In Cuba, the Teachers Are Leaving

October 25, 2012 |

Fernando Ravsberg*

During the past school year 14,000 teachers and professors left the classrooms in Cuba. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Admittedly, it takes skill to write a 1,400-word article about the shortage of teachers and the lack of young people pursuing teaching careers without even once mentioning the low incomes those instructors receive.

Last year, 14,000 teachers left the classroom with medical leave certificates or requesting self-employment licenses, while this summer another 4,000 gave up teaching without excuses. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the slots to study teaching careers are vacant.

In the face of such a situation, not even the best juggler could explain the problem while failing to mention the low wages, the tremendous responsibility that teachers shoulder and the great amount of work they have (since each teacher was required to teach two subjects).

Cuba’s official Juventud Rebelde newspaper gave only a percentage, but the fact is that teachers are missing in nearly 13,000 classrooms, whose seats are being filled with untrained teaching staff – ones being referred to in the street as “instant teachers.”

Readers will note that the newspaper only reflected the opinion of the Deputy Minister of Education, while not a single time did it reflect the opinion of an active teacher or someone who has asked to resign or one of the many students who have turned their backs on teaching careers.

It couldn’t just be professional error. The main responsibility for such omissions perhaps doesn’t lie with the journalists but is the logical result of a structural relationship between the Communist Party and the press whereby self-criticism is not tolerated.

Such omissions prevent an understanding of the causes of the problems or the delineation of responsibilities, turning journalism into the exercise of sterile propaganda that’s incapable of assisting in the transformations being experienced in Cuban society today.

80% of the available university enrollment to study teaching careers were vacant. Photo: Raquel Perez

In any case, a newspaper that considers itself the voice of young communists should apply greater rigor in addressing a topic linked to one of the most important banners of the revolution, the nerve center of society and an area that is fundamental to youth.

As the saying goes, “No one will find the tree by climbing around in the branches”; it’s necessary to get to the root if you want to find solutions, and for that we need to turn back to the days when teaching stopped being a profession that was desired by college-age youth.

We need to find out why thousands of teachers are leaving schools every year since the economic crisis of the 1990s, as well as how this affects efforts to reduce the number of pupils per class or the incorporation of audiovisual equipment, which the teachers themselves have to guard by carrying out night shift duty.

We have to remember that teaching is almost the only industry without a source of income other than one’s salary, meaning that teachers receive no “gifts” or trips like physicians do, nor can they “resolver” (“take care of their problems”) through on-the-job theft like most other workers; they can’t even give private lessons while they’re active.

They receive a monthly salary of no more than $25, which has to go for a whole month of food as well as for buying clothes and grooming products that allow them to come to school with a good appearance. However, a pair of even poor quality shoes will cost them half of what they earn.

I really don’t think that such a poorly paying profession will become the dream of young Cubans, no matter how much this is instilled in them. Teachers must live with dignity, and the most direct means of achieving this is by paying them better wages.

The money spent on education is an investment in Cuba that can be verified daily. In fact, the national economy is supported by the sale of professional services abroad. Nothing produces more wealth than the knowledge of Cuba’s citizens.

This year there is a deficit of 13,000 teachers that will be replaced by non-qualified personnel. Photo: Raquel Perez

The country couldn’t survive today if it hadn’t invested in a massive literacy campaign, the training of tens of thousands of doctors, or in over a million other professionals and dozens of university research centers employing modern technology.

When I first came to Cuba I was impressed by the development of education, its broad scope and particularly how it was the right for everyone, anyone, regardless of their socioeconomic background, to become a college graduate.

The result is that this is the economic base of the nation’s support today. If there are problems in education right now, in the long run these will affect the entire economy. After 20 years of crisis in the sector, to keep repeating the same empty and superficial slogans is nothing more than irresponsible.
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(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.

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  • Moses

    My sister-in-law is a teacher in Cuba. She only makes around 15 cuc, if that. She lives with her (my wife´s) parents so she has a roof over her head and food to eat. Her 15 cuc pays for shampoo, body lotion, and other intimacies and little else. She must spend 1cuc nearly every day for a taxi to and from her school as the public transportation is horrible in her neighborhood. Thanks to our support, she can wear decent clothes and perfume (nothing fancy) as any young woman would wish to do. She LOVES teaching children and has a real gift with children. Despite all the rhetoric, she is teaching her kids ¨to be like Che¨ not because of anything the Castros have done but because of the capitalist system her sister lives in.

    • Luis

      The ‘the capitalist system her sister lives in’ is the one who most asphyxiates Cuban economy, therefore contributing for its underdevelopment and thus the low wages.

