After 5 weeks in Ibarra, I’m getting settled into my school and my responsibilities as an Ecuadorian Teacher.  This post is long, but informative.  Read on if you’re interested in learning about the fascinating realities of the Ecuadorian School System!

Teodoro Gomez de La Torre is a well-respected, historic K-12 public school in Ibarra named after a local war hero, politician and philanthropist.  Because it currently has over 4,300 students, the school day occurs in two shifts. The K-5 grades, plus the 10th-12th graders, start school at 7:00 am. (muy temprano!)  Students sit in the same class together, through seven 40-minute periods with a 20- minute snack and recreation break in the middle of the morning.  During the break, younger students are given some milk and crackers or they bring their own food.  Older kids hang through the bars surrounding the entrance to buy pizza, french fries, or fried chicken from the vendors who congregate on the sidewalk around the school.  At 1:00 pm, their school day is finished.  The students leave the school grounds and are expected to head home for lunch with their family.  The teachers don’t stick around either, punching out at exactly 1:00 to continue their day.  Staying after to plan or prepare the next day’s lesson is not part of the culture here for two reasons.  First, it’s time for lunch and this is the very important, not to be missed, large meal of the day.  Secondly, from 1:00 pm – 6:00pm the 6 – 9 th graders fill the classrooms, and a whole new group of teachers take over the classes and offices for the afternoon.  For many teachers, there’s really no place to sit and plan when they’re not in class.  During the afternoon, older students may also return to school to attend practices for sports, band, or after school clubs.

The school is divided into several different buildings separated by
large playing fields or concrete patios.

Volcan Imbabura takes center stage above the school. 
Volcan Cotacachi looms over the sports fields.
On clear days, snowcapped Volcan Cayambe is a rare and special sight in the distance 
above the swimming pool and basketball courts.  

The teachers and kids are great at my K-12 school.  But the system and teaching practices are very different than what I’ve worked in, or the way I’ve been trained.  I’m learning to roll with whatever happens.  Here are some excerpts of some daily school happenings….

Monday mornings are often spent in formation at an outdoor stand-up assembly.  This time is used to honor guests, promote student accomplishments (i.e. winners of a basketball tournament), recognize important events (a moment of silence was given for the fallen Ecuadorian journalists kidnapped in Columbia), and promote important character traits.  After a few minutes of listening to all of this, the real reason for gathering became apparent: to sing patriotic Ecuadorian songs and to make long speeches of gratitude which always starts with about 4 minutes of thanking the director, the administration, the support staff, the teachers and the students.  Greetings and appreciations are very important in Ecuadorian culture.

The Military made a showing at this assembly
Stray dogs wander everywhere throughout the school yard and this one was 
hanging around for the announcements.

The Life of a Teacher:
As I’ve explained in a previous post, students are assigned a class for the entire year and the teachers rotate from class to class throughout the day.  The positives to this system are that a class of students become a very tight community.  Also, by eliminating the need for passing periods, the school day can be shorter.  On the other hand, teachers have to carry their stuff from room to room, and aren’t allowed to hang posters on the wall, because it’s not their classroom.  It’s also not their seating chart.  So, it really ends up feeling like the teachers are guests in the classrooms.  You can imagine what this does for a teachers’ ability to discipline the students.  

From what I understand, teachers do not receive a course in Classroom Management during their teacher training.  In this “Didactic System”, teachers are supposed to lecture and students are supposed to sit quietly, listen and take notes.  The reality is that students do not always act as expected (as we know in the United States) and many teachers struggle to establish routines and behavior expectations in the short 40-80 minute classes.  That’s where I come in.

In Ecuador, there isn’t pressure to teach from bell-to-bell.  Sometimes classes start 10 minutes late, and quit as much as 10-15 minutes early.  I’ve seen some teachers send students off of school grounds (usually across the street) to get copies made while the rest of the class waits 10-15 minutes for their return.  I’ve also seen examples of the teacher never showing up to class (possibly for good reasons).  But there is no system of substitutes.  So, students just stay in their classroom and hang out for the hour or complete other homework or projects.  Ecuadorians are generally relaxed and easy-going and students have learned to 
be very responsible and self-managed.  

Teachers are not well paid in Ecuador.  Because they only work a 5-6 hour day, many of them have second jobs as Vice Principals, bus drivers, or business owners on the side.  Many also attend university classes in order to obtain higher degrees, improve their pay and their seniority status.

Teachers always have to be flexible.  Somedays, classes happen.  Somedays, there’s no classes at all.  One week, there were teacher meetings, National Reading Day, a basketball tournament and Teacher Appreciation Day celebrations (think flowers, cake and Mariachi Bands).  All good reasons to cancel classes for the entire day!  And the teachers rarely know that classes have been cancelled until they show up at the door and the room is empty.  It’s the Dean of students (called the Inspector) who decides and tells the students to go home.  

Teachers have very little say in where or what they teach.  The Ministry of Education actually decides who is going to teach at what school.  The Director, or Principal, has no choice in the staff who get assigned to their school.  Changes in staffing can happen frequently, and teachers find out in August where they are assigned.  Unions do not exist in Ecuadorian schools.  There are no sick days, medical leave days or days teacher’s can use for personal needs.  I know one teacher who asked for a special vacation week with her family, and when she returned, she was demoted and reassigned to another school. 

