(Educational) Culture Shock April 19, 2012Posted by Georgia Ennis in Ecuador, Fulbright.
Tags: education, educational reform, ETA, garage universities, reform
I am living and teaching English in Ecuador during a time of political and cultural shift, especially at the academic level. The current president, Rafael Correa, fully embraces a discourse of development, and is focusing on education and educational reform as one the principal paths to modernization. To achieve this, the government is implementing large, and often unpopular, changes. Recently, all of the universities in the country were ranked A through E, and a few days ago half of those that received a failing grade (E) were closed, it appears, without warning. All university professors are expected to obtain a PhD. As public universities are free and frequently overburdened, aptitude tests are going to be introduced to measure prospective students abilities prior to admission. Although these measures do not seem unreasonable from a U.S. perspective, they are a radical shift from the dominant educational culture.
During the rankings, my host institution, la Universidad Técnica del Norte, received a B, and last year achieved national accreditation. Moreover, the administration of my school strongly supports President Correa (so much so, that a few weeks ago all students, teachers, and staff were required to travel to the capital for a pro-government demonstration). Although I am at arguably one of the “best” public universities in Ecuador, I frequently found myself shocked and frustrated at the beginning of my grant by many aspects of the educational system.
I expected as a Fulbright teaching assistant that my work duties would be arranged for me, but I found that I was responsible for organizing in what ways, when, and how I wanted to work. The first few months of my grant were often overwhelming and frustrating as I attempted to navigate an unfamiliar academic environment, starting first a number of optional conversational clubs (which few to no students attended), and later attempting to work with professors who rarely gave me any guidance on what they wanted me to do or who frequently cancelled our sessions.
I have also had to adjust to a lot as a coworker, teacher, and cultural outsider. Racism and sexism are major problems within the school environment (as in Ecuador in general), and I have often found myself explaining why certain statements are offensive to me. I have also had to redefine my expectations for my students. I arrived with big dreams for what I would teach them, but encountered a pedagogical environment that largely involves teaching solely from the textbook. Coming from an educational background that emphasized reading and writing, I was dismayed to find students complaining about writing ten sentences for homework, and who frequently come to class without completing the few pages of reading asked of them. I have thus adjusted how I work, and now focus on self-contained listening and speaking activities in the classrooms where I assistant teach each week.
Despite these problems, there are several positive aspects to my work as an English teaching assistant. I have met many wonderful, motivated students, and I have been rewarded by seeing their speaking abilities and listening comprehension improve. I have also had the opportunity to work with and learn from a number of dedicated, talented teachers. I have made friends. I think I have represented my cultural background and myself well. And I have learned a lot about myself as a teacher and my own expectations of education, as well as the flaws in the educational systems of both the U.S. and Ecuador.
You can read more about “garage universities” and educational reform in Ecuador in this recent NY Times article.