“International Investigations in Cuban Education”

When I started my PhD last fall, I never imagined I would spend nine days in Cuba with two-dozen graduate students, conducting research, and meeting with colleagues and schools in the Cuban education system. As I continue to think critically about education in the US, I have to be aware of how education exists in other cultures and contexts. And this is what lead me to apply for the opportunity to study abroad.

If we truly care about education, the status of students (of all types), the future of our systems, and how globalization shows up in classrooms and schools, we have to consider our individual and personal contributions to advancing knowledge within the field. And so, “International Investigations in Cuban Education,” commenced.

And as I entered that space of learning and seeking knowledge, I quickly realized I didn’t know all that much about Cuba.

“Elián González. Old cars. Guantanamo Bay. Fidel Castro.”

When asked about my knowledge of Cuba before this trip, these points represented my low level of understanding. Furthermore, before this trip, I knew virtually nothing about Cuba’s education system. I grew up with peripheral perspectives, but never developed my own, formal and concrete version of what I knew Cuba to be versus what I had heard from others.

As a result of this opportunity, my colleagues and I were granted the privilege of great access to Cuban schools and educators. We spent a substantial amount of time before the trip reading and reflecting on the history of Cuba, the dark connections to the United States, and the reality of a free-to-all education system that exits from preschool to graduate higher education. Although brief, we got a small glimpse into a system of schooling that was unknown to most everyone on the trip.

“But what did you do,” you might be wondering? To synthesize some highlights, and connect to my desire to keep pursuing context and knowledge, the following thoughts and photos best capture my time on the island.

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School Visits
While we had opportunities to tour, our primary responsibility was to conduct independent research on various components of Cuban education. Curious about campus environments and institution types, my study looked at the differences between one primary school and one university in Holguín Province. Over the course of three days, I had the opportunity to visit each school, and found incredible similarities between the two. Art and colorful paintings were found throughout each school, and adorned classroom walls and outdoor spaces. Gathering areas transcended from inside to outside, and historical figures were well-represented across both environments. There was no shortage of historical understanding or national pride. Natural air flowed through classrooms, breezeways, and open areas, and the warm climate felt less severe as a result of this design. We also got to experience break time, which we might identify as, “recess,” in the US. I don’t think I stopped smiling during that 40-minute break. Kids of all ages were running, dancing, singing, laughing, and engaging with their teachers and friends. This outside and common space that was so still just moments before the bell rang had become a concrete playground of joy and engagement.

Meetings with Educators
In addition to visiting schools, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to meet with scholars, researchers, and teachers from various Cuban institutions and pedagogies. We had long discussions about the differences in our schooling, and always connected back to the reality that a student-centered framework can  make a huge difference in the way we approach education. “Didactics” existed as a continued theme in our conversations, and the educators shared the ways in which this philosophy showed up as an art form rather than a style of teaching. The spirit and passion for teaching and learning was a big part of their approach. The biggest highlight from these sessions came from one of our final conversations, when the educators asked each of us US representatives to share more about our personal research agenda. This was the first time on the trip that I was asked to explain my interest in parent/family programs in education. With the reliance on a translator to articulate my idea, I had to be very intentional and succinct with how I explained my interest in investigating the exclusionary nature of these types of campus traditions. As I explained that we have many students who show up in education spaces without parents and families, I instantly felt a response that this, too, appears in Cuban spaces as well. My colleague who was translating looked at me and said, “They really appreciate your topic.” This was a validating moment, as I had just spent the past semester trying to better understand how to explain my topic, and questioned how to move toward a more thoughtful research strategy.

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos
I hate to let Donald Trump rain on my Cuba parade, but alas, he has. And DeVos, too. If you follow me on any form of social media, you know that I have an incredibly strong opinion of DeVos and her dangerous and inexperienced approach to schooling in the US. And as much as I wanted to leave Trump and DeVos back in the US, while I was in Cuba, they continued to be a topic of conversation again and again. Outside of questions and general assumptions, Cuban scholars were well-aware of our current reality in education. They were aware of our shared questions and concerns. They were away of every tweet, and the impact future decisions can have on our country, and the countries around us. But there is power in sharing ideas and perspectives. We were in Cuba on an education exchange, but I would be remised if I did not admit that this exchange was very one-sided. You see, there weren’t (aren’t) 30 Cuban educators headed to the United States to engage in the same critical discussions as we were having. One US colleague stated in his closing speech, “The Trump administration can’t stop the momentum we have here,” and I am letting that idea guide much of my thinking as I continue to seek information, unearth new knowledge, and teach and educate those around me.

