Shortages and economic hardships have reduced the possibility of giving teachers the accustomed gifts
HAVANA TIMES – He is 15 years old and in a few days he will begin a seven-month course to train as a chemistry teacher, a job that will take him back to junior high school, from where he has just graduated. This time he will be in front of a classroom. Gabriel is one of the many teachers trained at full speed to try to stop the exodus of professionals from Cuban schools, but his vocation is minimal and his knowledge is scarce.
On December 22, when Teacher’s Day is celebrated on the Island, the tradition is to treat those who teach from the simplest letters of the alphabet to the most complicated mathematical formulas with gifts. However, the economic crisis and shortages have cut back those presents this year. “My children are going to take a packet of detergent and that’s it,” a mother of two primary school children told me this Wednesday.
Where before flowers, glass vases, perfumes or liquors abounded, now more urgent products appear: laundry soaps, tubes of toothpaste, chicken-flavored bouillon cubes and, from the hands of the families with the greatest purchasing power, a teacher might get a package of sausages or turkey mincemeat. “There are people whose relatives in Miami have sent their gifts ahead of time, but I don’t have anyone abroad,” says another neighbor with twins in high school.
Other students have the problem of not knowing who to give their present to. “My son barely had classes last year and this one is going the same way,” says Yantiel, a 38-year-old from Havana who has seen at least three young teachers pass through her little boy’s classroom without any of them lasting more than a few weeks. “The first one got sick with dengue fever and did not return to work after that. The other was a very young woman who left Cuba via Nicaragua and the last one was sanctioned for so many absences.”
Although the global figure for the teacher deficit rarely appears in the official media. In the province of Ciego de Ávila alone, 575 teachers were missing last September, according to the local press. These absences are not only due to teachers’ low salaries but also to the immense job responsibilities causing them to drop out en masse and pursue more economically advantageous occupations. The lack of a vocation also hits a sector where too many experiments have been carried out.
The “fast-track teachers” that began to be trained at the beginning of this century have been followed by all kinds of pedagogical projects to shorten the training and graduation times for teachers. The urgency to have a full teaching staff has been accompanied by more and more promotions of pedagogues with serious gaps in knowledge and a weak capacity to transmit ethical or moral values.
“The only thing one of my son’s teachers knew how to do well was use the remote control of the classroom television,” Yantiel commented ironically. But even that clumsy teacher is now remembered with nostalgia by more than twenty students who spend their days “drawing, sitting around in the area where the morning assemblies are held, or playing with mobile phones because they don’t have anyone to teach them the subjects,” he stresses.
Among those who have left the classroom, the reasons are not only low wages and the high cost of living. “I had to fill out a lot of paperwork and between meetings, reports on the situation of my students’ families, and all the political activities, I was losing a lot of the time I should have used to prepare my classes,” says Indira, a Cienfuegos graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Literature who, after three years as a primary school teacher, crossed the Darien jungle and now lives in Miami.
“I really liked teaching but I was losing the desire along the way,” she admits. “When I had everything ready to leave the country, I went to see the school principal and told her that I was leaving. She told me that in less than a month three teachers had told her the same thing.” Indira dreams of one day going back to being in front of a classroom, but she sees it as unlikely. “I stay in a WhatsApp group with the colleagues I left behind in Cuba.”
This Thursday, in the classroom where Indira taught her Spanish classes at a school in the Plaza de la Revolución municipality, some parents organized a small party to entertain the teaching assistant who has tried to replace the work of the teacher who emigrated. “They called me by videoconference and I greeted my students,” said Indira. At the teacher’s table, Indira saw some of the gifts they brought: “Floor rags and soap.”
Translated by Translating Cuba