growth.  We can effectively nourish their emotional growth by providing and exposing them, from a very early age, to some form of structure in their lives, and by spending quality time with them.  We provide discipline and structure simply by setting clear limits and expectations for them, not by continuously overindulging them with food and material things, or giving them every new technical invention/gadget sold for entertainment.  On the other hand, if we ignore our children’s daily behavior, whether good or bad, or constantly overindulge them as if to make up for ignoring them or not spending quality time with them, we add to and multiply the existing chaos in which we live today.  A harmful extreme that some adults choose is assuming that they have the right/duty to punish and humiliate children/students in the name of discipline.  Adults who do this, not only stunt children’s emotional growth, but also risk losing control of themselves.  Humiliated children, and the adults who administer harsh punishments/humiliation, will end up feeling helpless and frustrated.

Parents and teachers/educators share one very important thing in common, even though many times they are each others’ worse critics: they discipline and guide children/students toward healthy emotional growth.  On one side, some adults (many from the older generation) insist that only the “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy or corporal punishment works when it comes to disciplining and correctly raising children.  However, when put into practice whether at home or in schools this form of discipline can at times become extreme, repressive, cruel, and abusive or violent.  On the other side, some of today’s more academically educated adults, especially new parents, prefer a more psychology-backed “timeout and share feelings” version of how to discipline young people.  In between both widely-differing extremes there are hundreds of other alternatives and guides offered to parents and teachers on “the right way to discipline young people”.  Is there, though, a right or wrong way to discipline our children and set a foundation for their healthy emotional growth in this rapidly-changing global and digital world?

There are countless resources available today on “discipline”:  hundreds of books have been and  continue to be written on discipline based on various (scientific) studies of young peoples’ behaviors; dozens of interactive “how to” websites exist to promote forms of discipline that work at home and in school vs. those that do not; hundreds of seminars and workshops of all lengths and prices are offered by professional speakers to parents and educators on the subject of effective discipline and how to use it with/on our children.  With so many differing options and opinions available, how do parents and educators/teachers reach a consensus on what discipline really is about, or how best to enforce it to raise better-behaved children? 

No matter which resource we (parent or teacher) choose, let’s make every effort to set a strong foundation of good behavior in our children and in our families.  How?  Let’s try to teach them (our) values, and show them from an early age how to positively express their feelings instead of whining or throwing tantrums.  Very importantly, let’s make every effort to ensure that our children always feel safe, physically and emotionally, both at home and in school.  There may be times when we are unable to eliminate their bothersome behaviors.  However, the solution is not to keep changing methods of disciplining children/students or keep trying alternate methods offered in the most-recently-published book or study.  Rather, from a child’s earliest age, let’s focus on trying to prevent behavior problems, i.e. stealing, lying, cheating, talking back, bullying from ever surfacing.  How?  Let’s start by accepting them, from day 1, for who they are not only for who we/others may want them to be or become.  Let’s respect and support each child’s/student’s integrity by trying to help him/her build a strong sense of purpose and self-esteem. 

Finally, let’s try to deal with behavior problems that may exist in our children or students in a practical and constructive/positive way, not in a purely punitive way.  After all, the very purpose of effective discipline is to nurture, not weaken, a healthy sense of one’s self-esteem and emotional development.  We should use various forms of discipline to strengthen, not weaken, our bodies and souls.

Author’s Note:
These articles are not intended to be comprehensive or complete.  They do not offer simple answers to complex problems.  Rather, they are written and contributed in an effort to provide a “starting point” for valuable discussion amongst educators, students, parents, and the community.  These articles are written to encourage readers to discuss and review students’ learning capabilities and the many ways in which we currently try to educate them, at home and in school.  We can learn from our mistakes as well as success.  Way to go, parents and fellow educators!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Education in Belize: Quality Schools

“Workers will not work hard unless they believe there is quality in what they are asked to do.”  
William Glasser, M.D. 
During the last few weeks, the entire country of Belize witnessed with great concern the plight of hundreds/thousands of educators and teachers whose pressing yet ignored working and workplace concerns had finally reached a boiling point.  These professionals work very hard and tirelessly everyday to provide an education to our young people; yet they remain unappreciated by many, especially by those who control their very salaries, workplaces, and living conditions.  BNTU (Belize National Teachers Union) and its members and backers staged many public rallies and demonstrations countrywide to showcase teachers’ concerns to the government and to the country.  Extremely unfair and low teacher wages was the overwhelming concern, but very large class sizes, and insufficient continuing professional education for teachers were among other continuously ignored concerns that were not financial.  After several BNTU public rallies, and meetings between union and government officials, the Prime Minister and Minister of Education finally ceded.  In a press conference, the Prime Minister (was forced to?) addressed the dismal plight of educators and education in the country.  Resolution:  a promise of a mere 4% raise in teachers’ salaries in the future.  However, did teachers win their fight?  Did their recent rallies and demonstrations help to resolve their pressing concerns? 

