Wednesday, March 4, 2009

#14 ¿Que puta hago aqui? (What the f*ck am I doing here?)

I've randomly interspersed photos of my classroom to entice readers through my eloquent frustrations...enjoy!

Sometimes it feels like my job here has been merely to care and to witness and if I manage to teach one or two children how to spell a few words correctly, so much the better. The lack of resources, the cultural differences, language differences, the dire poverty, and even the rain and mud and heat and dust have all left me with more questions than answers, more of a to-do list than accomplishments done.

Many children want to learn, but how to learn when there aren’t enough books, when the books they have aren’t something they can yet read, when they don’t know how to think to form a question or to want to know its answer? These are things learned in school and by family members who went to school. I’ve decided, as un-concretely as one can decide anything (because decisions change constantly here) that the language goal of a basic education is to learn how to form a question, how to communicate it clearly, and how to search for its answer. But how to learn when all you know is that you are hungry and tired? When you are sick due to poor sanitation, constant rain (some of it even inside your house,) and malnutrition? There isn’t a trick in the world that I can find to get past that learning hurdle.

The textbooks for Social Studies and Science are almost completely useless. They are fairly heavy in text that is far beyond the kids’ abilities to read, let alone grasp the meaning of in any useful way. These are, by the way, government issued text books, and from what I can tell the Jungle School kids perform at or above the average Honduran public school child. Why they would write books that their children can’t be expected to be able to learn from is beyond my comprehension. The children will copy down any problem I write on the board, be it fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, or open answer, but are completely stumped when asked to answer it on their own. An extraterrestrial might think “No puedo” (I can’t) is a national greeting or courtesy given how often my kids say it.

Honduran education is from another century in so many ways (and I’m not talking about the 20th century.) Education is only legally required until the 6th grade, and this is not even available in some areas. The public schools aren’t completely free, as you must buy and sustain uniforms and school supplies, pay for the guards at the school, and pay the fees for any extra classes like computers. Many families have no hope of covering these costs and adequately feeding themselves.

Public school teachers are one of the only organized labor forces in Honduras. So, whenever there is a labor dispute, whether or not it involves education, the teachers strike. I have heard that they lost over 40 days of school last year due to strikes. Elementary teachers are certified by working as assistant teachers for three years, starting as early as 16. This means that a 19 year old can be a certified teacher. I’ve met few this age from any culture who are capable of handling 15 children with discipline, patience, organization, and maturity. I’m 10 years older, fairly capable in all those arenas, and exhausted at the end of every class period, let alone an entire day. The teachers’ textbooks spell out your entire lesson plan for every class period and explain how to do the math, so obviously the government is somewhat aware of what it is lacking in terms of trained professionals.

It is never lost on me that this was a heavily colonized country, from the endemic poverty to the incredible social stratification. Teachers are the middle class here, although that hardly spells wealth or social security, nor does it keep them immune from the endemic problems of poor self-esteem, lack of initiative, and unreliability. It is a huge accomplishment to become a teacher, but they must find ways to build self esteem and community rather than setting themselves apart from their students by saying “Look how clean we are. Look how much we know. You need to be like us because what you are is not enough.”

When there isn’t adequate self-esteem in a society as a whole (and I don’t think I know of a society where this isn’t a problem) people are always looking for who is “worse” so that they can feel better about themselves. This means everyone is being actively looked down upon by someone above them on this imaginary hierarchy of “worthiness.” When you get to the folks for whom there is no one below them on this ladder, it is as if they are being shat upon by the entire country. And it is their children that I am teaching.

One day we waited a half hour in the pouring rain for one of the teachers to pick us up and take us up to school. When we finally called we found out that he had a meeting that he had forgotten to tell us about. We later found out that his birthday had been the day before as well. And I am constantly fascinated by the horrendous traffic in this small city of maybe 100,000 people that keeps the other teacher from arriving any earlier than 40 minutes late. Yet they are some of the most dedicated and hard working teachers I have met here, so keeping it all in perspective, I have tried hard not to lose my temper. I did do so once, on purpose, because they wanted to restrict tutoring to the tables outside because they believed children were playing with the first grade’s toys in the afternoon. I had to point out that is actually occurs when the first graders are waiting for a teacher to arrive each morning, not under my watchful eye in the afternoon, and that while I am here for the next three weeks we are not moving tutoring to a less conducive environment to facilitate a lack of adult discipline.

