I know schools. I spend my life in schools. I study schools, I work in schools, I pretty much live in schools. And school here in Mexico…Well, it’s different.
My head swims with a constant stream of, “Wow. In the States, it’s like X, but in Mexico, it’s like X.” Some are improvements, some are infuriating, and some are just baffling cultural differences. But different nonetheless. Never mind that I am teaching at an “American” school. This place is definitely not American. Plus, I get the added benefit of Anna being in a local Montessori program, a non-Americanized (but still private, so relatively affluent) school. And man! These schools are just…different.
Here are just a few of the things that just don’t match up between American and this little sample of Mexican schools (with the full acknowledgement that my n=2 sample is skewed heavily toward upper-class Mexico).
In the US, we are paranoid about food allergies and razors stuck in apples and sugar and industrial food additives making their way into our school. And so we have this odd mix of highly processed, barely nutritious school lunches served in BPA-filled plastic wrap coupled with draconian rules about no home-cooked food, no sweets ever, no remotely allergic food.
Here in Mexico, the school cafeteria serves up home-cooked Mexican food (enfrijoladas, barbacoa tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, ceviche) alongside fresh-squeezed orange juice, a fruit bar…and cookies and aguafrescas and popsicles. And pretty much every Friday, there is a bake sale for the whole school, with more sugary delicious sweetness (much of it home-baked) than even a local bakery.
In the US, when your child gets bit at school, you sign legal paperwork and go for rabies tests and maybe the biter gets put in solitary confinement for the remainder of his or her academic career.
Here in Mexico, you are lucky if you get told within the week, if at all. And then it’s accompanied by, “Oh, Isabella? Yeah, she’s not a very nice girl. Sorry!”
In the US, we are generally paranoid about safety and lawsuits.
Here in Mexico, my toddler COOKS at school. Cooks. As in bakes. And uses scissors. And the playgrounds are Metal Playgrounds of Death.
In the US, entertainment at school is tightly monitored. Movies watched at school are maybe PG—and if not, they require parent notification and permission. Music at school dances is likely to be screened to some degree for appropriate lyrics.
Here in Mexico, kids watch horror movies at school. You know, movies the teacher actually shows. And at the middle school dance a few weeks ago, it ended with a rousing all-school sing-along to LFMAO’s Shots.
In the US, we are Puritans, and so we have dress codes intended to enforce our Puritanical fears of The Body.
Here in Mexico, we have a dress code, too. It goes something like this: No short shorts. No spaghetti straps. But see-through shirts, backless shirts, skin tight party dresses, belly shirts…no problem!
In the US, wearing hats indoors is considered impolite, an educational distraction, and perhaps a sign of gang affiliation.
Here in Mexico, I have to suppress the urge to confiscate the flat-brimmed sports caps that my boys wear backwards to school. Because here…¡esta bien!
In the US, even in the most challenging schools, we expect students to pay attention. We teach students to pay attention.
Here in Mexico, my students never. stop. talking. Ever.
In the US, there are a gajillion school rules about behavior in shared public spaces: Walking in straight lines. No running in halls. Waiting in line in the cafeteria and saying please and thank you.
Here in Mexico, well, it’s sometimes kind of a free for all. Take the cafeteria…ah, the cafeteria, where a crush of bodies swarms the cash register, shoving money over one another’s heads, cutting in front of one another (even teachers!), shouting for attention and demanding food. (The cafeteria brings out my Inner German. And wishes my mother were here to teach all of these kids how important it is to treat everyone—everyone, including the cafeteria clerks—with genuine respect and like a dignified human being.)
In the US, if I don’t get my students to clean up my classroom at the end of the day—stack chairs on desks, pick up stray papers and trash, put things away—I get a scolding from the janitor (and maybe even the principal).
Here in Mexico, the cleaning crew looks at me like I’m crazy when I apologize for the mess that another teacher has left in my room. And my students look like I’m crazy when I ask them to pick up the kleenex they just threw on the floor.
In the US, schools are often quiet places. We are under the illusion that serious work should be going on!
Here in Mexico, students erupt into chants and cheers right outside my classroom. All. Day. Long. The seniors have a stereo system from which they blast, “I Don’t Care,” at the end of every day. When I’m still teaching. It’s just loud.
In the US, when parents interact with their kids at school, it is often kind of stilted. Mom-the-enforcer, Mom-the-enabler, or Mom-and-kid-against-the-world. You don’t get a whole lot of glimpses into the actual relationship. There is a seriousness to it all. Evidence A: One of my American students (a straight A student) was so nervous for her portfolio conference. And her parents, who I know love her very much, were stone-faced. They sat separate from her and watched her videos intensely, without smiling. At the end, when I asked her how it went, her mother’s comment was, “Well, you made us laugh, so that’s good.” I guess her mom laughs without laughing?!
Here in Mexico, parents are first and foremost parents. Watching Mamí and Papá at conferences, they are adoring admirers of their children, holding their hands with pride, showering their child with besos and declarations of, “¡Mi amor!” There are no qualms, no shyness about expressing love for their children in public. Through portfolio conferences, they are smiling and laughing and talking with their children, and their children—even the rascalliest of them—are eager to show their parents their work. They actually talk to their parents, and they seem to like talking and sharing with their parents. The love and affection is palpable. Even at school.
In the US, my relationship with those parents is all too commonly adversarial.
Here in Mexico, I am showered with kisses and expressions of gratitude and inquiries about my own family.
In the US, students grunt and shuffle as they come and go from my classroom.
Here in Mexico, every class ends with a chorus of, “Miss, thank you for the class!” No matter if I was Mean Ms. Gibson or Nice Ms. Gibson that hour. It never fails: “Miss, thank you for the class!”
In the US, we are trained not to touch our students. Ever. Maybe an impersonal pat on the head or shoulder. But anything else…surely a lawsuit lying in wait!
Here in Mexico, the hugs and kisses flow freely. Between kids and me. Between parents and me. Between males and females. When kids don’t give me a beso, they are scolded by their parents, in the same way I might urge my children to say please or thank you.
In the US, when there are government-mandated standardized tests, we pretend like the school is Fort Knox. We pretend no one has ever seen the test, we pretend like they are accurate measures of student learning, and we pretend like taking the tests is as secure a procedure as, say, entering the CIA.
Here in Mexico, the state-mandated tests were sold by the government to teachers around Jalisco (none at my school, fortunately!) a few weeks before the ENLACE began. And everyone knows they’re a sham. So the six hours of testing is full of kids hanging out in the bathroom, strolling to the cafeteria to buy empanadas, and randomly filling in bubbles on a scantron sheet.
In the US, everything these days seems to be about learning goals and targets, meeting standards, performance on standardized assessments, basic skills, maximizing instructional time, and Serious Schooling. No Excuses is supposed to be every educator’s mantra.
Here in Mexico, our first question seems to be, “Are they having fun?”
In the US, by middle school, kids are surly. No one admits that they might possibly like school. It is de rigeur for adolescents to hate school, hate adults, hate teachers.
Here in Mexico, my kids like coming to school. Really. They will happily wile away their free time–lunch, recess, after school–just hanging and talking with us. They’re not surly. They actually like us, their teachers.
So there you have it. A school year into this Mexican teaching gig and I can say this: My kids are sweet. Their parents are sweet. We don’t always learn a whole lot, but we enjoy one another. And we are definitely having fun. And that counts for something, right?
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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