Felipe Ramírez discovered early on that his love of art was enhanced through teaching. But it was a chance encounter with an advert for a teacher in a hospital school that set Ramírez on his life’s journey.
Taking the position meant moving to the small town of Puerto Montt on the edge of Chile’s Chiloé archipelago. When he arrived, the school had just 12 students, and was on the verge of being closed.
Ramírez was determined this would not happen. He knew his role as a teacher in a hospital school was not simply about maths and science. It was about hope. Through education, the teachers were investing in the students’ futures. This has a powerful impact on their experience of the present, and their recovery.
There are many challenges. Ramírez’s school has children of all ages. Some have been in hospital their whole life. Some have severe physical and psychological conditions. Students’ ability to learn fluctuates from day to day. Ramírez has developed ways of teaching that work with these variations.
One powerful tool he uses are whole school projects. In 2016, the school entered a competition to create a public work of art. Everyone contributed something to the giant book of poetry they created, which was entitled Poemario de Color (Colour Poetry). They used maths, technology and Spanish to illustrate the pages using the Japanese shibori technique. The book was an opportunity for the students to explore their experiences of illness, death and hospital. The project received a special mention, and was part of an exhibition in Chile’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
For Ramírez, this is one of the most important aspect of his teaching. From a young age, his students are forced to think about life’s biggest themes - not all of his students will survive into adulthood. As Headteacher, Ramírez’s mission is to create a space in which the students can work towards their dreams, just like anyone else their age.
Outside school, he engages the community in this too, for example through the inclusive running club he has set up.
He has high expectations for their academic performance. Standardised testing is not appropriate for students with such extreme special educational needs. Ramírez’s goal is to ensure all students are able to return to mainstream school, and do not fall behind. Performance evaluation shows that 60% return to mainstream school, with the remaining 40% continuing their education in the hospital school. Of the students who go into mainstream education, 96% have a good academic performance.
Ramírez is involved with a number of teaching networks to share his methods with other hospital school, and mainstream, teachers. He organises an annual Classroom Health Day, which eduates over 300 mainstream teachers about how to support students who are returning after serious illness. He has won a number of awards, including the Best Classroom Experience Prize in the third International Hospital Teaching Conference. He also won Best Teacher award from Fundación Mustakis (Chile) for Poemario de Color.