My Perspective On Education: From an American Teaching in the Dominican Republic

This is a guest post written by Melanie de Alcequiez. She is an academic director at a school in the Dominican Republic. For more information on this series and submitting your own perspective on education post, click here.

when i made a decision to come to the dominican republic, i had no clue what to expect. my spanish was decent, i liked rice and beans and… i was feeling pretty adventurous. i signed on for a teaching gig at a school in the episcopal diocese and hopped on a plane.

i didn’t study education. i took a crash course in teaching english as a foreign language where i was taught how to use pictures that i printed from a computer and photocopied, educational toys and manipulatives and other very nice things. i couldn’t draw, i couldn’t even write nicely on a chalkboard.

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{preschool class}

the school gave me a few days to get settled in – and then i was off running. teaching 3 year olds through seventh graders none of whom had ever had a language before. not one single free hour, and not one single novel educational toy or manipulative. i learned how to write on the board and draw fruit – and that i had to invest my own money or my hand would fall off from copying worksheets by hand. the administration didn’t seem to see a problem with smashing forty kids into a classroom meant for thirty, as long as they paid. most of the students didn’t have books – they cost too much – or the basic school supplies, like crayons or pencil sharpeners. if a parent complained about a grade, i was expected to change it. after all, we’re dealing with clients here, and the client is always right. the other teachers didn’t seem to mind that their students, due to the lack of text books, had to spend hours copying from the board each day – because they’d use the time to paint their fingernails. no lie. (i have a coworker who did some case studies in a public school and had a teacher who clipped her toenails during class!)

i no longer work for that school – i haven’t since my first year here. it took jobs in a few different schools and immersing myself in every book, article and youtube video i could find, along with stealing chairs in any seminar, workshop or college class that would have me – for me to realize that education here is, at best, mediocre. it’s a money issue, sure, but it’s also an attitude issue. i don’t live in a country that values educated citizens and the school system – public and private reflects that.

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{A teacher training activity with Biblioteca Comunitaria Dr. William House}

two years ago i was ask to sit on the board of directors of an educational foundation run by some korean friends. we’d known each other for three years, and i figured it was worth a try. the foundation had three schools, two for haitian children and one for dominican children. i was excited – i would finally be working with people who had similar beliefs about education and i was sure, so sure, that we wouldn’t have any of the problems that i had in other schools. so naïve. i thought that it was a matter of buying quality supplies, kind words and some gentle leading. ha.

in august, i signed on full time as the principal of our dominican school. the school had grown pretty quickly and the community needed something more formal than the pre-school we’d originally started. the average income for a two-parent household is about $200 USD, which means the option for most is public school. however, in our greater “municipality” there are five public elementary schools – and every single one is packed to the brim and overflowing. while the ministry of education limits elementary class sizes to 45 students, these schools easily have 60 in each “section.” SIXTY seven year olds with one teacher, can you imagine? and of the sixty students, maybe there are enough text books for forty, so they share. and if mom and dad didn’t have money for enough notebooks, it’s possible that a brother in sixth grade has to share his notebook with his sister in fourth grade. figure that one out.

the overcrowding doesn’t resolve the problem as there are nearly 8,000 school aged students not enrolled in school. at all. we’re not talking about the entire city of Santiago. we’re talking about one section of the city. 8,000 kids sitting in their houses every day because there isn’t a desk for them. the country is working hard to resolve the problem. they are building four new elementary schools in the “municipality” that should be ready to open their doors in august. even still, they will have capacity for just 2,500 students.

in that environment, how hard could it be to “beat” the public school at education? it’d be easy. lower the class limit to twenty-five, find some teachers who studied education in the uni, and fly. right?

i’m tired. it’s not easy, we’re not dealing with teachers who have been trained to be teachers like most americans know. we’re dealing with people who have been trained in crowd-control and basic life skills. in fact, the “illiteracy rate” in the DR is 20%, but the FUNCTIONAL illiteracy rate (anyone who can’t do much more than sign their names) is so high that the government just poured millions of pesos into a program to teach tens of thousands of adults WHO WENT TO SCHOOL how to read and write and add and subtract.

as far as teachers go, what i can deduce is that there is a ton of theory taught by professors with no practical use at all, and no motivation to think outside of the “we’ve always done it this way box.” because the prominent method of teaching is to have students copy from the board, there is little lesson development – i mean, it takes six year olds a long time to copy a story from the board. everything that i thought would be easy, isn’t. the battles i encounter are so simple that i never could have imagined them – “we have a copy machine, why are they still copying from the board?” “is there a reason your kids are sitting at the tables while you talk on your cell phone?” “did you really just smack a child on the head?” “please don’t have the whole class sitting around waiting for one child to finish her work.”

it’s not that the teachers aren’t willing. we have been blessed this year with teachers who are really ready to get down to business and learn new techniques and methods because they believe that education can change the face of the nation. and things aren’t set completely in stone, either. this year, the new president signed over 4% of the GDP to education – something that had been promised for the past 10 years and never given. teachers are fighting for fair wages – right now, their base salary is just $225 dollars a month for a five hour work day or $400 dollars for a nine hour work day – and it seems like they’ll be able to come to a contractual agreement sometime in the near future.

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{Students protesting overcrowding/poor school conditions}

i truly believe that education can make or break a democracy. i hope it’ll get better, i’ve got two kids going into the school system next year!

Comments

  1. Wow. Wow. Wow. I really CAN’T imagine these conditions in which you teach. It’s amazing that people like you, Melanie, can keep moving forward, keep trying, keep believing. Way to go! It is obvious you are making a mark. Hopefully more can catch your vision!

  2. Wow incredible story. As a former teacher it makes me reconsider how much I’ve complained for the lack of… I really had what I needed to successfully teach , with small class sizes, and kids who for the most part were motivated. Thanks for sharing this perspective.

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