Supernanny Part I

>> Sunday, November 09, 2008

I'll admit, one of my guilty television pleasures is that I like to watch Supernanny on Friday nights.  I love how Jo is able to manipulate the kids into doing exactly what she wants, and that she isn't afraid to let the parents know when they need to shape up.  It's almost the end of the school year here (everyone is ready for summer vacation!) and I realize that my school could use Supernanny's tough love.  I try to channel Supernanny myself to varying success, but here are two lessons that my institute still needs to learn:

Routine: Students (and teachers) need a routine to be able to thrive.

One of the most difficult things for me about being in Nicaragua is that seemingly no one here likes to plan ahead.  As a student, the first week of school I always looked at my academic calendar and wrote into my agenda our days off, exam days, and other important dates, and then I was always looking and planning ahead.  I realize that I fall at one extreme end of the spectrum, but Nicaragua falls on the other; there is no yearly calendar, and most decisions about schedules happen the day before.

The exam schedules here are sort of strange.  Teachers don't get to choose when they have tests in their classes, or how much their tests are worth.  Instead, about six times a year we have exam weeks where each day every student has one exam at the exact same time; the English exam may be Tuesday during 3rd hour, and every teacher administers the English exam to his or her third hour class. There are "partial exams" about every two months, so in April, June, August, and October, which cover the previous two months' worth of material.  Then there are semester final exams that occur in July and November.  We just finished our October partial exams last week, and teachers are still working on getting their grades submitted.  The last day of the semester is already set for either November 21st or November 28th (depending on who you talk to), and teachers will need time before that date to get all their final exams graded and grades figured.  That leaves a maximum of three weeks to finish any outstanding topics for the class (the topics that must be covered are dictated by the Ministry of Education), review for the final exams, conduct the final exams, and compute grades.  And, remember, we just completed one set of exams last week.

I had been worrying about the end-of-year schedule for weeks now because there just isn't enough time to get everything done.  On Wednesday, the principal's office finally decided that it needed to make some decisions, so they announced that all teachers' final exams must be submitted for approval the following day... not a lot of time considering that many teachers teach five different grade levels.  They announced that the final exams will begin on Tuesday, but they had not yet announced the schedule for the exams, though this is usually posted a week or so in advance.  Further complicating matters, school was canceled Friday and is canceled on Monday for the mayoral elections nationwide.  I don't have class on Thursdays, so I didn't see if they finally did post the finals schedule for students, but I suppose we'll all find out on Tuesday.

Days Off
As I said before, there's no academic calendar that says when there are days off.  Some días feriados are easy to predict, like for Nicaraguan independence day, but even then you never know exactly how many days off you'll have before and after the actual celebration.  Many other days, though, just show up out of the blue.  Two weeks ago, we were about to begin our partial exams on Thursday.  At the same time, there was a big band competition coming up on Friday.  Band here is really the only extracurricular activity, so it's a pretty big deal; the whole school was already on an emergente, shortened schedule so that the band could have time to practice; though I was trying to take advantage of what little time we had left to review for the tests, the classes were all shortened from 45 minutes to 30.  Then on Tuesday, they decided to cancel school on Friday so that everyone could attend the band competition.  This meant that all the exams had to be moved up a day, so I lost yet another day of classes that could have been spent reviewing.

Other times, we don't even get a days' notice of a day off.  One day in September, I went to school and found students playing outside and several teachers just sitting in the teacher's lounge.  It turns out that there was some activity that had caused school to be canceled, but neither the students nor the teachers had been informed that they didn't need to come.

Even if there is school and it isn't raining and the teachers come and the students come, that doesn't mean I can actually be teaching English.  On Tuesday a teacher came into my class about ten minutes into it and told all the students that it was time to walk to some sort of cultural activity across town.  Other times we waste a ridiculous amount of time as my counterpart collects money from all the students to make photocopies for their exams, and still other times random people (unaffiliated with the school) might come in to make announcements, advertise their computer classes, or ask for money to help care for a sick child.  I had a teacher in high school that hated school assemblies or other activities that took away her class time; then I thought she was overreacting a little bit, but now I understand completely.

Class Length
Classes here are supposed to be 45 minutes long, and we have English class three times a week.  The bell in my school isn't automatic, so its ringing depends on a secretary or teacher remembering that class is over.  Sometimes the bell ringer gets a little too enthusiastic and class is only 20 minutes long; other times, no one remembers to ring and class may be nearly an hour.  This makes it impossible for us to pace the class and make sure that we're at a stopping point when the bell is about to ring.

We also frequently use the emergente schedule, which allows for the school day to finish early.  These classes are supposed to be 30 minutes long, but can range from about 15 minutes to a full hour, depending on who's there to ring the bell.  The shortened schedule can be used for anything from giving the band extra time to practice to allowing for a staff meeting.  Often, for really important events like teacher parties, the school uses the double whammy of a shortened schedule, and then cancels the last few class periods just for good measure.  The shortened schedule is most popular during exam times.  Your guess is as good as mine why we would be shortening and canceling classes during the last few days that teachers have to review with students.

Supernanny says that "sometimes, all a family [school] needs is some structure and some practice at working together to get them back on track."  If the teachers can never know if we're going to have class and how long it's going to be, it's impossible for us to plan activities and make sure that we cover all the topics that we need to.  I rarely have time to assign homework, because either there isn't enough time for students to copy it off the chalkboard or because they have too much time and everyone completes it in class.  Similarly, students and teachers need to know when they will have school, when there is no school, and when the exams will be so that they can at least pretend to care about studying.

From the very first days of training, we've heard over and over that we must be patient with different cultures and that one culture isn't "better" than any other.  Most of the time I buy that or at least understand it, but this has been beyond my comprehension.  Even after just one year here, I already know that we miss days for independence day in September, that we have band competitions, and that we have shortened classes during exam times.  I can't figure out why no one sits down and establishes an official calendar with dates so that everyone can plan ahead.

Stay tuned for Part II, Discipline and Consequences.


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