Difficulties in Teaching
A large portion of my interactions in Nicaragua have had something to do with the educational system here. The school that I work at, called the Modesto Armijo, is a public school made up of students from all around the neighborhood. I see the students I teach walking both to and from class. I like to think that I have a fairly good relationship with them, and maybe living in their same neighborhood with a host family has helped that. Recently, I got to help a 1st grade class with an art project while working with a teacher from Gettysburg, which was a lot of fun, even more so because all of the kids were so well-behaved. One of the images is from that class.
However, that is not to say that I haven’t had any challenges in my time at the school. I enjoy working with my students, who are in 7th and 8th grade, but am often frustrated by both the administrative process surrounding their education and their instructors. It is difficult to teach when at least once a week afternoon classes are cut short for a mandated assembly, and even more so when the profe could be a student in the class they are responsible for teaching. To make matters worse, a large portion of students often do not even come to class, because it is too far away or they are responsible for tending to matters at home.
Seeing the difficulties that many kids face to even make it to school makes me sympathize with them and their situation. For some, it simply isn’t a priority to go to school. I spent a week in my first month or so here helping to conduct a survey in a impoverished neighborhood that is probably a 20-30 minute walk, through fairly rough terrain, to the school. Having walked it firsthand, I can imagine that on especially hot days, the heat, coupled with school uniforms– pants for boys or long socks for girls, makes the route seem a little less attractive.
The especially challenging part is that a lot of kids must make that same long walk everyday. The Modesto has students from elementary school through to the end of high school. Having to go through ten or so years of that, especially when the relevance of their education isn’t immediately clear, must be pretty tough. Unfortunately, as I have seen in my time at the school, the ones that don’t show up can be stigmatized by teachers. A reason commonly cited by instructors for not having a good experience with a group of students is that they neither do their homework nor ever show up. It is almost comical when everyday one of my professors asks each student in a class of 35-40 if anyone did the homework, and every single one says no. It seems backward, but maybe just making it to class is something of an achievement for many students, so the homework isn’t even thought of. But, by asking about it each day, the professors create a divide between themselves and the students, further reinforcing their view of a class as being “bad,” or difficult to manage. Then the class may get worse, and the professor may feel more disrespected or discouraged. It’s a cycle. Now, this is not to say that professors do not have positive relationships with their students, because they do, outside of the classroom. But when it comes to the actual subject matter, there is a big gap between English teachers’ expectations and the amount of work the Nicaraguan students are able to put in.
For their part, even the professors can be hard to locate on school days, or when we are trying to plan classes. Although both of my professors are smart and friendly people outside of the classroom, inside the school things get more complicated. A few weeks ago one of my counterparts didn’t come to class because he and some other teachers were playing volleyball together until 20 minutes before class was supposed to start. Although this meant that I had freer rein on what to try during that class, it sets a pretty clear double standard if students are being held to their own attendance record. Planning with my counterparts has been even worse. I have been stood up by each of them at least once, even though I try to meet during school hours specifically to avoid that. Each time this has happened there was no cancellation and my phone calls were not returned. Of the 16 total times I have called either one, I have gotten an answer twice. The most recent round of excuses I was told, either for not answering or for not showing up to a meeting, was his phone being dead all day, or that he was cooking. Needless to say, this is pretty frustrating, and even more so, when we do in fact meet, because the professors are often averse to trying anything new in the classroom.
During my very first class I wanted to try out an activity that entailed students drawing something from a past reading and having a dialogue with a partner. I had difficulty getting most people in the class to do it, and the professor was no help at all; he sat idly at his desk looking at his grade book most of class, before finally going to the back of the room to chat with some students while I was teaching. It seemed to me that not only was he not helping, he was actually hurting my teaching. People were then comfortable following his example and not paying attention. Then, when I changed my plan for the next class to get people to be more responsive, it worked better. Midway through the lesson he interrupted me and asked each individual student if they understood what I was explaining. It seemed like kind of an undermining of my teaching, like he was upset that I had gotten the class to pay attention and be interested in a lesson. Doing that is his job, of course, but having spent the whole previous period and most of that current one completely unengaged, it didn’t seem like it had meant much to him beforehand. I also had an issue with how he did it. It was like right when it seemed class was going well he had to jump in to show me that there were still misunderstandings. I found it kind of petty. I had been waiting for him all class to help with the lesson, as he obviously knew the students better and spoke their language more fluently, and yet he hadn’t said anything until then. I have tried to express to my professors that we are a team, and since then things have gotten slightly better. Still though, I don’t feel like I’ve had as much of an impact as I would like.
And the difficulties I’ve had while while teaching do not arise solely from my professors. The Ministry of Education, also known as MIN-ED, has a huge amount of influence on what is taught in classrooms. Each week, professors get a sheet detailing the expected topics to be covered, which align with a workbook that is designed by MIN-ED. The workbook, which often contains errors, covers a wide variety of topics that don’t have any connection with what was taught the day or week before. It also only allows for one day for each topic, so even complex, important topics like the past tense of the verb “to be,” for example, are given the same amount of classroom time as more difficult vocabulary concerning the Nicaragua’s cultural history. The latter contained words such as “satire,” “drama,” “world heritage site,” “arribada,” and “refuge,” some of which I wouldn’t have been familiar with in 7th grade, even growing up speaking English. The students in the class have difficulty expressing even very basic things, and who can blame them when no time is devoted to topics that will actually be needed. The odds of any of those words sticking were pretty low, yet for some reason that was what MIN-ED deemed important enough to include in the curriculum. But even so, if for political reasons they wanted to keep the subject of Nicaraguan culture in the book, why not spend a sufficient amount of time for students on it and learn all the vocabulary? By the next day we were on to a new topic. Thus, the students go day to day without any foundation at all from the beginning of their English studies, instead memorizing some of the weirdly specific vocabulary lists long enough for us to finish that chapter. The ones who care less do not even make that effort. I would imagine it is discouraging to go all year without mastering anything at all. But that is what happens when those are the topics that the instructors are responsible for teaching. What frustrates me most about this isn’t that it makes my time in Nicaragua harder, it’s that with the way the system is set up, the students cannot learn as much they could if everyone was on the same page. Many of them come from fairly difficult backgrounds but I do think the majority of them are good kids, so it pains me to see a topic that could be helpful in their lives go to waste.
Finally, simply being in the school has been an interesting experience. I am pretty much the only white person there so a lot of the kids stare at me when I walk by. Some girls catcall me by making this sss sound if I come near them, or by making kissing noises. I hear the word “chele” or “gringo,” both of which mean “white person,” a lot. I’ve also been called “gato,” which means cat, because I have blue eyes. I do not mind any of those names, and actually think the last one is kind of cool. They are not offensive or meant to be harmful, but highlight the fact that I am different from how most Nicaraguans look. I wonder if I would receive the same treatment if my eyes were brown or my skin was darker, so for that reason I do not know how genuine the treatment really is. On the other hand, I think part of what can help get students to pay attention is the fact that I am different from Nicaraguans, and thus different from their normal teachers, too. It is obvious from my skin color, my clothes, and my haircut, among other things, that I am not from here. Everything I’ve said is influenced by my ideas of what I think an education “should” be like, shaped by my time in the US. With that in mind, working at the Modesto has been slightly discouraging. Although I like the students, there are a lot of outside influences that complicate the process of educating them, and makes everyone’s time in the school more difficult than it should be.