If you’re too open-minded, your brains will fall out.
The same goes for being too culturally sensitive. While the results are different, they are equally messy.
Peace Corps, by nature, looks for folks who are culturally sensitive and open to new ideas. When PCVs depart from training, they believe – among other naïve suppositions – that they will be the paragons of cultural integration. Then one day, that culture smacks you in the face and you have to ask, “This is how things are, but is this really the way they should be?”
At the preschool where Louise and I work, we continually find ourselves puzzling over what we should accept as the way things are and what simply needs to change, particularly in the area of treatment of children. You can imagine this differs slightly from the American standard.
It takes a village to raise a child. Here, the parents mostly leave it up to the village. Along with cows, I also have to dodge toddlers on my morning bike rides to the school. Sometimes older siblings (themselves too young to go to school) will be around to keep an eye out for them, but otherwise the men are away at work and the women are simply too busy to mess with them once they grow out of their capulana back sling. I understand the infant mortality rate is deplorable and so it’s almost worth it to not get attached – but perhaps that rate wouldn’t be so high if a little more attention was paid to exactly what Junior's up to.
Similarly, punishment is simple – a knock upside the head, and they won’t do it again. There’s no coddling, no "my little Timoteo has special needs" and certainly no Dr. Spock. It’s survival of the fittest at its best.
At the preschool, this is doubly true. These ladies are paid to not only watch but educate these children. Neither of these, of course, is possible when the teachers are sleeping on the front veranda and the children are wreaking havoc on the playground in back. It’s written in the teacher’s expectations that they are not to separate from the students except in emergency situations, but, unfortunately, tea time in the kitchen is classified as an emergency, as apparently is personal naptime and sitting time. The latrines are about a two minute walk from the classrooms (four if you’re under three feet tall), and to this day I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a teacher accompany the students. Typically going to the bathroom is not a hazard, but it can be problematic when children can’t undo their own buttons, often decide it’s more convenient to just fazer xixi outside the casa de banho and run a high risk of losing a limb down the latrine hole. Don’t get me started on trying to get the teachers to help the students wash their hands…
Work inside the classroom also leaves much to be desired. Watching the teachers at work in the classroom, you might get the impression that they hate their jobs, children, people in general and life. The teachers set down the kids for their lectures on the ABCs, colors and numbers, and often will keep a stick handy to hit the ones too bored to pay attention. The punishment for a child hitting another child, of course, is that the victim child gets to hit the perpetrator child back. Yay justice.
At our insistence, the teachers agreed to seek alternative disciplinary measures to hitting children. In one moment of sheer genius, in fact, one of the teachers decided to simply have the other children hit a student who couldn’t count to three – three hits, in fact, just to reinforce the lesson. We’re currently negotiating a “time out” area.
Positive reinforcement, and encouragement in general, is an unheard of practice. Instead of “That’s incorrect,” or “Try again,” the most common phrase heard in all schools is “Nao sabe nada” – “You don’t know anything.” It’s never the fault of the teacher for doing an atrocious, uncreative job of teaching, it’s always the fault of the student who decided not to understand the material and must be punished until he changes his mind.
The thing I have to remind myself, though, is that to the teachers, there’s nothing wrong with this. This is just how things are here. Mothers don’t watch their children at home, teachers hit students in primary schools, and when they get hurt they’ll learn to not do it again. That’s the culture, and that’s life.
It's not too terribly different from the United States even a century ago. We’re asking these ladies to do things that are totally not a cultural norm and that took years to be considered imperative in our own educational system. But the alternative of sitting back and waiting until, God forbid, a child does seriously injure himself when the teachers are too busy to pay attention, is not one I’m comfortable with. Last week one teacher told me that I was way too worried when they left the kids to play on the playground. I agreed with her that I was worried, and that I would continue to accompany the children on the playground at recess to make sure there was no reason to worry.
On more than one occasion, the teachers have even commented on how I just love children. If you have ever met me, you will understand why this is a concern. I’m still not a kid person, but I don’t hit them, I talk kindly to them, I help them when they need it, I encourage them. This might just be my American upbringing in hyperactive mode, but I will continue to do so and hope to at least be an example to the teachers. Somewhere between putting a child on a leash to watch Baby Einstein in a house with antibacterial sanitizer dispensers in every room and letting a child – literally – play in traffic, there has to be a happy medium.
On a happy note, I still feel like a lot has been done at the preschool since it started. The teachers are creating their own visual aids to lessons, using puppets to act out Bible stories, having them trace letters in handwriting books and generally using more activities. Check these out:
Teachers aside, this is why I show up for work.