By Matthew Tungate
Randy Barrette has spoken Spanish for 23 years, teaching it for 15 years. He has visited South America. He is the outgoing president of the Kentucky World Language Association. The Spanish and world cultures teacher at Menifee County High School is hardly a novice representante de la española (speaker of Spanish).
Still, he had to play “catch-up” the first night at the Uruguayan home of his counterpart in an international teacher-exchange program.
“Their pronunciation and many of the slang words they used put my brain into overdrive,” Barrette said. “I had to remind myself that only four months ago I was speaking Spanish in Spain, but this was not quite the same.”
For instance, Uruguayans have a distinct sound for “y” and “ll,” he said. There were some words they used that were unique to the culture, like the words for shoes, sandals and noise.
“As a professional, those are the kinds of experiences that you really need. Otherwise you’ll never know – you’ve got to have those,” Barrette said. “That is why this program is crucial.”
Barrette was one of 15 U.S. educators awarded a fellowship from the U.S. Department of State who traveled to Uruguay for three weeks this summer as part of the Educational Seminar: 2012 Uruguay Educator Exchange Program. Maris Montes, principal of High School Number 3 in Mercedes, Soriano, Uruguay, spent two weeks with Barrette in February.
Barrette said he also learned many cultural differences thanks to the exchange.
For instance, when Montes stayed at his home in February, she wanted to greet Barrette, his wife and his two children with a hug and kiss on the cheek every morning. When he got to Uruguay, everyone greeted each other that way.
“When I got down there it wasn’t much of a surprise,” Barrette said. “Little things really make up this program, the little details that they don’t write about in the literature that provide those special moments.”
Barrette said he has taken students to various countries since he started teaching, but he usually ends up speaking more English than Spanish because he gives much of his attention to the students and helps to ensure they are safe and enjoying their visit.
“I decided to apply because I was in serious need of a more profound and long-lasting interaction with the language and culture,” Barrette said. “The benefit of expanding my language abilities is priceless. It is something that all teachers of second languages should do every five years or so.”
Another benefit of the program was being able to interact and establish relationships with Montes and other educators in Uruguay.
“During Maris’ visit we shared many hours talking about her professional life, the challenges and successes, and how she had arrived to her current position,” he said.
Schools are set up differently in Uruguay, he said. For instance, middle schools are for ages 12-15 and high school for 16- to 18-year-olds. More than 1,000 students attend Montes’ school, but there isn’t enough room for them all to go at one time, Barrette said. So about half attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and the other half attend from 1-6 p.m., he said. Some schools even offer evening classes for students who have dropped out or want to take additional courses.
Montes said there are a lot of the differences between the two countries’ education systems. For instance, Uruguay has a centralized curriculum set by the federal Department of Education; public and private institutions teach the same content, except that private schools may add extracurricular activities that differ with public institutions; and a central agency is responsible for all matters relating to education, including appointing teachers and non-teaching staff at the national and departmental levels, she said.
The grading system also is different, Montes said. In Uruguay, evaluations are done with numbers (one to 12) rather than grades, and level six is required to pass subjects common to all high school students. Some classes required to attend college have a minimum score of seven or eight, she said.
There are similarities, too, she said, including concerns about raising educational levels for all students and how to engage unmotivated students.
“We also seek the support of families of students, which in too many cases is not present. We both lack an accounting for our children and their education at the family level,” Montes said.
Barrette said he talked with many teachers in Uruguay to compare the teaching profession in both countries. “It is through these somewhat detailed conversations that we learn about our struggles, challenges and accomplishments and that we all have so much in common as professional educators,” he said.
“The first thing that strikes you when talking to teachers is money,” Barrett added.
Uruguayan teachers said they haven’t had raises in some time. He said he can understand, as he hasn’t either.
Unlike in the United States, Uruguay has a national salary for teachers. So unlike Barrette, who could move to a bigger district and make more money, Uruguayan teachers can’t make any more going to another area.
That’s why they work multiple jobs, Barrette said, just as he teaches two classes at Morehead State University for extra money.
Uruguayans, however, have universal healthcare and free college tuition, he said.
While the exchange part of the program has concluded, Barrette said there are plans to continue communication between participants.
While he was in Uruguay, Barrette and a high school teacher and university professor agreed to initiate a Skype and e-mail campaign between their two schools. Ultimately students will be paired to correspond, he said.
About 100 Uruguayan teachers met with the 15 American teachers in the program as part of a professional development session, and the Uruguayans repeatedly complained about not having any native English speakers to talk to, he said. The ability to have such contact is crucial to professional development, Barrette said.
“Teachers need to be comfortable in the target language in order to use in their classrooms,” he said.
So Barrette later met with three national education officials and proposed a project where 50 Kentucky teachers will be paired with Uruguayan teachers to talk for one hour per week over the Internet. He plans to begin working on that project soon, Barrette said.
Montes said establishing professional contacts was her main reason for participating in the program.
“I want to work with teachers in my host school, Menifee County, to establish collaboration with my teachers in Soriano,” she said. “I also hope to establish exchange programs so our students can travel to get to know one another and the cultures of where we live.”