The school year is finally in full swing. In September Belizean school days are so frequently interrupted with national holidays, children’s rallies and teachers’ union meetings that not much gets started in the schools until October. Now that October is here, I am busier than I have been since arriving in Belize. I have been assigned to five schools in the Stann Creek District that are piloting a literacy program, and I have spent the last month learning how to find the buses to travel out to these schools and getting acquainted with the teachers and principals.
I will describe what my weeks have looked like for the past month, but by the time you finish reading this blog post, my schedule may have changed. I will continue to meet with teachers and principals to determine which schools and teachers need assistance.
On Mondays I travel by teachers’ bus to Hope Creek Methodist School. I should explain that most of the schools in Belize are managed by churches. There are a few government schools, but Christianity is the official religion of Belize, and Christian prayers are recited even in the government schools. There is an official prayer of Belize, and in all schools students and teachers pray and study religion in the mornings as part of the curriculum. The government of Belize pays the salaries of all teachers of Belize (except for a few exclusively private schools), no matter the denominational affiliation, so all schools are under the auspices of the government’s Ministry of Education while most are administered by various denominations of churches. This is difficult for our American minds to grasp, but there is no separation of church and state in Belize.
The teachers’ buses that I ride out to the schools are cast-off ancient, rickety American school buses that pick up all the teachers who live in town, and transport us out to the villages. The village of Hope Creek is only about nine miles from Dangriga, so it doesn’t take me very long to get to the school on Monday mornings. I leave at 7:15 and begin working with the teachers and principals. At Hope Creek there is one young teacher completing his internship so I am considering working with him. Only a small minority of teachers in Belize have a Bachelor’s Degree, another small number have an Associate’s Degree, some have a smattering of training in Internet-based and summer courses, and an even greater number of teachers have only a high school diploma. Recently the Ministry of Education made it mandatory for teachers to receive their certification within five years of beginning their teaching career. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I am expected to work with both experienced and new teachers to promote the development of literacy.
In the little school in the village of Hope Creek there are many students who enter the primary grades speaking little or no English. On one Monday while I was there, three little Guatemalan siblings were registered by their mother, and neither the 9-year-old, nor the 8-year-old, nor the 6-year-old had ever stepped inside a school. Belizean schools have many challenges in addition to language barriers. There are few resources, especially in the villages, where there is less likely to be a public library than in the towns. In fact, there are few bookstores in Belize, so schools rely a lot on donations of used books from the States, Great Britain and Canada. The Ministry of Education does provide text books in all subjects to the students, but children must bring their own pencils, notebooks, crayons, and some schools expect them to bring toilet paper and copy paper for the teachers to have in their classrooms. They must all wear uniforms. None of the schools with which I work has a school library, although some teachers accumulate their own picture books and storybooks and display a small classroom library. One of my five schools has no functioning copy machine. Only one of the five schools has internet access, and most of the students have no access to computers either at school or at home.
On Tuesdays I board a different teacher’s bus at 7:15 and travel to a more distant village in a lovely little valley up the Hummingbird Highway. This is a Baptist school, with the enchanting name of Light of the Valley. Here I have begun to help a Standard 2 (third grade) teacher learn how to assess the reading levels of her students. She has a group of children who are significantly behind the rest of the class in reading, and has asked for assistance in developing intervention strategies for improving their literacy skills. At this same school I am also working with a young teacher who is beginning his first year of teaching Infant 1 (Kindergarten). There is another Infant 1 teacher in the school who is a very effective teacher, and so I substituted for this beginning teacher so that he could observe this other model teacher and learn from her. He reported that he learned a great deal from observing her, and they now are planning lessons together. What I learned by substituting for him was that this young teacher has a challenging job. Two of the children have special needs, and one has Down Syndrome. I spoke Spanish to the children who didn’t seem to understand the story I was reading, and discovered that over half of the class is non-English speaking. After my attempt at substituting for him, I gained a fresh understanding and respect for the challenges he faces each day.
Morning assembly at Light of the Valley Baptist School
Miss Logan's Infant 1 class at Light of the Valley Baptist School
Wednesdays are my longest days. I board the teachers’ bus at 6 am and return at 5:30 pm. The Roman Catholic school of Our Lady of Bella Vista is in a village 1 ½ hours from Dangriga. With a student population of 995, it is the largest primary school I am working with. The Literacy Unit to which I am assigned focuses on Infant 1 to Standard 2 (Kindergarten to Third Grade), and in Bella Vista that means 14 classes. This village grew up quite recently around the various banana farms that are in the southern region of the Stann Creek and the Toledo Districts. The banana workers are mostly Guatemalan and Mayan, the languages they speak are Spanish and Q’eqchi, and the population is very transient. Both parents (if there are two parents) work long hours on the banana farms, and children are frequently unsupervised at home. The teachers at Bella Vista report that this situation has created a lot of vandalism in the school, and a lack of parental support for teachers.
Our Lady of Bella Vista Roman Catholic School
The village of Bella Vista has many other challenges, as well. There are frequent problems with the village’s water supply, and there have been reports of outbreaks of cholera. There is extreme poverty and lack of proper nutrition. The school is overcrowded and there are not even enough chairs and desks for the children. I have developed a great respect for these dedicated teachers who work under such difficult conditions.
On Thursdays and Fridays I am closer to home. The two schools in Dangriga that I visit on those days are Christ the King Anglican School, and Epworth Methodist School. I ride my bike into the Ministry of Education office in the morning and walk over to both of those schools to assist teachers in developing intervention programs to work with their lowest functioning readers. Two of the teachers are interested in developing before- and after-school tutoring programs very soon. Before I begin to help with those upcoming programs, however, I have been asked to conduct workshops on teaching the writing process in two schools not included in the literacy pilot program.
Christ the King Anglican School
Finally, after three months of intense training with the Peace Corps beginning in March, then two and a half months of sitting for endless hours in the Education Ministry office, I am excited that I have actually begun to do the job I have been sent here to do: work with teachers and kids. I still need more time to establish rapport with the teachers so that they feel free to reach out to me. Only a few of the teachers have asked me for specific help in teaching reading to their students who have fallen behind. I feel so fortunate to be given this opportunity to do what little bit I can to ease these hard-working teachers’ burden. Without teachers’ aides, or extra materials to work with their students who are below grade level, they are frustrated in their efforts to reach all of their students. I am relieved to finally be working in my primary project and I hope I will be of use to the teachers of Belize.
Here I am with my Ministry of Education colleagues as we prepare a chicken barbeque fund-raiser for one of our colleagues whose daughter is undergoing chemotherapy.