Head’s up- this is a long post. But, I’ve been thinking about its contents for months and have been writing it for weeks, so you should read it 🙂
Before coming to Ecuador, I had some experience (exposure may be a better word) to school systems outside the US. There were the trips to Guamtemala City I first took as part of a youth group mission trip in 2004, then later on my own in 2007. I worked with YWAM and, among other tasks, did some teaching in a day-care and after-school tutoring program.
In 2010, I traveled to Treasure Beach, Jamaica with some fellow Washburn University Department of Education students. There, we taught lessons on an array of subjects to students ages five to ten. The trip lasted for two weeks, and I did learn a lot about teaching in developing countries, especially about how creative teachers needed to be when teaching with barely any materials.
Since I’ve now been teaching in Ecuador for five months, I have gained a close-up look at its system of education. Being a teacher, I am interested in both the parallels and points of divergence in the ways classrooms function here and in the US. Allow me to deliver my International Education lecture. I should also state, as a disclaimer, that there are thousands of schools in Ecuador and I only work in two of them. They both also happen to be in the country, meaning they tend to be more lax and forgotten about (by directors of education and those enforcing educational rulings) than schools in cities. I’m just going to discuss my observations, which will not hold true for all schools in Ecuador.
First, I’d like to remind myself (and you) of the educational environment I will re-enter when I begin substitute teaching again at the beginning of May. Say I get called in to work at an elementary school. I would, ideally, arrive at the school around 7 am, so that I’d have time to read over lesson plans and any extra material the teacher thought was important enough to leave for me. The lesson plans would be vital- my map for the day. Each teacher, no matter how great or mediocre, would have basic lesson plans prepared. Because they have to. Long gone are the days of teacher winging it. At the beginning of each week, every teacher would have to turn in his/her daily lesson plans to the principal. Prepared, organized teachers, the best kind to sub for, would also leave on their desks very detailed lesson plans for the day, in addition to a helpful sub folder containing important information on everyday classroom routines, individual students’ behaviors, classroom management style, and contact information.
The students would arrive between 7:45 and 8:15, depending on the school. Speaking of the school, it would appear bright, clean, and colorful. It would be one building (with perhaps a couple of annexes), complete with multiple indoor bathrooms (which would always have running water, soap, and toilet paper), a teacher’s lounge, a cafeteria, at least one computer lab (with internet), a gymnasium, art classroom, and music classroom (those last two are becoming less common though, aren’t they?).
Onto how the day would go. My job would be to shepherd the students through their studies of math, literacy, social studies, science, then tote them to other teachers for music, art, or PE. The day would not be without trials. There would be arguments to sort out, students who didn’t understand the lessons, plenty of students misbehaving because of the temporary vacation from their normal teacher, and general confusion. The end of the day would be the most confusing part of all: when I’d have to herd the class into lines of bus riders, walkers, and people being picked up by parents. Then, we’d go- me managing each line, making sure each child made it to his destination, and- the reason for this after-school dance- that no child made it into unsafe hands. Then, my day would be done. I’d write a note about how things went for the teacher, then be on my merry way. If, however, I was in a long-term position, like the one I had at Chase Middle School a year ago, I would stay in the classroom grading, reflecting, and planning for an hour or so more. I’d then take some textbooks home with me to prepare my lessons for the following day. I know 8-3 sounds like an easy day, but a teacher’s workload is never over when the bell rings.
In Ecuador, it’s a different story.
For some students, school days begin at 6 am, when they leave their houses to walk or take a public bus to their school. Once they arrive, they get a bit of play time in before morning routines commence. Many of the schools are built in big rectangular frame shapes around a courtyard, each of the classrooms having a door that leads to the courtyard.
At the beginning of each day (for high schools, I think it’s just on Mondays), students get into formation- lines organized by grade and sex- and practice standing at command, sing patriotic songs, and listen to any announcements teachers may have. This takes place in the courtyard. Then, at 7:30, the students are sent to their classes. Presumably, they then, like in the US, receive classes on math, science, literacy, and social studies. Non-core classes, like English, Art, and PE do not have their own spaces. I travel from room to room, toting any supplies with me as I go. Unlike in the US, where students in elementary schools get 2 or 3 small recesses, here, everyone gets a half-hour recess, all together, in the middle of the morning. Then, after it lasting about 15 minutes longer than it’s supposed to, students head back to classrooms until 12:30 (1:30 at the high schools), then they’re done for the day. They leave the school procedure-free, some kids as young as 5 walking home by themselves. Teachers have to stay at school until 3:30. I’ll go into that in a minute.