But as I said before, I am likely leaving here in three weeks with more questions that I came with, mostly as a result of the extremely relative nature of “truth” and the incredibly subjective but important role of appearances. Uniforms are very good example of how important appearances are, what hidden messages are really being sent to the children, and how they are stressed at the detriment of the substance behind them. Having the right uniform, utterly spotless, with the correct school patch on the sleeve, etc. is a very big deal. Children can be sent home if their uniform is incorrect (and often are from public schools--I’ve been told--I’ve learned to assume everything might be a bit of a lie until I see it for myself.) Lectures are given on the responsibilities each student has, and it always seems to come back around to keeping the uniform clean so that you do not appear to be a dirty, stupid Honduran (read: you are a dirty, stupid Honduran deep down so you need to appear that you aren’t.) During one of these speeches at our school, it wasn’t until the volunteers got a chance to speak that we brought up the idea that the most important responsibility is to learn, to work with your teacher to do so by paying attention, asking questions, doing your homework, and being on time.

I have seen little evidence of consistent tests, quizzes, or grading except by the volunteer teachers. My two kids from public schools had excellent grades in first grade last year but fail to meet most if any of the government standards for first grade. Grades and evaluations are just two more incredibly subjective things, I suppose. But most of my kids are passing on their tests and they all enjoy getting a chance to see what they are learning and earn recognition for it.
I have my work cut out for me when it comes to teaching that cheating is wrong. In a world of appearances and subjectivity, it is better to appear smart than to actually admit that you don’t know something and learn what you didn’t know. How much of this culture operates out of shame? I am afraid to know.
I am not trying to be a brick wall or to swim upstream against a current. I certainly have no intention of importing North American culture as if these people were uncivilized in any way. And, I have found my own compromises between my goals and reality, rather like a sailboat tacking into the wind, never facing its destination head on. For example, a student who gets nothing correct on a test still gets a 60% so that they have a hope of bettering their grade with enough hard work.
I had to recommend we drop one child from second grade back down to first because he could not read or write and was having an incredibly hard time in math. The school director told the mother that “He can’t do anything. Some kids are stupid and need to repeat grades a lot.” I stopped by their house after school to talk to her and to her son to explain in specifics why I felt he would benefit from repeating first grade now that he was at our school, and I made sure to complement his achievements that I had witnessed (he can draw very well, for example). I rounded it out by encouraging him to work hard as I knew he would likely be one of the smartest and most capable children in the class and that I would check in on how he was doing (which I do.) He started out as a silent kid who just stared at me blankly, but now he always has a smile and a hug for me and loves to come inform me of new things he has learned.

I realize that I have been writing a lengthy diatribe on the many failings of the Honduran schools and Honduras in general, but I am not depressed about what I have learned. In many ways they are the average issues faced by the average human being in the average country, only magnified by the circumstances of history and geography. I am glad and appreciative to have a better understanding of the problems. I am hopeful that I can help Honduras to create and provide solutions in my future work here. I want to come back. I love the kids and their families. The land is beautiful. My hope is an amazing feeling.

If I can teach a little hope, and maybe also how to spell “hacer” correctly, well, that would be a life well lived.


  1. I've been following along on your adventures - I can't tell you how impressed I am. Having come from a school system that was considered underfunded by american standards and had parents with similar outlooks - hunting and farm season took precedence over class. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to magnify that by ... whatever magnitude it takes to reach the entire culture being lassiez about education. not just lassiez but actually trying to prevent the next generation from being better than they are.
    Hopefully you've inspired at least one student who will go on to be a teacher and push the same ideas and values - maybe they'll reach two and so on.
    Good luck - you're awesome.

  2. You're amazing and the kids are lucky to have you!

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