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Monday, May 20, 2024

A culture study of Haitian students in the Bahamas

By Sharone Jones

Special to CSMS Magazine

Haitians have been living in the Bahamas for decades. But their status and their overall living conditions have always precarious at best. They are considered to be the most marginalized group of the Bahamian society. Yet, historically, Haitians immigration to the island nation constituted a major plus not a minus for the Bahamas. According to many observers, Haitian migrants will do the jobs that most Bahamians will not do, such as gardening, cleaning, and working on construction sites. In the study that follows, Sharone Jones gives us a glimpse of what constitutes a major hindrance to academic achievements of Haitian students in the Bahamian school system.    

The majority of the Haitians present in The Bahamas are illegal immigrants. As such, only a small percentage of the Haitian students are enrolled in schools.  Their background and socio-economic status have a negative influence on their schooling. Unfortunately, Haitians have been the victims of inaccurate cultural misunderstandings and negative stereotypes that have inflicted great damage upon youngsters from this culture, causing them to deny their heritage. The lack of ethnic self-pride is manifested in the phenomenon of young.

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 However, the country they are originally from is one that has a rich cultural heritage. Haitian culture fuses African, French, and West Indian elements. Formerly a social divider, the Haitian Creole language is now part of efforts to define a national culture. The increased use of Creole in literature, drama, music, dance, and some governmental functions reflects a general trend toward wider acceptance of and pride in Creole traditions.”

            The Haitian school system stems from the French system, which offers 14 years of education, 7 at the elementary and 7 at the secondary level, in the “elite” language of French. After much debate, and with much resistance, Haitian Creole became the language of instruction for the first four grades.

            Education is valued and schooling is technically “free,” but many Haitians do not have access to it because the poverty level is too high, and many parents simply cannot afford to buy school uniforms, books, and supplies. Teachers who have Haitian students in their classes must ascertain the extent of their previous educational experience. Their educational backgrounds will depend on the socioeconomic status the students encountered in Haiti.

            During a recent visit to an elementary school, the co-operative teacher at the St. Bede’s Primary School in Nassau Bahamas explains the sharp difference in learning style between Haitian students and their Bahamian classmates. She further explains “that the Haitian students learn through rote learning and memorization”. Haitian students will be unfamiliar with the Bahamians way of analysis and synthesis of material. Students will have to be taught explicitly how to think and discover for themselves, and exactly what is expected of them when being tested.

            I also notice that the Haitian students perform better in Mathematics than in Language Arts. This may be due to the fact of the language barrier. That may be the result of the difficulty that exists in understanding English.

It is more difficult to get good grades, and therefore, Haitian students place a great importance on studying for quizzes, tests, and making high scores. Teacher-student relationships are formal in Haiti.  In the Haitian classroom, students are addressed by their last name. The student speaks only when asked a question, and does not look the teacher in the eye. The teacher has total authority over the class. In Haiti, parent-teacher communication is formal; the only time the parent will hear from the teacher is when the student is doing wrong. This communication will result in the parent inflicting corporal punishment upon the child for misbehaving in school. Schools have no PTA; parents are not encouraged to participate in school matters. Papers, letters, and notices are not sent home with the child; parents are expected to go to the school to pick up report cards.

In the Bahamas, papers are sent home from school with the child, but they might not be returned to the school because of this reason. Thus, parents who react negatively to the request for parental involvement need to be educated about what is expected of them in their new country. In Haiti, the teacher is the absolute authority, always knows best, and is not to be questioned. Haitian children in the Bahamas may be confused upon seeing the apparent informality of the Bahamian classroom. Haitian students will be unaccustomed to the Constructivist approach to learning found in the Bahamas, and need to be gently reminded of expected behavior.

            Haitians posses a rich oral tradition that includes the art of storytelling, riddles, songs, and games. As a result, they may be stronger as auditory learners rather than as visual learners.  In Haitian schools, desks are not individualized; they are attached in rows and students sit side-by-side. Students might feel isolated when seated individually.

 Many Haitian schools are segregated by gender, and students will feel uncomfortable being in mixed classes. Additionally, the concept of playing together during physical education might be alarming. It is culturally inappropriate for Haitian students to dress and undress in front of others, even those of the same sex. However this is one aspect of the Bahamian culture that they have adapted to. Except for urban schools, Haitians students from the rural school district might be unaccustomed to owning their own textbooks in Haiti. They probably had to borrow a book and copy it by hand. In rural Haiti, which is where most of these students are from, audiovisual aids might be nonexistent; experiential learning is not an instructional method used; most schools have no laboratories to practice in; and learning is traditionally by rote, memorization, and recitation.

            Finally, due to the type of learning to which Haitian students are accustomed to, they are uncomfortable with and initially will resist engaging in activities that demand critical independent thinking. It is also observed that Haitian students tend to segregate themselves from the rest of the population by clinging to themselves. However, many Haitians are religious, maintain a strong work ethic, hold deep respect for authority, and revere education, because it is a means of social mobility. Parents demand obedience from children, and children are expected to help out by translating for them, shopping, taking care of siblings, and doing other household chores. Frequent absenteeism might result as a consequence of familial expectations.

Note: Sharone Jones is an education major at Nova Southeastern University near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She lives and works in Nassau, Bahamas.

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