Efrain Cornejo (left) rural teacher in El Savador, teaches Robotics. Here, he poses with his students and their award-winning creation, a 360 degree robot that students use to record and spread their culture.
“I know of rural teachers who swim across rivers to get to class. They put their clothes in a plastic bag, swim across the river while holding it up, and get dressed once on dry land. This is what it’s like for us. This is what we do to spread education to every corner of El Salvador” Maestro Efrain Cornejo, El Salvador.
An Interview by Soledad Quartucci
Last week, Primer Impacto, a news show broadcast by Univision television network covered a story of Central American children who travel several kilometers on foot, horseback, on dirt roads and across rivers and mountains to get to school. The story followed a family of five siblings living in a remote area of El Salvador. Each day, they rise before sunrise to embark on the perilous journey to school. Journalist, Ernesto Rivas, of Primer Impacto, traveled to Ahuachapan, El Salvador, and accompanied the children on their journey from home to school. It took them 40 minutes on a small boat, followed by 40 minutes on foot to get to class. With a smile on her face, and wearing a school uniform, Eloisa Garcia, the eldest sister, navigated the small vessel carrying all of her younger siblings to school. She told Rivas that she was happy. Without school, she may have never learned to read or write.
The swamp hides snakes and crocodiles. Thankfully, Rivas reported,“we were lucky and didn’t see any today.” After arriving safely on dry land, the children joined others on the long walk to school.
I was fascinated by the story of these young children’s dedication to their education, and their courage and determination to travel hours through the wilderness to get to school. The piece focused on the dedicated, brave rural children, and left me thinking, What about the rural teachers? What is it like for them? Who are they? What are some of the challenges they face, and What are the most rewarding aspects of teaching rural children in El Salvador?
Below is the story of Efrain Cornejo Rivera. He is a rural teacher in San Vicente, a departamento of El Salvador. After researching rural teachers in El Salvador, I came across an article praising him as an innovative teacher, the recipient of national and international awards. With some research, I was able to locate him, and asked him for an interview. Thankfully, he shared generously of his busy schedule and spoke with me at length.
We talked about his students, the difficulties he faces in the classroom, his views on Salvadoran gangs and his belief that STEM education is the road to transcend poverty, destroy stereotypes, and build a brighter El Salvador. What follows is his story in his own words. Photography, courtesy of Efrain Cornejo Rivera.
El Salvador-A Teacher’s view of His craft and his Culture.
Efrain lives in El Salvador in the department of San Vicente. El Salvador is divided into 14 departments. San Vicente is about an hour from the capital.
My country is a small country, so small in fact, that one can travel across it in just 4 hours. All schools located outside the capital, are considered to be rural schools. I live about a 25 minute drive from my school. I work in the Centro Escolar de Achichilco.
The school is located in Llanos de Achichilco. The name is an indigenous one, and means lugar de aguas cristalinas, the place of the crystalline water. Our school is surrounded by many rivers. Gracias a Dios, thank God, they are not contaminated by the factories, like others in other parts of El Salvador.
The canton is about 20 minutes from the San Vicente zone. Here, the population is small, about 400 families.
Two Worlds Apart-Urban vs. Rural Life in El Salvador
El Salvador is split into two worlds. The rural zone, where people lack basic needs, like potable water, and basic services like electricity. To access water, they dig a hole in the dirt and collect underground water using buckets. They care about the environment and live in a way that seems difficult to urban folk, but to them, their struggles are part of everyday living. When thinking about urban life, I’ve learned that we are not necessarily better off. It seems to me that the comforts of urban life have not appeased us. We are constantly looking for the next best thing, wanting more. People in rural areas of El Salvador have a peaceful charm that we lack. They are kind, hospitable, happy, and welcome others with open arms.
My Students: Family Role in Student Participation
Our student population comes from these rural families, yet our numbers fluctuate a lot depending on US policies and politics. Many families send their children to the United States to reunite with relatives. This affects our student population.
To Help Fathers in the Fields or Go to School-Para Que? For What?
Many of our children’s parents care more about their children’s participation in agricultural labor than in studying. This means that when a young boy reaches age 10 or 12, he may drop out of school at the insistence of his family. Fathers need their labor and want to take them to the fields to work. These families survive on harvesting corn, sugar cane, beans, so there are cycles throughout the school year when we struggle trying to keep our students in the classrooms and coming up with ways to help them so they don’t fall behind.
The Students Who Make it to Our Classrooms Really Want to be There.
One way in which rural teachers help is by participating in a program that makes home visits. We keep track of our students. When they stop coming to class, we visit them at home to find out why.
