HAVANA TIMES, July 3 — In the first years of the Cuban Revolution, many young people went into the field of education because the society needed it. This was a period in which people felt pride in sacrificing their own interests to confront the problems that the country was facing.
They were guided by the slogan: “The duty of a person is to be where they are the most useful.” Nonetheless, the problem of education has remained throughout the years and emergency solutions have been recurrent.
In the 1990s, during the “Special Period” economic crisis, an attempt was made to stimulate the interest of students who had finished their pre-university high school studies into going into pedagogy. The country again faced a shortage of teachers, but this new generation did not feel such an impulse to sacrifice themselves for society.
Education is an area in which one could not “hustle”; there was nothing to sell and the salaries of the teachers were low. In any case, there appeared a way of motivating students to opt for this career.
The minimum required academic score for admission into education was decreased to 60 points (on a 100 best scale); those who didn’t pass the entrance exams and were about to be left without a university option were offered a chance to study education as an alternative.
Some still believed in the notion of “studying to become someone in life,” therefore they wanted to earn a university degree at any cost.
In 1999 there was a wage increase in the field of education to try to stem the exodus of teachers. It was not enough. Nor were threats of invalidating the degrees of the recent graduates successful in getting them to go into teaching and fulfill this social service need.
Around ten years ago, with the problem of the shortage of teachers in the classroom, there appeared another set of emergency solutions: the Fast Track Teachers for elementary schools and the Integral General Teachers (PGI) program for teaching several subjects at junior high school.
Many parents and experienced teachers believe that these have not panned out, while others think these programs have only generated new problems. Regarding this situation, I spoke with Yudith, a young person who was involved in these programs, initially as a PGI and later as a “fast track teacher” in an elementary school.
First, please explain to me what these programs consist of exactly.
Well, a person studies education for three years at the pre-university senior high school level and then for five years at the university for a degree; those five years are also spent teaching in a secondary school as part of the student’s social service obligation.
So it’s not like in my time, when social service was performed following graduation?
No, now it’s done while you study.
And what is the difference between the normal pre-university high school and pedagogic pre-university?
In the “normal pre” you study the subjects of 10th, 11th and 12th grades, and you’re involved in agricultural activities in the countryside; in the “pedagogic pre” you study the same subjects as the normal pre, in addition to secondary education courses; that’s where you teach classes, and also study psychology, pedagogy, forms of class planning, methodology, etc.
In what year and why did you get involved in the PGI program? Did you want to be a teacher?
It was in 2003. I had wanted to study to be a marine exploration technician, but that was offered only at one school and there were many people trying to get in; that’s why I changed my mind. What was left was industrial chemistry and the pre-Teacher Training School to become an Integral General Teacher, and I decided on education.
But later you gave that up. Why?
When I began to work, there was a need for teachers at a certain junior high school. Twenty women were chosen to cover the classrooms.
What requirements did these twenty women have to meet?
First they had to be female so that military service didn’t affect them, and then they had to be the top students.
So you were one of the best students in the school.
Yes, so I was hoping they would place me in a pre-university that had laboratories and all the proper working conditions. But it was necessary to send me to that high school. This was in May, and they told me that this would be until the school year finished. They said that later they would place me in whatever high school I wanted. But when the next school year began, they left me in the same place, which ended up being my assigned site until I graduated.
Why didn’t you like that school?
It was located in a very “hot” area. The mothers of the students were very crude and apathetic. They said that their children weren’t going to learn with us, but in fact I understood them. Previously, teachers were more respected for their training and experience; but we were still just learning our profession. In the end, the ones who were hurt were the students.
You felt that you weren’t very well prepared?
I realized that when I was up in front of the students.
What are you referring to when you say you weren’t very well prepared, do you mean the content or the methodological aspect? When I was in high school, there were people who studied with me who knew English well, but it was difficult for them to convey their knowledge to a class. Similarly, there were others who mastered the methodological part of teaching but still had a lot of problems with the language itself. What happened in your case?
I felt comfortable with the methodological part because I had been trained in how to give a class, but I wasn’t well instructed in the content and I made lots of mistakes. That also happened to experienced teachers who had spent years teaching one particular subject and were then made to teach several subjects. That didn’t happen with subjects like English, computers or physical education, but it did with classes like Spanish, history, mathematics and the natural sciences.
Then you transferred to an elementary school.
Yes, in elementary school there had always been just one teacher for each classroom of students, since the subjects are simpler than in secondary school, and the younger teachers also have a tutor. In secondary school, a single PGI teacher has to teach all of the subjects in a classroom of 15 students; and if there are 30 students, the subjects are shared between two PGIs, as well as a tutor for more general topics. In the school where I was assigned, there was a grade leader. There was also a grade leader for the 7th, 8th and 9th grades.
Wait a minute. When you say that there were one or two PGIs per classroom, depending on the number of students, do you mean that there is no experienced teacher?
Well, the tutor is…
Yes, but I know that in other schools the classrooms have two PGI students like you, in addition to an experienced teacher.