      Your sarcasm falls short.

      • Moses

        Despite the asphyxiaton¨ you allege, there are very many things Cuba could do to improve wages. Fewer policemen and internal security goons would free up money for teachers. Less money to subsidize sports would about be an idea. Cuba has obviously convinced you like many others that all their problems would be solved but for that pesky embargo but Cubans on the street know better. So should you Luis,

        • Luis

          “Fewer policemen and internal security goons would free up money for teachers. Less money to subsidize sports would about be an idea.”

          For your information, Cuba expends less than 4 percent of its budget on the military – which normally is more than police force expenditure on any country – way more than what it already spends on education. So your first proposition is completely bogus. Also, sports = health, so it’s also a bad idea.

          “Cuba has obviously convinced you like many others that all their problems would be solved but for that pesky embargo (…)”

          As always, you defend or minimize the impacts of the blockade. No news here.

          “(…) So should you Luis.”

          Please bother to read my later post.

          • Luis

            Damned copy and paste, I meant ‘way less’ – if you follow the link the Wold Bank figures that Cuba spend 18.35% of its budged in education in 2010.

    • Lawrence W

      RE: “She lives with her … parents so she has a roof over her head and food to eat.”

      The implication is she would be on the street starving if she was not able to live with her parents. That is what happens in your country, not in Cuba. There are no starving, homeless Cubans. There are many Americans in this hazardous position, a growing number, as your economy continues to tank. Obama’s cooking the financial and unemployment books at the moment to get re-elected but no one believes these are the real figures.

      RE: “Thanks to our support,…”.

      Handouts from the well off are a long-dishonoured tradition in capitalist countries, known as ‘noblesse oblige’, patriarchalism, etc. The practice involves ‘looking after’ the people you have put in a position that requires them to be looked after. Something like a ‘make-work’ project for the rich.

      If Americans like you worked to end the economic blockade that your country imposes, then it’s almost certain your relative would be able to afford the niceties of life, like shampoo, body lotion and taxis, without having to rely on you to provide them. But you may enjoy your patriarchal privilege.

      The Cuban government provides for the essentials but cannot afford the niceties until your government ends its economic blockade. In your country, the ‘niceties’ are endlessly flogged via marketing propaganda but your government doesn’t supply the essentials. Seems obvious what the preferred system is.

      It must be why your relative continues to teach her kids “to be like Che” – full of ideals and willing to fight for them. It’s certainly why he’s beloved throughout the world. Anybody in your country like that?

      RE: ” there are very many things Cuba could do to improve wages.”

      There is one obvious thing that would improve wages dramatically – removal of the blockade. Cubans can’t do anything about this but YOU can – and won’t. Under the circumstances, telling Cubans what they can do is disingenuous to say the least, stomach-turning more typically.

      RE: “Fewer policemen and internal security goons would free up money for teachers.”

      I see far more police on the street in your country that I ever saw in Cuba. There is nowhere near the crime rate there, citizens don’t go berserk and shoot up schools or movie theatres, there are no street gangs, drug cartels or mafia nor a prison population that is the largest in the world, all requiring, of course, more “security goons” in your country.

      RE: ” Less money to subsidize sports would about be an idea.”

      You don’t like sports? Cubans love them. Everywhere I went I saw sports being practiced – rowing, sky-diving, biking and of course baseball. Not a bad idea, as long as the locked playing fields had a sign saying, “closed due to the US blockade”.

      RE: Cubans ‘knowing better” that economic hardships are not due to the blockade.

      Only those that pay attention to you, friend, but why would they take the word of an American supporting the blockade? You must be crazy. Thank heavens Cubans aren’t.

  • I should think that, if the Cuban version of socialism were to allow farmers and ranchers to own their own lands and utilize them according to sound business principles, Cuba would not need to waste hundreds of millions of dollars purchasing food on the international market, and could easily pay teachers decent, attractive salaries.

    • Zenfanlosean

      Well If the US did not impose an embargo on this amazing country, they would have superseded many countries including the west. Cuba is truly a gender equality. The history of Cuba is a model to the world. Socialism is a danger for the US policies. They wanted to conquer Cuba like they did to half many Mexico lands…

  • Luis

    See Fernando every political measure has two sides, like a coin. The so-called ‘liberalization of market forces’ praised by ‘experts’ that recently happened in Cuba through the economic reforms promoting self-employment attracts professionals from the public sector because they are profitable – you provide data such as ‘14,000 teachers left the classroom with medical leave certificates or requesting self-employment licenses’ which is pretty much self-explanatory. Thus the public services like health and education will suffer because of that, and Cuba is looking more like other underdeveloped countries where nobody wants to be a teacher because it pays poorly compared to other professions.

