Creating a "warm environment' for students is at the top of the wish list in Peru's classrooms. And it's a long fist, in a country where education is not a government priority.
"We must increase teachers' salaries," says HeIi Ocana, an activist who is married with two teenage daughters, working for the Unified Trade Union of Education Workers of Peru (SUTEP). "We must also improve the infrastructure of schools with more libraries, laboratories, computers, furniture and recreational centres. This will create a warm environment."
A Canadian team of teachers had the opportunity to meet Ocana and many other Peruvian education activists this past summer as part of a teaching brigade sponsored by the British Columbia Teachers' Federation (BCTF). The five-member team, including this writer, conducted English language workshops for Peruvian public school teachers in Lima, Arequipa and Iquitos. This was the third summer for the BCTF project.
"We have identified common problems," says Barbara Ryeburn, the brigade's leader and an elementary school teacher in Cranbrcok. "We see that privatization has been widespread, the government spends less on education and there are many shortcomings and deficiencies in health and nutrition among children. These facts sooner rather than later can occur in Canada and we teachers must be prepared to confront and prevent this, because we have already been warned."
But some chaUenges Peruvians confront point to our differences. Despite a wealth of minerals, agriculture and tourism, almost half the 29 miUion citizens Uve in poverty. The country has achieved democratic governance (and voting is compulsory) but comes with a history of authoritarian rule and human rights violations.
"We need to create a setting where parents and teachers and government can interact," says Ocana. "Instead, the government tries to separate parents and teachers."
"The new law takes away previous rights for teaches, including job security," Ocana explains: "Evaluations of teachers are now conducted every three years and it has become easier to lay off teachers."
Ocana also says salary upgrading of teachers has been eroded and the transfer of teachers from one school to another is no longer permitted.
Before becoming involved with SUTEP, Ocana worked as a primary school teacher in Ancash, a region north of Peru where children speak both Spanish and the dominant indigenous language, Quechua. Ocana currently makes his home in Lima where he works full time on the national SUTEP staff.
The English language workshops with BCTF help to improve the image of the union, Ocana believes. This is because despite democratic elections of SUTEP leaders, Peruvian teachers have not always felt well served by their union over its 48 year history.
"The workshops are a vehicle for us to reach teachers because now only a small number of teachers in Peru receive professional help," Ocana says. "This program is open to everyone."
"The language workshops also give Peruvian language teachers an opportunity to interact with native Enghsh speakers and this benefits students as a result," he explains.
"We also develop our friendship with teachers in Canada and Peru," Ocana says. "This is solidarity in action."
SUTEP's members are mostly from the pubhc sector which employs about 140,000 teachers, each making on average $450 a month. About the same number of teachers work in private schools, earning anywhere from $100 to $1,500 a month - and the government is pushing to privatize education further.
Class sizes vary and can range from 15 students in a class in the countryside to more than 45 students in a class in the larger cities. Many teachers work two jobs and, in Lima, have long and chaotic commutes, usually by bus. Teachers receive modest pensions and can be protected with disability benefits if they have health issues. The occupation of substitute teachers does not exist. …