Why I No Longer Hate 10th Grade Health Class: Part 1

Think back to high school for a minute. Bring yourself back to one of those torturous classes where you felt like there was nothing to do but daydream, stare out the window and look around at everyone else. For me that was 10th grade health class. As you look around at the rest of the class you categorize everyone: the kid in the front who answers every question before the teacher even asked it, the artist doodling away, the class clown picking his nose in the corner, the popular girl checking her makeup in the mirror, the jock downing yet another protein shake, the kid in the band t-shirt who might as well have is guitar with him in class, et cetera. Now remember back to the only thing you all agreed upon: substitute teachers. When the teacher was out all of you could get away with anything. Talking to your friends, passing notes, three bathroom passes in one class period, getting up out of your seat and walking around and in general just being rowdy. Most subs didn’t have the energy or interest to stop you. It provided a beautiful break from days and months of monotony. But imagine now that you were the teacher and this was every single day. That is what it is like in many sections of Nicaraguan public schools.

On my first day observing the English classes I am co-teaching, I was shocked to see that students were moving their desks around, facing the back of the room, talking during the teacher’s lesson, getting out of their seats to leave the classroom, mopping floors and basically doing anything but learning. To me it seemed like the rowdiest day at the end of the school year with a substitute teacher. For them it was just the same as any other day. I found myself saying the same things I remember my teachers saying. “School is not social time.” “Learning this can only help you, it is certainly not to help me.” As I got more and more frustrated at their behavior, I stopped to think. Why did these students think this was acceptable? Although 14 year olds everywhere are at the age where they like to test boundaries, these kids did not even try to hide it. They didn’t whisper, they yelled. They didn’t ask for a bathroom pass when they actually just wanted to see a friend, they just left. Why is it so different? Part of the answer is simple, the schools are under resourced.

It is clear that these students do not have the resources schools in the US have, the desks are old and falling apart, some students sit in plastic chairs instead of a desk at all, there is one textbook for every four or so students and so on, but that doesn’t explain the behavior. The need runs deeper than that. We take for granted the science labs, silly games and ridiculous songs our teachers write up for us. We complain that we need physical education and health and music and history and science and foreign language credits when all we want to do is take art classes. After all when are we going to need to know advanced calculus in real life anyway? But in the public schools of Nicaragua these credits aren’t required. They aren’t even offered. Even if they don’t seem important to every single one of us, no Nicaraguan public school student even has the opportunity to be bored in them, let alone learn from them.

DeskNicaragua’s modern, public education system is only a decade or so old. The Ministry of Education (MINED) is constantly racing to catch up and reform the most basic classes let alone write curriculum for electives or skills based ones. And in reality, the public schools don’t have the resources to hold those types of classes anyway. High School students here are required to take Spanish, Math, Science, Social Studies, English, Physical Education and Art Expression. English is the only foreign language offered in many schools, so there’s no choice there. Physical education consists of boys playing soccer day in and day out with a deflated ball on an asphalt court while girls sit on the tree stumps or pass a volleyball around nearby. Art Expression is limited and generally focuses on singing or drawing because those are the only materials the teachers can obtain. There are no health classes or gym facilities, or in school sports teams to entertain the jock. There are no music or band classes for the guitar player. No home and career or sewing classes to interest the girly girl. No painting, ceramics or upper level drawing classes for the artist. There’s no student government or various other clubs for the class clown to channel his energy into. How could you expect them to want to pay attention when there’s nothing to capture it? No class that is inspiring them to like school? Sure most high school students in the US will tell you they hate school, but can you imagine how they would act if you took away their marine biology, computer design, chorus, business, tech, gym and all other differentiated elective classes? In Nicaragua there are alternate resources to inspire kids, like community art and music schools or business education programs. These are incredible resources that the community worked hard to establish, but unfortunately these are not connected to the schools, so why would the 14 year old artist want to go to high school when he learns about his passions outside of that setting? Why would a jock who is completely disinterested in school as it is care about his grades when they’rae not influential to his position on the baseball team? American students certainly are not perfect. They tend to be more interested in their friends than school too, but at least the school has resources to motivate them to learn, whether it’s by offering a multitude of classes or having a disciplinary program.

Meanwhile, many of the teachers feel like that substitute, helpless and tired. They don’t have the energy to plan the extensive labs or projects and games we students rolled our eyes at. They don’t have the time to plan lessons that are motivating and involve differentiated learning techniques for those who are better at hands-on learning than reading. Teachers in Nicaragua are highly respected and all have college degrees, but they only make $200 a month, that’s $2400 a year. At that rate, many need to work extra jobs on nights and weekends. When you add that to the demand of their families and community obligations, it’s no surprise that teachers are tired.

Furthermore, most schools don’t have the funds to hire janitors. So during every class student volunteers sweep and mop the classroom floors. And they certainly don’t have the funds to create a separate space with an administrator for detention. When students misbehave, it’s hard for teachers to enforce any sort of consequence. Thus, the student who would be in the front seat answering all the questions before they are asked can’t even hear the information over all the other noise of the other students and chaos. So again I ask, why even try? Can you blame them? Would you invest in 15 years of schooling without the solace of sports or electives for the chance to make $2400 a year?

Rebecca Duffy ’16