Yes, but when I began it was like I said, at least at that school, because there weren’t enough teachers.
What was your experience at the elementary school?
It was better because they placed more trust in me. That was something that I hadn’t felt in secondary school, where they didn’t allow us to develop ourselves, to take initiative. The director of the elementary school, when she presented me to the parents in a meeting, she said I was very young, but that I had good experience. She did that so that the parents would trust me. That’s one thing I can’t complain about; I received a lot of support.
So why did you leave? Didn’t you like teaching classes?
Yes, but an unpleasant situation occurred. A girl came to class without her neckerchief, so I told her to go home and have her mother put one on her, since she lived next door to the school. The girl is very sensitive and she ran out crying. Her grandmother thought that I had mistreated her granddaughter and barged into the school ready to pitch holy hell. I listened to her quietly and later I spoke with the mother. I asked the girl in front of them if I had mistreated her, and she said no. So it was all cleared up.
And if everything was cleared up, why did you leave?
It was at that moment that I realized that neither Cuba nor any other country valued education, nor is value given to the work done by teachers or anything else. The great majority of the teachers are women, and when they get home they have to “invent” what their family is going to have for a meal. Education doesn’t even give them a bag [with extra basic food items or toiletries] or a hard currency “stimulus” [typically around $10-20 monthly at some jobs].
In other workplaces a stimulus is given to workers. But for us, the sole stimulus we received was at the end of the year, according to our evaluation. If you get an assessment of “very good,” they gave you 150 pesos [about $7.50 USD] on top of your regular wage. Likewise, if you end up with an evaluation of “good,” you get a hundred pesos.
Another thing that I wanted was to go to the university, but no one cared about my upgrading. Since I had begun working at the elementary school in January, it was too late to enroll at the university; however they told me they would let me know when I could register for the following course, but no one ever did.
I also got sick. I became anemic and had kidney problems because the food at the school was so bad. I hardly ate, plus I couldn’t drink the water. Later, I was successfully operated on to improve my eyesight. From time to time I’ll run into someone from the school and they’ll ask me to come back since there’s a shortage of teachers… I’ll tell them I will, that I’ll go back, but I’m not crazy. I feel bad for the students, because a change in teachers always affects them, but if I returned I’d be wasting more on time of what I’ve already wasted.
Why do you feel you’ve wasted time?
Because I spent three years studying something that only I used for a year, and in the end I wasn’t even that well prepared. I believe I would have been more useful in another sphere other than education. I tried to contribute and I did as long as I could, but I lacked a number of things.
You know that many people around here tell unpleasant histories about things that have happened with PGIs in schools, serious things in fact. During the short time you worked in education, were you witness to any of those situations?
Not really. Though the case of the guy who threw a chair at a student and killed him happened when I was a teacher, it wasn’t in my school. In the elementary school where I worked there was an experienced teacher who used to pull the ears of some students and things like that, but it was not seen as physical abuse. I didn’t like it, but no parent ever complained.
I don’t understand. A while ago you told me that the grandmother of a girl was ready to create a scandal because you sent the child home to look for her neckerchief.
But that was different; I was a young teacher with no experience. You can’t compare me to that other teacher who had spent years teaching. Many of the mothers and parents of those children had also been her students. They had a certain level of respect for her…understand? With me it was different.
How long has it been since you’ve left the field of education?
In October it will be three years.
And what have you done since then?
I went a year without doing anything because I had to wait for my official release from education. Another wasted year. But later I studied English and computers at the San Juan de Letrand Church. I also began studying graphic design, but I had to quit because I don’t have computer.
Have you tried to work?
Frankly, no. Though I did want to work in Immigration and Foreign Affairs, but when I got there, they had a sign posted that said they were not hiring nurses or nursing students, or people from the Integral General Teachers program.
What are your plans now?
I want to start in an English course at Letrand that’s very good, but it’s selective; you have to have been going to seminars for a year, like I’ve been doing. But after that they make the selections for the course. There are a lot of people and only a few slots. If I’m not able to get in, the Lincoln school is an option that is also available, but I would need a letter from my workplace. I’m also trying to find a job.
You no longer want to study at the university?
Yes, but what I would like to study is oceanography, not something else, because I don’t want to waste more time. I want to find out from the University of Havana if I can take the entrance exam, though people say that it’s very difficult to get into their program.
Yudith, after having been a PGI and elementary teacher, what do you have to say about this program of Fast Track Teachers and Integral General Teachers?
I believe that the intention was good, but it didn’t work. Though many of the teachers that taught us had their Masters and Doctorate degrees, and while they tried to train us the best they could, it just didn’t work. There were too many subjects, too much content in addition to the content of the pre-university coursework, pedagogy and psychology. There was very little time to plan classes and to prepare the content well. Although we were some of the best students and honors student, the classes that we taught weren’t of the quality that the students and parents deserved, and that quality —at least to me— is what I would have liked to have given.