Yesterday in the mobile classroom we went to a community, called Guajara, which is a poor, Afro-Ecuadorian community in a hotter climate region of Ecuador, called La Carolina. When the kids, ages nine to thirteen, boarded the bus, their apparent poor physical conditions were impossible to ignore. The images from those “save a child” commercials from rural parts of Africa ran through my head. The state of the kid’s eyes struck me immediately. One boy’s eyes were dark yellow all around the pupils, while some of the others had bright red veins across the white parts of their eyes. I’ve been told these conditions are characteristic of malnutrition. Many of the kids in the communities we work in have eyes that do not appear ‘healthy,’ but I had not seen it to this extent. A few kids were wearing shirts and pants donated by the government, while the rest were in what appeared to be any clothing that could be found.
This group of kids was right on point with the rights and responsibilities teaching section. They all participated and were full of bright ideas on how they can play positive roles in their community. When we reached the computer section of the day, however, there were some educational gaps that I have not come across before with this age group. While teaching how to type and searching for the letters on the keyboard, it became clear that a number of the students did not recognize the letters of the alphabet by name, nor by sight. One of the exercises we have the students do is to type the names of twenty animals they can think of. Upon looking at their screens most words were not words, but jumbles of letters that were attempts to spell the animal’s names. More than half of these kids were twelve and thirteen years old.
What would be your next step upon this realizing that your pre-teen students couldn’t read or write?
We had about two hours left in the day with this school. The other two teachers in the mobile classroom and I had a discussion during the students’ recess about how we could best use the rest of the day. You can’t teach a basketball team to shoot three-pointers if they can’t make layups. Likewise, it’s difficult to teach a class of students the basics of computers if they can’t recognize the letters of the alphabet. The three of us split up and gave as much individual time to the students as we could, helping them with whichever basic next educational step seemed the most important. During recess, the head teacher from the Guajara elementary school came out to the mobile class to ask us “are the kids having fun in there?”
I have had a number of discussions with other GCY Fellows recently about the rural education systems in Ecuador. In most of the communities I work in there is no available education beyond the age of twelve. To go to high school would require a twelve-year old kid to move into the city or to the nearest town that has a form of secondary education, or to commute by foot a few hours every day to reach the nearest school. However, the families in these areas live off the crops and animals they raise and sell. Thus, the system does not quite allow for education beyond elementary school if the kids are going to stay with their families to continue helping their parents sustain their farming livelihoods. Not to mention, carry on what their grandparents and their parents did. Even if by chance a kid does have the opportunity to go to high school and even to college, this means leaving the family and also putting their livelihood at risk by not taking over the land once the parents get too old to tend it. And aging happens remarkably earlier when having worked a life full of rigorous physical labor. Another effect of youth leaving the community to study is that they often will not return to a life of farming when they have the potential to earn an income in the city as a result of the education they have received. This leads to a growing phenomenon labeled “brain drain” in which the “brains” of the town leave and do not come back due to studying in the city and staying to work there. This, in turn, creates an imbalance of the people in the town with a high number of adults and children but few teens and young adults. In a community outside of Ibarra called Zuleta, where two other GCY Fellows live and where I have spent a lot of time this year, the effects of “brain drain” are obvious – there are very few teenagers or educated young adults in Zuleta.
So if kids are not going to continue with secondary education whether there is access to it or not, should we still feel that it should be available? Or should we even be so critical of the rural school systems if the vast majority of the kids are going to start farming as a life career right when they’re physically capable? I haven’t yet worked out a definitive opinion. But as a fundamental belief that has been ingrained in my head by the U.S. Constitution, everyone deserves the right to education. This is also now stated in Ecuador’s Constitution. And although it’s basic, all of these communities do have the right to at least elementary education. But when there are kids who are in the final years of their elementary education who are completely illiterate and still don’t know some of the letters in the alphabet, their right to education has not been respected.
This, to me, is a systematic flaw that at first glance appears to be a direct effect of the “teachers” that have been placed in rural communities to teach and simply do not teach. Rather, some of them arrive to work at 8am, let the kids do pretty much whatever they want to do for the day, and then call it a day at 12pm and go home. It’s mind-blowing how much I see this on a day to day basis when we’re working with a class in the mobile classroom and the rest of the students in the elementary school are physically at the school but just are not in classes. Although many of the issues I see appear to come from the teachers, it’s important to recognize there are many problems plaguing the educational system in Ecuador currently. Common controversies include the corruption within the Ministry of Education, the Government’s strategic placement of assigning teachers to specific regions or schools, and scarce supervision of administration, leading to collapses in administrative policies. The string of issues stems from the top and filters down to the bottom, negatively effecting the rest of the aspects that factor into this struggling system, including the individual teachers and, eventually, the students.
Two years ago Ecuador’s government started giving student-teachers exams to evaluate their ability in a classroom. Based on how they scored, those with the highest scores were placed to teach in the city, like Quito and Ibarra, while those with the lowest were placed in the rural communities. This is not to say that the teachers in the rural parts are inferior to those in the city, nor is it to say that all of the teachers in the rural parts don’t teach. But on average this system does not favor a country that is pushing for equal opportunity among all of its citizens. From the beginning of their lives the kids in the rural communities are not given an equal chance, which immediately influences the opportunities they will have in the near and distant future.
My host mother often vents about the school systems here. She says that most of the teachers eventually become a product of the system, one that is currently full of corruption and inequality from top to bottom. Types of corruption include the teachers paying the Ministry of Education to be placed in the city, and teachers in rural parts paying their school administrators to leave work early on a daily basis. She describes some of her friends coming out of university with unique, strong mindsets to bring change to the school systems through teaching. However, she has watched them decline into being no different than any other teacher in the system, doing anything they can to escape the commitment of completing their full-time teaching position.
I now see in a new light what a responsibility it is to teach. Especially in places where there are no other resources besides those few teachers that are responsible for the primary education of the kids in that community – that first foundation that must be built for the young students before they can go on to learn anything else along that same path. When teachers do not hold up their end of the responsibility, their lack of effort can shoot down an entire classroom full of kids’ future opportunities. On a grander scale, when the heads of the Ministry of Education are responsible for much of the country´s youth education and are potentially not following through on Ecuador´s constitutional statement, you can only imagine the short term and long lasting effects.