The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Sunday, July 15, 2007

But that wasn't why I stopped writing. I got a job - in addition to the other two jobs I was working - training future English teachers, in a local pedagogical institute. Twenty hours a week, contact time (teaching time, to the un-industrialised): it didn't seem a lot. That was before I realised how presence is valued way more highly than action, in a bureaucratic culture.

Presenteeism. I was obliged to turn up at 7:40 (it was meant to be 7:45, but the industrial clock was set wrong, all the better to cut your wages with, little girl) and sit mutely in what was known as The Teacher's Room. A hallowed space of bare desks, bare walls, missing departmental plans, broken cupboards, and, beneath the obligatory statue of the Virgen Maria, a lone, half speed computer, viciously competed for at all times. No matter what my teaching schedule, what my activities, I was required to remain in this carcel from 7:40 until 1:30pm each day. There was nothing to do there, there was no function the emptiness and solitariness of the room allowed completion of, and lessons came to represent a welcome escape from the cold silence of The Teacher's Room. Staff ran to the desks, feigning energy, enthusiasm and punctuality, then sat, vacant, staring above heads at blank, grimy walls. In six weeks, I saw only one man working. By the beginning of first class, teachers would slam their briefcases (ostentatiously opened, like a portable bureau, to give four papers covered in nonsense an air of desperate efficiency), and run impatiently out of the room, with all the appearance they had students waiting. Outside, they would sit, aimlessly, at a bench in the yard, lacking class, task or students; impatient only to escape the death stillness of The Teacher's Room.

Three afternoons a week, I was required to attend the desk warming; I never did discover what purpose this random presenteeism achieved. Staff told me this - this seven hours per week of extra deskness - was a free consultation period, when students could question me as to the assignments I had set. Students who were either in class, or had paid work elsewhere during these hours. When I questioned the complete and utter lack of students in the student consultation periods, they scoffed at my overzealous demands - wasn't I aware that these students had a lot of work to do?
Not by the amount I saw the teachers grading, they didn't.

By around ten am, the thirty strong staff had mysteriously disappeared. They would reappear magically, thirty of them ghosting the yard and the terraces, five minutes before the factory card punching machine clicked over to half past one. On an illegal recce to a local eatery, I discovered the entire administration sitting eating pastries. The local cafes were a mine of gossip, of staff - student romances, of in fighting, plotting, and machinations. Any business that took place inside the school could only spell ill: anything of positive import would be hidden in a local cafe. I learnt to work the system, to sit behind the cafe door, and scout students for my other school. The private language school I co-own here. My other job.

I was teaching around 37 hours a week. This is a lot, by European standards, but not impossible*.
What made things difficult was the schedule: 7 till 1 at the Pedagógico, teaching serried rows of 30-40 young adults, in bare rooms and a big american blackboard.
3:30 till 5 at the Acilo de los Ancianos, teaching village girls and illiterates who wished to join the Catholic convent who cared for the old, the infirm, and the mind-blown of the city. Lessons took place below a side altar, in comfy chairs, while lurid Jesuses watched over the class. 7 till 10pm at my own school: small 4-10 strong groups, with CDs, DVDs, computers, textbooks, everything the larger schools didn't have. Or didn't care about.

I'd competed hard to get the Pedagógico job, see. Four hours of demonstration classes, for student teachers, for directors, for staff, for Ministry of Education bigwigs and nabobs. One competitor, one who was my employee at the other place, though not for long, reported me to the local police, the radio, the Ministerio de Educación. He said it was unfair that a rich foreigner should win a job that a Peruvian could do. He accused me of schmoozes, of bribes, and, bored by a daily routine that consisted largely of colouring in, I enjoyed confounding him by beating him in a fair fight. A two hour lecture on psycholinguistics, in spanish, prepared overnight, was a total relief after months and months of wondering at best how to clean dirty rice from a pan with cold water.

It was only when I won the contract did I discover that a Peruvian word of mouth contract cannot be broken, Did I discover that the Institute expected me to teach without books, without pens, without paper, without curriculum, syllabus, library or the faintest whiff of materials. When I tantrummed about it, told them they were a joke, the teachers had a whip round and got me 4 sheets of ripped and crumpled paper. No pen.
To get pens required signed and certified chits from the director, submitted to a frightening woman who lived in a dark cave of 1950s style stationery. I asked the director for a sheet of paper. The director said no.

