Milagros is much loved by her students. When we passed through the gate of her school a pair of them ran up and embraced her on either side, pressing their cheeks against each of her hips. In class the students are anxious to show her what they’ve done. During our conversation later in the day, children came to hug her and offer her parts of their lunch. Her school is far away from the more developed center of Arequipa, Peru and while the surrounding area doesn’t resemble the archetypical images of poverty in the developing world, it’s clear that there isn’t much money here. Milagros transferred to this school to have the opportunity to teach 2nd grade because, “Many of the children don’t know how to read or write. And that is something very important to me.”
I asked Milagros what surprised her the most when she started teaching last year, “The teachers, because they don’t have any passion. But I think I understand maybe why, because they always have trouble with money and time, and the government doesn’t respect their jobs. But many of the teachers get so angry with the students.”
Milagros reminding her class to raise their hands to speak
A couple weeks earlier I spoke with a pair of young German women who had just finished a year of teaching in Peru. I asked them what they thought the biggest problems with education in Peru were and they were quick to answer, “The problem is the teachers.” They described classrooms where the teacher would simply sit in the back of the room and read PowerPoint slides. “The students aren’t motivated but I wouldn’t be motivated either… And who would want to be a teacher when you get paid around 350 Euros a month?”
The other German explained how her co-teacher at a private school had to share a house with five other teachers, and then the more animated one spoke up again, “I think a lot of it is how…” she had trouble finding the words, “In Germany, if you say that you’re a teacher, it’s like,” her face lit up, “‘Oh, you’re a teacher!’ but in Peru if you say you’re a teacher,” her face turned sour, “It’s like ‘Oh… You’re a teacher.’”
In a taxi in Cuzco, I asked the driver what he thought about public education in Peru, “The main problem is that there isn’t very good instruction. The teachers don’t have a good education and they don’t know how to teach.” He then spoke with pride about his son who had recently graduated and was now studying biology. But he was certainly not impressed with his son’s teachers.
Milagros’ school and the volcano that looks over it
Even Milagros’ principal was critical, “The teachers here,” she said with some hesitation, “keep to themselves. They are not always trying to get better and sometimes they lose patience when they get older. But this is something we have to work on.” Talking with Senora Mamani was interesting because her demeanor reminded me so much of the sharp and dedicated administrators I know in the Unites States. People who are trying to do as much as they can with limited resources. But Senora Mamani’s resources are even more limited than her U.S. counterparts, since she is the only administrator at the school.
And this may be the single most startling fact I’ve learned about education in Peru. Jose Revilla told me that while there are about 60,000 schools in Peru there are only 48,000 people in administrative positions other than principals. When you consider that many wealthier schools have many administrators the situation looks even more dire for schools like Milagros’.
How can you expect teachers to get better if there is no one to coach and support them?
“Ojala que vengan. We don’t have personnel here. We don’t even have anyone to clean,” said Senora Mamani when I asked about other administrators. She then offered the same resigned but committed smile-shrug I’ve seen so often in administrators in rural Louisiana.
The School Principal, Senora Angelica Guispe Mamani
An article in El Comercio (a major Peruvian paper) quotes education experts saying that the main reason most people become teachers is because more selective fields are out of their reach. They’re looking for an occupation that’s easy to get into.
Senora Mamani cited a lack of parental support for their children’s academics as the primary obstacle to education, but when I asked why parents aren’t supportive it turned out that this too was connected to the prestige of teachers, “I think it’s because they don’t respect the teachers. They think that teaching is a simple activity when, in reality, it’s completely the opposite. It’s the most difficult.”
Elizabeth with students at recess
Teachers are the foundation of a country’s education system. In the United States, public policy focused on merit pay, and the transformation of tests from tools for student assessment to weapons for teacher evaluation, has triggered a backlash to this kind of ‘blame the teacher’ talk. But the reality is that the U.S. suffers from many of these same problems (though to a lesser degree). And with this in mind, I think it’s interesting that none of the people I talked to in Peru spoke of a need to fire or punish bad teachers. People only spoke of the need to provide more support, more training, and more resources for teachers.
It’s true that teachers can’t be the only agents of change in turning education around, but we shouldn’t forget that they are by far the single most important force in the lives of students and that the spectrum of teaching is very, very wide indeed. Unfortunately, policies in many U.S. states have served to poison this conversation and have scared many accomplished people away from, or out of the profession. I wonder how different the dialogue in the U.S. would be if policies focused on how to help teachers develop instead of how to rank them according to their students’ scores on multiple choice tests? As Jonathan Kozol once said, in a less than eloquent metaphor, about students and testing: “You don’t fatten the sheep by weighing them.”
It seems that in Peru people know what to do but they don’t have the resources. In the U.S. we have the resources, but we don’t seem to know what to do with them.