The Cuban Ministry of Education prohibits teachers’ use of any punishment, whether verbal or physical, on students of all levels of education.
However, although the official media do not report it, through word of mouth from independent journalists, alarming cases of school violence have come to light. In almost all cases they appear to involve teachers with little experience as educators.
A decade ago, Fidel Castro himself made a crusade to produce teachers for the country. Urgently, and with accelerated courses, in one year they trained thousands of “emergent teachers” as they are officially called.
The aim was to overcome the deep crisis in which the national education system was, and is, mired. The low salaries of teachers in primary and secondary means they often spend little time in the classroom, quickly moving on to other jobs.
They desert their profession to work where they can earn foreign exchange, as porters at a hotel or cleaning bathrooms in a restaurant. Into one of these vacant positions 19-year-old Fernanda moved, as a teacher at October 10th Elementary School.
Fernanda lives with her family in an uncomfortable two room house, with three generations under one roof. Breakfast is almost nothing, when she even has it; her salary of 325 pesos (13 dollars a month), does not cover her expenses. She enrolled for a little excitement and to earn some money and become independent. But she doesn’t really have a vocation for teaching and the poor pedagogical skills she acquired don’t help her in her battle with some twenty children between six and eight-years-old.
In her case, as in others’, they often make up for their deficiencies with insults and profanity. And when they run out of patience, they try a smack of ruler or a stick on student’s head or shoulders to make them be quiet and pay attention.
A parent who requested anonymity said her daughter refuses to have anything to do with the teacher Fernanda and she had to take her to a psychologist. And that’s not an isolated case. Norge, 36, a father of two who are in the 3rd and 5th grades in another school in the city, said the verbal and physical violence is alarming.
On top of all this, there is the poor quality of the education. Parents pay between 10 and 20 convertible pesos (12 to 25 dollars) a month to retired teachers who give their children “refresher courses” so that they can learn something.
When a teenager finishes high school and doesn’t make it into the university, he has the choice of studying Teaching or Medicine, the least demanding of the courses of higher education. They’ve been devalued so much that they call them “junk careers” or garbage.
Violence on the part of teachers has led to tragic events. On February 1, 2008, 21-year-old Joaquin Torres, “emergent teacher” at Domingo Sarmiento secondary school, in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana, threw an iron chair at a 12-year-old student, Daniel Castaneda, killing him.
That same year at Antonio Aucar Secondary School in Santa Clara, the “emergent teacher” Yaniel Basail, punched the student Daniel Castellanos and kicked him in the face for refusing to eat the bread with mortadella and a glass of soy yogurt offered through the government’s “Battle of Ideas” program.
Not a few parents who have lost patience have taken justice into their own hands, and have gone to the schools to beat the young teachers.
On November 13, 2009, Leafer Perez reported on Cubanet, “School violence that shook up several secondary schools in the 10th of October Municipaility, has reached new levels, which worries the students’ parents.
“In the first days of November, a fight involved dozens of students at Cesar Escalante and Jose Maria Heredia schools. In the dispute, a teacher was wounded in the arm with a knife, and several students received grave injuries. It all started as a challenge between the two schools, which grew into an exchange of gestures and verbal insults, culminating in a huge brawl.
The school principals met with the parents to ask them to check their children’s backpacks, to make sure they weren’t carrying knives, awls and other aggressive weapons to school. Students who repeatedly resort to violence will be dealt with by officials from the Department for the Care of Children in the Ministry of the Interior.
“The addresses for these centers met with parents to ask them to check their backpacks, to prevent their children to carry knives, punches or other articles used for aggression. Students in violent repeat offenders will be treated by members of the Child Care Department of the Ministry of Interior.
“On the other hand, the boys say they have sex in the bathrooms, and the kids who are a part of the subculture known as “emos” get together during recess to cut themselves. They don’t cut their veins, rather they cut into their legs because they can cover the wounds with stockings.”
The Education Minister, Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella, has not spoken publicly about the increased violence in Cuban schools. The official silence does nothing to curb the situation. On the contrary, it aggravates it. The government should take action on the matter. As soon as possible.
October 13, 2010