THEY would rather engage their pupils and students face to face, but two Cuban teachers of Spanish believe that their messages are still resonating with their young constituents through the 'in thing' model of online learning.
Deysi Garcia Basulto and Alexander Marrero Zayas, both veterans of over 20 years in the classroom who are teaching outside of Cuba for the first time, have vowed not to drop the ball as they continue to play their part in educating young Jamaicans about a language that is the mother tongue of their country of birth.
They are part of an 83-member contingent, or Cuban Education Brigade, who have been given minimum three-year contracts to impart their knowledge on key areas of learning in 68 schools. Apart from the 51 who teach Spanish, nationally, there are 13 who share what they know about the science subjects – physics, chemistry and agricultural science; 18 in mathematics; and one for physical education.
Forty-six of the teachers work in 41 primary schools, 33 in 24 high schools, and four in three teachers' colleges, reaching a total of 35,665 students according to brigade coordinator Dr Reynel Isalgue, a former teacher of physics in his native land.
For Garcia Basulto, who teaches Spanish at Naggo Head Primary School in Portmore, St Catherine, July will mark two years that she has been here, and she has enjoyed every moment of her time despite the challenge of not seeing her little people in the flesh in a year.
“I miss my students, but the activity of teaching online [since March 13, 2020], I don't find it so difficult. We just need to be prepared to go on the different platforms they use, like Zoom and Google Classroom. We have to prepare our lessons in the best way that students can learn.
“It's not the same as face-to-face but we are doing it and I think we are doing it well. The only thing is just to keep our students engaged with the content during the lessons because they are at home, and sometimes you don't see them because you are doing other things on the camera,” Garcia Basulto stated.
“Teaching Spanish during the pandemic can go very well. The students are very engaged; they like learning Spanish. And also, the parents are very involved in helping them to understand, to go on to the devices and so on,” she went on.
Marrero Zayas teaches at St Francis Primary and Infant School in Cross Roads, St Andrew, and has been in Jamaica for two and a half years.
“For me it's not so difficult. The only difficulty was when everybody was just starting out online, but nowadays everybody is comfortable. Students can learn at their own paces. Face-to-face is better because that's how we have collaboration with the students and we guide them better, so they can also learn from one another. But today's students like technology and so we can combine the face-to-face with technology, which works.
“It is all online now, and the students still like us. They make us feel warm and welcome,” he added. “Oh yes, the first time the students saw me as their Spanish teacher they would run up to me and say 'Spanish teacher, Spanish teacher,' and when you are leaving the school they say 'Adios, Spanish teacher,' so it has been very comforting.”
“They like us very much,” Garcia Basulto, the mother of two sons – a senior medical student aged 22 and a 13-year-old – interjected. “Sometimes they write on the [cellular phone or tablet] screens 'Miss, we miss you. Miss, we love you,' so I have to assure them that because of the virus we cannot be around them anymore.
“Our working conditions are good. We are okay, comfortable. We have the possibility to find out everything we need, we have our devices, so we are prepared – and we are always looking for videos, and preparing material for students so they can manage the content.
“We impress upon the students that Spanish is so important to learn. Some of them would like to be professionals and they just need to prepare for the tests they have to pass. They know that if they are prepared in Spanish they can get into very good universities, also they know that in Cuba they can go there to study medicine, teaching, engineering. There are many programmes so there is the importance of learning Spanish, and we create that in them from the primary level because those are very good ages to start learning a foreign language. So, introduce Espanol at pre-school, taking into account how to pronounce,” Garcia Basulto suggested.
“I prepare my lessons on my phone and teach from it,” she continued, physically going into her cellular phone to demonstrate how aspects of the work are carried out for the more than 800 children whom she teaches at grades four, five and six, covering 27 classes, sometimes up to eight per day.
Getting the students to interact among themselves and playing lead roles that bring their leadership skills to the forefront during sessions is also a method that she uses frequently.
Marrero Zayas, who teaches 25 classes involving over 850 children from infant level through to the sixth grade at St Francis, and Garcia Basulto, both asserted that the job is not too difficult for them to succeed and they remain committed to doing what they came to Jamaica for – as long as they are strong enough to function in classroom situations that last between 30 and 45 minutes, usually between the hours of 8:00 am and 2:00 pm, Monday through Friday.
Now, what do they do for fun at the height of a pandemic that has been unkind to so many across the globe?
“We can't go out. I just continue working after school by watching videos, [surfing] the Internet, and preparing for the next lesson,” Garcia Basulto revealed.
“Before this [COVID-19] we used to visit our friends, for example we used to go to Ocho Rios with friends and enjoy the nice, beautiful beaches,” Marrero Zayas jumped in.
“The north part of the island is wonderful,” Garcia Basulto stepped back in. “I had the opportunity to visit Dunn's River and it was an amazing place.”
“And Margaritaville is a lovely place,” Marrero Zayas popped in again.
“Some teachers from Ascot [High] School who are our friends last took us there about November last year. Now we are confined to home, watching videos, doing exercises, and checking the work that we assign the students,” said Garcia Basulto.
Growing medicinal plants like aloe vera is another way Marrero Zayas finds to relax, sometimes even in a strange way. “I cultivate my plants and talk to them. I will say 'Hello, my aloe vera. How are you today?' ” Marrero Zayas put forward.
Their families not being here with them means that they have to make their frequent Internet links up north. Marrero Zayas's older child, a son aged 27, is a Seventh-day Adventist church pastor, “and he does not eat pork, no pork”, insisted his dad, emphasising that the meat which is so popular and widely consumed in the socialist country remains scorned by members of that religious faith. Marrero Zayas's daughter is a 20-year-old student.
“Although we are far away from our families, we enjoy it in Jamaica. The school where you are is your family too, so we feel fine,” Marrero Zayas said.
Like many Cubans, the two are hiccupped by Jamaica's spicy food, Garcia Basulto saying “It's very, very spicy. I like pepper but here is too much. I can eat it but it's too much.”
“I like pepper. I like patty although it's very spicy, I also [like] curry chicken,” Marrero Zayas submitted.
“You have to take one bite from the patty then drink juice or something with sugar to combat the pepper,” added Garcia Basulto.
As for going on to teach in other countries, the two would welcome the opportunity as they believe it would be good to learn from others and get accustomed to other cultures. They would even be able to teach other subjects, if required, like English, social studies, mathematics, history, and the arts, which they do in Cuba.
There are other teachers in the brigade who have taught in other places, like Africa and the Caribbean.
Cuban teachers have been assigned to all parishes, except Trelawny. Although their contracts are usually for three years, it is normal for school principals to request of the Cuban authorities that the teacher spends another year. Some take up the offer, others who miss their families decline it.
“Cuba wants to continue the collaboration with Jamaica in teaching,” Dr Isalgue insisted.