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“Hot Spot” Interview — Report From Chile

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I recently began a new regular interview series. There are always lots of “hot spots” around the world — places where there are natural disasters, political upheavals, etc. And English teachers can be found in most of those places. If you are an EFL/ESL teacher in one of those areas, please let me know.

Today, Thomas Baker from Chile has agreed to answer a few questions. As the PBS New Hour reported two days ago, Student Education Reform Protests Rock Chile, so this is a particularly timely interview.

Can you tell us what and where you teach, what made you decide on a teaching career, and what brought you to Chile?

My mother and my brother taught me to read when I was four years old. By the time I was five, I knew the multiplication tables backwards and forwards. When I entered first grade my teacher, Mrs. Johnson, discovered I could already read, write and do math at a third grade level. So, she made me her teaching assistant. When my best friend Cedric, for example, had problems reading, Mrs. J. told me to read to Cedric, then have him read what I had read. When the physical education teacher was absent, I was the gym instructor. When the third graders had trouble doing long addition, I was sent to the third grade to help out.

In sum, I’ve been a teacher all my life. When I graduated high schol, I joined the U.S. Army, where I found myself teaching digital electronics and computer fundamentals. After ten years, I studied nursing in Germany at a Berufsfachschule in Bavaria. After graduation, I found myself working with nursing students, teaching fundamentals of bedside nursing. Returning to the California in 1996, I became a Director of Staff Development at a convalescent hospital. In 1999, I became a Clinic Manager at a community health care clinic for a linguistically diverse, economically disadvantaged migrant worker population.

In February, 2001, I came to Chile on a two-week vacation and fell in love with the country. I went home, quit my job, sold my car, and returned to Chile in May, 2011. I began working as an EFL teacher at a binational language institute while simultaneously doing the CELTA course. Last year I completed the dual Universidad Finis Terrae / Bridge Linguatec International DELTA course. It grants the Chilean “Diplomado” and the Bridge Linguatec IDELT, which is recognised in the US at the post-baccalaureate level.

Over the past ten years I have taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) at both the British and the American binational language institutes, public schools, private schools, and universities. Currently, I am the Head of the English Department at SEK International School. We have both the International Baccalaureate Diploma and the Middle Years Program (MYP).

What have been the reasons behind the massive protests in Chile? What role have students been playing?

First of all, the students role has been fundamental. Their creative and determined protests have captured the imagination and support not only of the Chilean people, but of the entire world. As a result, they are now negotiating reforms directly with the President and the Minister of Education. Free university education is number one on the agenda.

What brought the protests about? In short form, inequality, long-term debt, and an unfulfilled dream (hope) of socio-economic mobility are the major reasons behind the protests. Education, in the current system, simply is not a path to upward mobility. Rather it perpetuates the status quo.

To illustrate, a child born to poor parents will attend the free public schools. This means 45 students in a classroom, many children with social and behavioural problems rampant, parents with 8 to 12 years education, and low-paid teachers. The majority of these students graduate high school and begin work thereafter. A minority make it to university, often as the first member of the family to go to university. Often, they do not graduate.

Parents with any disposable income will send their children to a partly-subsidised government school that requires a parental co-pay, besides the government subsidy. In this school you find 35-45 students in a classroom, social and behavioural problems, parents with some education beyond high school, and better-paid teachers. These students do not enter university at a much higher rate than those who attend the free public schools.

The higher socioeconomic status students attend the private schools. Here you find 15-25 students in a classroom, university-educated parents, highly motivated and excellent teachers. These students, across the board, do well on university entrance exams and go on to study lucrative careers.

Adding to this inequality is the difficulty in paying for a university education. If a student from a disadvantaged background somehow makes it to university, it is only possible to pay through obtaining a bank loan. The loan is paid back after graduation, but it implies paying for the next 15 to 25 years, in many instances. That equates to a lifetime of debt, because often suitable employment is not obtained. This means the debt payment is extended.

Have any of your students been involved in them? If they have been, what do they say about them?

My students come from a high socioeconomic background. The issue is a sensitive one for them and their families. Therefore, I do not discuss the issue with my students. This allows them to be influenced directly by, and guided by, their families’ views, and not mine. More importantly, they do not come into intellectual or emotional conflict outside of their home environment.

What do you predict will be the long and short term results of the protests — how will the government ultimately react and how do you think the experience of organizing them will affect the student’s lives?

Predictions, in this case, are easy to make. The students will achieve all, every single one, of their demands. They have the support of over 85% of the population. They are determined and understand how strong their bargaining position is. That’s the short term. In the long term, in the next 20 –25 years, I see Chile as having the best educational system in the world. Nothing less than number one will be acceptable to the people.

In the future, we will find many of the student leaders in politics. The experience of changing a country will be used to make reforms elsewhere. Health care, energy, retirement, and worker’s rights, for example, easily come to mind as issues worthy of the intellect and organizational skills the students have clearly demonstrated they possess in abundance.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

Yes, there is. Chile is an absolutely gorgeous country. The people are friendly, warm, outgoing, gregarious, and hospitable. No one remains a stranger in this country. I’d like to take the opportunity to invite any and all of your readers to visit. Chile is always, in all ways, surprising.

Finally, Larry, thank you very much for interviewing me. It’s an honor and a pleasure for me. I am a fan of yours, and I’d like to encourage you to keep up the good work, as there are many more people like me who greatly appreciate the contribution you make to our teaching lives!

Thanks, Thomas!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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