In the summer for 5 weeks, the HIERD hosted Hugo Ivan Aguilar Estrada, a university student and special education teacher from Mexico as an intern. During his stay in Budapest, he learned about the Hungarian education system, the recent changes, reforms and the current challenges.
He joined in some tasks of the HIERD, led by her mentor Márta Hunya. Aguilar holds a Bachelor degree in Special Education (which he studied in Tepic), and another in Telematics Engineering (from the University of Guadalajara) and is currently working towards his Masters in Education, at the Autonomous University of Nayarit. He’s writing his thesis about the use of ICT in public education (kindergarten, primary and secondary schools) in Nayarit, and had contacted the HIERD in order to be able to write a strong state of art chapter, and provide some strategies and best practices. After being awarded his first diploma, he started teaching in a special education school, where children with learning disabilities, developmental challenges, mental and physical diseases learned together. He stayed there for almost 3 years, and then transferred to a mainstream primary school where he continued to work with special needs students. He expressed his gratefulness to Ms. Hunya during our talk. We have asked him to tell us about his personal impressions on the Mexican education system a couple of weeks after he had started his internship.
During your education, did you have teachers who were really exemplary, whom you thought are how teachers should be? How were they, why were they such good teachers?
Yes, I had the fortune to be part of the class of José Luís Lopez at the University of Guadalajara, who is a professional with a huge amount of knowledge and a lot of competence. His area is telecommunications. Not only is he knowledgeable, but he has an attitude of helpfulness towards the groups of students. He always tries to find the best way for the student to achieve the goals of the course. I have an excellent memory of him.
Also at my present university, there is a teacher, Patricia Ramirez, who is also outstanding in terms of human attitude combined with deep knowledge in her area. An aim of the university is to promote analysis, reflection and practice on the new demands for teacher performance; Sometimes it gets tricky in class, as there are so many different opinions, which sometimes clash with one another. This professor manages classroom debates very well, she is capable of taking on different points of view, and does her best to understand the arguments of the students. She really makes us understand different paradigms, and what are the influences on our opinions: our background, our focus… She has a lot of experience, and I think she is capable of understanding what goes on in the minds of her students.
You have been talking about university professors. Were there some teachers before this period that had an influence on you? You have chosen to become a teacher – was there an inspiration that motivated your decision?
This is a bit of a family tradition: my mother is also a teacher. I am sure that somehow this also generates some influence. My 6th grade teacher also was very nice and very competent. During our lunch breaks, he used to organise basketball and baseball games time to time. What I saw is that he enjoyed what he was doing. Maybe he is the one I could say I would like to resemble as a teacher in my career. He probably had an influence in my decision to become a teacher.
You have been in Hungary for a couple of weeks now. What are your impressions, how do they compare to your Mexican background?
I have only spent very little time in Hungary, and I cannot give an objective and extensive assessment, however I think we have some similar social and educational issues. For example, the reputation of teachers is similarly problematic in both countries.
My area of interest is the use of ICT in education, and I find some similar challenges in the Hungarian and Mexican education systems. First, the conditions are not yet well suited for the needs of ICT use, for example, sometimes the internet connection provided to schools is too slow. Nevertheless, even when the necessary infrastructure is guaranteed, teachers might not have the competence to incorporate ICT use in their subjects. Therefore, our countries should create more opportunities for training teachers in this domain. Even when teachers do have the necessary competence, some choose not to use information technology in class. A reason for this might be that the Mexican curriculum is not very specific about ICT use, and leaves room for the teachers’ preference.
There are some unofficial ideas in Mexico nowadays. One is that someday students should all have their own devices in school. I think this is quite controversial, as there are huge differences in the socio-economic status of students. So what will happen, would the government provide a device for less well-off students? Where would they draw the line as to who is eligible for a free device and who’s not, how can we determine which family could make the effort and buy a device, and which family is indeed really poor? There is also the problem of getting something free, and then not caring for it: if the schools provide devices for the students, would they appreciate it? Without a doubt, I think it is an interesting topic, of which I am optimistic that authorities will find the best strategy.
However, if ICT is as effective, easy and expressive as we are meant to believe, it would be only logical that when provided with the necessary infrastructure and trainings, teachers would be more than happy to use it. Apparently, this is not the case. What can you say in favour of ICT?
Obviously, ICT is not a magical device. However, if we look at it as a tool that helps to achieve the goals set in the curriculum, and if the teachers have the adequate training to use it, it is an excellent way to facilitate the learning and the teaching process. In my opinion, the use of computer technology is a reality that is present in almost all social activities: in hospitals, banks, commerce, industries, research, etc.. Therefore, schools should have the conditions for teachers and students to be able to get advantage of these technological tools that contribute to facilitating the teaching-learning process.
According to UNESCO research, ICT contributes to equity in education, by providing universal access to information, and it is also important in meeting the challenge related to innovation on forms of production and transmission of knowledge, and continued lifelong training.
