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Some Cuban Teachers Still Manage to Shine in a Deteriorating System

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Last night a neighbor knocked on the door; it was around 10. Her grandson had to take a present to his teacher and the lady needed colored paper to wrap it in. Somewhere we had a sheet with lilac flowers on it, enough to wrap a couple of soaps and a lipstick. Today the boy emerged smug, with the present in hand, heading to a school where music blares from loudspeakers starting early in the morning. Teacher's Day has been, since forever, a big party in all Cuban schools, a time for the students to honor their teaching professionals. However, these aren't times for too much celebration, nor to hide the current situation of this important sector behind commemorations.

The "high quality of Cuban education," held up by so many in the world, is a mirage that didn't manage to make it much beyond the eighties. Maintained by the Kremlin, this island was able to exhibit an educational infrastructure that had nothing to do with the real economic and productive opportunities. As if a sickly toothless man possessed an arm worthy of a powerful bodybuilder. This disproportion -- between what we enjoyed and what was really allowed to us -- was painfully evident when the Soviet subsidy ended and the country's schools entered a profound crisis from which they still haven't recovered. A crisis that includes not only the physical deterioration of the sites and the classrooms, but also the loss of quality instruction and the ethical and moral devaluation of education.

At the center of the problem: the teacher, who has gone from being a respected professional to the lowest rungs of the working ladder. The "emerging teacher" experiment -- rapid training of teenagers to take over classrooms -- worsened the situation and today it's common to find someone teaching Spanish who doesn't know the difference between the words "literal" and "literary." The excess of ideology, the Manicheistic approach to the teaching of our own national history -- everything is black or white -- the crushing of creativity and critical thinking, are among the many negative characteristics evident in Cuban education today. However, despite all this, there are still teachers who excel in their cloisters and perform their work with dedication and excellence. Educators for whom the low salaries, the material collapse, the mediocrity around them and the intrusion of politics in their work have not killed their desire to teach. To them, congratulations on this day.

Photo: MJ Porter / Translator