So what are some of the main differences? Obviously, public Ecuadorian schools do not have the same amount of resources that public North American schools have. Both schools I work at actually do have a computer lab, just no internet. And when the electricity goes out, the computer lab doesn’t do much good. The bathrooms are never stocked with toilet paper, never contain mirrors, soap doesn’t happen, and even water is out much of the time. Student bathrooms often are not built with running water, but rather sit next to a huge tub of still water with a bucket. School budgets are nonexistent. Before I came, I knew that the schools would be responsible for paying for my transportation to and from the institutions and my lunch on the days I was there. I figured this would come out of some monetary pool they surely had. But it really seems like schools don’t have this here. Students pay for their uniforms, textbooks, and exams. Whenever teachers have to make copies of a worksheet or reading, students have to pay them for it. One of my first days working in Guamote, when my Spanish was still quite basic, I remember struggling to understand what the director was saying to the students (who were in formation), so emphatically, about my presence. “Isn’t it great that we have a native teacher working with us now? It’s really rare. Worth so much. Because of this, for you to show us your appreciation and help support your new teacher, we need for each of you to bring 25 cents to school by Monday. Really, it’s worth so much more than that…” on and on. My heart sank at the realization that “the schools will pay for…,” meant the kids would pay.
Why would that bother me? It’s only 25 cents. Well, these kids don’t have a lot. Their hygiene is often bad, a sign that their parents don’t have the time or funds to take good care of them. I definitely get sick here more than I do in the US, and I think that one of the causes is that my elementary kids whom I see twice a week are both extremely- I like the word in Spanish- cariñoso (affectionate) and germy. When I arrive each morning to a sea of kids with snot running down their noses, and one of them yells “Señorita Patricia!” and reaches for my hand, I never pause to think about where the hand’s been or the last time that it was actually cleaned with soap. I do what any of you would do- hold it tight and smile back. Unlike in the US, where kids are so well-fed, it’s a problem- 1/3 of children being overweight or obese, here, I barely see any overweight children. They don’t seem to be startlingly skinny, but I think they would eat more if given the choice. Like in the US, Ecuador has taken strides to take care of children who may not be getting enough to eat in their homes. Each day, they are given avena (a hot, thick drink made out of milk and oats) and granola bars for breakfast, which I think is great. Teaching and learning supplies are basic, but sufficient. Students have notebooks, pencils, pens, and classrooms are equipped with desks and whiteboards. I brought with me from the US card-stock, sheet protectors, and about 30 dry erase markers. I stuck about 5 pieces of card-stock into each protector, taped it shut, and had small white boards for the students to use. When I bring these wannabe slates with me to use in my lessons, the kids just about wet themselves. It’s been nice to see how effectively one can teach without all the fancy bell and whistle classroom manipulatives and toys, but students here, just like in the US, are more excited when they get to use interactive, new materials.
How is the management and teaching different here? Yelling is much more accepted. Some teachers actually have decent classroom management skills, and it is an absolute pleasure working in their classes because they make sure their students listen, respect me, and try their best. However, too many teachers don’t lay their expectations out or maintain discipline, so the level of noise and distraction rises to an uncomfortable level before, finally, the teacher loses it and yells at the students. This keeps them quiet for about one minute before the exhausting cycle begins again. Another means of punishment that is officially illegal, but still practiced here? Corporal punishment. I’ve grown rather close with my 7th graders at the elementary school- I just love that middle age. Their teacher is also the director of the school, and although I think he’s alright, I’ve never felt comfortable with him. I’ve seen him lose his temper a few times, and it’s kind of scary. A few weeks ago, I was looking in his desk for a dry-erase marker and found a tangled-looking stick, wrapped in leather. The kids saw me staring at it in disbelief and told me stories of when he’d hit them with it. I’ve also seen lots of teachers strike their students with rulers here. It’s not my place to judge them or try to correct them. Still, I find that those 7th graders respond to my balance of professionally strict and friendly manner much better than they respond to the fear their teacher inflicts in them.
The teaching methods can be terribly boring. Repetition and drills are used often, anything to get the kids working on something quietly while the teacher can sit down for a minute and ignore them. When I first started in Guamote and was teaching family vocabulary, I assigned the kids to draw their families and label them with English words.
The next week, as I checked this class’ homework, I found also in their notebooks an additional assignment I hadn’t given them. Their teacher had made them write each new English word about 20 times. I just don’t understand it. However, those teachers that I mentioned who have well-managed classrooms? They also put in extra effort to ensure that their lessons are engaging. I love seeing them use hands-on, interesting, inspirational lessons- the kinds I was instructed to plan in my education classes. Their kids enjoy learning so much more than the kids who are stuck inside the wall of their classrooms, continuously writing in their notebooks, sitting in their desks, waiting for 12:30 to arrive. I think one of the reasons the students get so excited when I walk into their classrooms (often shouting “inglés, inglés, inglés!” and greeting me at the door with hugs) is because I try and use plenty of songs, games, and activities in my teaching. I know that they are glad for it.
