Fourth in a series on the challenges facing Costa Rica’s public-education system.
There’s no escaping it. No matter how good a school, how attractive a classroom, or how extensive the resources available to a student, the skills and personality of that child’s teacher arguably contribute more to success or failure than any other ingredient.
So while the lack of funding and infrastructure in Costa Rica’s schools demands attention from the Public Education Ministry, leaders are also emphasizing the importance of improving the country’s teacher corps.
What needs to be done to boost teaching quality? The answers to this question are surprisingly consistent, whether you speak to rookie or seasoned teachers, high school or primary, rural or urban. According to educators, what’s needed is better coordination between the ministry and universities that prepare teachers; a more organized and transparent hiring system to reduce corruption and favoritism; more materials for teachers so they don’t have to empty their pockets to provide basic supplies for students; and teacher training, particularly for teachers whose university days are far behind them.
New Public Education Minister Leonardo Garnier has described increased support for teachers as a top priority, a stance educators applaud – though Roberto Velásquez, 52, a veteran of southern Caribbean indigenous schools who now teaches first grade in the town of Bribrí, says he’s waiting to see results.
“All the things (leaders) say in the press, let them be more than just theories,” he said. “Let them be achieved.”
Most educators who spoke with The Tico Times said they got off to a rocky start. After a university education that didn’t adequately prepare them for the realities of the classroom and a hiring process often filled with uncertainty, they headed to their classrooms with no supplies and few curricular materials.
Education professors should do more to open would-be teachers’ eyes to the socioeconomic challenges facing Costa Rica’s schools and the labor rights of teachers, according to Alexander Ovares, who has taught high-school physical education for 27 years and studied education at Universidad Nacional (UNA) in his native Heredia, north of San José. He now teaches at Liceo Edgar Cervantes in Hatillo, south of San José.
“From the point of view of technique and pedagogy, the preparation was good, but it’s distant from the reality,” he said, remembering his early days as a teacher. “Institutions don’t have materials and conditions in line with the preparation, which is (presented) as if you were going to work in ideal conditions.”
Dennis Alvarez, 33, a second-year teacher at Finca La Caja elementary school in the impoverished neighborhood of La Carpio in western San José, agrees.
“In the university, they can make everything look very pretty,” he said, recommending that the ministry undertake “more supervision in private universities” such as the one he attended.
Improving coordination with universities is on Garnier’s to-do list, particularly when it comes to increasing the supply of teachers in areas the ministry perennially struggles to staff, such as English and special education.
“The universities complain, and they’re right, that for many years the ministry hasn’t defined for them the profile of educators the ministry needs,” he told The Tico Times. “If the client, which is the ministry, doesn’t tell them, ‘I need this type of teacher,’ the universities don’t have any instructions from the consumer.”
With their university studies behind them – or, in many cases, before their studies are complete, thanks to the demand for teachers in certain subjects – educators face a national hiring system in which the Civil Service approves their applications and the ministry places them wherever they’re needed, from the capital to rural towns to indigenous schools in the jungle. Whether teachers get the locations they request depends on an experience-based point system, giving the newest teachers the least leverage.
A recent report by the Partnership for the Revitalization of Education in the Americas (PREAL) showed that Costa Rica is one of the only Latin American countries where the central government makes all hiring and placement decisions, but for the teachers interviewed by The Tico Times, centralization isn’t the problem – it’s corruption.
Velásquez said the hiring of unqualified teachers because of favoritism is his number-one gripe.
“The hairy hands of politicians shouldn’t reach into teacher hiring,” he said, calling for increased transparency. Ovares seconded this, saying that while he didn’t mind moving with his wife and child to the Pacific port city of Puntarenas when he was placed there as a young teacher, he’s seen, over the course of his career, people in positions of power apply pressure so a son or friend can get a certain placement even if they have fewer points than another candidate.
