Having just published a post I ended by writing, “I could go on and keep talking about the minutiae of the school system here, but I see myself drifting into a frustration rant, so I think I will leave it here,” I feel the angsty need to vent, so here I am doing just that and writing a “frustration rant.”
This school year I have been having some trouble at one of my schools. It’s not that anything is different this year from last year, but I have some goals and I am trying to make progress with my counterpart teacher, so the challenges at this particular school are a lot more frustrating this year.
Basically, the place is a circus, the students are the ringleaders, and the comedy/tragedy is that the teachers think it is the students who are the clowns, but in fact it is the other way around. And I’m the only person who realizes the tent is on fire.
Discipline is poor at this school. The kids arrive late to class, they enter and exit as they please, they use their phones all the time, listen to music, sit with their friends and chat, rarely complete homework, and are chronically absent, to name a few problems. The grounds are covered in trash, they don’t listen to their teachers when they are asked to do something, they steal from each other, they never take notes, and they try to sleep during class, head down on the desk in the front row (to name a few more).
Now I was not known as a well behaved high school student. But I did like learning. I hated school though, because the system wasn’t exactly always very good at actually imparting knowledge. And I suppose that’s why I never really “behaved,” or acted as the teachers and administration expected me to. And now, being on the other side of the chalkboard, I can see that to me when I was a student, and now to my students, discipline is a game! Students want the teachers to shout and yell and break down and above all not teach the class. And in my high school in NY it was a challenging game, because if the student lost he would wind up sitting in the In-School Suspension Room. But here the game is far less challenging, because there are seldom any consequences for the students. Teachers here are literally not allowed to kick students out of the classroom because it is seen as denying them their right to an education. Welcome to post-revolutionary society, 35 years afterwards.
What appalls me is that teachers do not realize that the students are playing the game. When I used to work at sleep-away camp we used a phrase coined by Sam Stein, a mentor/role model of mine: “Drop the rope.” It is simple. If a camper is playing the game, don’t play with him! Just drop the rope, let the situation diffuse itself, and deal with the camper (and the allegory certainly works with students as well) later on, taking the perspective of a responsible adult. When we tug the rope in the other direction the camper/student has already won the war/game, because all they wanted was a scene in the first place. They don’t want to be in school, and they got their wish, because when the teacher plays the game the classroom is transformed into a circus.
And none of the teachers in this school see that they the clowns, playing a game of tug-of-war that they can never win. They are pulling on a rope anchored into the wall. But yet they tug and tug and tug and tug, and the students laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. And inevitably, this circus repeats itself day after day, year after year at this one school. And the teachers have some routine, systematic responses. They warn the students with baseless threats to their grades. They plea for “responsibility,” especially among from the seniors. And they lecture the students about their future and how they will be expected to behave. Next comes the first parents’ meeting. We had ours today. They tell the kids that enough is enough, cut class short one morning (Hello! Score a point for the students in the game right there.) and tell them that all of their parents have to come in for a meeting.
I was so frustrated at the meeting today I nearly left. Somewhere between one-fifth and one-fourth of the students had a representative. Some of them only had an older brother or sister in attendance (I recognized one girl from class just last year). Most of the parents were women – mothers, grandmothers, or maybe aunts, and they were dressed like people here portray stereotypical poor woman. They were clean and wore very appropriate clothing for an educational meeting, along with a lot of make-up. However the clothing was far from what would be expected from a professional worker in the city center or Managua. In no way am I trying to judge the woman, I’m just trying to paint the picture. I think that clothing and personal appearance is a strong indicator of economic class in Nicaragua. Many of them also had small children in tow.
All of the parents were sat down in the students’ seats, and one by the teachers aired their grievances and asked for “help,” “assistance,” and “collaboration.” There was no explanation beyond that. Most of these women (and some men too) are probably poor and never finished high school themselves. And they were probably lost, bewildered, and felt ashamed. They were thinking to themselves, “How can I help? I am at home while the kids are at school. I clean their uniform every day. I feed them breakfast, and I get them out the door. I hemorrhage the little money that I have buying them books and cleaning supplies for the school. And my kids know that I expect that they are respectful and behave themselves while at home as well as while at school. What else can I do?” But none of them raise their hands and ask, because they feel ashamed.
Maybe for a day or two, or even a week we may see a change in the students. But I expect that they will revert back to their usual behavior. People respond to incentives, not solely to words. Until the motivation is put in place for the students to want to learn, and until consequences are put in place for playing “the game,” nothing is going to change in the long run. In a few more months the teachers will call another parents meeting, even fewer parents will arrive (although I don’t blame them at all for not wanting to come), the teachers will make their pleas, and things will continue status quo until the end of the year. And then next year things will start all over again with an assembly on the first day of school and the principal telling the students that he expects that this year (this year somehow being different, or a new leaf comparatively, from last year) the students will not use their cell phones during class.
