Thursday, May 31, 2007


During the first few months in my site, I became more familiar with the book from which I’d be teaching, and I thought that it was fairly straight forward. I had been here long enough to realize the Nicaraguan public school system would present a lot of challenges, but as for the class material I figured we could manage. Unfortunately, I greatly underestimated the challenges and the difficulty of the material.

As I’ve described in previous blogs, the Nicaraguan classroom is generally a small room that shares a back and front wall with other classrooms (picture a large rectangle split up into three or four classrooms). The upper half of the side walls are windows that allow a bit of air to pass through, thankfully. Unfortunately, those windows also let passing students to stand “outside” of the classroom to stare, whistle, cat call, or disrupt the students receiving class. This additional noise is added to the general chaos that results with 50 fifteen year olds inside a small classroom at the same time. I have to yell to teach. In short, the classroom environment is not conducive to learning. The lack of school-wide rules creates more problems.

In general, a 45 minute class lasts 30 minutes at most. Just long enough for the teacher to sit down in front of the class, read a few definitions, and then quickly return to the teachers’ lounge. She might leave the class with some work to do or let a student finish dictating the lesson to his classmates, but regardless, the class is left unsupervised. So, the last 15 minutes of class is normally recess, meaning the following teacher spends 15 minutes rounding up her students and getting them in their seats. This is, of course, when the teacher shows up. It’s not strange to have two or three teachers just not show up to work, leaving more than a few sections of students free, without supervision, for 45-90 minutes blocks. With short classes and absent teachers, it would make sense to have a rule that requires all students to remain in the classroom during class hours. There isn’t and the students, not surprisingly, take advantage of their free time. Last week, as I was arriving to my class, I watched a kid outside of the classroom pick up a desk, raise it above his head, and body slam it to the ground. Not once, but three times. I shrugged my shoulders, hid a smile and ignored the problem. If it were my way, that kid wouldn’t even be allowed outside of the classroom, thus avoiding the body slamming problem. So, in my book, since they (the teachers and principals) created the problem, they can fix it. It won’t be fixed though. To go along with the lack of rules, there’s also a lack of consequences.

Now, I’m not yet old enough to have completely forgotten about my high school experience. I can remember the troublemakers, the disruptions, the lack of respect for authority, etc. I imagine that I share a lot of my frustrations with any teacher in the states. But, in the states, the teachers and principals always have the trump card…grades. If you acted up too much or didn’t turn in your homework your grades suffered accordingly. I thought I would have the same leverage here.

We are asked to turn in grades about once a month. In my first month, I graded all of the homework and was slightly discouraged when many of my students didn’t turn in anything. I put their names on the board, I talked to them after class, I told them they could still turn it in and get some points. Most of them didn’t care or listen, so when I tallied up the scores, I had almost 20 students in every section who were failing the class (below 60%), not because they were doing poorly on homework or quizzes, or because I was grading strictly, but because they didn’t do anything. Nothing, zero, not one piece of work handed in. I turned in the grades to my counterpart so that she could turn the final copy in to the principal’s office, and when I saw the final grades that were on the students’ report cards, two kids had failed. The 18 or so other students that should have failed were “bumped up” to 60% or above. Why? Because a teacher that gives too many failing grades will lose her job. I have since left all of the grading to my counterparts.

I suppose the line between passing and failing is arbitrary anyway, right? The difference between 59% and 60% doesn’t mean much unless a school system has decided that 60% means you’re passing and 59% means you’re failing. And if you’re applying to college an admissions officer doesn’t care if it was 59% or 60%, passing or failing, you’re still not getting into college. But, again, that’s not the case here. Students who move on to university take a short entrance exam and if they have the money to pay tuition, they’re accepted. So, a student here could do very little in high school, count on being “bumped up” to 60% in his classes, graduate high school, take a university entrance exam, and become a university student the following year.

All of this can probably explain why Juan Antonio turned in a recent test half blank. When I quickly looked over the test and handed it back to him, mentioning that half of it was blank, he took the test back, waited five minutes and turned it in again half blank. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the answers, (immediately before the test we had done a review which included all of the answers) he just didn’t want to do it. He scored a 14/60…and passed with flying colors. I’m not sure I would be bothered to write the definition of a market if my grade didn’t matter either. Whether you’re body slamming desks, failing to turn in homework, or turning in half finished exams, there are few consequences.

Given the poor environment and the lack of consequences, it should come as no surprise that my students are a lot further behind than I had anticipated, making my class much more difficult. For example, I did not anticipate that my students would have a hard time with a market study because I assumed they knew what a market and a survey was. When I realized that wasn’t the case, I explained that a market is a group of people with specific characteristics. Going on our third week teaching market study, I still have most of the kids yelling out “a place where you sell and buy!” when I ask them what a market is. As for explaining what a survey is, I patiently described the purpose and how we do one. I have kids in the front of the class act out surveyor and surveyee. I give them examples and finally, ask them to come up with 10 survey questions about their business to ask potential clients. Why would creating 10 questions be easy though, if you’re 15 and have only ever been asked to copy and memorize? In the end, I have a counterpart that says I give the students too much work and maybe 5 or so kids in each class truly understand what I was trying to teach.

In the coming weeks, I’ll start teaching unit cost for a product and the groups will begin setting the prices on their products using a defined % profit margin. If a group has a product that costs C$10 to make and wants to make 10% profit on each product they will set its price at C$11. Simple enough…if you know some basic math and understand percentages. Unfortunately, the teachers don’t even understand percentages. Each month when we turn in grades we have to have 100 points exactly because no one understands how to turn 140/150 into a number between 0 and 100. I foresee problems for my students and partial insanity for me.

This insanity will be added on to the feelings of frustration/worthlessness that surround me when I show up to class and find an empty classroom because class was cancelled for unexplainable, inexcusable reasons and no one bothered to tell me, or when I lose the first 15-20 minutes of class because most of my students and my counterpart don’t show up on time, or when my counterparts are changed in the middle of the year without telling me. Two or three times a week, I want to throw up my arms in the air and quit. I want to shake all the people I work with and get a logical, rational answer to my question, WHY???!!! I want to pick up a desk and body slam down to the ground.

But, when things go well, when I can tell my students are paying attention and learning something, when someone answers a question correctly, or when I have a counterpart teach a class correctly-beautifully!-I want to move on, continue trying and improving. I’m losing on most levels, but the few wins and the small successes keep me in it.

So, here I am just shy of the halfway point in the year. We’re certainly not where I thought we would be at this point, but I didn’t anticipate some of the problems/challenges. My expectations and standards are drastically lower than when I started the year, but even with the drop, they are higher than what my students are used to; and that’s what I hope for now, that my students are challenged and held to a higher standard than what they’re used to. They’re not going to learn everything that I want them to learn in the class. Maybe they’ll pick up a few things here and there…maybe not. But, I hope, in the end that they expect more from themselves because they had a teacher that expected more from them.