More Than A Teacher
GALLERY PHOTOS and TEXT by CLARE DIGNAN
Four cement buildings make up Escuela la Arenera, an elementary school in the rural community of La Ceiba in León, Nicaragua. Here, children come to school in flip-flops when they can’t afford uniforms. They sit in worn wooden desks covered with decades-old scribbles and learn in classrooms where a chalkboard and some posters are the only furniture.
Teachers use their own money to buy needed notebooks and pencils for the children. They are the children’s confidants and role models.
Teacher Máxima Orozco gives her all to the school and the kids.
“This school means a lot because this is where I first started teaching,” she said.
She was only 21 at the time. It was 18 years ago, and the school had only one classroom. Today Orozco teaches second grade in a classroom she shares with another grade. When school’s in session, 39 students pack into one room. She struggles with having enough room and enough supplies for everyone, but most of all getting the parents to care about the children’s education.
“My biggest struggle is getting the parents to be supportive and involved,” Orozco said. “We try to get the parents involved with a parent school day, but it’s difficult because of the parents’ work schedules.”
Most parents work at the Yazaki auto parts factory near La Ceiba and are not home when the children get out of school, she said. Because of this, kids often stay with their grandparents or are alone at home.
The children at La Arenera are Orozco’s world. They love her, and her job is never ending. Even during recesses, she is still teaching.
“We are teachers everywhere we go,” she said. “We never stop being teachers.”
Orozco lives only eight blocks from the school, so she is connected to the community of La Ceiba. The children look up to her. “I’m a role model for students,” she said.
Being a teacher is demanding in any part of the world. La Ceiba isn’t an exception.
“If I’m feeling down on myself, how am I going to get the kids engaged?” she said. “You have to have dedication to be a teacher, especially working with young children because they all have different problems. Even when they’re little they have problems.”
The problems they have are usually with their families. Domestic violence against women and children is an issue across Nicaragua. People suffer silently in their homes and often perpetrators are protected by families out of fear. Women often don’t report abuse because they are afraid of receiving more abuse for speaking up or because they feel ashamed. Orozco said the children suffer more because of this.
“One child was abused at home by her uncle,” she said. “The mother would not file a complaint because she said if she did, then her husband would leave her. The child is still living in that home.”
Orozco shared another story about a child who misbehaved at school. She sent the girl home with a note to her parents explaining her poor behavior. The next day, the girl came to school with a black eye. When Orozco asked where she had gotten the injury, the girl told her she had fallen, but when the light shone against the girl’s face, Orozco could see the mark of a shoe.
“I have more success with the children than with the parents,” she said about correcting bad behaviors in the kids. The parents say that the children have a problem with discipline, but Orozco said the parents have discipline problems of their own.
Instead of reporting the children to their parents, she and other teachers at the school work with the students one-on-one to fix problems. Guadalupe Carmona, the principal of Escuela La Arenera, said that when she and other teachers see that a child is shy or aggressive, they talk with the child. Oftentimes the child tells them everything.
“We always say to the children that we love them, that we’re their mothers,” Carmona said. “We talk to them so they can trust us. If they don’t have anyone to trust in their houses, they can have it here.”
When Escuela La Arenera was established in 1980, it was in a house. A landowner across the street from where the school stands today donated part of his property for the school to be established. Ten years later, the government paid to build the first classroom on the donated property.
One-hundred and fifty students in grades first through sixth attend, plus 50 preschoolers. Only eight teachers are responsible for all the kids.
“Here we give the children nourishment. Learning is like bread to them,” Carmona said. “We’re creating new men, so we tell them this is a place they need to respect because it’s special—not only here but all schools.”
Carmona came to La Arenera in 2007 from teaching at a charter school when President Daniel Ortega was first re-elected. That year, he eliminated charter schools in the country, which charged tuition and were much better funded. When Carmona took over the school, the government told her she couldn’t ask for any type of assistance. She couldn’t charge tuition. She couldn’t ask for materials. She couldn’t take the students on field trips. Many schools in the country are just like the one in La Ceiba. They get little assistance from the government, so they suffer.
“We don’t have ideal conditions,” she said. And everyone here shares the same struggle.
Carmona and the other teachers take care of each child at the school by giving them supplies, counseling them and by being a person they can come to and confide in when they are in trouble. It is a demanding job, but Carmona, Orozco and other teachers do it because they believe the children are the future of the country.
The teachers work tirelessly to provide their students with basic education, but they are doing more than teaching the children how to read and write. They support them. They love them. The school receives little assistance from the government and teachers can’t always afford enough materials. But the Escuela la Arenera is still a place the children would rather be. Carmona, a woman of strong religious faith, calls it “a holy place.”