Teacher’s Day in Cuba: Gifts and Taking Stock / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

Secondary school students during a cultural activity. (14ymedio)
Secondary school students during a cultural activity. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 22 December 2015 – On Tuesday there will be no classes in any elementary or secondary school in Cuba. Educator’s Day is a time of celebration, when teachers receive congratulations and gifts. The practice does not compensate for the rigors of the profession, but at least it is a gesture of thanks from parents and students toward professionals who suffer from low salaries and the precarious material conditions of their classrooms.

In the more than 10,350 educational institutions throughout the country, this will be a day of celebration and taking stock. The 2015-2016 school year has barely made it to the end of its first semester, but since the beginning has been hobbled by the deficit of thousands of teachers at the front of the classrooms. Last September, only 95.2% of the demand for teachers was met, but the situation has worsened as the weeks have passed and more teachers have deserted the profession.

Better economic rewards would contribute to reducing the movement to other work, most education professionals agree. Teachers have been waiting for years for a pay increase consistent with the effort they expend, but its coming has been postponed over and over.

“I have been putting off retiring, waiting for a raise, but I can’t wait any longer,” says Melba, 68, a fourth grade teacher in a Havana primary school. After more than three decades of work, the educator says she stays in her job “for love of the profession.” And she adds, “Many of my students today are the children of others I’ve had in the classroom, so I owe it to them.”

In 2014, workers in the public health sector were given a wage increase, some of them seeing a doubling of their salaries to more than 1,000 Cuban pesos a month, the equivalent of about $40 US. However, personnel in the Ministry of Education have not enjoyed a similar benefit.

The authorities in the sector have seized on student volunteers to fill the void left in classrooms by the continued migration of professionals towards better paid activities. More than 10,000 students are helping to meet the deficit in classroom teachers right now, the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) reported last Wednesday.

Substitutes, however, fail to resolve the problem. “They do not come with sufficient preparation and do not last long in the job,” the director of a primary school in Havana’s Cerro district told 14ymedio. “Previously teachers loved their work and prepared the students in different subjects, as well as passing on ethical values, and this is harder and harder to find,” explained an official who asked to remain anonymous.

Yosvel, who served as a teacher of Spanish and literature for a decade, now manufactures footwear for the casual market. “I loved my job, but I love my family and I could no longer bring home the little I was earning,” he says. However, he says he is willing to return to his profession if a salary increase is decreed, because “this is the most beautiful job in the world.”

On the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where thousands of Cubans throng on their way to the United States, Yordon “the prof” sleeps on a makeshift mattress. Born in Sancti Spiritus and trained in the pedagogical institute in his province, he spent four years teaching teach math at a junior high school, but now longs “to work at least in construction in Miami.”

The exodus and desertions affect the whole country, although the situation is more difficult for teachers in the capital and in Matanzas province, according to Minister of Education Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella. Education authorities call for a greater sacrifice and awareness from teachers, but the slogans do not seem sufficient to keep them in front of the blackboard.

In a message sent by the minister for Educator’s Day, she calls on teachers to march “in the vanguard embracing the future.” She adds, “The success of our socialism will depend largely on what we are capable of doing.” The text was read at the morning assembly at countless Cuban schools this morning, a few minutes before the teachers entered the classrooms to share a piece of cake and refreshments.

“Today is one of those days when I was glad I hadn’t asked to retire, but the rest of the year I think about it all the time,” says Melba, whose students, this Tuesday, have brought her gifts ranging from scented soaps to a pen-shaped USB flash drive.