Bend But Don’t Break Teaching in Costa Rica

Costa Rica.  The Central American symbol of progress and stability in a region historically known for chaos.  You may have heard of it as a tourist destination.  Fly in, take the tourist bus straight to the all inclusive resort and be shuttled around to places the country wants you to see.

Just like a coffee bean has various layers of skin, Costa Rica can be peeled back one by one to reveal its deeper qualities.  When you sift through all the “Save the Americans” propaganda, and go beyond the beaches and rainforests, you’ll find a culture very dedicated to becoming much more than volcanoes and sloths.

Case in point: Education.  A long way from the standard US public school you’ll find quite a contrast in Latin America. Many school systems lack any kind of technological resources, are overcrowded, have teachers that are untrained and overworked, and the majority work with rural or impoverished communities where school is not seen as a priority.

Enter Costa Rica.  Without having to support a military for over half a century, the resources available for public use have been extensive in comparison to other area countries.  Thanks to a visit from Teachers2Teachers International, a non-profit US organization dedicated to revolutionizing STEM training for teachers all over the world, those differences were put into context and many generalizations need not apply when it comes to education in Costa Rica. 

The mission was to spend a week immersing ourselves at a rural Costa Rican school observing, sharing, and reflecting on the school system.  The school serves a community of about 150 families with children grades 1-6.  Hardly a walk in the park for the teachers, they all teach two grades alternating mornings and afternoons.  A normal day starts at 7am and stretches to 5pm.  And that’s just class time.  Where they find time to lesson plan and complete the many extra curricular activities assigned to them was beyond understanding at times.  Even for them.

Our schedule was very day to day as our visit fell during “fair season”.  During the week we were there, there was an art and a science fair, plus spelling bee practice for the school’s regional qualifier.  Not to mention the principal was replaced two days before our arrival.  By day three the custodian had become the go to person in getting information.  With interruptions seemingly a way of life, we were quickly turned on to the art of improvising, which must loosely translate to pura vida

Our host school fields three full time teachers and they are stretched every which way to meet the requirements that all schools are held to, regardless of size.  That meant one teacher leaving her 5th graders working on a project by themselves so she could do administrative tasks in the office.  A larger school would have a secretary, but here that responsibility gets passed around.  It also meant one group didn’t have class one day because the teacher had to accompany another group of students to a fair at a different school.  It also meant we only saw the new principal once the whole time we were there.  It wasn’t like he was at the school either, he wasn’t.  Whether running paperwork around or attending meetings, the Ministry of Education seemed to keep somebody on the road running errands.

Having digested the shock and awe at the “organized chaos” we were uncertain we would be afforded the opportunity to share with the teachers.  Our moments may have been brief, however the engagement was sincere and I think everyone would agree they took at least as much with them as they left.  It didn’t take long for them to put us on our heels with a long division method that was familiar in operation, but completely backwards in structure.  It was like learning to read all over again, but this time reading right-to-left instead of left-to-right.

Where’s the remainder?

On a classroom level, we were also able to contribute to the learning process.  One of our initial observations was that students spent a lot of time sitting and reciting/reading information.  Luckily, the classrooms were equipped with flat screen TVs and access to the internet, but besides that it was hard to identify much innovation in student engagement.  That observation lasted until day two when the teacher turned to us and offered us her group for 30 minutes.  With the theme of the week to improvise, we knew we couldn’t let the moment pass, even if we didn’t have anything prepared.  It just so happened, we had shared an animal book with an adjoining tangram activity previously with the teacher and it fit right into the science review she was doing with the class that day.

tangram activity with children
Tangrams to the rescue!

Now having experienced and adapted to improvisation, we negotiated right then for the teacher to give us another section to prepare and present an activity the next day.  That day, not only did we get the class engaged in the activity, we had the teacher actively leading the activity with us.  Who thought division/multiplication practice could be so fun?

By the end of the week we were more agile than a goats in a tree in getting our objectives met.  This was my first experience on a trip like this and while it could have been smoother, I don’t think it would have been the same had it been.  One of our participants attended an art festival, another tutored the spelling bee champ, and one teacher even went next door to the high school to see how pura vida they were.

Despite all the juggling, it was reassuring to see the technology available at the school (they had a computer lab and taught programming), the manageable class sizes (<20), and the preparation of the teachers.  In Costa Rica you are required to have a university bachelor´s degree before becoming a teacher, which is a luxury in other parts of Central America.         

I think you would be stressed to find another rural school in Central America with these conditions and you could probably rank them right up with some schools in developed countries.  In my 10+ years in Costa Rica I’ve never been as involved with a school as I was on this exchange.  With the added expertise of T2T-I the sharing was much more focused and found common ground with a lot of the challenges teachers all over the world face.

teacher group shot
¡Exito = Success!

Overall, it was a very pleasant experience and a departure from the norm from what you usually think about when Costa Rica is mentioned.  When bringing colleagues together, countries and cultures apart, those extra obstacles make the experience real and the labor much more rewarding, especially since you’re educating future world citizens at a crucial point in their lives.     

Like a 7-layer cake, not all the sweetness is visible on the surface, and you shouldn’t be afraid to bite down and see what else the country has to offer.  You never know what you’ll find.  We found education, but have you tried Costa Rican coffee??

   

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