Conference shows learning is critical

Students, parents, and members of the community should be looking forward to the future of education in the Cayman Islands given the energy and enthusiasm of his year’s National Education Conference held Friday.

Perhaps the leap year timing or the positive ring of the theme, Building Excellence Together had the 700-plus in attendance full of good humour for the day-long affair held at Mary Miller Hall, the Lighthouse School and Red Bay Primary.

‘I’m certainly not surprised, but definitely pleased with the level of professionalism I have witnessed today,’ said Chief Education Officer Shirley Wahler later.

‘We can’t have excellence without a concerted effort; a concerted effort to embrace excellence – this was well in evidence at this year’s conference.’

Kicked off with an elegant evening social, the conference opening proceedings the next day featured remarks from Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts, Education Minister Alden McLaughlin and Ministry of Education Chief Officer Angela Martins.

Keynote speaker Elaine Foster Allen, principal of Shortwood Teachers’ College, Jamaica, whose 30 years in education have spanned an array of positions and strengthened her expertise on education, gender, race and faith issues captivated the crowd with her motivational comments on teaching in a Caribbean context. Her talk on engaging the individual and encouraging teachers to look to their own strengths to contribute to the educated Caymanian, sprinkled with local references and high on energy, was just the ticket to kick off the day’s workshop sessions.

For the first time, teachers then had the opportunity to choose three workshops from a selection of over 20 on offer as a way to further their knowledge and understanding of issues that were of particular interest to them. Topics ranged from such diverse subjects as understanding autism, stress management, classroom management techniques, and discipline.

Once again this year, Professor Stephen Heppel, one of the main contributors to the complete overhaul of Cayman’s education system over the past two years, presented a talk on 21st Century education. He explored the successful, and not-so-successful innovative and experimental educational thinking that is taking place in various parts of the world.

Using a broad range of interesting examples of innovative teaching and student-led projects, Professor Heppel emphasised the need for more flexibility in engaging students at the right level, urging teachers to expect more from their pupils, understanding that lack of ability in one area might merely be hiding an outstanding aptitude in another.

‘The trend is moving away from uniform, compliant, predictable, punctual, persevering students who emerge from their schooling cheap to employ, to creative, ingenious, surprising, engaged, inspired students who are valuable to employ,’ said Mr. Heppel.

Taking another angle on what to do with students who don’t fit the conventional mould, Mrs. Foster-Allen led an engaging discussion on inclusive education, exploring the issues surrounding integrating students with special needs.

‘When we are talking about inclusive education these days, race, class, sexuality, poverty, and unemployment are also part of the discussion along with traditional factors such as special education needs, low attainment, disability and deviance,’ said Mrs. Foster-Allen.

Teachers were able to voice their thoughts on the difficulties and benefits of integrating special needs students into the classroom. As an outcome of the workshop, they then submitted written suggestions and concerns to Education Department policy-makers for consideration, an opportunity much appreciated by those in attendance.

During the wrap-up proceedings, the Minister commented that positive responses from the public are giving him hope the Ministry and the education system are now well on their way to cementing the important role education plays in creating a successful Cayman.

‘Cayman must be recognised as a centre for learning excellence, and I look forward to the day when we get to a point where everyone believes in the critical importance of learning.’

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