Moraima de Ramirez started teaching math and physics earlier this year at a Seventh Day Adventist school on the outskirts of Caracas called Alejandro Oropeza Castillo Institute. She thought twice before accepting the position — for a good reason.
"Because I am not a teacher,” she explained.
She had been studying to become an engineer, but as Venezuela's economic and social problems worsened, her school closed. She started taking odd jobs, “esthetician, sales clerk, anything I could find. Then the director here where my daughter goes to school asked me if I could fill the vacancy left by the math and physics teacher. My husband was asked to teach chemistry.”
In today's Venezuela, where hyperinflation has devalued currency so much that going to work for a teacher can cost more than the job brings in, some parents are taking on an unusual role. They're filling the slots abandoned by teachers in order to give their children an education.
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Ramirez and her husband receive the same salary that the previous teachers received — 200,000 bolivars an hour, the equivalent of 6½ cents. A fulltime teacher earns approximately $6.50 per month.
Although getting official numbers in Venezuela on how many have left the teaching field is impossible, some organizations have calculated estimates. Se Educa, an educational nonprofit group in Venezuela, estimated that in the first five months of 2018, 12 percent of teachers nationwide have quit. Another group, the National Association of Private Educational Institutions, says 30 percent of teachers have not shown up in their classrooms this year, while the Teachers Association of Venezuela puts the total number of teachers who have left at 20 percent.
“We don’t even know how many schools remain open in Venezuela, how many are really working,” said Tomas Paez, a sociologist from Central University of Venezuela and the author of a book, The Voice of the Venezuelan Diaspora. “Some teachers haven’t even left the country. They’ve just left to do something else.”
As difficult as it is to get reliable data, one thing is clear, he said: “Teachers leave because they spend more money on transportation and food than they receive in salary from the Ministry of Education.”
Nohiralys Sánchez, an administrator at Alejandro Oropeza Castillo Institute and now a teacher as well, said salaries for teachers are set by the government. “Sadly, we cannot pay our teachers enough to keep them,” she said.
She is sitting at her desk in the administrator’s office. An open door leads to a busy hallway, and students keep coming to ask for help. This time, it’s for water. In Caracas, even drinking water is becoming harder to find.
“Teacher, can I have water please?” asked 13-year-old David Chirinos. “My throat is burning. There is no water in the drinking fountain.
”It was a hot June day and the air conditioner was broken. Sánchez ran to get a cup of water from a bottle she keeps in her office.
“I love this school,” she said. “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for the school or the students.”
She added teaching to her responsibilities this year. “When my daughter’s second-grade teacher left, I was asked to step in and teach during the mornings. I had no choice. Our school could not find anyone to teach.
Faced with so many vacant positions and no teachers to fill them, the school feared for the future of the students. The only solution they had was to ask parents to fill the vacancies or close the school. So they requested the parents who had knowledge of certain subjects to come forward and teach.
“When students began to arrive at classes and teachers would not show up, we expressed our deep concerns to the Ministry of Education, but their response was that this was a national problem and therefore they authorized us to proceed with our parent-teachers, regardless of the fact that they were not professional teachers. They congratulated us because we were one of the schools where teachers 'at least resigned.' Most of the time, they just leave,” Sánchez said. “But it is the sad reality. It worries me. I want to help my school but I am concerned about the situation in my country. Children need proper teachers.”
Ramirez, the parent who became the new math and physics teacher, wishes real teachers could fill the positions. But she sees no other solution but to step in and help. “I love my daughter and I want her to graduate from this school. But I also want her to have good teachers. That is not an option as they all are leaving the country.”
In her classroom on a recent weekday, students were enjoying a break. Some were playing cards, some studying and others were chatting. Two high school seniors, Roxelys Sanches and Paola Madera, are among those who feel that classes are not teaching them anything and have lost motivation.
“The teachers are not real,” Roxelys said. “How can we care about what the teacher has to say when we feel that we have to take care of our own knowledge?”
“If we graduate,” Paola added, “we will be at a disadvantage to graduates that had real teachers, and many of us want to be nuclear or mechanical engineers.”
“We need real teachers,” Roxelys said. “Many of us can’t wait to leave the country so we can go to a real university. Here there is no future.”
Another student, Alejandro Figueroa, complained that the surroundings made it hard to learn anything. “I can’t stand the smell in the classroom that comes through the window near the bathroom. Since there’s no water, the toilets don’t flush and it smells like a sewer in here. Also, it’s hot and there’s no water in the drinking fountain. There are problems with the water at home, too.
Even though some students don’t want to come to school any more, Alejandro does. “I need to finish high school because I want to be a maritime engineer,” he said.
Two classrooms down the hall, Evelyn Guzman, the mother of a student with special needs, is preparing to teach Spanish and literature. “I am not a teacher,” she admitted. “I was asked to teach when the teacher left. I like the subject, and I could not say no to a call from my child’s school. I love this school and I want the students to graduate, so I will do my best."
Sánchez — the administrator-teacher — is especially concerned about the national lack of teachers when she hears the students talking. Even the ones who are about to graduate say they don’t want to come to school anymore.
“They feel unmotivated,” Sánchez said. “Some parents have already left the country. This exodus doesn’t only extend to our teachers. We spend a lot of time trying to motivate [students] to not stop studying.”
Belinda Soncini is a photojournalist and documentary photographer from Venezuela. She can be reached at email@example.com.