So last week I went to school with one of my gringa friends who is a teacher here in Bogotá. She is here through a program called World Teach, which is a program that places you in a country and you teach English at a school that would not normally have the funding for English teachers and they give you a small stipend to live on. If you know what Teach for America is, it is essentially TFA but in a foreign country.
The school she teaches at is in the far south of Bogotá, which is the area of the city at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Most classes are between 35-45 students, which is a lot for a teacher to handle. She teaches English to the fourth and fifth graders; they were all really sweet kids…although one did ask if I was my friend’s mother (we are the same age).
One of the most interesting things I found out about the school, and the way most schools in the south of Bogotá work, is that there are two school sessions per day—one from 6 am to noon, and the other from noon to 6 pm. That’s how they handle the huge number of students attending public schools; if not, classes could have up to 90 or 100 students in them, which would be next to impossible and would not facilitate learning. It seems to me to be a pretty good system for coping with the lack of space and teachers, although a major downside to this schedule is that some kids who walk to and from school either have to wake up insanely early or go home really late, and it’s not always safe.
An unusual event occurred while I was observing one of my friend’s classes. She was in the middle of teaching and a man walked in. The head teacher lined up the students in turns, whilst the lesson was still going on, and each student received a tiny plastic cup. The man squirted something into the cups, the children drank it, and then sat back down. I was perplexed and trying to figure out if it was medicine or what that they were receiving, and my friend explained that every once in a while on random occasions, the Ministry of Health sends people to public schools to give the kids iron and other nutritional supplements. I have no idea about the long-term effectiveness of this endeavor, but it seems like a great idea to me.
Another great thing I noticed while at the school was that the kids receive a healthy snack, generally consisting of a sandwich, some sort of fruit, and juice, provided by some division of the government. They are given such a snack every single day, and apparently it happens in most of the public schools here. It’s very important because many of the kids might not be eating a whole lot or eating that healthy at home.
As for the overall quality of the teaching and education in public schools, according to some public school teachers I have talked to, some teachers simply don’t teach and just pass the kids along because it’s just a paycheck to them and they are not held to any standards. I certainly do not want to bash Colombian public school teachers, and I’m sure there are plenty of excellent ones, but my friend told me how she has seen some teachers just sitting and reading to pass class time because there are no consequences for them. Most of the teachers have no incentive to discipline or try to teach their kids, which means the kids aren’t learning, and many don’t see the point of learning.
Most schools in this area of town are public, and there is a huge difference between public schools in Colombia and public schools in the States. In the States, most people go to public school, and there are many excellent public schools. In Colombia, however, if you want a really good education, you generally have to go to a private school. Many private schools here are bilingual—they teach most classes in English or sometimes German or French—but there are private Spanish-only schools as well. The majority of the population attends public schools, but sadly the education system is neither well-funded nor well-regulated, and therefore the education of the majority suffers. Here, private schools are businesses, so in order to get your money, they have higher standards; in order to be able to get a good education, you have to pay.
Colombia is by no means the only country that needs serious overhaul on education. Many schools, teachers, and students are suffering in the States as well. Recently in Colombia there have been protests nearly everyday concerning higher education and the government’s policies. It is clear to everyone that transformations need to be in the entire education system, from primary to university, and while nothing has happened yet, at least people are talking about and demanding changes from the government, so I am hopeful.