Feb. 18, 2005 – With the exception of just three schools that were totally reconstructed after Hurricane Marilyn, you need only drive past a public school to get a good sense of the plights Virgin Islands teachers and students face daily.
While many of the physical structures that house our schools could well be considered "historical landmarks" simply by virtue of their age, the fact that they are old does not justify the lack of routine preventative maintenance needed to make them safe and healthy environments.
The age of the building cannot release leaders of this government, or the Department of Education, from taking appropriate steps to assure that manpower, a planned schedule of activities and a dedicated annual budget would always be in place to ensure that our classrooms are usable.
If you visit a school, aside from the physical environment in the hallways, bathrooms and classrooms, you will also notice the lack of traditional materials and supplies necessary for learning to take place. While the government and specifically, the Department of Education, states that it strives to prudently purchase textbooks when necessary, it often has to shift its priorities based on funding availability. Unfortunately, the need to put priorities on hold often produces a situation whereby students are found with books whose graffiti makes the text unreadable and where missing pages make it impossible to understand what the book is about.
Added to the physical challenges in our schools, teachers also face a multitude of emotional, social and behavioral factors that stop many of them dead in their tracks while they attempt to teach our territory's future generation. Discipline is a major issue. Teachers constantly comment, in and out of the news, that they are not supported; they fear being disciplined themselves when they try to discipline the students. Who rules? There is no place for disruptive or dangerous individuals in our classrooms.
In each of these cases the key factor is leadership. Only irresponsible persons would not want to see our students succeed. It takes those at the top to set the tone and direction for our educational system to function properly.
Additionally, it stands to reason that anyone with a conscience would not willfully allow teachers and students to be subjected to unhealthy environments on a day-to-day basis. Changing this situation requires members of top management to not just talk about making about preventative maintenance and regular cleaning a priority, but to consistently and effectively do the preventative maintenance.
Likewise, no intelligent citizen could possibly fail to recognize that our children are our future. Too frequently we hear the pre-election rhetoric, "Our children are our future, and education is a priority." This statement implies that the education of our children must be a main concern if we are to be prepared to compete in the global economy in years to come. To make this a reality it will take intent, planning and action on the part of those in power today. They must transform the overused catch phrases from mere lip service about a future goal into a meaningful, strategically targeted map for our children to follow toward that future.
Unfortunately, whether for financial or political reasons, key territorial leaders have failed to put their words into action where education is concerned. Despite this, the unique individuals who make up the teaching staffs at our public schools continue to go the extra mile. They live and act in the here and now. They don't put stock into catch phrases. Each school day, regardless of the circumstances, they go about educating our students. They go the extra mile.
Their ongoing dedication and contributions to our children's educational welfare is indeed Herculean. They intimately know the pitfalls and shortcomings of our educational system, yet they continue to serve as teachers, mentors, role models and sometimes parents or best friends to the students the teach. They do so in challenging environments with less than suitable materials and supplies. Teachers endure the hardships that come when financial constraints do not support their mission. And, with each passing day, they work in schools that are becoming more and more dangerous. Almost daily Virgin Islanders can read about events involving drugs, weapons, violent acts or bomb threats on our school campuses.
Added to these difficulties are the new, understandable requirements of the [President George W.] Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Under this act, teachers are being held to new standards that, dependent upon their training, may require them to return to college to take additional education courses. Regardless of their years of tenure, under this new federal law, failure to take these courses will result in sanctions against them. The mandate that says these courses must be completed successfully by the end of the school year 2005 has placed yet another layer of pressure and financial burden on our teachers. But, our teachers still continue to teach. They have been complying with the requirements of the law by working toward meeting the new, "Highly Qualified" designation.
As a citizen and a parent I often ask myself why our teachers stay in the profession or why they subject themselves to this continuous abuse. It certainly isn't the prestige, because no amount of public acknowledgement could compensate or serve as an incentive to keep them in this type of environment. There must be something in each of them that is so extraordinary and so caring that allows them to stay motivated regardless of the circumstances.
But I fear that this level of dedication can only last so long. Without a sincere demonstration of support on the part of our leadership and adequate financial compensation will we be able to retain these unique professionals?
This is precisely why I feel it is critical that we, as citizens, make education a priority and see to it that our teachers are compensated for the professional service they provide. The raises under consideration send a message to our teachers. These raises convey our appreciation for what they are attempting to accomplish despite conditions. These raises are our expression of encouragement urging them to remain in the Virgin Islands in the teaching profession. The payment of monies owed teachers is an obligation that every one of us must stand up and say, "Not tomorrow but now." Pay the teachers.
If we fail to pay our teachers I fear we can be assured of three things:
1) Teachers will leave the system; either for other locations where they can be paid what they are worth, or for other professions where they will not face the multitude of challenges inherent in the V.I. educational system;
2) Students will not get the education they deserve or need. Hence their future and that of the Virgin Islands' will be adversely impacted; and
3) We will create a trend that will identify teaching as an undesirable and financially unrewarding profession.
I must ask Virgin Islanders: Do we really have leaders today who are prepared and willing to set education as a priority? Are these leaders willing to set policies that support classroom teachers? Are they prepared to allocate funding to ensure that our campuses are healthy, safe and secure? Will these same leaders commit the money necessary to also ensure that teachers' salaries permit them to remain in the classroom?
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