To make it to the classroom means students negotiated with their parents their desire to learn. These students want to do better than their parents could. They want to know about a world outside the fields. We open up that world for them. We show them opportunities, creativity and hope. If they apply themselves, we teach them that their lives can thrive.
Gender Equity and the Rural Classroom:
Our approach to gender equity is to work every day to destroy the stereotypes that have teachers focusing on boys and labeling courses and activities as classes solo para varoncitos (for young boys, only). Sometimes, we have to convince girls to take chances. Our young girls sometimes buy into the gender stereotypes that knowledge and educational opportunity depends on gender. At times, when we treat them equally, the girls respond with “como soy ninia no lo hago,” since I’m a little girl, I don’t have to do that. We are working on it.
To change stereotypes we teach our students the value of team work. A strong teams need everyone, boys and girls alike.
Girls Vs. Boys: How Do They Do in the Classroom?
Interestingly, we have two phenomenons: rural girls surpass the boys in the classroom. They apply themselves more. Why? The girls rarely miss class. And if they do,“se ponen las pilas,” they charge up and get to work. They don’t settle for missing information, falling behind or not having all the materials. They want to catch up and excel.
Our young boys arrive tired, not only from the long trek to school, but also because they are exhausted after working the fields once they get home from school. Boys don’t ask for what they missed. They don’t ask for copies of materials handed out. So if we measure girls vs. boy performance in the classroom, the girls have better grades.
But sadly, in our rural culture, young girls, regardless of how smart or applied they are, they only tend to study up to the 9th grade. The parents don’t want to invest in an advanced education because the thinking is “para que? Si se me va a juntar o casar, no vale la pena pagar para estudios.” For what? My girl will cohabit or marry someone soon, so what is the point of investing in her education?
Regarding our rural young men, from 1st to 9th grade they tend to demonstrate a bit of lazy tendencies, but, for the dedicated ones who finish, these young men have higher chances to go on to the university and build careers, technical ones or academic ones.
Computer Science, Technology and Rural Girls-Fathers Worry
Sometimes fathers don’t want their daughters to learn computer science. The wide availability of cell phones in El Salvador have brought Facebook and WhatsApp to the rural world. Parents worry about the negative aspects of technology in their daughter’s lives. In keeping technology at bay, some parents feel they are preserving their daughters’ innocence and protecting them from an uncertain world. We are working hard on ways to convince parents that technology can also transform their daughters lives for the better.
A Rural Teacher’s Pedagogical Approach is Different than the Urban one.
El Maestro Rural Se Sacrifica: The Rural Teacher Make Sacrifices Every Day
Our pedagogical approach is different than the approach of an urban teacher. A city teacher demands of his students. In an almost militaristic style, the urban teacher demands learning. The students in these classrooms are receptors of knowledge and don’t question it. We think of the urban teacher as a privileged teacher. All he/she has to do is expect students to learn based on repetition and redundancy of concepts. At home, the urban teacher receives support by urban parents who also pressure their children to memorize information and do well in school. Part of why parents are so involved and tough with urban youth is that there is no future for students who don’t finish school. Kids who don’t do well in urban schools live in the streets. This doesn’t benefit the student nor his family. The urban student receives a strong message from both the teacher and the family that they must study and must do well.
Rural Expectations are very different. Parents tell the kids, “Para que?” For what are you going to study? You want to help me? Let’s go to the fields. Because we are faced with this challenge, we must be very creative in how we bring them to the classroom and keep them coming back.
We have to motivate them. We have to convince them and show them that the sacrifice is worthwhile. We are constantly thinking of creative ways to stimulate them. We want them to have a happy life and to have choices.
If happiness is working along their families in the fields, then we support that. But if they want something else based on studies, then we want them to have those options, too.
We also have the rural families that realize the value of an education. They have suffered from illiteracy, and have experienced discrimination and rejection. These families understand the value of education and want a better life for their children.
Rural Life vs. Urban Life. Which is best?
Most of us live in San Vicente. It is incredible how a simple 20 minute car ride will take you to a drastically different El Salvador. It’s not just economic difference, but also, a way of life.
For those of us who live in an urban world and commute, life in the city is highly unsafe. We cannot, for one-second, leave our doors open. We are always aware of danger. We can get robbed.
This is not the same in rural places. Rural family homes are separated by weak wire fencing, if at all. You could easily cross over into someone else’s home. But, you’d be surprised. Even though they can, they respect someone’s land and they don’t. They even look out for each other.
