BRAZIL. LIKE many a teacher in Brazil's north-eastern state of Maranhao, Maria Luzia da Silva has trouble keeping her class of 11-year-olds motivated.
As she reads shyly and hesitantly from a history textbook in her classroom in the shanty town outskirts of the state capital, Sao Luis, her voice is drowned out by chattering and pupils banging rulers on their rickety desks. Most of the 35 pupils find it hard enough to write their names, let alone concentrate on the exploits of Brazil's first Portuguese settlers, which she is trying to relate.
Ms da Silva will be among thousands of teachers targeted in an innovative plan launched this month by the state's educational authorities to tackle low standards by improving teacher performance.
Along with most of the 50,000 primary teachers in Maranhao, the 32-year-old teacher only just managed to finish her secondary education and never had the benefit of teacher training.
Poorly prepared teachers are seen as the main cause of low achievement and high drop-out levels in most of Brazil's state primary schools, and even more so in extremely poor states such as Maranhao.
Ms da Silva is now to receive training from one of 3,000 university-trained teachers who will roam shanty town and village schools giving classes to less qualified colleagues. The "roving tutors" have been selected by Maranhao's state university and include many recent graduates who are the first in a generation of teachers trained in modern pedagogic skills.
Marahao's education ministry set up this cheap on-the-job teacher-training scheme in response to an ambitious central government plan announced last month to ensure that all of Brazil's 1.5 million teachers have university degrees by the year 2007.
So far, only half of the country's teachers have higher education qualifications, and in Maranhao only 7 per cent of primary teachers have gone beyond secondary education.
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso promised that his government would invest in improving the skills and qualifications of the teachers already in the field, rather than in expanding teaching numbers. This requires the co operation of state universities, and the provision of training via educational satellite television programmes.
But such plans are beyond the financial means of the poorer states, including Maranhao. "We have set up our own teacher-training programme based on our means," said Iva Silva, the organiser of the roving-teacher training scheme.
"Our graduate teachers will have a part-time duty to instruct the less qualified teachers." The scheme may not meet President Cardoso's targets since it will only train 25,000 teachers in seven years. But state education authorities say it will go a long way in improving standards. "Most of the teachers in our state have very basic knowledge and children come out of school only with basic literacy skills. Our plan will at least be a huge step towards giving many children a better start," said Ms da Silva.