- Watch from the Balcony, Lead on the Floor - April 10, 2017
- 38 Days a Teacher: Leadership, Followership, and Fellowship - April 3, 2017
- Watch from the Balcony, Lead on the Floor - March 23, 2017
- OMG – My Feet are Killing Me! Back to the Classroom - December 14, 2016
- Back in School: Pre-Game - November 30, 2016
- Who Will Care for the Teachers? - April 21, 2016
- No One Wants to be ‘Managed’ - January 12, 2016
- Building Long-Term Relationships: The Puzzle of Teacher Retention - July 15, 2014
- Off-Team Blues in Middle School - June 17, 2014
- My Year Teaching in the Cloud Forest: Part 1 - June 9, 2014
I like a challenge. When skateboarding became the rage in the 70s (I’m talking metal wheels short wooden boards) I was the first in the neighborhood to go careening down the hill on our street to crash into a patch of grass at the end of the cul de sac. I eschewed the local bucolic state schools when I went to college in favor of the big city of Washington, DC 8 hours away. I walked away from the environment and culture I knew (an upper-middle class, educated white town with 8,000 people in it) and chose to work with the disenfranchised and underserved children in Connecticut’s capital city of Hartford.
On a whim, after having taught middle school for 6 years, I applied for a Fulbright-Hayes grant to spend 4 weeks in Costa Rica studying the schools through an anthropological lens. I was blessed to win a spot on the trip and off I went. I had a transformational experience in the third week of the trip when we ventured into the Tilarán mountains, to the town Monteverde, in the Costa Rican Cloud Forest. While there, we visited 2 schools. The first of which was a local, government run elementary school. Due to a national teacher shortage, students went to school in shifts with the older students attending school in the morning and the younger students in the afternoon.
The second school was a private, bilingual pre-K through (at the time) 7th grade school. Although it was private, 90 percent of the students were there on scholarship. The mission of the school was to teach the local students about the diverse and amazing environment in which they lived, and prepare them to become the conservators of it. As I walked around that school, watched classes, met the students and spoke with the teachers (many of whom were American) I thought to myself, “I could do this.”
And so I did. The following year I applied to teach at the school and was hired to teach the oldest grade in the school, eight. I would teach English, pre-algebra, science, history and physical education. The compensation? Three hundred dollars a month. Half of that went to pay for my lodging . . . my casatica (little house). In the entries to follow, I will delve into some of the exciting adventures that come with living in a developing country, but I want to concentrate most on what it is like to teach in the Costa Rican cloud forest. Although some situations were unique to Costa Rica, most were on a par with education in all developing countries. Most poignantly, however, are the situations and stories that demonstrate that: 1) kids are kids and 2) educational woes are similar the world over.
Before taking the job, the director of the school made sure to let me know that this particular class was very difficult. During their seventh grade year, they had driven away 3 teachers . . . they just quit on the spot and went back to States. Some teachers are familiar with classes like this. Once they succeed in eliminating one teacher (or substitute) they become empowered. It becomes a game and they are like sharks smelling blood in the water. They want to see how much the next teacher can take before she breaks. I was walking into a mine field.
I wasn’t terribly concerned. I was coming from teaching in an urban setting. I was used to having close to 30 students in my classes (middle school French and Spanish) and there were only 10 students in the 8th grade class at the Centro de Educación Creativa in Monte Verde, Costa Rica. I was much more concerned with the concept of teaching math.
Here is a taste of some of the similarities between teaching in Costa Rica and teaching in an underfunded school in the states:
1) There was no curriculum. I was told that the interdisciplinary curriculum was theme-based, and the theme for the grade was Africa. Other than that, there was no guidance on objectives or expectations. I designed the first theme around Egypt only to find out that these kids had been taught about Egypt in fourth grade and in 6th grade. Sound familiar? I have taught in American school systems where the elementary students were exposed to a unit on dinosaurs year after year because it is what the teachers wanted to teach.
2) The only books in the class were the ones that I brought with me. There was no photocopier in the school. If we wanted copies of something, we put in a request and the next time someone went down the mountain to town, we got the copies. It could take a day, or it could take a week.
3) The classroom furniture was ‘raggedy’. It was handmade, and not in an artisan way. There was no teacher desk and no bookcases. It goes without saying that there was no technology of note ion the room. In fact, light was provided by large windows and 3 bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling.
There is much more to follow. I hope that by sharing my experiences, I make my readers laugh, appreciate the education system we have in the United States, ask themselves, “Why don’t we do that here?” and, finally, challenge themselves to take a chance and go on an educational adventure.