What It is like for Our Students:
Rural teachers meet with community leaders to come up with projects for our youth. We are encouraged and know we are succeeding when our students continue to make the daily journey to school. I have the comfort of my car driving me to the classroom. My students do not. These students come from way deep inland. They somehow manage without water, electricity and of course, no internet. Even at my school, our internet connection is weak, at best. We have lost coverage. The government does give us funding for internet in the classroom but internet companies don’t service us because we are too remotely located.
Our students carry buckets of water to their homes. Ironically, they have cell phones.
These families don’t have refrigerators or television sets, but they do have cell phones. The children walk on average 3 hours per day. They leave home at about 9 or 10 and arrive around noon. They arrive hungry and with the hope to be able to eat perhaps the one meal that day. Our schools provide food for our students.
Our students receive free lunch and a glass of milk.
Our Day: Sometimes We Don’t Eat. When Students Show up Hungry to Class after a 3 hour Walk, We Give Them What We Have
We start class at 7:30am until noon. From Noon to 1pm we take an hour break. But, for us teacher, there is no break. The parents usually come by while we try to eat and rest. We have to meet with them and talk about how the children are doing or learn why our students will be missing class.
We sacrifice our lunch break and our lunches. Sometimes, we teachers go hungry. We bring our lunches from home but there is nowhere to heat them up. The microwaves are broken and sometimes the electricity does not work. More commonly, we share our lunches with hungry students. This is typically the case for the students who stay for the extended period.
The really motivated students stay to develop their creativity. We lead workshops in music, art, cinema and robotics. We received an award for one of our projects, Quiero Hacer Cine. I Want to Make Film.
Below: Robot Fotografo: (photo robot), designed by the students to capture the beauty of their environments and their history.
Gangs and Youth in El Salvador
Rural youth live immersed in a culture of machismo. They want to show society that they are capable of any challenge, inclusive of attacking their own brothers. To be a man means to hurt others without remorse or feeling; it means disregarding the pain that violence may cause a family.
The way I see it, the rise in gang numbers in El Salvador is directly connected to the US deportation system. The US deportation system has sent waves of young men who had adjusted to American culture back to rural El Salvador. When these youth are deported to El Salvador, they find a country that has little way to enforce rules. Here, they can run wild. They can explode fireworks every day if they want to. Once back in El Salvador, the deported find other deported youth and they start forming groups. These groups look different than the local youth. To the locals, the deported group looks clean cut, well dressed, Americanized, and tattooed.
El Salvadoran views on tattoos is not as open minded as it is in the US. We are more traditional coming from a dictatorial history and strict parenting. The tattoos culture conflicts with our culture. These differences are aggravated by violence at home. Some fathers believe in teaching through beatings or through sacrifices demanded of their children. When the youth is deported from the US back to El Salvador, they are in crisis and find that they don’t fit at home or that at home they are mistreated and so they join or form gangs.
At home they don’t love me. The streets do.
But then, they face the problem of subsistence. So they steal. They take coins from public phones. They teach local youth bad ways. They use marihuana and all sorts of drugs. We have few policemen and weak enforcement of the law.
Rural teachers worry about this, as does the government. Many schools are installing cameras everywhere to prevent drugs from infiltrating our classrooms.
The Government is Doing What it Can to Provide Alternative Spaces for Creative Projects
This is a big problem. The government is trying to prevent gang activity by building recreational homes where youth can engage in healthy activities. In these recreational homes, we teach them values, computer skills, photography, and paint. We have exercise rooms and technology courses. We hope that by providing them with a healthy space they will stop living in the streets.
How Rural Teachers Use Art to Rehabilitate Youth
We try to come up with creative projects. We have introduced them to the making of film shorts. Our students make movies that address local myths, transmit culture and preserve history and national pride. We encourage science and technology, creativity so they can develop not only healthy attitudes but also competency for 21st century skills. Our projects have earned us national and international acclaim. We count our blessings and we are so proud.
Efrain Cornejo’s innovative teaching earned him, and El Salvador, international teaching recognition and awards by Microsoft.
This year my goal is to work in reducing the gender gap in education and especially in training our rural girls in science and technology. We still have a long way to go. We take it day by day.
At the end of the day, politicians, free computers, and empty promises don’t fill classrooms. The true force of change is the teacher, who has to understand his students, be dedicated, creative, passionate and very patient.
Our dream is to rescue our youth, to motivate them so there is no allure in getting off track. Ultimately, we want our youth to stay here in El Salvador, not leave us for the U.S. We want them to invest in their country, to innovate, to continue our fight to be more than a consuming country and instead become creators of opportunity.