    You ask that we ‘need to find out why thousands of teachers are leaving schools every year since the economic crisis of the 1990s’ but hey, the answer to that question is crystal clear in its own formulation!

    I agree that ‘repeating the same empty and superficial slogans is nothing more than irresponsible.’ when trying to explain the problem but I ask you: what is to be done to treat this serious problem both in the short-term and long-term? We know that the Cuba already spends a large piece of its budget on education, so where more funds should be transferred in order to pay better wages to teachers? Putting more pupils in the classroom (From an Independent article, one can check that “there is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. As of 2010, secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class.”) will be even worse – it will lower the quality of education.

    Here in Brazil it’s common for the middle class – and the media who alienates them – to promptly shout – ‘the solution for this is education”. But nobody invests in education. Nobody. Because it’s interesting for both the State and the patronage to keep an educational apartheid where only the rich people can pay for reasonable primary and secondary education for their children.

    • Stacey

      I absolutely agree. The issue doesn’t just exist in Cuba. It’s in America. It’s all over the world. Are we all just getting dumber?

  • Lawrence W

    Fernando,

    You write, “We need to find out why thousands of teachers are leaving schools every year since the economic crisis of the 1990s.” At the same time, you advance reasons that are obvious to you and to most readers, I think, writing, “not even the best juggler could explain the problem while failing to mention the low wages, the tremendous responsibility that teachers shoulder and the great amount of work they have.”

    You point out that “Cuba’s official newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, “only reflected the opinion of the Deputy Minister of Education” – not surprising as it is a government publication – “while not a single time did it reflect the opinion of an active teacher or someone who has asked to resign.”

    You write, “The main responsibility for such omissions perhaps doesn’t lie with the journalists but is the logical result of a structural relationship between the Communist Party and the press whereby self-criticism is not tolerated.”

    I’m struggling to understand, as that last sentence fits very well with the situation in my country with just a few word substitutions: “The main responsibility for omissions [of criticism of the elite] perhaps doesn’t lie with the journalists but is the logical result of a structural relationship between the [corporate media] and the press [owned by the elite] whereby self-criticism is not tolerated.”

    It serves as a damning statement of what you get in a capitalist society, but is also an apologia for our weak-willed journalists who sell out in order to enjoy the benefits handed to them by the power structure. The same may be true of journalists writing for Cuba’s official press but we do have in Canada journalists who resist self-serving agendas and write for independent sources, albeit at the cost, many times, of not being able to make a sustainable income.

    I would assume you are acting in this capacity but I guess I don’t understand why, instead of railing on the government for not asking teachers why they don’t want to teach, you don’t ask them yourself and report back. Names don’t have to be reported in order to protect your sources.

    Instead of only offering speculation, why not just report – what a journalist does? In the absence, you are what is called here, a member of the ‘chattering class’ – offering opinions and not facts. Our newspapers have been taken over by these people for a number of reasons – it requires less fact-checking and corporate owners have more control over what is written as they hire the people whose opinions they can trust.

    Referring back to what I first quoted, you noted Cuban teachers started leaving “since the economic crisis of the 1990s.” In other words, the Special Period, when Cuba’s economy collapsed for reasons beyond its control. I think it’s worth noting, the teacher crisis was due to economic reasons, right from the beginning, and still is.

    Another line of insightful journalism I think worth pursuing is trying to understand where the money will come from to raise teachers’ salaries. This is a hot topic right now in the province of Ontario in Canada. In a capitalist society, unions work to get a fair wage from employers who are solid members of the elite 1%, always filthy rich, so unions know money is available.

    That’s not the case in Cuba. There is always some ‘fat’ in every system, but I think we can agree, in Cuba, it’s not enough to fry up your eggs in the morning let alone pay teachers a decent wage. Teachers are very important to a society but so is every occupation. Do they deserve more than others? Where is the money going to come from unless you feel it should be taken away from others?

    It’s quite obvious that Cuba is starved of money. It is equally obvious that this would not be the case if the US economic blockade ended. Until it does, you cannot ‘get blood out of a stone’, as we say in English.

    I would like to urge you to act as an independent journalist. It seems HT is offering you an opportunity to be heard. I welcome good journalism – commonly defined as holding power to account. Chattering is something that we can do without, I think.

  • Stjepan Milev?i?

    “the great amount of work they have (since each teacher was required to teach two subjects).” I used to teach five. And two of them bilingually. welcome to Croatia. ;)