I also must acknowledge that Cuba is not perfect. And while we had a close glimpse at some of the educational entities in Cuba, we had limited time to understand and unpack the economic and social struggles that exist outside of the education system (and even some that exist inside the education system). We are not perfect either.

There can be an unsettling feeling when critically analyzing our education system in the US, especially when considering the complex nature of k-12, higher education, and all that exists between (even when simply starting with public and private differences). In Cuba, we heard, “Education is a human right,” again and again, and much of that was backed up by the literacy campaigns that existed following the revolution. With more time, I might be able to spot the inconsistencies in that mantra, though in the meantime, I feel as if in the US, we are moving away from that belief.

Do we really value education as a human right?

Are children really valued citizens, and how serious do we take their learning?

Do we take their learning serious?

Before applying to this program, I never would have imagined an opportunity like this, meeting university and education association presidents, school principals, and top scholars in Cuban education. The opportunity to engage and reflect is part of what made my time in Cuba that much more special. And the opportunity to see past what I always understood as Cuba has helped me better understand how I show up in spaces where gaps exist on others’ path to understanding.

In closing, one US colleague challenged each participant to make a commitment to “what comes next” after Cuba. If we want exchanges and experiences to be truly transformative and informational, we have to commit to life-long learning and growing, and to a reframe the idea that perfection exists without considering culture, history, and social context. Even as we ventured away from the country, we heard counter-narratives contradicting all that we had learned and began to understand. The shift became present. The balance became important.

We learned. And we are beginning and continuing to understand. As I reflect on this reality, I am thankful that the process, in this case, has become the product.

I commit,

Michael

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said.

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said…
Little do they know, I already cry a lot.

“You’re going to be stressed,” they said…
I have had a stress-related eye-twitch for most of my life.

“It’ll break you down,” they said…
Even when broken, I always land on my feet.

“You’re going to cry a lot,” they demanded.
And so, I continue to cry.

In what feels like 1/3-part care and concern, 1/3-part projections of self-doubt, and 1/3-part hazing, the PhD journey has commenced, and I am deep in the waters of my first semester as a doctoral student. In true Michael manner, I jumped in with an Olympic diving attempt that probably looked more like a belly-flop than a gold medal dive. Loosely proud of my belly-flop, I am making new commitments and reevaluating the way in which I maneuver through this journey.

“One day at a time,” they said.
I nod ferociously, leaning into the comfort provided by a one-day-at-a-time mantra.

In addition to being a full-time student, I hold a graduate assistantship and also teach a class for first-year students interested in learning more about leadership (Introduction to Student Leadership). During my first class session, I promised the students we would take one week at a time. Selfishly, a few dozen assignments lurked over me.

I ended the first session and opened the syllabi for my classes, attempting to map out each assignment in my calendar. As I planned ahead for what seemed like a semester of tears, stress, and brokenness (“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said), my inner self-preserver begged, “Resist! Resist! Resist! Slow down!”

I paused, laughed, and whispered aloud, “How do you eat an elephant?”

How do you eat an elephant?

Huh?

Several years ago I had a colleague who completely unraveled during a staff meeting. They were frustrated and overwhelmed. They were grappling with the, “we should be doing more, and with more time and resources,” dilemma that new and para-professionals often unearth in their first few years of working in education.

Following our highly contentious staff meeting, I invited the colleague into my office and engaged the, “what’s going on,” conversation. Through some tears and voice-raising, it was clear the individual was trying to do the best they could with what they had, while making meaning of the politics involved on our campus and in our office.

Drawing on an old adage I used most of my young adulthood, I quickly asked this colleague, “How do you eat an elephant?”

Frustrated, they replied, “I don’t know. I can’t with your metaphorical BS, right now. What’s your point?”

We sat in silence for several minutes, and I gently asked one more time, “How do you eat an elephant?”

Both exasperated and curious, the colleague finally responded, “I don’t know…one bite at a time?”

“One bite at a time.”

One bite at a time. 

Flash forward several years later, my calendar, syllabi, and heart all out on the table (figuratively and literally); I was having my own, “how the heck do you actually eat an elephant,” moment. If I have learned anything one week in, it’s that keeping up is the only option – for better or for worse. One bite at a time.

“You’re going to be stressed,” they said…
“It’ll break you down,” they said…
“You’re going to cry a lot,” they said…

With tears in my eyes, I agree. And in courage, I move forward. A pinned, internal, one-day-at-a-time, banner flies viciously in my brain. And I pause, forced to breathe in a philosophy that has guided much of my work over the past few years.

“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”
–Mexican Proverb*

Universe, build me up.

A seed to be watered,
Michael

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*”They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds,” is often attributed to a Mexican Proverb, as well as Dinos Christianopoulos. Either way, powerful and important connection, and one that continues to center me.