As I stated in a previous article, in order to keep learning we must constantly and consistently keep feeding our genuine love and enthusiasm for Education and for learning.  Enthusiasm!How long can/will it last?  This is not something that we should merely do once every few years, perhaps through rallies and demonstrations, nor is it something that we can expect others to do for us.  The alternative to actively and constantly improving our Education Systems, including their management and staff, is to do nothing and end up with failing schools that produce graduates who do not or cannot contribute to society.  This is definitely NOT the alternative that the developing and not-so-recently Independent nation of Belize wants or deserves today.

Recently, I noticed genuine concerns being aired on social media sites regarding the rapidly sinking (totally dismal) status of some high schools in Belize.  It was noted that in each school no form of discipline is present or used/administered daily.  Worse even, developing one’s “god given talents” is not a part of any of these schools’ goals, only repetitive and blind academic pursuit each year.  According to the concern posted on Facebook, each of these sinking schools has fallen into “chiastic structure”, miriness, and even life-threatening chaos.  In (ancient) Literature “chiastic structure” refers to the literary use of repetitive patterns or motifs to write/present the work, poem or book.  (Wikipedia)  Likewise, schools literally fall apart when they are run with a total lack of vision and goals, and with no structured administration and/or classroom management.  The repetitive pattern in each sinking school can be seen in their dismal existence, repeated day in and day out, with NO goals or vision and no structure whatsoever, i.e. anything is acceptable as long as some form of (blind) academic achievement is haphazardly pursued.  This is my interpretation of “chiastic structure” in several high schools and middle schools in Belize City.

Education in Belize: Next Steps points out definitively that the outdated and ineffective Colonial Systems of Education that the Government and Church in Belize insist on maintaining and following today, just as they did long before Independence in 1981, do not meet the nation’s pressing needs in today’s global and digital Age.  Interestingly, before our country achieved Independence, we used to have very productive vocational, agricultural, and technical schools in Belize that did not stress mere academic pursuit, but intensely pursued the development of one’s “God given talents”.  Today, these schools no longer exist.  Key phrases: “used to … no longer”.  Why?  Who, from his mighty and regal throne, decided he could change the vision, goals, and objectives of these schools, or others?  Those vocational and technical schools that existed before Independence served Belize well; but now they no longer exist!  It’s time to immediately address this pressing need to provide non-academic/non-literary training, and fill this gaping hole in our nation’s far-from-developed existence. 

I wonder if our leaders, in this global and digital age, realize how very important it is that we always have qualified “hands on” workers or laborers.  Of course, now that we have universities in Belize many young adults today want to pursue a university education.  That ambition is admirable.  However, we will always need farmers, carpenters, plumbers, architects, electricians, maintenance engineers, automobile technicians and many other professionals who are not afraid to “get their hands dirty” while working.  Having worked for many years as a Vocational Guidance Counselor, I know that not every young student aspires to work in an office or with a computer, or anywhere that requires “dress appropriately and professionally” everyday.  Nevertheless, we should encourage and respect each student’s choice(s) and also feed their enthusiasm for learning – even for non-academic or literary pursuits.  In so doing, we can ensure that our cities and towns will not come to a total standstill due to a lack of much-needed “hands on” workers. 

Let’s not rely on outsiders and foreigners to accomplish the work necessary to build, enhance, and productively maintain/supply Belizean towns, villages, and cities from North to South, and East to West.  Let us train and produce: farmers to grow our crops; construction professionals, including carpenters, to build our homes/house and office buildings; skilled technicians to ensure that all vehicles and all things motorized or electric always work; maintenance/sanitation engineers to ensure that we always live clean; workers to repair our roads and streets.  Even for much-needed entertainment, let us keep opening paths for and producing creative artists from among us to entertain us all.  Or, do the current learned Education policymakers (government and church) comfortably assume that “outsiders” will do such work, thus Belizean students only need aspire to get umpteen academic passes in CXC and the other foreign made-and-corrected examinations?  If we want to provide quality education to our Youth, those in control of Belize’s Education systems need to Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.

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!