Remember what I said about teachers having to stay at school until 3:30? This is new. Up until last year, they were free to go home at the same time the kids went home. Like in the US, the government here is trying to improve its system of education. The idea is that if teachers have to stay at school for 2 hours, they will put some thought into their lessons, do some grading, participate in professional training. I’m wondering if sometime in the next few years, the government will transition to students having to stay at school until 3:30 as well. But, right now, many teachers do nothing for those 2 hours. Nothing. They eat, and then relax until the time that they have to leave. I come home with Reyna when I work with her in the high school, so I have to stay until 3:30 (well, we leave at 3 even though we write 3:30 on the sign out sheet- it’s what the teachers here have been doing since I arrived). During those 2 hours, I often knit, read, journal, or just hang out with the teachers in the office while they wait in boredom for the moment that they’ll be able to escape.
I know that in some schools, teachers make more use of the time, but at the ones my volunteer friends work at, they mostly do the same- absolutely nothing. This blows my mind, because, like I said, as a teacher, there is ALWAYS something you not only can be doing, but need to be doing. Here, however, teachers generally do not put much time into their lessons outside of the classroom. They often stand in front of the class, open up the textbook to the page they left off the day before, go over the prescribed daily lesson with the kids, then the book sits closed until the next day. Lesson plans, right now, aren’t mandatory here. But, they are starting to be- and teachers are throwing a fit (like I’m sure they did when they became obligatory in the US). Teachers here may sound crazy lazy, but, in their defense, here in Ecuador, and much of Latin America, free time is truly enjoyed. The idea of voluntarily putting in more hours of work when you could be conversing, relaxing, and enjoying life is crazy. Once working parents enter their homes here, they are home. They are free from the work many North Americans continuously carry in their heads and hands. I hope that, in the future, I’m able to stay slightly Latina and slightly North American and find a balance between the workaholic-ism that abounds north and the maybe too relaxed afternoons that people partake in here. It’s been great for me to see people leave their jobs at work and enjoy their lives outside of work. I really needed to see that, as I have a tendency to be a bit of an overachiever…
Seeing that these schools are in a culture that values not just academics and accomplishments, but also socialization and fun, schools here take much more time off of learning to celebrate holidays by having special programs. These are often not just one-hour assemblies that take 10 minutes out of each class- they can completely but the lessons out of the way for the day.
Teachers in the US joke about their amazing bladders, because they can only leave their classrooms if there is another certified adult in the room or if they have a free period, meaning you can easily go all morning without a potty break. Leaving a class full of children alone to relieve your bladder would get a teacher into serious trouble- they would be liable for negligence if anything serious took place. Here, however, teachers abandon their kids all the time- to run an errand, to go to the bathroom, to just take a break from teaching. There is not a huge emphasis on the need to supervise the kids. I think the philosophy is that they need to figure out how to take care of themselves anyway. There’s also an acceptance of a teacher just deciding to stop teaching and allowing the kids to enjoy an hour of free time. With the way that every moment of school time seems to be accounted for and documented in the US, this is something I can’t get used to.
Finally, I’m going to end with a few things schools here and schools in the US have in common. Students do homework. Tests are given (though, much more frequently in the US). It is clear which teachers actually care- which ones can effectively manage their classrooms, put time and energy into the planning of their lessons, and enjoy teaching. The attitudes towards teachers are age-dependent: my elementary kids don’t reign in any love or excitement over seeing me, while my high schoolers play it cool and act much more apathetic and rebellious. High schoolers still text during class in Ecuador! The government is focusing on education, and trying to improve teacher quality. There are no perfect kids, nor total deviants, but rather kids needing to be told what’s expected of them and have a caring adult teach them how to treat themselves and others. When given energy, supervision, care, and high expectations, they can succeed in the classroom. They enjoy fun classes, but will walk all over you and control the class if you let them.
Teaching here has been a difficult, rewarding experience. It will be an adjustment going back to US schools, and I’m more ready than ever to have my own class in Kuwait. I suppose 6 months down the road, I’ll probably be writing a post on the differences between US schools and my Kuwait private school… obviously I enjoy these glimpses into other educational cultures. I’ve gotten over criticizing the differences that exist. I try to take in what I see, think about it, consider why the differences exist, and see if there are any remnants of the contrasts that I should add to my bag of teaching practices. Reyna often gives me teaching tips, since she knows I’m a newbie. Like any good teacher, my goal is to file and save good practices I see on my road of life. Traveling has been a great way to view ways schools and classrooms are run in different areas of the world. I’m also reminded of how blessed I am to be from the US, where our resources are relatively abundant, our educational training and teacher standards are increasing all the time (this is a good thing), and there are people who put in the energy and extra time to try and improve their classrooms and schools. Thanks for listening to my lecture!