English in Public Schools: Besieged Teachers

December 2, 2005

(Part two in a threepartseries on theteaching of English inthe country’s publicschools.)I explained in mylast column how thewriters of the Ministryof Public Education(MEP) English curriculumgot it all right,and yet somehow it allwent wrong. The programis not working. The students are notlearning to understand, speak or writeEnglish. The question is: why?The answer is not simple. For onething, several factors in the country’s educationalsystem and culture work againstthe implementation of the innovative methodsadvocated by MEP.One of the problems is the Costa Ricanprivate university system, if “system” iswhat it may be called. In the United States,we consider most private universities to bemodels of excellence, and students paydearly for the privilege of attending them.Not so in Costa Rica. Here, the state universities,the University of Costa Rica(UCR) and the Universidad Nacional(UNA) set the standards for excellence,while most (but I hope not all) of the privateuniversities seem to be unregulatedbusinesses that, as one excellent source putit, “hand out diplomas as if they were dealingcards.”I can vouch for this with a personalexperience. A friend of mine who wasteaching for a private university in SanJosé asked me to take over an advancedBritish literature course that had lost itsprofessor in the middle of the term.What I encountered there shocked me.Nobody asked for my résumé, my credentialsor my residency card. Nobody evenasked me my name. A security guard simplydirected me to a classroom, where Ifound a group of “advanced” students, allon the verge of graduatingwith a degree inEnglish, who couldn’tunderstand a word Isaid. There was notextbook, no syllabus,no course description,nothing.I subsequentlylearned that “instruction”had consisted ofthe “professor” dictatingword by word theintroduction to eachchapter of a text thatthe students didn’thave. The studentsthen took quizzes onthis memorized material.Incidentally, whenit came time to pay me,somehow the university authorities had atleast obtained my name. It was cash overthe counter, no documentation, no questionsasked. I could have been a bag ladyfor all they knew.WITH the exception of the studentswho come out of the state system or thosewho have studied in an English-speakingcountry, many of these are the studentswho become English teachers in CostaRican public schools. Moreover, accordingto a reliable MEP source, not only havethey been poorly trained in English, theyhave been poorly trained in teaching methodsas well.Most of them are incapable, perhapsterrified, of using the MEP curriculum,so they simply do what they can to survive.Unable to speakEnglish well, if at all,they speak to theirstudents in Spanish.Poorly trained in howto teach, they teachas they were taught:they give their studentswritten drills orhave them copy fromthe board. Unfamiliarwith the use of technology,they don’t useit even if it is available.Moreover, even inthe relatively rare instanceswhere theteachers are well preparedand doing theirbest to teach their studentscommunicative skills, the programsimply doesn’t allot enough time to makeit truly intensive. Seventh, eighth andninth graders, for example, receive anaverage of only three classes a week. Nordoes the system provide language labs,where students can practice oral skills. Inaddition, class sizes of 40-45 studentsleave teachers precious little time for individualwork. No one can make headwayunder these circumstances.BUT the problems for these, let’s faceit, besieged teachers do not end here. Theymust also deal with panic caused by somethingthat looms ahead for their studentsand for themselves.What is it? Let’s look at the case ofMarjorie, 14, a public-school student.She began seventh grade in town afterfinishing sixth grade in a tiny villageschool that offered only the barest basics:Spanish, math, social studies. Marjorie,nevertheless, found herself placed in aclass of students who had already hadEnglish for several years, which meant, atleast, that they knew the routine. This wasneither fair nor legal, and I wanted to preventher from dropping out, so I began tohelp her.As a teacher, this has been very tryingbecause I find myself helping her with allthe wrong things taught in all the wrongways. One of the last pieces of homeworkMarjorie brought me was a long vocabularylist she had to translate and memorize.Looking over it, I knew right away what itwas, and my heart sank.It was a list of the key words from allthe chapters her class had studied throughoutthe year – the teacher’s attempt to gethis students to pass the ninth-grade MEPexam, even if they were unable to understandit.Herein may lie the principal cause ofthe problem, as well as the seeds of thesolution. Stay tuned.E-mail comments to Kate Galante atkategalante@yahoo.com.

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