Teachers teach for a 6-week period and collect grades throughout based on homework, and in class presentations.  There is a tremendous amount of importance placed on homework and students at all grade levels are expected to spend hours copying, writing, memorizing, and learning at home each day.  Students often need to research an assigned topic, print information from the Internet, and glue it into their notebook to study.  Cute little flip books, brochures, or charts to exemplify grammatical rules or vocabulary words are common homework activities.  Ecuadorian students are master artists!  Group projects and presentations created entirely out of class are also frequent.  When the term is finished, students then take summative vocabulary and grammar tests.  Some teachers expect these tests to be completed independently.  Other teachers place a high value in sharing and learning together.  In this case, tests are answered socially, and the teacher might help provide the answers too.  The benefits of this is that the high grades make the students look good, the teacher look good, and students learn that the purpose and work of the sum, is greater than the individual parts.  This socialistic attitude is noticeable on many levels in Ecuadorian society.

Another example of this is when class is interrupted by a person begging for money.  Perhaps their child is sick, or there has been an accident.  The school gives individuals permission to go from class to class and ask for help.  The students all reach into their pockets and collect a handful of coins.  Ecuadorians are so kind and caring for each other. 

Reading in Ecuador:

I have yet to see a fiction story book in a classroom.  Reading for fun at home or at school is not a part of the Ecuadorian culture.  It is difficult to find a bookstore, and the books that they do have are expensive.  Students learn how to read with a consumable workbook for each subject throughout the day.  Yet, Ecuador’s adult literacy rate is 94.5%.  A very impressive percentage for a country that generally doesn’t read outside of school!

That said, there is an effort by the Ministry of Education to promote reading and last week we celebrated National Reading Day.  So, classes shut down for performances throughout the school.

Like all Elementary Teachers around the world, this one had a very creative idea for helping students perform in front of their parents.  This teacher had students act out a play based on a story they must have read in class.  They even had costumes!  So cute!
This class performed a song about the vowels.
I never did see the A or the U so I’m not sure what it was all about.
This group of students colored pictures to go along with a narrated story. 
This class performed a traditional dance.  I’m not sure what it had to do with reading, but since Ecuadorians love their Mariachi Bands and traditional dances, they are a must at every celebration. 
This teacher was showing off his young students’ ability to read.
Older students drew or printed pictures and inspirational messages off of the Internet
to promote why reading is important. 
And… this is the problem with Google Translator!
I think these boys were supposed to be hanging the posters outside their classroom.  Like I said, all classes were cancelled to celebrate, but this is how some of the older students were celebrating. 
During the day, I wandered into the auditorium and found a talent show featuring several students and their musical and dancing abilities.  I get the idea that many students study music on their own from the Internet since they have so much free time out of school.  I don’t know what this concert had to do with National Reading Day, but it was a great showcase of their 
other interests and they sounded great!
Teaching Without Resources:
Public schools in Ecuador provide no teaching resources.  There is no whiteboard markers, erasers, tape, pens, pencils, scissors, staples or paperclips.  There is no paper – no copy paper, no colored paper, no construction paper, no poster paper of any kind.  There is no printers or copy machines.  And of course, there is no laminator.  If a teacher needs any supplies, they have to go to an office supply store to buy the materials, or ask the students to go buy their own.  If a teacher needs copies, they tell the class president to collect the money, take the master to make the copies at the office supply store (across the street), and distribute the pages in class.  There is no projector, TV or computer to project an image in front of the class.  I can’t tell you how much time it takes to copy a page of information, or questions, onto the whiteboard in order to discuss it with the whole group.  I am learning how to get creative with only a whiteboard.  

And while we’re on the subject of learning to live without resources, I’m also learning to carry my own toilet paper and soap because this isn’t provided in the teachers’ bathrooms either.

My Job:
I work with 6 of the 15 English teachers at our school.  Another volunteer works with the rest.  This term, I teach second grade, sophomores, juniors and seniors, including students in the International Baccalaureate Program.  My job is to help the students, but also improve the teaching abilities of the teachers.  My goal is to help them set learning targets, design engaging lessons to improve classroom management, and integrate reading, writing, listening and especially speaking into their daily routines.  Moreover, I hope to help them understand that language isn’t a subject just to be taught, but a skill that needs to be practiced.  I of course live this everyday, with my own difficulty of mastering Spanish. 

Ecuador does not have any system of teacher evaluation.  So teachers are not used to having anyone observe their classroom, give them feedback, or help them reflect on their lessons.  For many, this is a new and scary activity.  Therefore, the way I see it, a big part of my job is to be a positive support system for their professional growth. 

To start down this team-building road, in my first days on the job, I had all the teachers create a Pathway to Teaching.  This is a map or graphic to show how they came about their career.  There’s 15 teachers in our English Department who teach all grades 2-12, and of course, they came to teaching for a variety of reasons.  Many of them explained that they had never thought about being a teacher when they were young.  They originally went to the University to study other subjects such as law or to be a secretary.  One planned to be a flight attendant, another a painter, another a dancer.  But, as they explained, the University often had limited options of what they could study, or reality set in and they needed a job.  Some were already married with kids on the way.  So, since they knew English, and English teachers are needed throughout the country, it seemed to make sense to become a teacher.  Now, many of them talked about their love for teaching, their love for learning and speaking more English, and their love for their students.  It was an honor to have them open up and share their personal stories.  Teaching is not an easy profession on any continent.  It’s important that we take time to remember why we came to it, and to support each other along our journeys.

Our Pathways to Teaching
Kendall and I, and our English Teachers!