Turning the tide on education in Guatemala
"Ms. Steph! I got above 65% in 4 of my classes and only failed 1!" proudly says one of my star students in the Bible Club I lead. "Great job! Let's try to pass all our classes, but I will bring a treat to celebrate next week!" I reply, attempting to match her enthusiasm, though inside I am pretty discouraged.
Almost 2 years ago, I wrote a blog post about education in Guatemala. I wrote about the obvious and on-the-surface issues I saw here in Coban, Guatemala: sparse classrooms, the absence of books, and streets full of children during school hours. I wrote that tackling these problems and starting a school here seemed daunting, but we had small wins that gave us hope. The solutions I posed were 1. Learning materials 2. books in classrooms 3. Scholarships and economic support for families so they can send their kids to schools. Now that I have been here longer and have built deeper relationships with students, parents, and educators, I see that the under-the-surface issues are even more frightening and feel even more difficult to solve. While books, scholarships, and access to learning materials are helpful and needed (and we continue to serve these needs), I have learned that there are 3 under the surface issues that need to be addressed before those solutions can be effective.
Ineffective curriculums and teaching methods: High school is not compulsory here and most teachers only have up to a high school education that includes a focus on teaching. This means that teachers start their teaching careers at 17,18,19 years old. Due to large class sizes, lack of resources and lack of teacher training, all teaching is rote learning. Many of my aforementioned 6th graders in my Bible Club group can read aloud well and LOVE memorizing Bible verses, but reading comprehension is not there. So while they can memorize verses, when I ask them what it means, I get blank stares. It has taken me months to get them comfortable with telling me the words they don't know, asking questions or thinking critically about texts. Additionally, a student might have memorized 3x5=15, but may not know the answer to 5X3. Many wouldn't be able to apply multiplication principles to quickly count 3 equal stacks of 5 chairs and would prefer to count 1 by 1. Many adults that have even completed more advanced educations may not know how to add 3 -digit numbers together. Working professionals and architects may know how to tile a floor and build a house, but don't use basic mathematical formulas to calculate the areas of their designs. Handwriting is taught, and almost all students that excel in school have beautiful handwriting, but writing is not taught. The concept of writing prompts and basic styles of writing - narrative, informative, persuasive or expository are completely absent from curriculums. We have learned that when we hire local teacher, we must spend time teaching them how to teach writing. Additionally, fostering important qualities like curiosity, a love of reading, growth mindsets, critical thinking, and analytical minds is not achievable with rote learning.
Kids are going to school and not learning: The second issue here is the culture of education here. It is more and more evident to us that passing to the next grade is important and learning the material is secondary. Many teachers encourage this system with assignments that focus on busy work and grading techniques that rewards students with the best looking assignments and not the best quality. One particularly bad assignment I have seen for a technology class was, "Draw the Microsoft Word logo." Teachers will take marks off for crooked lines, failing to copy instructions word for word, and not using the correct paperclip, but may not take the time read or grade the actual content of the paper. I have seen worksheets of math problems that have nearly all incorrect answers, but have a 95% grade because they followed the list of arcane steps. There are many reasons for this, but largely this is how the teachers were graded as students, so this system is perpetrated generation by generation. Secondly, teachers are paid too little here to care. Lastly, teachers often get in trouble for not passing students to the next grade. Perhaps, if they truly graded based on whether they learned the material, most students would flunk, but maybe it would hold teachers accountable to actually teach their students. Sadly, so many students move forward without attaining foundational academic knowledge and for most, it does not get remediated.
A Culture of Copying: Lastly, copying work and plagiarized work is normalized, maybe even encouraged. One accounting student (at a private school) brought me her assignment to check. I noticed every math calculation was wrong. When I asked her to show me her work so I could see where she was going wrong, she tried, but couldn't replicate the answers even in her own assignment. Eventually she told me that she just got it from a friend. I tried to spend time teaching her how to multiply percentages, but eventually she got bored and said she would turn it in as-is. She passed the class and the assignment. It's not uncommon for parents and older siblings to do their child/siblings homework. In fact, it is considered a way of showing love or a familial duty. Additionally, across the street from our church where we offer free tutoring services, there is an internet cafe that will do your homework for the equivalent of $1-$2. It's tough for our tutoring services to compete with that.
These problems have only been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, with schools being the only sector of Guatemala that hasn't opened. Students here have only had distance learning for the past 1.5 school years. Due to the lack of access to technology for teachers and students, distance learning in Guatemala means that the students receive monthly homework packets and will simply return it once a month. There is limited to zero instruction given by teachers. Only 4% of the population is vaccinated because vaccines are entering the country at a trickle. There remains apathy about opening schools—no one is advocating to reopen a broken system. By October, the public school system will have completely missed 2 years of education. With only 6 years of compulsory schooling, this will be 1/3 of a students entire educational life. The future of Guatemala can’t afford this.
Two years ago, I posed that better resourced classrooms, scholarships, and family support so parents can afford to send their kids to school, were some of the ways to help these problems. And while this certainly helps and we continue to support these efforts, we have discovered that in order to fully turn the tide on education, these under-the-surface issues need to be addressed. Additionally, children need to return to school and fast. It seems more and more evident that AMI International School not only exists to properly educate the students that go to our school, but we also must spread teaching ideas and methodology to other schools. There is no easy or simple solution to this, but we are working on ways to help by developing curriculum, training teachers, and working on building relationships and working on existing and new avenues to spread teaching ideas. We're taking small steps to achieve our goals, as we've started creating some teaching materials, started a Facebook group for teachers in our area, built some relationships that will hopefully lead to long term tutoring programs, starting to flesh out our scholarship program at our school, and we have 100% invested in the local teachers that are on staff at AMIIS. Our teachers and I have even made a few videos that we posted on our AMIIS facebook page to share teaching methods.
So, once again, I find myself both overwhelmed with the problems as well as overwhelmed by the daunting vision God has placed in our hearts. At the same time, we feel hopeful. While I still ask myself these questions nearly every day, "Are we doing enough? Is what we're doing effective? What could we be doing better? " I am sometimes plagued with doubt, but then I remember that I felt this way two years ago - it didn't seem possible to start a school in 6 months, much less in a pandemic, and certainly two years ago, it didn't seem possible that we could expand the vision. At the time we were just 3 missionaries and 2 interns here in Coban - only 1 that spoke spanish fluently. However, God was faithful to pull us through, because in those 2 years, we have grown to include 2 more missionaries, 3 local teachers, 6 interns, and 1 amazing teacher from the U.S (Tiffany Wong from Church of Southland!). We are still dealing with a lot of ambiguity, but God has truly provided an amazing team that will hopefully further the mission and vision here and demonstrate God's heart for the children of Guatemala. Please continue to intercede for us as we continue to work to turn the tide on education here in Guatemala!