Future teachers gain classroom insight on NLU trip to Mexico
By Mark Donahue
Earlier this month a group of NLU students, faculty and staff returned from a first-of-its-kind trip to Mexico — one that's left an impression some participants feel could last a lifetime.
The group — including 10 students from the undergraduate elementary education program, two professors and two staff members — went to Guadalajara, Mexico, to observe teachers in action, meet and share ideas with their counterparts at two teacher-training universities, and generally soak in the country's culture.
It's all part of the Chicago Teacher Partnership Program (CTPP) grant, which was awarded to a group of select Chicago universities including NLU to prepare teachers in high-need Chicago public elementary schools. Many students in these schools come from Mexico or have parents who immigrated, and they face challenges of culture and language that the trip's organizers hope this group of future teachers can help bridge.
"I know that a lot of students come here from over there, so I wanted to know what they were used to — like how their education was and what they expected, and if there was any way I could help them," said sophomore Emmeline Ocampo. "I wanted to understand them first."
Ocampo was part of the group of students that also included junior Frissia Sanchez and sophomore Susan Patzan. The main chunk of their itinerary involved classroom observation in a wide range of schools, from those in and around Guadalajara to rural locations. Particularly moving was a night school for children from low-income households who must also work during the day to support their families.
"I think it was really powerful for students because they could actually sit and observe teachers actually teaching, and they could interact with the kids and talk to the kids," said Deborah O'Connor, an assistant professor in the National College of Education who went on the trip.
O'Connor said the classes the group observed averaged 30-50 students, higher than in the U.S. And depending on each school's principal, the NLU visitors were allowed to speak to the children, in some cases helping them with work in class.
The NLU group was greeted warmly at all the sites they visited (see right) and also met with students and faculty at two of Mexico's top teacher-training universities: the University del Valle de Atemajac (UNIVA) and the Supreme Normal School. Ocampo said the process of becoming a teacher in Mexico is virtually the same as in the U.S., and many of the issues faced by teachers in both countries are similar.
"We would tell [the university students] about the problems we had," said Ocampo, "and they would tell us, 'Oh, we have the same problem, and that's what I want to work for, that's what I want to do, that's why I'm studying. We want to change how the education works here.' And were like, 'Oh, well so do we.'"
There were some issues not faced at home that the group did notice in the Mexican schools. For starters, there is a greater economic gulf between the rich and poor, and it was reflected in places like the school for the children of migrant workers they visited. Patzan noted that Americans take their standard of living for granted, and the trip taught her to take a step back, "to be grateful for what we do have here, to be grateful for everything that I have, even if that's a minimum because there are children out there who have barely that," she said.
The group collected a list of the pros and cons of what they saw, and they were given a unique opportunity to present these findings toward the end of their trip to a special panel of the Mexican Department of Education.
They found, for example, a disparity in technology and classroom decoration among the schools. Some had computers, but they were broken. Others had items like smart boards, but the teachers didn't know how to use them. In other schools, the walls were bare, not even displaying students' work.
O'Connor said she also noticed that Mexican teachers liked to do one-on-one assessment with students, which left the rest of a large class to their own devices. These students were not being engaged as a group in these moments but were at least well behaved. Ocampo, Sanchez and Patzan all noted that Mexican students were generally respectful and enjoyed a level of freedom not found in American classrooms (freer permission to talk, to use the bathroom unaccompanied, etc.).
Mexican students also took a great amount of pride in being Mexican citizens, they said. Every Monday all schools in Mexico stage a flag-honoring ceremony that involves a pledge of allegiance and a singing of the national anthem.
This kind of pride of place is ingrained in the children who emigrate to the U.S., Ocampo said. She believes American teachers might misinterpret this deep comradery as insularity and fail to reach out to Mexican ESL students — something she hopes to avoid as a teacher.
All of the NLU students interviewed echoed this, saying the trip made an impact on them — one they hope will help them when they go into the classroom.
"It makes me feel that I can be more compassionate toward the students regardless of any background," Sanchez said.
O'Connor added that she'd like to organize another trip next year, the final year of the CTPP grant. She's also looking into possible partnerships with the Mexican universities they visited, perhaps hosting Mexican students in Chicago to observe the American education system.
The ultimate goal is to help future teachers gain a better understanding of those they'll be helping, and that includes not only ways to better connect them to curriculum but to connect with them as human beings.
"Knowing that teaching isn't just teaching with numbers," Patzan said. "That you can make a difference by just simply giving a child a smile. Maybe that child hasn't seen a smile all day or in weeks at his house, and just being able to smile to that child I think showed me a lot."