I’ve also noticed a deeper problem in the behavioral interchange between the students and the teachers (yes, I just made up the term “behavioral interchange”). A lot of lesson plans here are not good. For the most part the teachers read out loud, talk, or do something on the whiteboard. And the students are expected to pay attention and learn. There is not even an expectation that they take notes unless they are giving the instruction to “copy.” The instruction is poor, the students are disengaged, and they are given no opportunity to practice what they are being taught so that they actually learn and remember something. And they know that since their grades are a sham they can get away with doing nothing. From pre-school their brains are literally trained to not pay attention. They are programmed for a morning or afternoon of boredom five days a week. Put 50 adolescents like this in a room together and of course they are going to behave in every way possible except precisely how their teachers would like them to. So let’s try to change that behavior a few months before they graduate!? Gimme’ a break.
With my teacher at this particular school I am really trying to focus on organization, teaching methods, and classroom management. He is an intelligent man and understands the concepts. He is just not good at teaching them. However, I haven’t been able to get through to him yet this year, and that, I suppose, is the ultimate source of my frustration.
About two weeks ago I posted an article about whether I like being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua or not. I wrote,
… I think my time here is making me a better person. I like that I am more patient, my Spanish has improved (a Nicaraguan that I haven’t seen in many months just told me that that other day in fact), and I can handle challenging situations better.
What I should have added is that being in another culture makes me question, for the better, my native culture. I see things here and ask myself, “Why on Earth do they do that? It makes no sense.” And then I realize that there very well may be things in the United States that make no sense, but we do them anyway, because “that’s just the way we’ve always done it.” At its most pernicious, this phenomenon of blindness to tradition to and leadership can lead to mistreatment of prisoners by prison guards or genocide. I’ll give a more benign example. Last week at the same school I have been discussing all article (although to some extent these problems are systematic) there was an earthquake drill. Everyone knew it was coming. In the principal’s office they rang the school bell. Twice. The second long ring indicates that there is an earthquake and we need to evacuate. The kids then put their backpacks over their heads and walk single-file to an open field out back behind the classrooms. Their teachers yell at them the whole way for not having their backpacks over their heads, talking, or not walking in an orderly manner.
To make the drill more realistic they set two bonfires in the middle of the school courtyard. Then, while the students were filing out they used a fire extinguisher to put them out (I was astonished that not only the school had a fire extinguisher, but that it worked. I hope they refill it now that they used it.). Of course, any order that the teachers had managed to maintain during the evacuation process was extinguished by this spectacle.
All I could think the whole time was how utterly useless the drill was. If there were an earthquake during class time (which is completely plausible here) the students would panic. The culture here is to run out from under buildings as quickly as possible. They certainly wouldn’t wait for the second ring of the bell, even if someone in the office stuck around to ring it. And their backpacks over their heads? Utterly useless. Getting to the open area behind the school buildings is certainly a good idea, but in the amount of time it would take to evacuate everyone the earthquake would be long over and any structures that were going to fall down would have already claimed their victims.
But then I thought about the security spectacles that we project in America. Do we practice for fires in our public schools ideally? Is a mass exodus from the building through the nearest exit really the safest way to do things? I don’t know. Maybe it is smarter to avoid panic, evacuate students closest to flames and smoke first to allow firefighters access, and then evacuate classrooms further away. Like I said I don’t know, but seeing things that don’t make sense in other cultures makes you question your own. And the examples are countless. Why do we have to take our computers out at airport security? Because the TSA say so. How come you can’t defrost something and then put it back in the freezer? Why do we divide students into sections in high school and then have a different teacher teach each section a different subject? Because that’s how we’ve always done it. I don’t think that I will ever blindly follow convention as closely as I did before after getting back from Nicaragua. I’m not cynical enough to say that convention is always perpetuated by people who want us to be ignorant – I think it could certainly be the case sometimes, but I do think that we can make our country and the world a better place by always challenging convention and being open and accepting of people who do so.
What does this have to do with the education circus? Well, someone needs to challenge convention in this school. And I guess that person is me. Right now, short of getting myself and the Peace Corps kicked out of Nicaragua, I’m on a path to do that. We’ll see if I am at all successful, if only with one teacher.
A collection of photos I took today of two of my schools (neither being the direct subject of this post):