To Improve Quality, Peru Launches Teacher Training

A glut of teachers in Peru has driven down quality, leaving some of the country's most challenging children with little support. The country is starting a massive training program, but teachers are suspicious the effort is meant to push them out.

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In Peru, there are 100,000 unemployed teachers. And even for teachers who do have jobs, there's a morale problem throughout the profession. Peru's government is trying to help teachers with an aggressive training program. But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, teachers are afraid it's just an attempt to embarrass them.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Years ago, Peru tried to improve education by creating more educators. That led to a boom in teacher academies and to a glut of poorly trained teachers. Racquel Villaseca(ph) at the Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, says the reputation of the profession has hit rock bottom.

Ms. RACQUEL VILLASECA (Cayetano Heredia University): (Through Translator) Two decades ago, teachers had a very good standing in the community. They were highly respected. But not anymore. In Peru, we say that anyone can become a teacher. No one respects them.

ABRAMSON: Peru's President Alan Garcia says the solution to the problem is to boost the skills and self-confidence of teachers. So he's organized a massive training program.

Ms. MARIA ELENA SOSA (Trainer): (Spanish spoken)

ABRAMSON: On a recent Saturday afternoon, Maria Elena Sosa stood before a class of about 40 educators gathered in a classroom at Cayetano Heredia University. For the next six months, these teachers will give up every single weekend so they can reexamine why they got into the profession. Sosa leads the group through some exercises meant to build self-confidence and to get them to think independently.

Ms. SOSA: (Through Translator) Unfortunately, one of the things I observe is that teachers can be very literal. They take good direction but have little initiative. They apply the program as directed by the ministry without making it work for their students.

ABRAMSON: Teachers say they welcome this chance to improve themselves but they're not happy about working for free. Teachers receive no extra pay for attending these sessions. That's tough to take especially when teachers here earn an average of about $250 a month. Urma Rivera teaches second graders outside Lima.

Ms. URMA RIVERA (Teacher): (Through Translator) We don't get paid a dime for this and we are here on the weekends. But I'm OK with that. I think it will make me a better teacher. It would be good to at least get reimbursed for expenses. We do pay for transportation and food.

ABRAMSON: To demonstrate the need for the training, the government forced teachers to take a competency exam last year. Some refused fearing the government was looking for an excuse to fire them. Vacovia Saca(ph) at Cayetano Heredia University says their fears were born out when the government printed the scores which were bad in the newspaper.

Ms. VACOVIA SACA (ph) (Teacher): (Through Translator) Tests should be applied to get a sense of where things stand. They shouldn't be used, like in this case, last year, to embarrass anybody. It was a huge humiliation for the teachers.

ABRAMSON: But the National Teachers Union helped inflame mistrust by saying the government did have plans to fire teachers who tested badly. Faracio Ledesma(ph) is a supervisor with the education ministry.

Ms. FARACIO LEDESMA(ph) (Supervisor, Education Ministry): (Through Translator) At the beginning, it was very political. The union was giving out false information. They're scaring teachers that they would lose their jobs if they took the test. Even telling them not to trust the government.

ABRAMSON: The head of the union refused to speak to us and said he didn't really care what we wrote. That's yet another indication of just how politicized education has become here. But there are signs the training could make a difficult situation a little bit better. Here at school number 2043 at a poor Lima neighborhood called Komas, teacher Juana Vilcapoma(ph) is teaching her first graders about plants. The kids are totally distracted. Vilcapoma is a 20-year veteran but she's having a hard time keeping order at the end of the day.

(Soundbite of Vilcapoma's class)

ABRAMSON: But now, Vilcapoma has help. A trainer from the university is watching and coaching her. Having this kind of help is a big deal for teachers who've been on their own but it will be hard to save the pain many still feel. Martina Tupak Yupangki(ph), another teacher at this school, breaks down in tears when she talks about the image of her profession.

Ms. MARTINA TUPAK YUPANGKI(ph) (Teacher): (Through Translator) We've always been blamed for the failures in Peru's education system. And it's not right. Peru's poor administration is to blame, not teachers. The insults that we've received in the last few years have completely crossed the line.

ABRAMSON: The training program may help but what educators in Peru really need is an end to political feuding in the classroom. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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