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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Lessons Learned: Mexico's Day of Independence

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Today is the anniversary of Mexico's independence from Spain. This happened in 1810 when Father Hidalgo rang his church bell and called his little town to action with the "grito" Viva Mexico! The resulting war for an independent free Mexico lasted for 10 years but in many respects it is still going on. As teachers, and as leaders in schools and districts, it's fundamental that we not forget this: The achievement of freedom from the tyranny of ignorance can only happen through education.

During this time each year, I am reminded of when I lived in Mexico for a while when I was younger and I saw how families sacrificed to get their students uniforms, school books, materials, and supplies. Sometimes the older children would go to work just so the younger ones could attend school.

Schools in Mexico

The schools they had then are not what we would call schools in the United States. For example, I had the privilege early in my career to be involved with an exchange program with a school in Guaymas, Mexico. Myself along with a group of fellow teachers and parents from Patagonia, Arizona, traveled down to that little coastal resort town on bus. We were hosted by the local elementary school that put on quite a presentation for us. We toured the cinder block and clay brick school, composed of paired classroom buildings connected with cement walkways. The tiny classrooms contained well worn wooden "mesa bancos" painted school-gray (imagine a long bench with a board fixed at writing height).

We were treated like royalty and each classroom we visited had prepared a "refrigerio" of tamales, puddings, and sweet breads to go along with the well-rehearsed student presentations in broken English. Everyone in our group was amazed that I was able to eat the volume of treats from each classroom that the students eagerly put in our hands.

I explained to them that I could not refuse because I knew that the students rarely ate this richly and it represented a significant sacrifice for these poor families to provide them for us, the distinguished guests. To refuse would have been dishonoring them and I was willing to appear the glutton (back then I could get away with this and not gain a pound, alas, that is no more the case).

Looking around the rooms I remember being shocked by the stark simplicity. A single black board was the only teaching tool. The classrooms had no heating or air-conditioning of any kind and the windows, which consisted of the old fashioned louvered pieces of glass that were supposed to open and close with the twist of a crank, provided light, but little relief from the temperature, weather or the insects. A solitary oscillating fan provided a modicum of relief from the stifling humid heat and a single naked light bulb hung from the ceiling to provide light, but was unused because the fan was plugged into the socket.

Students wore white button up shirts and blue khakis. The school's capacity was 200 and yet 400 students attended the school in two sessions: 7 a.m. to noon, and then, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. We were shocked to learn that the plumbing in the restrooms did not work (and had not worked for years) and there was no water in the school. Students did not constantly ask to use the restroom for obvious reasons. Additionally, students did not eat at school because of the split sessions and the fact that there was no cafeteria. The gym consisted of a concrete slab.

Perseverance and Gratitude

Yet amid all of the deficiencies of this tiny school, these students learned and thrived. Even with its limited resources, students and parents viewed this small school as freedom from the tyranny of ignorance. That evening I could not help but watch in awe and wonder as these school children sang folk songs, danced in flowing colorful skirts and traditional white costumes, performed dramatizations and recited dramatic poetry for parents -- the community and our contingency of visitors.

While I am certain public education has come a long way in Mexico since I was last there, I cannot help but be grateful for the wonderful climate controlled facilities, books, and teaching tools that we have for our students. I hesitate to complain when even in the most humble of portable classrooms where many of us teach, is far better than in what thousands of students in Mexico learn. And learn they do because they value the revolutionary freedom that education brings.

So in honor of Mexican Independence, I say Viva la Revolución! And Viva Educación! What are you grateful for in the American public education system?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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