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Teachable moments from a cell phone incident

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12.JUL.11

We are indeed in the midst of “teachable moments” to coin a phrase from our Prime Minister.

The recent incident where the cellular phone of the daughter of the Prime Minister rang in an examination room and the resulting fallout have certainly created “teaching moments” for the people of this country.{{more}}

Dr. Gonsalves has said that in dealing with the matter, he did what any normal parent would do – try to find out what was the policy governing cell phones in internal exams of the Girls’ High School (GHS). There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. However, the Prime Minister is no average parent, and he must have known that even though he gave no instructions or offered any guidance to Ministry officials, action would have been taken based solely on the fact that he called. Would the reaction of the Ministry have been the same had the caller to the Permanent Secretary been an ordinary citizen?

Dr. Gonsalves said following his call, he found out that the school rule had not been sanctioned by the Ministry. But where is the precedent for such sanctioning? What is the procedure which schools have been required to follow over the years, in relation to the development of school rules, from which the Girls’ High School deviated? Does this now mean that all rules which schools have implemented which did not emanate from the Ministry of Education are now null and void?

Heaven forbid that the “teachable moment” for students and parents is that they should respond to any attempt to enforce school rules with the question, “Has this been sanctioned by the Ministry?” or with a call to the Permanent Secretary.

Undoubtedly, the Ministry of Education itself has had a “teachable moment” from this, as it will now be spurred, as a matter of urgency, to work with principals and teachers in an effort to establish and harmonize rules for educational institutions across St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The approach taken by the Ministry should not be top down, as the rules which finally make the cut should come from those, who on a daily basis are charged with the responsibility of imparting not only academics to our children, but other life lessons such as self-control, honesty, tolerance and respect for others, self and authority. Care should be taken, however, not to tie the hands of principals, making it impossible for them to respond to disciplinary matters as they arise.

Hopefully, the incident has also provided a “teachable moment” for the entrepreneurs among us. It was only in March this year, that lawyer Narissa Morris, who gave one of the lectures in the Girls’ High School 100th anniversary lecture series, mentioned that a young entrepreneur in New York had spawned a successful business by setting up mobile cell phone storage facilities outside high schools in his community. He charged a fee of $1 a day to keep students’ cell phones safe while they were in class. They were not allowed to take the phones into the schools, but needed the use of a phone before and after school.

Certainly, teachers and principals have gleaned many “teachable moments” from the fallout from the incident, including a reminder that they are not laws unto themselves and should ensure that all their actions, procedures and words are able to stand up to the scrutiny of any enquiry, and be able to pass the tests of fairness, impartiality and reasonableness.

Many are forgetting that this whole issue never would have arisen had a rule, which emanated from the Ministry of Education since 2003, been followed; that is, no cell phones allowed in schools.

Our legislators moved with haste earlier this year to amend the Criminal Procedure Code which they felt was being abused. Think of the plight of teachers who, every day, face abuse, including physical abuse, from students and parents, and must come up with ways in which to maintain order and discipline in their schools.

There are some who have been expressing the view that cell phones are now so common place in today’s world, that they should be accommodated in school, with rules put in place to govern when and how students use them on the school compound. If the schools are having so much difficulty policing a policy which says no phones, think of the nightmare which would result from telling 800 teenagers that they may have cell phones, but are only allowed to use them when class is not in session. Education officials all over the world, including North America, have come to the same conclusion – cell phones in classrooms constitute a distraction administrators can do without.

Some have expressed the view that the punishment meted out by the GHS was too harsh, but consider this: Your child has worked hard and is in the process of writing his or her CSEC exams. Three other students writing the CXC exam at your child’s school are found with phones in their possession. All the candidates from that school, including your child, get disqualified, in keeping with existing CXC rules.

It is the duty of our educators to ensure that no child writing a terminal exam ever has to experience such a horror. Preparation for CXC is not just academic preparation. We feel the GHS acted correctly in the interest of all its students.

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