His red-and-white uniform has been washed and ironed, and a blue bandana awaits nearby. Eight-year-old Eddy Alberto is about to start second grade at the Heroes of Yaguajay school in the central Cuba’s province of Sancti Spiritus.
Eddy wants to be a teacher when he grows up, and for a week he's been asking his mother when school will start this year.
“The tragedy starts again on Monday,” his mother, Yanelis, said in a phone interview. “Last year there was no teacher for three months, and a school aide told me they don't have a steady person this year either.
“They are going to ask the librarian to teach,” she said.
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On Monday, more than 1.7 million Cuban students will start the school year at 10,698 educational centers. But they will again face the serious problems that have been plaguing the island’s education system for years, like a shortage of teachers.
The National Statistics and Information Office has reported that in the 2016-2017 school year there were 248,438 teachers, about 21,600 fewer than in 2008, when Cuban ruler Raúl Castro officially succeeded brother Fidel Castro. But a previous NSIO report showed that the loss totaled more than 40,000 teachers in the last decade.
Cuba currently needs another 16,000 teachers to cover its schools. An estimated 10,000 to 13,000 teachers are on the government’s payroll but are not in classrooms because of personal problems or maternity leave, Education Minister Ena Elsa Velázquez acknowledged in a recent interview with Bohemia magazine.
The minister proposed several options for easing the problem, including rehiring retired teachers and using university students to teach in primary and secondary schools. She added that the ministry also has created “a system of moral stimulus” — apparently financial incentives. Provinces that have too many teachers, such as Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, will send some to where they are needed, such as Havana and Matanzas.
Castro has cut the Ministry of Education budget substantially since taking power. Cuban-American economist Carmelo Mesa Lago has estimated that education spending dropped from 14.1 percent of the island’s GDP in 2008 to 10.2 percent in 2015. About 1,800 schools were closed during that period, according to official figures.
“The problem is that nobody wants to be a teacher, because they pay very little and they exploit you,” said Yanelis.
The problem is that nobody wants to be a teacher, because they pay very little and they exploit you.
Yanelys, Cuban mom
The Education Ministry approved a 200-peso per month pay increase last year for teachers with the heaviest class loads. But even now, the median salary of an education professional stands at about 533 pesos — just over $20 per month.
Velázquez also said that conditions at more than 20 percent of all education centers have been ranked as either regular or bad.
The lack of resources available to future teachers has directly impacted the education system. Even officials have publicly recognized the problem. In the province of Cienfuegos, for example, only 58 students applied for three of the more than 20 educational career paths available at the university level. Ten years ago, competition was stiff for those slots.
Cuban academic Armando Chaguaceda said that “the breath and quality that the educational system received for a long time, as well as its accessibility, made Cuba one of the most recognized countries in Latin America.”
But many teachers are leaving the field now “because teachers have not received the proper attention,” Chaguaceda said in a telephone interview from Mexico. “They spent much more money on the emerging teachers’ programs than in justly recognizing the work of thousands of selfless teachers.”
At the beginning of the 21st century, Fidel Castro created schools for Emerging and Integral Teachers, which in just a few months trained primary and high school teachers in order to counter the exodus of professionals.
Dagoberto Valdes, director of the Convivencia studies center, said the country faces an important challenge. “The civility, the ethic and civic education of the kids who graduate from school are shameful. It's something that marks the culture of our people,” he said.
Convivencia, a center in the western province of Pinar del Río that emerged out of the Catholic church, recently issued a report that offered proposals for improving the education system as part of the center's projections for the future of Cuba.
“The country has a serious demographic problem already reflected in the number of people who study,” Valdes said. “Each day there are less people entering the educational system and graduating.”
The number of university graduates has dropped sharply, as well as enrollment, which shrank by more than 78 percent over the last decade.
“We believe that we need a true educational project that brings together the school as well as the family and civil society,” said Valdes, “without ideological shading but grounded on the cultural heritage of the nation.”