Teaching English in Mexico: What’s Going On?

Julie Mijangos-Guzzardo discusses the state of English language teaching in Mexico as well as possible solutions to existing problems. See Ligia López's Out of the Box article, "An Autoethnographic Reflection of a Colombian Language Teacher in the Making," Essential Teacher, September 2008. 

During my first week of teaching English at a private K–12 school in Mexico, I was given a set of embarrassingly outdated texts for middle school and one textbook intended to cover all three years of preparatory (i.e., secondary) school. To make matters more frustrating, some of these materials came 3–4 weeks into the school year. When I approached the director with my concerns, his response surprised me. The message was: You’re the teacher, here are the books, and whatever you do will be better than the public schools, better than the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP).

In Mexico, the SEP sets the standards for public schools. These were also the standards that I was to meet, which, according to my English language teaching colleagues, were not very high. Their opinions seemed to be confirmed when the English portion of an exam, created and issued by the SEP, contained alarming errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Instead of taking the exam, my students were correcting it.

I was teaching in a large city in Mexico at one of the most expensive private schools, which was lauded as one of the best academic institutions in town. Yet much of what I had experienced thus far was poor planning, indifference, and disorganization. Later, discovering corruption within the school's administration became the cherry on top of my quickly melting sundae of a teaching experience. All this, and it was still better than the public schools?

I began asking questions about the state of education in Mexico, both private and public. I asked colleagues, parents, students, teachers from other schools, and community members from all socioeconomic classes. The responses were surprisingly similar. Everyone noted poor quality, dysfunction, and/or corruption at the organizational level, which seemed to make my personal experience a microcosm of the system at large.

According to Rodríguez (2007), "in recent years the people of Mexico have had the perception that the nation's educational system is expensive, dysfunctional and very corrupt" (¶ 1). Indeed, the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and the corruption within the establishment that he speaks of are astonishingly obvious in many parts of Mexico, and they have a direct impact on national educational policy and practice.

After looking around on the SEP Web site, my spirits were lifted, at least temporarily. The SEP recognizes the importance of learning English in Mexico to prepare students for a globalized world, and it fully supports the teaching of English beginning at the primary level (Jimenez, 2008). The control of a national curriculum that advocates modern teaching strategies and materials to improve the quality of education in Mexico is centralized within the SEP (McLaughlin, 2002). Thus, there seemed to be an attempt to address the struggling status of education in the country. Yet how could incorrect phrases such as "Hello, ice to miet you" still appear on a national SEP exam?

In addition to the inconsistencies I witnessed between the "talk" and the "walk" of teaching practices, there is criticism of the SEP's national educational policies. Flores-Crespo (2007) affirms that the overly centralized structure of education in Mexico often leads to needless bureaucratic encumbrances and that, despite current efforts, student achievement is still low. Others fear that centralized policy making allows more room for corruption when it comes to educational spending (e.g., Rodriguez, 2007), and some claim that it serves to reinforce a colonialist view and fails to address the realities of Mexico's rural and indigenous population (e.g., Hall, 2006). So perhaps such a centralized policy is not the solution to improving quality and curtailing corruption after all.

Flores-Crespo (2007) states that considerable interrelated problems continue to plague the educational system, keeping real change from happening. Rodriguez (2007) proposes steps that are necessary for improvement, including the reconstruction of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE; National Education Workers Union) to decentralize power and allow more state and local control, which might also address Hall's (2006) concerns about the remnants of colonial education. The reorientation of educational spending would strengthen Mexico’s educational infrastructure by addressing core issues and involving more public authorities. Ensuring that public money supports programs that work, whether academic or technical, would put graduates into the job market. Finally, enlisting international quality control would ensure that Mexico's level of education is on par with other nations and appropriately equip students to face a globalized world. These changes, if successfully implemented, would be steps toward making progress, discouraging corruption, and bridging the gap between theory and practice.

Despite the darker side of my English language teaching experience in Mexico, I encountered several bright ideas brought forth and implemented by creative and well-equipped teachers, including foreign native-English-speaking teachers as well as Mexican nationals. One need only attend a MEXTESOL conference to witness what goes on at all TESOL conferences: the sharing of the latest and greatest research and strategies. Groups such as the English-Speaking Union, the National Association of University Professors of English, and Comexus also provide students and teachers with opportunities to exchange ideas, develop materials, study abroad, and receive training. There seems to be no lack of effort from those on the front line, yet a disconnect exists between what the government dictates and what actually takes place in the classroom.

It may be that Mexico has to do much of the work itself; however, there is talk of collaboration with the United States on the education front (Arellano & Martinez, 2005). Recognizing that economic, sociocultural, and political forces have created a special relationship between these two neighbors highlights the possibility for collaborative efforts that could support the development of functional educational policy that produces achievement and reduces corruption through increased accountability. The long-term effects of successful educational policy in Mexico would strengthen the country’s economy, creating more viable opportunities and perhaps eventually alleviating other issues, such as illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

References

Arellano, E., & Martinez, M. (2005). Facilitating higher education collaborative efforts between the United States and Mexico. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 4, 84–101.

Flores-Crespo, P. (2007). Education, employment, and human development [Electronic version]. Journal of Education and Work, 20, 45–66.

Hall, A. (2006). Keeping la Llorona alive in the shadow of Cortés: What an examination of literacy in two Mexican schools can teach American educators. Bilingual Research Journal, 30, 385–406.

Jimenez, E. (2008, April). Six Latin American countries: Creativity and innovation. The teaching of English in Mexico. Paper presented at the 42nd Annual TESOL Convention and Exhibit, New York.

McLaughlin, H. J. (2002). Schooling in Mexico: A brief guide for U.S. educators. Eric Digest. Retrieved May 26, 2008, from http://www.ericdigests.org/2003–4/mexico.html

Rodriguez, J. E. V. (2007). Mexico's costly and dysfunctional school system. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from http://mexidata.info/id1349.html

Julie Mijangos-Guzzardo (esljulie@hotmail.com) is an English instructor at Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University, in al Khobar, Saudi Arabia.