16 June 2011

Tía Coleen's First Strike

First strike ever for Tía Coleen. Kind of anticlimactic, really. I went to school to teach two hours of classes, and then came back to the house to change and watch the Chilean equivalent of the Maury Povic Show. The most effort I've put forth so far was to explain to my most difficult students in fifth grade why they need to take their education seriously (dismal failure) and to wring out my laundry in my bathtub. 

This strike is bigger than just Escuela 5, Puerto Natales, or even the Magallanes region. Nation-wide protests of university students, teachers, parents, and others have been quietly festering for several weeks. Currently the news is reporting that 50.000 people have manifested in the streets of Santiago, with the largest protest outside the building where we had our orientation...the MINEDUC. So far everything is rather peaceful, but it is only a matter of time before they bring out the armor-plated mobile water cannons at Chileans called Guanacos to disperse the crowds. 

I devour whatever I can find about education system in Chile and elsewhere by scanning newspapers and blogs, and I asked everyone I could think to ask (including the teacher is who supposedly my boss) about the strike. I wish I could say I was better informed, but I still don't exactly get what exactly the strike is seeking to accomplish. My limited information suggests that the we are seeking equality in education, protesting privatisation of schools, and demanding that the government of Chile step up to the plate and deliver a better system.

Many of the protesters here are referencing the recent US documentary "Waiting for Superman" as a connection to educational problems in my own country. Many of the problems that show up here are similar in parts of the USA...lack of funding/resources for public schools, difficulties with parent/guardian support and responsibility, and problems with execution of government initiatives for educational equality. I have no real experience with the US education system, but anecdotes from friends who are teachers (especially those working with Teach for America) suggest that we have just as much inequality in education as Chile. 

Obviously, my experience with the Chilean educaiton system is extremely limited. I have only been teaching here for four months, after all. But I have seen problems manifest in the microcosm of my school that surely must be repeated in some form nationally.

My students are high risk. They come from the toughest economic and family situations in Puerto Natales. Many of their parents work all day to support them (often in dengerous jobs like off-shore fishing), are unsupportive because they themselves never finished school, are abusive or addicted, or have passed away. I often run into my students long after dark, on their own, in the street. I tell them they should go home, since their parents must be waiting for them. They sadly tell me that they aren't. Others lack even pencils to write with. Others cannot afford to pay for their uniforms. Many probably come to school hungry. 

Thus the lack of resources: yes, it is real. The government of any country ought to help mediate them to include students from all backgrounds in well-equipped, adequately-staffed, safe, clean schools. You could protest for this. From what I gather, that is a main sticking point of the protest today...that the government is not giving enough resources or distributing them equally. 

Then again...the government of Chile provides teachers with laptops. Students too, from tough backgrounds with good grades. Every classroom in my school has a government-issued projection/sound system. The computer lab comes from the government, too. Everything from posters about healthy eating to anti-bullying initiatives is embalzoned with the blue and red Gobierno de Chile logo. Even my school bag. To an outsider, that almost appears like an excess of government involvement. 

Maybe the problem is not with the government, but with the actual distribution of resources. If the government laptops arrive in the schools, but teachers mainly use them for facebook and personal email...are they really being put to use the way that they should? If the projectors are almost never used because teachers prefer to make students copy from out of date textbooks, what is the point of having them in the classrooms? 

The government must be held accountable, but individuals must maintain some personal responsibility as well to use the resources the way they are meant to be used. That means relying on individuals to do their part, which unfortunately is a very unreliable system. I am here in Natales part of the English Opens Doors government program, and I am a resource for my students as a native English speaker. I work in relative-well equipped classrooms and have a head teacher who speaks English very well. 

And yet I did not even have a list of my students in some classes until I made one myself (result of which was that a bunch of students gave false names for two months). That little disconnect cost valuable time, when it could've been fixed easily by the people in my school. It is only one of numerous problems that I've run into, all stemming from my school's failure to adhere to the guidelines of the a EOD program (substituting my second day, teaching students with special needs, teaching alone despite my complete lack of language skills and experience, never planning with my head teacher...etc etc etc).

It doesn't give me much faith that government resources are used well in my school or others if they are mismanaged so gravely in just my situation. 

What happens when there is a strike in schools? The students who cannot leave because their parents cannot pick them up have to stay in the building...languishing in education limbo with the few teachers and administrators who choose to stay. Classes are lost for the day. Parents have to interupt their work. We lose one more day of time together before I have to leave. 

I understand that the point of a strike is to disrupt normal activities, but in this particular case it seems a little counter-productive. We demand that education improve and that everyone have access to it by...closing schools and removing teachers, taking away hours of learning from the students. Not to mention wreaking havock on the families who count on schools to keep their children safe and help raise them when they have to work. Plus students learn that their teachers can leave whenever they want, and that school is out when there is a strike. It's not a serious cry to government help in their eyes...it's a vacation! How am I supposed to make the point stick with those fifth graders that they must attend school if they see their teachers all leaving for reasons they don't understand?

I don't have the answer. I am neither for the strike nor against it. In all reality I lsck the information to make the call. But educational inequalities are real. Privatisation will not help undo them. There are improvements to be made to the system in Chile. Education will be the way that Chile finally develops, and the struggle for the future starts in the classrooms (even the president said it, check out this entry http://caminochile.blogspot.com/2011/05/with-love-from-battle-of-blackboard.html). 

Education appears to be the lightning rod for all the other problems that a country has. Social, economic, developmental, general...it is a multi-factorial pressure cooker. This strike is only a couple of hours, rather insignificant even in the face of only a week of class hours (2 out of 30-ish). But people are talking, debating, discussing. And that is the whole point. 

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