These hiring decisions, and the local protests they often provoke, make headlines at the start of school every February. This year, another problem in the hiring system was revealed – because background checks weren’t conducted on all hires until recently, people convicted of the sexual abuse of minors were given jobs as teachers and principals (TT, Jan. 13).
For Alvarez, the whole process is a headache, particularly for so-called “interim teachers” who haven’t yet been granted tenure at a school and must reapply for their jobs each year.
“Every year it’s the same – waiting in line, losing a whole day. It’s awful,” he said. Asked whether he plans to keep teaching at La Carpio, he said he’d love to, but pointed out that as an interim, he can’t be sure the system will return him to his current post next year.
A Support Void
Once in the classroom, new teachers face a lack of supplies and didactic materials, a lack of professional development, and, particularly in small schools where teachers serve double duty as administrators, mountains of paperwork.
Acquiring the materials necessary to teach becomes a top priority. Alvarez said that though teachers’ salaries include a stipend for supplies – his is approximately ¢16,000 ($31) per month – it’s not enough, particularly in schools with poor students.
He spends about twice that much each month on photocopies, pencils, paper and other supplies for his students, he said.
To make do, teachers find themselves collecting weekly contributions from parents and holding raffles, dances or anything else they can think of to raise funds, said Ovares, who said this was necessary for even the most basic supplies for his gym classes when he started teaching.
Lack of funds from the central government isn’t the only problem, he said. Each school’s board of directors, with members from the community nominated by teachers and approved by the municipality, have control over the school’s spending, and an incompetent board can make even the simplest payments impossible. He was quick to add he’s happy with his current board, which provides well for his students’ needs.
But most teachers mention the lack of professional development as a more important problem. Ana Cristina Madrigal, principal and teacher at Escuela Llano Grande de Pacayas in the province of Cartago, said it’s essential that the ministry cut down on the amount of paperwork teachers and administrators must complete and allow more time for planning and training.
How? The ministry should have each school complete a diagnostic to determine its teachers’ needs and weaknesses, then provide support to principals, she said. Expert advice is particularly important in the area of special education, since teachers at rural schools – of which Madrigal is a 21-year veteran – struggle to meet the needs of students with disabilities, without the skills or time the task requires.
Marielos Méndez, a special ed teacher at Finca La Caja, echoed the call for training, though she added that teachers are also responsible for their own development.
“As a professional, you shouldn’t just wait for the ministry to train you. No, no, no,” she said, adding that she reads extensively to stay abreast of developments and research in her field. “We must seek a way to remain up-to date through our own initiative.”
However, “as far as training the ministry gives us, there’s none,” she said. According to Ovares, this wasn’t always the case: recent administrations have deprioritized teacher training, and he’s received only five or six training sessions over his 27-year career. As a result, many teachers use outdated teaching methods kids find “boring.”
Gonzalo Ortiz, treasurer of the National Association of Educators (ANDE), said that while in theory, principals can organize professional development for their staff during the week before school begins, the ministry won’t recognize classes or workshops it doesn’t organize itself, nor does it provide schools with professional development funds.
“There are no funds, and it’s not even recognized,” he said. “The principal says, fine, a psychologist is going to come and give a talk about the different forms of learning… but they don’t give any certification because it’s not (organized directly) by the ministry.”
As a result, principals and teachers tend to use their first week on logistics and preparatory meetings, he said.
Garnier said he’s determined to remedy this situation.
“One can’t think that people study education, for three, four, five years, enter the (Education) Ministry and that’s the last time they study,” he said. “The ministry has to have a permanent training process…It’d be unfair to say there’s none, but it’s far from sufficient.”
With studies showing dissatisfaction with teaching methods and teachers’ failure to make school relevant for kids as among the top reasons for the country’s two-thirds dropout rate (TT, July 14), neglecting teachers is something the minister can’t afford.
“I can’t improve education without improving the teacher corps,” Garnier said.
Next: A look at how the country evaluates its students, including the controversial, high-stakes standardized tests that have brought angry teenagers and teachers to the streets.