Breaking Through Red Tape to Improve Mexican Schools
Last spring, a school in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, was, like many schools, under orders from the Ministry of Education to create an annual plan. Typically, the work plans are bureaucratic paperwork filled out by the principal and never referenced again. But Mariel Manriquez, an Enseña por México alumna, saw an opportunity to actually do better by teachers, students, and families.
Manriquez is the founder of Proyecto Nuevo Maestro, or the New Teacher Project. Through it, she works with and trains Mexican school administrators to bridge the gap between principals and their staff members and ultimately to create more positive experiences for kids in the classrooms. She worked with the principal in Dolores Hidalgo to create a plan that invested the entire school community, resulting in changes to the school environment and to communication between teachers and families. “There’s a whole new attitude now,” Manriquez says. “People feel ownership.”
Manriquez’s friend and fellow alumna Mineko Matsumoto is also a social entrepreneur. She founded Learning One-to-One, providing students an education tailored to their interests and individualized around their skill sets. Learning One-to-One teachers interview students, then work with them to create learning plans. By the end of the year, students create projects to benefit their communities. “Our history has taught students that they can’t succeed. It’s like a disease,” Matsumoto says. “My hope is to give them what they need to dream and achieve their dreams.”
In July, both women participated in Global Innovation MX, an event highlighting social impact projects launched by alumni of Teach For All network partners around the world. One Day caught up with Manriquez and Matsumoto recently via Skype.
OD: Tell us about your backgrounds and what led you to Enseña por Mexico.
MARIEL: I spent most of my life in a small town, San José Agua Azúl, in Guanajuato. My mother is a public school teacher. I studied in public schools, and I’m thankful for the opportunities I had. But I also understand the lack of opportunities available. In college, I studied education. I realized that private schools valued using innovation to improve student skills or the school model, while public schools seemed always to stay the same. I wanted to be a part of providing new opportunities, and better opportunities, for the students in public schools who didn’t have them.
MINEKO: I grew up in Sinaloa and attended a bilingual private school. During college, I lived near a public school. There was a huge window and every day I could see the teachers yelling at the kids—it was horrible. Because I was studying psychology, I’d had the opportunity to work with kids with various issues, and they would talk to me about how their teachers treated them—hitting them on the back or ignoring them. I worked with girls who were at institutions for kids whose parents were in jail. They suffered so much, but when they acted out, they would lose their monthly visit to see their parent. For all of these kids, I knew they could be served better.
OD: You’ve both had to struggle against entrenched attitudes within the school system. What has that been like?
MARIEL: Our biggest challenge has been changing administrators’ attitudes. It’s not all of them, but many have been in the system for a long time and have a set way of doing things. Sometimes it feels like they’ve forgotten about their passion for teaching and they’ve lost faith that they can be a part of making change for our country. In the best cases, after we work with them, they remember when they used to love working with kids. Our trainings, we hope, give them the opportunity to remember and improve.
MINEKO: We had to struggle with students’ previous experiences with education, where they were not taught or expected to think for themselves. With Learning One-to-One, students are in charge of directing their own learning and the teacher is more of a guide. But when the teacher isn’t in front of the class talking, students need to do more than just sit and listen. It’s hard for them to make that shift.
OD: Mariel, what does your mother, a teacher, think of your work?
MINEKO: She thinks Mariel is a revolutionary!
MARIEL: There’s an education reform going on now requiring that teachers show “continual improvement.” My mom was asking why she had to keep studying—she studied for four years already. But for me, the reform has allowed me to go to states and say this is what I can offer, and it’s in line with the required reforms. And it’s working: The administrators are attending our sessions and we’re growing through word of mouth. So my mom—she loves me. She knows that what I’m doing is important and that I love it. Even though we have some disagreements about it, she understands there’s a need for change.
OD: Mineko, is there a student who helps inspire your work with kids?
MINEKO: One of my students, Susana, is from a family of eight. Her father is a baker. He makes about 6,000 pesos per month (about $320). They live in a tiny home with a dirt floor. She worked and saved for three years to attend university. But something happened just before she was to start and her home lost access to water. When this happened, she gave all of her money to her dad so they could have water. In the States, if you work hard, there are scholarships. Here, it’s hard. We’re trying to help her and thinking through a bunch of options, like possibly taking a course to become a manicurist and working part time doing that. I want to make it clear: She’s going to study at university. It’s not simple but people are doing it. They want to do it. They will do it.
OD: What’s next for you?
MINEKO: We’ve been in Mexico City for the past year starting Learning One-to-One and running with Enseña por México teachers. Now, we’re piloting the program this school year in La Paz, in the north.
MARIEL: My dream for the next five years is for our trainings to actually help teachers help students develop the skills to be whomever they want to be. I want them to find school meaningful, not just a step to get a piece of paper. Right now, they only see school as a requirement. I want school to actually help them achieve their goals and dreams.
About the Author
Leah Fabel is a Teach For America alum (Chicago '01) and has been at One Day since 2011. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, who is also an education journalist, and their two sons.