Features — 28 February 2014 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd

I was looking the other day at a TV documentary about the US justice system and amazingly in many of the shots I saw on the buildings inscriptions about God and justice and the like. I was taken aback because when I think about the democracy of America I think of a nation that pushed God out of the door and man tried to take his place. Imagine, a basic thing we take for granted, like praying in school, became a legal challenge in the USA and the courts ruled it was unconstitutional to keep prayers in public schools. So out it went and now only denominational schools can justify prayers as part of their curriculum. Ironically, the US currency has behind the bills inscribed “In God We Trust,” which has not been removed like prayers in schools.

I try to imagine a Belize where I am told I cannot pray. A simple example is that it is standard for our meetings, workshops and public events in Belize to be opened with the national anthem and followed by a prayer or invocation. One day while at a meeting involving several entities we said a prayer before beginning and one of the persons present objected and said why we always have to pray, why we did not consider those who do not wish to pray. One person said clearly, well, we will pray, and if you don’t want to, then just respect that we want to.

This had me thinking how I have always taken for granted that we pray before our meetings, events, school days, etc. In December 2010 I organized a huge Oceana event at the Bliss and started the event with prayers by a Reverend. For me this was normal, but sometime afterwards a senior colleague commented how strange that such an event would have started with a prayer as that would never have happened in the USA. Then I reflected on the fact that never during any of my meetings with Oceana was God ever mentioned or a prayer ever uttered. So, when in that environment I respected their right not to want to pray, but when in my environment I would want my right to pray also to be respected.

Every now and then when I see the US news and shootings in the schools and even 9/11 I find it rather ironic how despite prayers to God having been excluded from their institutions, often the first word from their mouth is “God.” Even President Obama after the Sandy Hook shooting in which 20 children and 6 teachers were gunned down, called on God to comfort the families.

Church-state education

In Belize, I pray we never see the day when our children are not allowed to pray at school. We have had several debates from time to time on whether there should be a church-state system or not. I always prefer to err on knowing that neither the church will have absolute authority nor the state, but that they will balance out themselves.

There have been times when there has been need for legal redress against schools, including denominational schools, but I prefer to take those instances for legal redress before a court of law, than to take the absolute position that denominations should not partner with the state to provide education. I believe they are a check and balance to each other and I am comforted by that. There are times that even fully state-owned schools also need to be placed in check, which can be done again before the courts.

Some five years ago there was an outright war between the state and the church-based schools as the Minister of Education sought to make legislative changes that amongst other things would have tremendously impacted on the administration and management of the church-based schools. While some of the changes were reasonable there were those that I viewed were outright attempts to break away from the church-state system of education. I believed this was dangerous and so the public battle that was playing out came as no surprise to me. In the end the “Church” survived another attack and honestly, whether we believe in God, go to church, affiliate with a denomination or just have a pure relationship with God, it cannot be denied that in Belize our education system would be nothing without the input, investment and commitment of the church.

Educators are key

Now the true engines of our education system are our teachers and while we may levy many criticisms at them, as the Minister of Education has, the truth is they are the most important resource of our education system. And yes, there are these teachers who don’t meet the standards, but they are not the majority, and surely there are mechanisms in place to eliminate any “failed” teacher.

So the teachers that are demonized have held things together in this country to much ingratitude. I say this because honestly, their salaries are miniscule, yet I have seen teachers help to feed children, buy their supplies, be their counselor, parent, and friend. I think being a teacher is a gift and calling because not any and everyone can do it. The ones who do not have a passion for it will surely not go the extra mile, but those who love it far exceed their duty.

Anyone with an education is a product of a teacher. I recall the many teachers who made a difference in my life and who instilled so much in me to make me the person I am. And yes I also remember the three or four who were wicked witches and abused their office, were mean and picked on me… but their unkindness could never outweigh the kindness and commitment of those who cared, made a difference and did not give up on me.

I personally support the teachers and their call for better wages, for better benefits and most of all for the respect they have earned. I was saddened by the rude and uncalled-for remarks by the Minister of Education about teachers, because he once was a teacher. I could not understand how he could no longer sympathize with the plight of the teachers because his role as politician superseded his training as a teacher. Ironically, if he was still a teacher and the rallies that were recently organized were against a PUP administration, he would have been at the forefront of the rally… police would have had to drag him off like they did at UB in Belmopan, for him to get his point across. He would have been condemning the government and would not have allowed any Minister of Education to intimidate him.

But the shoe is on the other foot: he is the Minister of Education and the teachers are standing up against his regime and his Government’s decisions. He has switched hats and was prepared to crush those rallies.

Rallies condemned

Interestingly, the Minister of Education had condemned the rallies by the teachers saying it was a waste of time and loss to the students. “The children deserve maximum hours in the classroom, especially in light of the fact that we’re not doing well on these examinations…’ Education Minister Faber said when justifying why the rallies should not be held.

Now these rallies were being held by teachers wishing to take a stand on their position on many social issues affecting the country, not only their salary increase. They stood up against corruption, waste of public funds, the Elvin Penner scandal, the Castro visa scandal, Belize Airport Authority abuse of funds, the Dangriga market fiasco and many more issues. They made their condemnation of these well known and did not shrink back. This was not boding well for the Government and especially the Ministry of Education. Instead of allowing the teachers to exercise their right and accepting that they cannot be stopped, the Minister of Education decided to take them on publicly… and if anyone was keeping score, the teachers won.

However, after all the hullabaloo over the rallies, the same Minister of Education who had an issue with teachers taking time off and causing loss of class time to the children, is now in a hypocritical move seeking support from the schools to allow the teachers to attend a government-sanctioned rally. Yes… suddenly the cry is not that the children will lose time in classes.

The Special Envoy for Women and Children is hosting a 20,000 strong rally, with the hope that 20,000 persons will attend. It is being held March 6, 2014 at the Marion Jones Sports Complex. Now it has nothing to do with education or teachers per se, but about “women” issues. It is not being held on a Saturday, like the cancer walk, when working women from across the country could more easily participate. Thus the need to close down or slow down businesses and schools to get the women out.

Education Ministry sanctions rally

Interestingly this is the stated position of the Ministry of Education in a memo dated February 21, 2014: “Your attention is drawn to the attached correspondence from the Special Envoy for Women and Children and the National Women’s Commission. The Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports supports this initiative which is scheduled to take place on March 6, 2014.”

So it is clear that the Education Minister supports this initiative from the wife of his boss, the Prime Minister. Yes, the same Prime Minister who was also on the attack against the teachers’ rallies… I guess he did not contemplate that soon his wife would have wanted her own rally to be supported.

The memo goes on to say: “The Ministry hereby advises that in the event that schools intend to participate – and where such participation would affect the normal operations of the school – classes may be suspended on the afore cited date to allow participants to attend the event as scheduled. The Ministry takes this opportunity to thank you for supporting this initiative.”

Wow, talk about a turn of events, a change of heart and a change of tune. So it seems that the Ministry was never truly concerned about students missing classes and not doing well in exams… that was rhetoric to stop the teachers from rallying. If the concern was genuine, then how come now after so many classes missed because of the teachers’ rallies, in the same semester the Ministry is officially sanctioning closure of schools? I have to see how this one will play out. The women’s rally is organized by the Women’s Commission, and the Special Envoy office, who are connected with and partner with government. The date and time to get women to attend had to have been a grave consideration. So doing it on a Thursday was no accident – it was planned.

In God we trust. God bless Belize!

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