Friday, May 8, 2015

When Teachers Strike Back

Sorry for the long hiatus. I know that it has been a while since my last post, but I haven't had a computer for the last two weeks and haven't been able to access any of the computers at school. Why you may ask? Well, the country of Colombia has been experiencing a nationwide teacher strike. Let's just say that life with no school, no computer, and on days, no power, has been a struggle at times.

This strike, which officially started April 22nd, has been centered around five main issues: an increase in teacher pay, better health care benefits, the process by which teachers are evaluated, lowered educational costs for students, and the implementation of a new schedule called “jornada única.”

Currently, my school has three jornadas (schedules): a morning jornada, which lasts from 7 am until 12:20 pm (for kindergarten and grades 6-11), an afternoon jornada, which lasts from 1 pm until 5:20 pm (for grades 1-5), and a night jornada, which lasts from 6 pm until 9:20 pm (for adults who never received their high school diploma). The idea behind jornada única is to have only one jornada that would last from approximately 7:30 am until 3:30 pm for grades K-11. Essentially, this means that all students would be at school at the same time. This desired implementation presents some undesirable problems.

1. Infrastructure Issues – Many schools here in Colombia, mine included, are not designed to house the sheer number of students that make up grades K-11 at one time. My school currently has 12 classrooms and every one of these classes is in use during the morning jornada. Yes, classes could be combined to help free up extra rooms for the extra surplus of students that the lower grades would introduce to the school, but this in itself creates other problems. Class size would immediately double from a manageable 20-25 students to well over 45 bodies in one room. The lack of useable desks would cause students to have to sit on the floors and turn their laps into a working desk space. Also, the already stifling heat the envelopes these classrooms would be intensified with the the additional students.

2. Lunch – One of the reasons that that jornadas end and begin around the lunch hour is so that students can have lunch at their homes with their families. Lunch is easily the biggest and most important meal here on the coast. Complete with soup, rice, meat, and some sort of salad, this meal constitutes a vast majority of the caloric intake for all Colombians. The lunches that most schools would be able to serve would pale in comparison with the normal standard lunch served in Colombian homes. Besides smaller, inadequate portions, the lack of school cafeterias would force many students to eat in their classrooms. This would possibly lead to issues with trash, which is already an issue that the coast struggles with.

3. Lack of Resources -  Outside of an insufficient amount of useable desks for students to use, other resources, such as textbooks and available space, among others, are other challenges that are facing students and staff alike if a switch to jornada única were to occur nationwide.

4. Staffing – One interesting (and slightly disturbing) aspect regarding the Colombian educational system (at least here in the coast) is the non-existence of a substitute teaching system. If a teacher is sick, has a doctor’s appointment, or just doesn't show up to school, there is no one lined up to step in and take over these classes. This basically means that students attain a free period in which they are free to roam the school grounds, distract other students in class, and pretty much do as they please.

Another issue that my school has been facing is the reassignment of teachers to other schools. A couple of weeks before the strike started, we lost two teachers to other schools in different communities. Our local Secretary of Education decided to move our only math teacher to Rotinet (a small community about 10 minutes away where my friend Jessi teaches) and one of our Social Studies teachers to Suán (where my friend Jordan teaches). I have no idea what prompted these moves, but it has crippled our school. There were no teachers ready to take over these now vacant positions, causing students to inherit even more free periods. Luckily, s new math teacher was hired before the strike ensued, but in order to cover the Social Studies classes, other teachers (my counterpart included) are having to cover these open classes, which is a issue in itself.

In the grand scheme of things, many teachers are not opposed to the idea of jornada única. The main issue that they have with the proposed changes is the fact that the schools are not structurally ready to accommodate the demands that will be caused by the increased number of students. Without financial support from the government, these ideas of how to create a better and stronger Colombian educational system could end up doing more harm than good.

After weeks of tense negotiations, demonstrations, and signed petitions, the strike was finally lifted yesterday (May 7th). All normal activities are set to resume on Monday (May 11th). Whether or not any true changes will come about is still yet to be determined.