UNICEF’s Back to School programme in Venezuela improves the living conditions of students, but none of this would be possible without the support of teachers. Two stories connected by love of the profession.
Lilibeth Aular and Laura Albarrán both awake with the first rays of dawn, shortly before 6 am. One lives in Baruta, near Caracas, and the other in Maracaibo, Venezuela.
They immediately go to the kitchen to see if the water-supply cuts have been suspended or if they should go to their reserve jugs for water to drink and clean. In the last year, the latter has almost always happened.
The two have a schedule: they must get ready to teach — the morning shift for adolescents and the afternoon shift for primary school children.
Their parallel stories, more filled with daily difficulties than dramatic events, seem to them run-of-the-mill. However, they and all teachers, are crucial to delivering education in Venezuela — and for children in the country to continue training. I tell them they are heroines. They are embarrassed for a moment, but then they smile and nod. They know that it is so.
Teaching day to day
Lilibeth tells me about her morning journey with a determined tone: there is little public transportation and that is why it is hard for her to get to her first job, at a school in El Hatillo, on time. Even harder is to take three different means of transport to arrive on time for her second job, at the Jermán Ubaldo Lira Institution, in Baruta, before 1 pm. “They are only difficulties. The limitations are mental,” she says.
With no other option due to lack of fuel, Laura Albarrán is forced to walk from home with her two sleepy children, Valeria, 10, and Manuel, 8, right after breakfast. Due to electric shortages, the children sleep little in the heat and feel tired, so she takes them with her rather than leaving them at home especially because the temperatures in her home exceed 40°C.
She leaves them at grandma’s house, goes to work and leaves at the same time as Lilibeth: 11:45 am. In her case, she picks up her children, takes them home, makes lunch and takes them immediately to the Fe y Alegría Manzanillo School, after a 25-minute walk in the sun. Both children spend barely three hours in school due to the shortage of public services.
UNICEF’s strong support
Lilibeth or Laura don’t highlight these daily details. Their only complaint is that they receive low salaries from their two jobs, less than 5 dollars per month, and both must depend on the support of their partners. Their real concerns revolve around the children they work with. “I want the best for children,” says Lilibeth. “I work to see these children happy,” says Laura. Taking care of children is their mantra.
But there are other reasons. More than ever, they want classrooms to stop emptying as a result of school drop-out in Venezuela. According to Aular, “I estimate that at least 30 percent of the children have dropped out in my classrooms.” Isis Roo, another teacher from Maracaibo, tells me that in her son’s class, in 2018, 33 students started and only 27 finished.
UNICEF supports the work of these teachers (and many others) through Recreational kits, Early Childhood Development kits to encourage interaction with the little ones and Back-to-School kits that are given to students with basic school materials. These additional work tools help provide a reason to continue.
“I keep betting on my country. Teaching is a pillar of society. We don’t have the importance we deserve, but we give it our all because we want our children to have a future,” insists Lilibeth, who has been working in educational institutions for 13 years and 22 years with children. Her attitude fills me with energy.
Her work is heroic, according to Laura, because “we have to teach in schools where the computers have been stolen and neither power nor water arrive. We have had to reduce the school day so that children do not go home late, for safety. My own children, when the power goes out, have to sleep on the patio because of the intense heat.”
Laura studied twenty years ago in the same school their children are attending. Things have changed: Now she lets them rest one day each week to recover the sleep lost on sleepless nights.
Lilibeth shares two other problems that she considers fundamental: the economic crisis Venezuela is experiencing has led many teachers to migrate while others have resigned from their positions. “But also many children have lost their parents and now will grow up with their grandparents,” she notes.
She makes a personal reflection that shows her heroism: “I went to Cartagena, Colombia, on my last vacation and I really needed my people and my surroundings. I get tired of belittling teaching, sometimes I would like to quit everything, but I keep betting on teaching in my country. ”
“There are many who stop teaching class to save transportation fares, and we understand them. But those who come to teach and take time because they want to educate are heroes,” says Yaini Ulasio, an educational psychologist.
In fact, during the delivery of Back-to-School kits, teachers are there to deliver the school-supply kits. Her face reflects emotion. “The children are happy,” Yaini tells me. “The more ease they have, the more they are excited to study.”
Nereida Goberira, teaching coordinator in Fe y Alegría at Manzanillo, and who has been teaching for 26 years, explains to me that “the emergency situation we live in is no secret to anyone. The shortage of money for staff and student transfers, food shortages and the high cost of living have influenced the decision to go to school. But thanks to UNICEF and the support of the office, we keep moving forward.”
Enrique Patiño is a Communication Consultant at UNICEF’s Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office.