I pointed out that there was no syllabus, there was no course, there was no curriculum, that they had badly misunderstood what the term 'phonetics' actually means. That to teach English Literature by feeding Shakespeare into Babelfish, stamping it down till it looked like spanish, then proferring it to students with the demand they translate it back into English was not only wrong, but deeply aberrant. This, surely, qualified as impossible*? That the students couldn't speak English anyway, and this might be more of a priority for trainee English teachers. That the rest of the English lecturers had an English vocabulary that stretched to 'hi, how are you?'
The director pointed out that if I wanted to teach, I needed to write seven syllabi. To their specific specified specifications. Which were a secret. And in Spanish.
By Thursday.
I stared meaningfully at the $200 flatscreen computer on his desk. There are no posters, there are no tables to sit at, there are no books, no posters, no dictionaries, and no records, no grades, no exams. He did the shrug I've come to loathe, the 'not my problem' hunch, the 'what can you do' eye roll. "What can I do," he mumbles, sadly, "this is Perú."

This is Perú, so how can you expect me to be anything but corrupt. Sheer disbelief attacked me ten times a day, there.
Anyway, anyway, anyway, anyway. After five weeks, I discovered the Ministerio didn't want to pay me. (I'm a foreigner. Foreigners are rich. We shouldn't need to pay them.) Nobody had wanted to tell me, in case I got angry, and embarrassed everyone, so they had kept it to themselves. In classic Peruvian face saving style, they thought it was better if they made me angry until I wanted to leave. After all, a rich foreigner could not be expected to value a job the way a good honest Peruvian would. After all. I found out the secret, by a process of local cafeteria-based shenanigans, told them I would work until the end of the month, help them find a replacement. But without the presenteeism, without the daily hours spent silent and useless in the carcel, thankyou. I preferred working for myself, in my own school, after all. As soon as the foreigner-lovin' director went away, in hope of finding another teacher, the administration struck. There was a replacement. Here tomorrow. Sign this paper. Write here. You have to renunciar your employment. Don't come back. Don't be here tomorrow.

The tomorrow arrived, and with it a much anticipated full night's sleep, and by lunchtime, my wee village school was full of trainee English teachers, looking lost. Nobody comes to the class. Nobody arrives. What is happening. Please come back.
I returned to the institute, and the sub director asks me why I had failed to turn up this morning. I explain what had happened, but there is a national strike, so nobody can identify the absent administrator who fired me, on the hush hush. The story is rubbish, nobody has authorised such a thing. They apologise, and ask me if I will work two more days, until they can get a new teacher. I haven't a clue if they're telling the truth, or if it's more face saving, but it doesn't really matter to me. Politics is not a game I enjoy dirtying my hands with. And I miss the students, I miss having something to do with the day, I miss feeling useful. I agree to work two more days. As long as the fucking job is not forever, I think, angrily, I can deal.

Next morning, another teacher, one Señor Hitler, slams the door in my face. You may not enter the classroom, he says. We have other priorities. The staff at this school are scared. They don't need someone coming in and actually working, they don't need someone who can speak the language they are paid to teach, they don't need someone rocking the boat.

You did not come to work yesterday, he says. So we rescheduled. Maybe you can do your class later, he says, if you have decided now you want to work here. Maybe you can do six hours in the afternoon, when I have finished. There's a peculiar tinge of hot blooded shame to any conversation where someone is insulting you, coldly and barefacedly, in a tongue that is not your own, and you have to ask them to slow down and repeat that insult, please. Again, more clearly, please, tell me how shit I am.

Why don't you go home, he says. You are not wanted here. Your type, who doesn't want to work. I see the extent of the fear that I will replace people in this institute. I see suddenly how much they hate me, for being something they fear they are not.

So I left, I called on the sub director, I called on the real director, a mountain of apologies are offered, including Señor Hitler's head on a plate. Hitler simply stares at me, venomously. His card is marked by the bloody foreigner, now, when all he'd wanted to do was slope off home a bit early. Fucking gringos, eh?

We're very sorry, we're grateful you have helped us, we realise you might not want to come back now, and no, we're never going to pay you, dear. Can you give us your grades, now?

It's not every school in Perú, it's possibly not even representative of anything in this country. Since that point, the teachers have been on huelga nacional, national strike, a nice relaxing introduction to the end of semester, and the four weeks of August winter holiday. A bunch of them sing songs around a candlelit coffin in the city square on Friday nights, and in Lima, they riot, break windows, frighten children. It's mostly politics, and precious little education; and at its worst it isn't totally dissimilar to the love of paperwork and loathing of actual student progress that rules child-rearing institutions in my own country.
But, by gum, it was a shock.