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October 21, 2008 School Challenges

I’ve been in the mdrasa (elementary school) for several visits now, and have learned a ton. One of my most compelling conclusions is that rural Morocco and urban America have more in common than you might at first guess. The teachers here in Berberville have several of the same challenges I did as a Teach For America teacher in inner-city Houston:

* Virtually nonexistent climate control. My classroom actually had a HVAC unit, but it rarely worked, and when it did function, the fan was so loud that half the classroom couldn’t hear me. Here, there’s a wood-burning stove, but there’s no chimney for it, plus the PTA hasn’t yet provided any wood. That means that it was about 50° in there all day today. The windows were open, in hopes of inviting sun-warmed air, but all the breezes were cold ones.

* All supplementary education materials, i.e. useful wall decorations (think: Alphabet cards, pictures of the life cycle of a tree, pictures of the Presidents, art posters, you name it), books, chalkboard chalk, whiteboard markers, come out of the teacher’s pocket. And while I willingly dumped a few thousand dollars into my classroom, that’s not an option for most of the teachers here.

* Parents and teachers don’t speak the same language. Literally. In Houston, 98% of my students had Spanish-speaking parents, but very few teachers were conversational, let alone fluent, in Spanish. Here, the teachers are imported from urban areas, so they speak Darija and French, but no Berber…and none of the moms, as well as many of the dads, speak anything but Tamazight.

* The language barriers and parental illiteracy (in many, though not all, cases) mean that there is little home support for homework…which means that homework is almost never assigned. I fought this tendency in my students, and had a variety of incentive programs to encourage my kids to do their homework, but most of my fellow teachers never assigned homework, on the assumption that it would never be done.

* The language barriers mean that there is virtually no social contact between teachers and parents, leading to many mutual misunderstandings. In Houston, the secret I discovered was sports events; most of my kids’ parents didn’t come to the parent-teacher nights, but they came to soccer games. I haven’t found the secret here, nor do I know if there are cultural factors reinforcing the teacher-parent gulf. In Houston, the problem was exacerbated by geography – the teachers, as a rule, lived in wealthier parts of town than the families they served. Here in Berberville, everyone lives with a few blocks of each other…but geography plays a different role. Because the teachers are imported from distant cities, they tend to travel back to their families for holidays, which leads to:

* Vacation days and snow days have their own vicious cycles of non-attendance: teachers assume kids won’t attend school on the day before or after a vacation day…so they figure there’s no point in holding class…so they go ahead and take those days off, often using them to visit their far-distant families. Of course, once this pattern is established, then the “vacation” is defined as the official holiday plus whatever days the teacher has said, and the whole thing begins all over again. The result of this is that one-day holidays, like the Green March Day on November 5, can lead to an entire missed week of school.

…this begs the conclusion that American urban schools really are operating at a third-world (or at least second-world) level, just as some soapbox politicians claim. I’d kind of imagined that was hyperbole…

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Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps