Appreciation renewed for teachers who face hardship

November 30, 2003|by JoEllen Barnhart

In this time of thanksgiving, taking a moment to pause and recognize the blessings of our bounty can easily get lost in the midst of the official start of the biggest holiday shopping season of the year. A colleague recently shared her experience in a community in Panama, where she observed the educational environment.

Although her mission was to instruct teachers on an educational philosophy course, she returned to the United States having been the student. Her impressions reminded me to pause and give thanks for the richness we ascribe to and take for granted in America.

When you teach, you learn.

Marge Tye Zuba, an adjunct faculty member of DePaul University, Northern Illinois University, Capella University and Framingham State University, shares her story in her words:

While in David, Panama, I had the chance to visit a public high school and elementary school. As I approached the high school of David, I observed about 20 high school students with brooms in their hands. I remember thinking it would take years and years to wear down a broom in my kitchen to such few straw-like bristles. These students were sweeping everywhere ... the halls (which are open walkways), offices and even in the classrooms, and they were sweeping during instructional time.


"Why?" I asked. "Why are these students sweeping?"

"They are being punished," I was told.

I approached one of these students, a young girl about 15 years old, and asked, in Spanish, "Why are you sweeping?"

"Because I wore lipstick!" she replied in Spanish.

There were 800 students in the high school of David. Due to overcrowding, the students attend classes in split shifts. I remarked on the large number of students. Thirty-five students are considered far too many for one classroom by American pedagogical standards.

But in David, Panama, this class was small. Most classes in David contained 40 to 50 students. Students sat in long rows, and the teacher's desk was positioned squarely in the front of the room. The rooms were open air with ceiling fans, although none of them worked.

During my tour, I entered a room with four tables. Each table had four chairs. My escort stopped. When I asked where the library was, she said, "You're in it." And so I was. There were no books or shelves in this 9-by-12 room. When I asked about books, my escort opened an inner door to a small closet where I saw three shelves holding very old and tattered textbooks. Students were permitted to check out one of these old texts only if a teacher allotted them a pass.

There were three girls sitting in the library. When I asked what they were doing, I was told they too were there as "punishment."

There was no grass and a lot of debris scattered around the rooms. Chipped paint served as wall dcor.

I met the principal, or director, as he was called. The director rarely leaves his large office where he has one chair on the other side of his desk for those he chooses to enter his quarters. This "acting director" was assigned to this high school six years ago and only named full-time, permanent director last month. His credentials are suspect. Like all other "directors" of schools throughout the country of Panama, he was appointed by the minister of education, who rarely, if ever, visits the schools. The director may retain his position as long as he wants to stay there.

And yet, amidst these challenging conditions, there are small groups of passionate educators who have taken it upon themselves to develop their skills and share new ways of teaching with colleagues. They are working to create and carve a new future for the students in Panama. There are many risk-takers who are committed to making a difference in the schools. These educational revolutionaries factor in a democratic practice of giving those on the margin a voice.

In spite of the lack of textbooks and overcrowded, steamy classrooms, I saw gifts of intelligence being recognized and shared by colleagues. I witnessed teachers creating a philosophy of education based on the belief that all children can learn. It was a joy to be with strong adults who love their country and feel they have something special to contribute. I was there to teach these teachers. But in the end, they taught me.

JoEllen Barnhart is the assistant director for Frostburg State University Hagerstown Center. She lives with her family in Hagerstown.

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