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BCTF Advantage

Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 25, Number 1, September 2012  

Mexican teachers and parents struggle to provide quality education 

BCTF continues to strengthen solidarity between teachers across the Americas

By Nancy Knickerbocker  

OCOTEPEC, Mexico—The jacaranda trees were in bloom and purple bougainvillea spilled over the walls surrounding Escuela Secondaria No. 8 in this village about two hours drive south of Mexico City. A couple of lazy dogs were asleep in the courtyard, but the atmosphere in the classrooms was alert and purposeful as two dozen visitors arrive from the Tri-National Coalition in Defence of Public Education.

Students Miguel Angel and Maria Guadelupe, wearing their uniforms of crisp white shirts, green sweaters, plaid pants, and kilt, welcomed us. They explained to us that their school is named for Pablo Torres Burgos, a teacher who risked everything to fight alongside the revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata for agrarian reform and the rights of campesinos, and was assassinated by federal agents in 1911.

The students and staff were immensely proud to show us around their school, but they didn’t hesitate to point out the many challenges they face in asserting the right to quality public education for all.

Teacher Claudia Rebollar Estrada explained that the school operates in two shifts daily, welcoming children from Ocotepec and a number of surrounding villages. A staff of 90 teachers are responsible for the 750 middle-school students who attend in the morning shift and 500 more in the afternoon.

Rebollar Estrada said teachers here in the state of Morelos have been speaking out loudly about the need to reduce class sizes, and have had an impact. The state’s new education minister, a former teacher activist, recently brought in regulations that cap class sizes at 25–30. However, with current staffing and funding levels, schools have no capacity to implement the limits. Class sizes remain unmanageable at 40–45 or even higher. One geography class we visited had 47 students.

Teachers in Morelos and throughout Mexico struggle to meet the needs of their students while trying not to place too heavy a burden on their parents, most of whom cannot afford to pay extra for the learning resources their children need. There is a close relationship between schools and communities, but, with so little provided by government, it’s an uphill battle for everyone.

Access to resources is highly political, said Rebollar Estrada. Fine promises are made at the beginning of every six-year election cycle but, inevitably, they are later broken. For example, before the last election candidates promised funding for equipment to fulfill the dream of creating a computer lab for the school. After voting day they did indeed receive the monitors, but not the computers themselves—much to the frustration and disappointment of teachers and students alike!

Teachers’ wages are low and working conditions are difficult. Teachers only get one 20-minute break during the working day. They are paid a scant 50 pesos, about $3.65, per instructional hour. Thus, a full-time teacher working 42 hours a week earns only 2,100 pesos—roughly $155. However, very few teachers have full-time positions.

José Martín Medina, a young physical education teacher, only works 20 hours a week. He says his situation is typical, and many colleagues get as few as 10 hours a week so they have to teach at more than one school or take other part-time jobs to survive.

As well as the lack of a living wage, Medina lamented the lack of resources to do the job properly, whether it’s teaching physical education or academic subjects. For example, his students love soccer, but the only ball they have to use is made from wads of newspaper wrapped in duct tape.

Medina and other Mexican teachers expressed deep concern about the high drop-out rate. Although university education is free or almost free in Mexico, few young people have the opportunity to attend. He said many children from the surrounding villages are growing up in deep poverty, so by age 12 or 13 they face a lot of pressure to leave school and go to work to help their families.

Students are also required to pay for many school supplies that would still be covered in BC, such as the costs of chemicals needed in the science lab. Even if ice is required for experiments, students must bring it to school—an amazing expectation in the heat of the Morelos hillsides!

Mexican students with special needs face additional challenges. Traditionally they have been segregated in special education classes, but recently government has been proposing a policy of integration.

Teachers Graciela Rangel from the state of Michoacan and Josefina Martinez from Morelos see this policy shift as just another way for government to cut costs at the expense of teachers and their most vulnerable students. Rangel pointed out that there is no training for teachers to help students with special needs, and no extra pay for teachers who are able take on the challenge.

“There are no conditions for integration, and no budget for adaptations,” Martinez said. “Our school doesn’t even have a ramp so that a student in a wheelchair could enter our doors.”

Over a delicious lunch of salad and pozole, the typical pre-Columbian corn soup served with chicken, avocado, and chiles, both Rangel and Martinez agreed that no matter what the issue—special needs or class size or working conditions—they are united in their union as agents for fundamental social change.

“What really impressed me was the enthusiasm for teaching and learning displayed by both the teachers and students under incredible, adverse conditions,” said BCTF 1st Vice-President Jim Iker. “It was also neat to see the respect and affection shown by the students for their teachers.”

“Our Mexican colleagues reinforced for me again firsthand, the importance of speaking out and advocating for strong, quality public education systems with better resources and improved working and learning conditions,” he said.

Iker was also inspired to witness how the Mexican teachers are struggling against such severe odds to make a difference in student’s lives: “It made me feel proud to be a teacher.” 

Nancy Knickerbocker, BCTF media relations officer   

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