One of the things Peace Corps has given me is time to think…endlessly! Sometimes I think about mundane things like what kind of juice my host mom will surprise me with in the mornings (a small thing that I am so incredibly grateful for) and sometimes bigger things like progress and what that actually even means. Lately I’ve been thinking about just.

Today was the last day of school before a 10-day break for vacation. Naturally, there was a big lunch planned for the teachers by the Teacher’s Association. Since my host mom is the acting vice president, she made sure I was cordially invited. Everyone (about 60 teachers) was treated to chugchucaras, the local typical dish, which consists of fried pork, potatoes, boiled hominy, toasted corn, and plantains. The money for the meal was provided by a raffle that the Association had organized earlier in the week. At the end, all the teachers received a bag of Christmas candy and their savings for the year from the community bank fund.

I realized how little I actually knew about what the Association does and the general finances of the school, so I grilled my host mom at tea tonight. She explained how all the money gets raised for the various fiestas and programs throughout the year and how the Association has a community bank to earn money. Essentially, in the past in all Ecuadorian public schools, the paychecks for the staff were received in a lump sum from the Ministry of Education by the colectoría. The colectora, basically the school accountant, was in charge of distributing the paychecks to the teachers. Each month, the teachers would designate a certain amount of their paycheck to go into the community bank, which was managed by the Association. When a teacher needed a loan throughout the year, they would take money from the general fund and pay it back with interest, thus making money for the Association and the benefit of the school in general.

However, because of a new law, the teachers will now receive their paychecks directly from the Ministry of Education district office. This means there won’t be a need for a colectora and the community bank managed by the Association will be prohibited, which means less money for things like Christmas lunches and dance contests at the school. I could see the sadness on my host mom’s face as she lamented over explaining to me how things were in the past, how grand and elaborate the festivities used to be at the school, how much things have changed in her 30-year career as a public school teacher in this system. I can see from her point of view how much something as small as not having a community bank at the school changes so much.

And you have to remember as a reader in the States how important things like camaraderie and celebrations are in this culture, how your personal relationships speak far more about you as a person than your professional accomplishments, and how important something like sharing a meal or a dance with your colleagues is. For someone looking at the world through this lens, losing something like a Christmas lunch or the opportunity for a dance contest is a huge loss.

Then there’s the other point of view, the side I tend to agree with more as an American. The side that says that elaborate lunches and dance contests during school hours are not appropriate, normally the lunches start at 12:30 or 1 and classes are officially scheduled until 1 or 1:40 for some students. This means the students normally miss one or two hours of class time. And we’re not just talking about a lunch once or twice a year, we’re talking for every major/minor holiday…Day of the Dead (Nov. 2), Christmas (last Friday and today…this was the SECOND Christmas lunch at school), Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, School Festivities (1 week), Father’s Day, National Teacher’s Day, and many more that I’m forgetting.

There’s the argument that time/money spent on those activities should be dedicated to educational purposes for the students. After nearly 2 years, it is still shocking to me to see the amount of money and time that get put into parades, parties, costumes, etc. and the amount of classes that get cancelled for these activities.

There’s the argument that it’s better and more secure for the teachers to receive their paychecks directly from the Ministry. I’ve heard complaints from teachers that at times, they haven’t received their paychecks on time, sometimes waiting weeks. I’ve heard that the auditor for the colectora sometimes doesn’t show up. I want to believe that these problems will be eradicated or at least less likely under the new system but time will tell. And honestly, as a foreigner, who am I to say that the changes in the system are for the best and should be done in the name of “development” and “progess.”

There you have it, my daily mental struggle.

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