I am very aware that the schools I went to growing up were not normal. I lived a life of luxury before I even knew it. Each one of the schools I attended had highly educated teachers, they were equipped with books and computers and pencils and paper, they were clean, and they were safe. At the time I thought everyone was having the same experiences as me in regards to my education. When I began volunteering in other schools in Michigan I realized that even in my home state there are many schools who don’t have technology, or proper books, and worry about funding for supplies. There are many students in Michigan, not even an hour from my state of the art high school, who have completely different educational experiences than my own. Yet, when I enter these classrooms I still know how to act because there are still aspects of these institutions that are similar to my own.
Now, I am working in a small school in Otavalo, Ecuador and there are more difference than similarities that I see between this school and the school I attended.
On my first day I arrived with a group of other teachers. My first sight was a large cement square with chipped paint and a one small gate where a man in jeans and an old t-shirt stood making sure only teacher and students were entering. In side of these four large cement walls were a grouping of small cement classroom and a chipped and cracked cement soccer field in the center with one metal goal at each end. That was it. I am not sure what I had expected for this school, but I can say what greeted me on my first day was not it.
There were 400 students between the age of 5 and 14 who were running around in their uniforms waiting for the teachers to enter the classrooms and start their days. The director took me to each classroom to present their new teacher to each of the students. 10th grade, one of the grades I would be teaching was first. I walked into an almost completely empty room. There were 30 students each with a bright blue desk caked in dirt, an empty teacher’s desk with cracks in it, one white board with no markers or erasers, and one filing cabinet in the back of the room. There are only windows for lights and the walls were painted white, but again caked in dirt. As I proceeded to the next ten or so classrooms I realized that the first room I was in was one of the newest and cleanest in the entire school. Only the classroom for children under 4th grade have any type of materials or decorations in them and every class I entered seemed to be a little dirtier.
The bathrooms are in a separate building and there is a communal sink for washing their hands outside. The school does not provide toilet paper or even soap for the student when they need to use the restrooms. At first I didn’t think there was any type of playground for the student expect the open cement area that the classes surround, but a kind teacher enlightened me and showed me their playground. It was one metal slide with a large hole at the bottom (that would ripe any clothing if a child were to slide down it) nestled into a 10 foot by 10 foot dirt area.
Finally I was lead out of a large cement walls and to the first grade class. It was the first time I had even seen any grass at the school. But as I walked through the grass I noticed it was covered in litter and papers and large cement chunks that had probably landed there when the classroom was build and had never been moved. Yet, there were children running around and playing. To say it was hazardous would be an understatement. I also learned that if you are older than 4th grade you are prohibited to enter this part of the school ground, meaning that 5th through 10th grade only have a cement soccer field and a rusty slide to use during recess.
I was shocked to say the least but I was determined to keep an open mind about the school, the teachers, and the systems they use. Gladly, I can say that in the few weeks that I have been at the school there have been incredible changes. There is now a new assistance director, we had a “clean the classrooms” day, and three separate classes are creating gardens behind their rooms. So much has happened in just a few weeks and I’m very interested to see how the school is going to grow in the next 3 months.