Crystal Wildman just got back from Belize, Central America, but she is already planning a return trip.
“I will go back in October of 2016 with the same group,” Wildman said. “It had that much impact on me.”
Wildman, who is an early childhood teacher at Mountain Vista Elementary School, was one of 21 Colorado teachers and administrators who spent a week in October working with teachers, students and parents at four high-needs schools in Belize, a country with high poverty and low literacy rates.
“This was the first time I was fully immersed in a third world country,” Wildman said. “It was culture shock, but going into the classrooms was better than I expected.”
Wildman was the first early childhood teacher to visit Belize through the Belize Education Project, a non-profit organization based in Colorado. The group is working to improve literacy and education in Belize by providing books and supplies, scholarships for students and continuing education for teachers.
Those teachers, Wildman explained, don’t have much to work with. “They have very little technology – no computers – and no toys or manipulatives.” She said students sit for long periods of time doing workbook pages, as required by the country’s government-mandated curriculum.
“It makes you appreciate the direction our educational system is going,” Wildman said. “It’s child-focused and age-appropriate. As U.S. educators we have the freedom to make choices that are best for kids and adapt and differentiate the curriculum as needed” to meet the needs of diverse learners.
But while she was struck by the differences between the U.S. and Belizean educational systems, she was also struck by the similarities between the two countries’ students.
“Kids are kids. They love to play, to interact, to have adult attention. They love to learn,” Wildman said.
Parents are similar too, she added. They simply want what is best for their children and to do what they can to support them. But many Belizean parents have little or no education themselves, so helping their children in school can be a challenge. The Belize Education Project hosted family literacy nights while Wildman was there, and she and other educators helped parents learn or strengthen their literacy skills.
“They were so excited and thrilled,” Wildman said. “Some were even crying. They were so excited to be able to read a book to their child.”
Having that kind of impact on people deeply touched Wildman and is the main reason she wants to go back to Belize next year, even though it means using her vacation time and paying her own way, just as she did this year.
“It was an overwhelming, emotional experience all around,” she said. “It has affected every facet of my life.”
But in the meantime, she is glad to be back with her own students at Mountain Vista. “I missed them so much!” Wildman said.