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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 6, May/June 2004

B.C. teacher provides PD in Belize

by Dawn Wilson

"Wanted: Teachers with the ability to teach a lesson without any supplies and experience working in developing countries; must be able to withstand living in harsh, uncomfortable conditions." When teacher Janice Achtem found this ad for Teachers for a Better Belize (TFABB) in a Lonely Planet Guide, she knew she was qualified and was ready to apply.

When Achtem isn’t teaching, coaching, or organizing volleyball tournaments, she is in the travel section of bookstores. She is always looking for new places to go and interesting things to do. When she found the ad for TFABB, she was immediately intrigued. The project would provide professional development to 275 Belizean teachers during the first week of August 2003. Her flight and accommodation were paid in exchange for one intense week giving workshops to Belizean teachers–their professional development for the year.

Teachers for a Better Belize (TFABB) is a partnership of volunteer educators from the United States and Belize who co-ordinate annual teacher-training workshops and distribute school supplies in the region of Toledo. Teachers there have little or no formal training in education; indeed, over half the teachers have no schooling beyond high school. They face onerous conditions, including severely overcrowded classrooms and limited supplies. Partly as a result of those factors, more than half of Toledo’s children do not finish primary school and thus have little chance of escaping poverty. TFABB’s goal is to help equip Toledo’s elementary teachers with the training and supplies they need to help their students achieve educational, and ultimately economic, success.

Achtem was the token Canadian teacher in the group of eight educators. The week began with a very formal opening ceremony in a church in Big Falls. All of the Belizean teachers had gathered to meet and welcome the foreign teachers. A speech by the Belizean minister of education, who had traveled from Belize City just for the event, marked the significance of the workshop.

Each day they would rise early and spend the day in a rotation of three workshops with groups of about 25 teachers. Workshops were centred on academic subjects such as math, English, and science. Achtem conducted English and PE workshops for middle school teachers. She would discuss ideas for descriptive writing, using imagery, and writing short stories. She had the class participate in many of the writing strategies themselves. The topics they chose to write about were relevant to their situations: feeding chickens, fetching water, grinding corn, and washing in the river.

Achtem said she could not have asked for better students. "They were punctual, attentive, keen, positive, and inquisitive, taking each word we said as ‘gospel.’ The teachers there don’t have the same level of support, infrastructure, and tools, so they wanted whatever we had." With basic concerns such as how they are going to get to school each day, and getting clean water for their students to drink, Belizean teachers do not have the luxury of time to sit down and plan their lessons carefully. Thus they are excellent, motivated students.

They also lack supplies. Each participating teacher was asked to donate supplies to the Belizean schools. One of Achtem’s initiatives was to teach them Ultimate Frisbee. Near the end of the school year at Reynolds Secondary School, where she teaches, in Victoria, she asked for Frisbee donations. Her goal was 100; she received 162. She sent those in June, and they arrived just in time for the workshops. The teachers knew basic activities such as skipping, soccer, and baseball, but this gave them the opportunity to teach and learn some new games. At the end of the week, supplies that had been donated by the participating teachers were divided among the participating schools. The schools received many useful and valuable items: pens, pencils, crayons, glue sticks, scissors, and books.

Accommodations were rustic. The visiting teachers stayed in a run-down guesthouse. Unlike some of the typical thatched-roof homes in Toledo, it did have electricity, but the single electric fan did not work, there was no lock on the door, and the shower had to be turned on with pliers. The bugs and the heat were inescapable. Daytime highs averaged 31šC; nightly lows were 26šC with 80% humidity. Under those subtropical conditions, sleep was difficult. Achtem said, "I just lay there and sweated." Inland, there was no air movement either, so the heat was oppressive. Luckily, she could just jump into a nearby river to cool off.

Bugs were another major sleep deterrent. Achtem described the initial impulse of wiping away bugs while lying in bed each night, but with bugs crawling all over the walls, bed and sheet, she eventually gave up. Each morning she checked her shoes for scorpions.

At the end of the week, a closing ceremony was held, with prayers, speeches, and a cultural presentation by a group of children. Each of the volunteers received a hand-carved rosewood bowl. One of the Belizean teachers sang a song she had written about how the foreign teachers had all come from far away and had touched their lives. There was not a dry eye among them. Achtem reflected in an e-mail to friends that the week had been "one of the most rewarding experiences of [her] life."

Achtem, volunteering again for August 2004, has already begun planning her next trip to Belize. She is soliciting Frisbees and any other teaching supplies one might wish to donate. If you would like to help, either e-mail her at jachtem@hotmail.com, or contact Heather Coey at Reynolds Secondary School, 250-479-1696.

Dawn Wilson teaches at Reynolds Secondary School, Victoria.

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