Education in Today’s Cuba: Where Normal and Right Don’t Coincide

By Eileen Sosin Martinez  (Progreso Semanal)

HAVANA TIMES — Diana and Alejandro don’t know each other. She is already in university and he is starting 9th grade. Even though they have studied at different schools, in different towns, they share a common experience.

“My year was the fraud year,” claims Diana, as if she were talking about branding. It was 2014 when university entrance exams were leaked and the Math exam needed to be redone and History and Spanish exams were changed.

Your future is shuffled, gambled, won or not in those four hours. Diana reminds us that before the first bell went off, some students were already asking if they could hand in their exam. “I got an 88 and I wanted to die, but there were people, who have never studied in their lives, who got 90-something or 100 points.

This was the icing on the cake for her, the peak of an everyday phenomenon, “which wasn’t public, but everybody knew it happened.” And that’s where her story combines with Alejandro’s, three years later.

In the past and now, it is normal for school teachers to give one-on-one paid tutoring to their own students. Incidentally, it’s a practise that has been harshly criticized in national press.

Shameful scenarios

“I am shocked: a lot of students come here with limited knowledge, which is what they get from their teachers. Not everyone is well-taught,” Hilda, a retired teacher who gives private classes, tells me. “Why have they increased the number of after school classes? Because they give “half” classes, and then they give them “dense” exams.

High School student. Photo: Elio Delgado Valdes

According to Diana, tuition has almost become an excuse to create the relationship, of “gaining trust”, which then ensures you get good grades, an unspoken practice. “It’s not that you don’t need the extra study time, but the other part was more important,” she admits. Giving presents, offering lunch and snacks have also become a trend. Alejandro agrees on the fact that this happens with “tougher” subjects: Maths, Physics, Chemistry…

An open secret implies certain risks: “Some people know about this and don’t want to get involved, although they blackmail or put pressure on the teacher in some way or another,” Alejandro explains. For example, Diana specifies that “the ‘thickest’ boy in her class got a 100 once. I knew that I had got something wrong, but they had to have given me the highest mark. I didn’t say anything, but they had to give it to me, because how Frank Ernesto got a 100…. well, it was very very obvious.”

Of course this situation creates conflict, uneasy moments between students themselves. “After the results are given and the professor leaves the room, the class ‘explodes’,” Alejandro says: first they start off with insinuations about “there’s a cat locked up in here” or “there are people who paid for their grade here.” “You don’t have this one do you?” a boy said challengingly to another one, before an exam began in Diana’s classroom.

When there isn’t anything to do, Alejandro’s classmates act out these situations and imitate a student paying a teacher, or a teacher reminding the student not to miss the after school class. “It’s like to fill up our time. And everybody laughs because they know it’s true.”

Some anecdotes are more delicate. At Diana cousin’s pre-university (senior high school), teachers would charge 1 CUC for every written question. When exams came around, there might be prices depending on the grade you want to get.

“Teachers just don’t give classes,” Alejandro adds. They come and say: pull out your phones and put them away when somebody knocks on the door. Later, to make up this time, they “catch fire” in our free periods.”

In her classroom, a professor has come in the middle of an exam and read out all of the answers. “I normally finish quite quickly, although I revise my answers instinctively to check they are the same as what he said, and if there is something wrong then I correct it.” This scenario has an equal or even sadder version, if there could be one, when a teacher, always the same one, says: “take out your “cheatsheets”, I’ll tell you if anyone comes in.”

In spite of all of this, Alejandro points out that teachers are generally good. “In the after school classes, they make more of an effort to explain it to you than when they give the classes, you know?”

Another case: “You wrote something in the exam,” Diana tells me, “it’s not a problem: you do it again alone with the teacher afterwards. When there are complaints, if the head of the school comes in, well they show the clean exam, in your handwriting, but with what the teacher told you to write.”

Those who take part in this aren’t the majority

What drives a teacher to dirty their hands and character in this way? How can a student do away with their basic duty to study and pay, as if they were buying any old thing?

On the one hand, poor salaries and a lack of opportunities to exercise more than one profession; as well as the fact that the number of students who fail affect teacher evaluations. “Not everyone has it in them to give their all to students, to educate a generation,” Hilda the teacher argues. Because my salary can be poor, but I have to have principles.” Even though the problem seems to be widespread, those who take part in this aren’t the majority, she points out.

High School Students

Certain figures confirm just how thankless teachers’ work is. From the 2011-2012 to the 2016-2017 academic year, the country has lost 21,285 teachers, according to Cuba’s Annual Statistical Report in 2016. The indicator “Teaching staff in front of an educational class” reveals that there are 5063 less high school teachers and 6177 that aren’t in junior high schools, compared to six years ago.

“If somebody fails, their parents tell them off, they take their phone away, they ground them… and because nobody wants this, they just pay,” Diana argues. Not because they are thinking about their future or moving up the ladder; they do it as a habit. Do you think this will be useful to those who have paid?”

If we had to deal out the blame, we would also have to give families their fair share.

Diana is 21 years old and Alejandro is 14. After walking down a twisted path with a lot of traps and fake shortcuts, it seems hard to talk to them about values, dedication and efforts as being ways to come out on top. No matter how good they are as students, there is also the doubt about what their results would have been under honest conditions.

At university, the Calculus teacher, insulted, told me how two first-year students made her the “indecent proposal”. “They had just arrived, imagine that, and they assume things “work” the same way they did in their preuniversity courses.

Alejandro summarizes the situation with a wisdom that exceeds his years: “I know that it isn’t right… but it’s normal.”

These stories smear a well-deserved reputation: Cuban teachers, like doctors, are real heroes. Behind every success in this country is the good education that the Cuban people have received. If corruption, this disease – which was an apt term used by the 5 de Septiembre newspaper recently- has even reached our classrooms, it’s because it is rife in other social environments, because it is infectious by nature.

In accordance with this education – one of the foundations of this national project – “normal” and “right” should strictly mean the same thing.

One thought on “Education in Today’s Cuba: Where Normal and Right Don’t Coincide

  • This post is near and dear to me. My sister-in-law is a teacher in Guantanamo. She receives a monthly care package from my wife and I to survive. Her monthly salary of 700 cup (about $25 usd) wouldn’t last a week. Unlike other professionals who work for the Castro dictatorship, most teachers have no other means to “resolve” their economic problems. The classroom offers them nothing to steal for resell on the black market. This is nothing new. It has been going on for at least 30 years. Certainly since the Special Period.

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