The Pamer school in Lima isn’t like most schools in Peru, but its classrooms would fit in at almost any charter school in the United States. Each classroom has the school’s vision and mission posted on a board. The most effective teacher we saw made use of call and response attention getters, “Yo-Yo,” she says, “Hey, Hey” responds the class. When it was time to focus, she called them to a learning posture similar to SLANT or SPARK but with the interesting addition of smiles. “I’m going to call on the student with the biggest smile,” she said. And there they sat, a class of just under 30 students, all sitting up straight, with beautifully authentic smiles on their faces.
As we drove to the school, Jose Revilla, the Executive Director of Ensena Peru, apologized for not being able to take us to a public school – they were on vacation. He explained that Pamer is a middle-income school that focuses almost entirely on preparing students for college entrance exams. He lamented that this narrow focus confined teachers to focusing mostly on the memorization of facts and rules, at the expense of more general education competencies. It was a frustration that was echoed by the teachers we talked with.
“What stood out to me the most is how confining the school is. The students don’t have time to express themselves or explain what they think*,” said Fiorella a first year upper elementary teacher with Ensena Peru. She compared the school to her own education where her exams were more like interviews, and she had many more opportunities to develop skills that are more important in life. When I asked what skills she thought were most important she answered, “The ability to argue and explain their thinking. The ability to work in teams.”
Diana, another teacher explained, “It’s like all they are used to is to say, A, B, C, or D. When you ask them to explain ‘why’ it’s like ‘what do you mean why?’ Even working in pairs is unusual. They are only used to teachers telling them what to do.” Diana has had some success pushing students to explain themselves more, but it’s been a lonely battle and still in the context of explaining answers on multiple choice tests. Liz, a former lawyer turned fourth grade teacher, was disappointed the students didn’t have more opportunities for arts and music since the tests focused mostly on math and grammar. Even the most effective teacher we saw, Fernanda (not an Ensena Peru teacher) was still engaging students at a fairly low level of thinking – preparing them to answer basic questions about grammar.
Talking with these teachers, it was also surprising how similar their presence and demeanor was to the Teach For America teachers we’ve worked with the past few years. They are tired, frustrated, and deeply committed to being a positive force in the lives of the children they work with. As Liz put it, “I love the work that I do. When you help someone, you gain more than them. It’s a world that’s yours, and I’m so happy in my class.”
From left to right; Jose, Will, Fiorella, Diana, Liz, Elizabeth
In fact, happiness was the prevailing emotion in the school. There was a palpable sense of joy amongst the students, and I don’t think it was just because we were visiting. Students laughed, supported each other, and smiled. Always with the smiles. Remember, Peru has some of the happiest students in the world. As Jose explained, public school teachers may not know their content very well, and the country may not have very high academic standards, but the teachers are very committed to building students self-worth and often believe that caring for their students is more important than the content they have to teach. Indeed, PISA’s international survey of teachers shows that Peruvian teachers prioritize developing a student’s personality more than teachers in almost every other country.
Jose went on to explain that, maybe that would be Peru’s saving grace. “Because,” he explained, “When you look at the most successful people in the world, they are not the people who know the most. They’re the people who are able to work well with others.”
Our day at Pamer has been one of the major highlights of the trip so far, and we hope to visit a few more schools before we cross the Chilean border.
Questions and comments are always welcome.
A special thanks to Miluska and Jose for arranging this visit. It was awesome.
*A note on language. Some of the interviews in this post were in English and some were in Spanish. Where I felt uncomfortable doing a verbatim translation I paraphrased the main ideas of what was said.