Getting Out of a Jam

Erasmo Calzadilla

Cuban high school kids.

The phrase “pa’ arriba ‘e la caliente” (roughly, “getting out of a jam”) is the refrain of a popular reggaeton song that’s usually associated with teenagers.  These days, however, it also relates to me.

A ways back I wrote about my university terminating my contract as a philosophy instructor, and therefore how I had to start seriously pounding the pavement looking for work in a tight job market.  All the places I visited had a freeze on filling vacant slots, but after a lot of searching I was finally welcomed with open arms —and without much of a background check— by one institution: Mantilla High School.

Not long ago, the “High Schools in the Countryside Program” closed its doors practically overnight.  New schools were created from scratch in each municipality of the city to absorb those students who needed to enroll in senior high school.  One of these had already been set up in the outlying Havana neighborhood of Mantilla, so I went there to sign up for a job.

As soon as I stepped in the door —after they took a brief glance at my qualifications, which wasn’t a thick file— they already wanted to hire me as a teacher on a permanent basis.

That was strange.  They didn’t ask me for any letters of recommendation from my neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR).  Nor did they request my autobiography or even pay attention to the obvious blotch on my professional record; they didn’t even seem to mind that I hadn’t voted in the previous elections!

But no, it wasn’t a miracle.  They were simply desperate to find teachers therefore they didn’t have the luxury of being selective; had they been so, it would have been back to the drawing board.

Since I didn’t have many options either, I decided to jump on this chance to “get myself out of a jam.”  But what was the jam?  The pay wasn’t that bad; so why was it that no one wanted to work there?   As I had initially imagined —and didn’t take long to confirm— the problem (well, one of the problems) was that the position involved students.

The worst thing was not their poor preparation (some of them hadn’t taken classes in important subjects like math for several years of their academic lives).  What was difficult was to stand there in a crowded classroom (with more than 40 restless kids) to teach a subject that most of them couldn’t care less about.  Under those conditions, the challenge was to achieve the minimum level of discipline so that the class could make it to the next bell.  Even the most mild-mannered instructor would be prone to fly off the handle in that situation.

From what I’ve witnessed up to now, the most common method (though not the only one) to achieve the “proper pedagogic climate” is violence (implied or threatened in some cases, but without reaching the point of the actual physical violence).

This situation is not anyone’s fault.  It’s generated by the educational structure itself, while this structure is in turn derived from everything occurring in this country.

It’s not easy to prevent violence.  Even me, someone who is aware and conscious, I attempt to avoid it, but its inner dynamics will often drag me along kicking.

It’s been less than a month since I started at Mantilla, and I already have enough stories to write a couple books.  I hope to continue sharing them in Havana Times, at least until they “find me out”…

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Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

Erasmo Calzadilla has 408 posts and counting. See all posts by Erasmo Calzadilla

2 thoughts on “Getting Out of a Jam

  • My hope, Erasmo, is that some day your students will “Stand and Deliver!” As a child and adolescent, my relationship with math was poisoned, both by fear and by mediocre (and sometimes malevolant) teachers, and only in middle age did I begin to overcome this fear. I know your students will be in good hands for, like Socrates, you will “bring to birth” that which is already within them, within everyone, really, but within them more deeply covered over by the circumstances of poverty, lack of hope, lack of families who encourage them, or even have the emotional, intellectual, or economic resources to provide such encouragement. But they have you. That may be all that they have.

  • Erasmo, I am glad you found something.
    Math as you know is one of my favorite subjects I myself was a math teacher once when I was back in Cuba.
    Sad that you have to deal with such difficult conditions to teach.
    Math by itself is difficult to learn for some people and if you join to those difficulties having to also deal with violence then there is little that can be done in a classroom setting if students are more concern with other things like trying not to get into a fight.

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