By Gustavo A. Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant
When schools were first established in British Honduras (Belize today) the Church (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and other denominations at a later date) mostly assumed the responsibilities and challenges of managing and developing the country’s Education Systems (schools). When I was in (Catholic) Primary school in Belize City from 1956 through 1965 almost all my teachers were nuns. In High School, 1965-69, many of my teachers were priests and scholastics - those who were preparing to be priests. Despite any “non-fond” memories we may have of school days under nuns and priests, I guess (speaking for myself only) that we should be appreciative of the very rigid structure under/with which they taught all their classes on a daily basis. For them that rigid and unbendable structure must have come naturally since their entire lives were/are rigidly structured because of the vow of ‘obedience’ that they each must take, and live by. Anyhow, that was then, and this is now: 21st Century.
In Belize today, the government has assumed central control (and works with the church) to tackle the challenges of managing and developing Belize’s Education Systems. Still, the Church (various denominations) continues to make significant contributions towards increasing and improving school facilities through the entire country of Belize today. We now have two universities and many Sixth Forms (Junior Colleges) in all Districts throughout the country. Nonetheless, as of today, despite how schools first developed and grew in Belize, where do they now need to go? What do our schools need to improve on? After all, despite all those who “refuse” to change, Belize is no longer a “colonial territory”, but is now its own country “on the move”. As a new and still emerging, independent nation we can no longer smile when non-Belizeans comment that “if the world had any ends, Belize would be one”.
The challenge of developing our own Education Systems (schools) in Belize today is to educate and prepare young Belizeans to take their place on a 21st Century world stage! Rote memorization of an “outside curriculum” to pass O level and A level exams (first British and now Caribbean) is no longer enough to serve young Belizeans. As more than one reader of this column recently commented: educating our students now, means taking the challenge of motivating and creating Belizean entrepreneurs; it’s necessary if we are to survive as a nation! Belize’s Gross Domestic Product is no longer timber, as it used to be 100 years ago. In today’s rapidly changing world, developing a world-competitive tourist industry, commercial oil exploration/production, growing and harvesting new and organic crops, developing agencies for continuous environmental protection, and other new industries in Belize need fully educated and ever-learning “leaders” in business and technology to keep Belize moving forward. Government and Church alone are not enough to meet the challenges of “educating our youth to move the country forward -- through and beyond the 21st Century”.
Schools or teachers can no longer work as individuals in this new age. Our schools, educators, administrators, and teachers, if they want to “keep up with” and challenge Belizean students today, need to “unlearn” old Colonial habits. Educators today need to build very strong relationships with communities and business leaders, including parents. All these forces need to join together to prepare our young people to advance themselves in this ever-changing age of technology. Helping/motivating young people “to learn” and advance themselves today cannot be done the way it was done 100 or 50 or even 25 years ago! Rote learning back then was how young students tackled the “furthering of their academic and moral instruction”. That is just not enough anymore to prepare our youth to live and work (successfully) in this rapidly changing world, especially in Belize. Our schools today need to reinvent themselves to educate our youth AND emphasize problem-solving, experimentation, and entrepreneurship.
A reader of this column recently asked, “What can/do we say to our students today?” In my response (Dealing with Difficult Students) I emphasized that there is no magic phrase anyone can use to influence students today. What really counts is that we educators provide safe and secure classrooms and provide students with what they want and NEED to learn – not what their parents and grandparents had to learn when they went to school. Vital to creating a new “vision” for Belize’s Education System (schools) is knowing the answer to: “What comes first, good schools or good teacher education programs and training?” We can’t have any change in one without the other! Most important, our schools need to develop their own identity – not simply exist to help students pass O level and A level outside exams. In developing a new vision and identity for our schools today, where do we get the impetus, encouragement, and support that we desperately need?
It’s way past time to “think” about finding answers to the educational challenges that confront us today: very low reading rates, boy/girl unbalanced ratios in higher education, and many other “classroom issues”. In our schools today we need leaders who are not afraid to tackle TOUGH problems and work with students to confront/overcome dangerous challenges: high dropout rates, poverty, race problems, gangs, drug use/abuse, daily murders, and many others. Belize has entered this new age of technology, without even having ever experienced an “Industrial Age”. Today, our young Belizeans need to not only learn how to earn a living, but to look at the world today and “fit” in it. They need to understand themselves and other people, and they need to be motivated to pursue further knowledge, and become the leaders we need.
I will continue my work as a guidance counselor and education consultant to help our schools be able to help our youth to be more prepared for future challenges. However, as I’ve said many times before, bad attitudes will always undermine any teacher’s ability to teach effectively. No educator can ever “hide” negative beliefs about their students; students can “feel” those attitudes and will react negatively. Fellow educators: let us each always be happy to see our young students each morning!
NOTE: Literature on the development of Education in British Honduras is scarce. See: “The Development and Organization of Education in British Honduras” by Norman Ashcraft and Cedric Grant Comparative Education Review June 1968