When I was teaching, I have found some very good ICT tools. When I was teaching 6-7 year old special needs children – for this age group, the main goal is of course to teach them to read and write – I found a didactical multimedia software, Pipo, which is really like a game, with images, sounds, and attractive graphics. It was interesting for students. Sometimes we worked with the computer maybe for an hour during the day. It worked, by the end of the year, many of the special needs pupils were able to improve their skills in reading and writing . A difficulty was that Spanish developers created this software, and the pronunciation slightly differs in Spain and in Mexico. Still, with some explanations, this did not create any problems.
Could you give us a glance at Mexican education?
It is a hard question, because I can only give my opinion. However, if we want to become better people, better citizens and in the end a better country, we have to be realistic, and admit that we have some mistakes. I believe evaluations that provide a real and factual picture about the situation in the most objective way possible are very important, in order to assess what steps are necessary for improvement. Overall, there are many good schools in my country, with good teachers with the right attitude and the right level of competence.
On the other hand, in Mexico, there are for example many schools without a capable principal. This creates many problems, such as lack of organization. I think the principal’s role is very important in achieving good educational results. However, this is changing; the new educational reform in Mexico proposed that teachers should apply for this position in an open tender, the goal of which is to ensure that the most capable teachers get to be school leaders. Nowdays authorities also ensure that applying new teachers with the best profiles are selected as school teachers, regardless of their affiliation with the teachers’ union or lack thereof. In addition, an exam has been introduced for teachers applying for teaching positions. So hiring and promotion no longer depend on political trustworthiness, although some adjustments to this system are still necessary. Overall, this is a good direction.
I also admire the commitment of many Mexican teachers who are very dedicated despite low salaries and low prestige. Some teach native ethnic groups living in remote areas, for instance, in some cases they commute back and forth 4-5 hours a day. They are keen to help, and make great efforts to do so.
Moreover, as teachers, they cannot separate their work from the social context in which they work in. They have to deal with all the same social, economic and cultural problems that Mexico has to deal with. Teachers have a delicate task of setting values knowing that the circumstances their students live in outside the school might be the exact opposite to what they try to promote in the school.
Parental involvement is essential in education, and there have been major efforts on the part of the education management and parents themselves to fulfill this requirement. For example, there are some programs in Mexico targeted at involving parents in the life of the school, that is, creating good relations between the school and the families of students. Some schools organise workshops for parents, to which the teachers invite the parents, to talk about difficult social issues. Obviously, sometimes this does not solve anything, since the parents who are willing to come and participate are the good fathers, not problematic families. So there are other strategies: some schools invite parents, one per week, to arrive one hour early in the school to welcome all the students in the morning. Meeting a fellow father at the school can motivate those fathers who accompany their child(ren) in the morning to get involved, and take on the responsibility of welcoming students another week. Schools organise various activities to involve the families of students, even during the weekends. Having close parent-teacher relationship is a highlighted goal which hasbeen promoted since the educational reform of 2004-2009. Some schools do very well in this area.
How about your personal experiences in the Mexican education system? How was your special needs class? What was it like to teach them, what sorts of families did the students come from, what were the challenges, were there successes?
My students came mainly from poor families, since wealthier Mexicans tend to send their children to private schools. Although there was a child from a well-positioned family, and they provided a lot of financial support to our school. So this was a very nice experience, however all of the other students were poor.
There have been efforts to educate special needs children together with children without handicaps and learning disabilities in mainstream primary schools in Mexico, some experts say it is better to integrate special students in the primary school years. However, it can make things very difficult for the teacher; because to achieve this goal, it is necessary to integrate multidisciplinary teams of professionals in regular schools. It is a challenge, since in Mexico, not all schools employ professionals like school psychologists, social workers, special education teachers and so on. It would be very important to have such professionals in more kindergartens and schools, who could provide much needed support.
I believe that mainstream schools should provide the necessary conditions for the integration of pupils with special educational needs, to enable them to achieve goals set in the curriculum. However, it is difficult to determine which students should be integrated, and who must attend special education schools. Therefore, flexibility of regulatory frameworks is very important, so that the best educational decisions can be made, by a consensus between authorities, parents, teachers, and interdisciplinary teams.
In our special education school, the goal was to harmonise the curriculum with the special individual needs as much as possible. However, the curriculum is a challenge for non-special needs students already, so it is even more so for children in special education. Moreover, we had some other goals as well besides teaching the curriculum: assisting them to socialise, to communicate, to teach basic real life skills necessary for an autonomous everyday existence, to prepare them for adult life. Our students were very diverse in terms of levels of knowledge, so we had to individually adjust the curriculum for each student. It was a great amount of work, especially in classes where the number of students could go as high as 12-15, with one single teacher. With special needs children, this is really hard.
As for memories about specific students, there was a boy with Down-syndrome. His name was Alonso, and we called him ‘Loncho’. They are so, so very soft, kind, and sweet. They are very honest; they tell the truth and what they really think. So what was admirable in this case with Alonso is that he was always ready to help. Sometimes as adults and teachers, unfortunately, we create complicated atmosphere in our environment; many times Down-syndrome students taught us how to affront life. They really cared about how to assist others.