Posted by: Project MicroMundo | August 16, 2010

Education: Part 2

Hi everyone, it’s Steph again.  This week, I’m going to follow up Ronnie’s post about Guatemalan education with one of my own.  She gave you the facts and figures about students; I’m going to focus on teachers.  Through research and observation, we’re starting to get a feel for how things work—or don’t work—in San Andres schools.

Students at an impromptu assembly, for which English class was cancelled

I’m going to start with the good news: We have run into people here who understand the incredible value of education.  George, who is about our age, is one of a group that comes to the biblioteca most nights to practice English with us.  He is passionately interested in business, and spends his free time traveling to a larger library in Flores (the nearest city) to read textbooks on marketing, administration, law and finance.  He works in a hotel now, hoping to earn enough money to continue his studies. And his education isn’t the only one he’s working hard for—he is constantly pushing his younger sister to stay in school and stay focused.  He must be on a tight budget (not many jobs here pay well enough to allow for much saving), but he has promised to buy her a bike if she studies hard, and he intends to deliver.

Unfortunately for the children of Guatemala, George will probably never become a teacher.  Good students like George rarely find their way into teaching.  On the contrary, a teaching career is often the path of least resistance, taken by those who simply don’t have another goal. It’s frighteningly easy to become a teacher.  All you have to do is graduate from diversificado, or high school.  Students here specialize after basico, or middle school, by choosing a high school based on their intended career. For a teaching certificate, you have to study for just three years after basico, which means that if you complete your studies on time, you’ll be in front of a classroom at age 17 or 18.

The paycheck, though small, is steady, and job security is virtually guaranteed.  Plus, the hours are minimal.  The school day is shorter here, and class is rarely held on Fridays.  Holidays (far more than are mandated by the government), assemblies, and celebrations subtract even more hours from the class schedule.  Even when teachers are in front of the class, they aren’t being held accountable in any way for what their students learn.  In many cases they aren’t even accountable for their own attendance. It’s not a system designed to attract the most dedicated education professionals.

Given all of this, it would be fairly incredible if schools here managed to operate with any degree of efficiency.  Unfortunately, what we have seen is what you would expect from a system that doesn’t recruit strong teachers, train them properly, or hold them accountable for doing their jobs.  A third grade class that we observed consisted of 35 minutes of students running in and out of the room, wandering around talking to each other, throwing things, and standing on desks, while the teacher quietly went over a very short list of the changes that boys and girls go through at puberty.

Even when school doesn't provide much structure, some, like this 3rd grader who spent recess reading, are motivated to learn anyway.

This utter chaos seems to be the norm with younger kids, and, though the volume goes down as they get older, we have seen little evidence that the amount of learning goes up.  We are still learning how to navigate this system in which no one knows more than a day in advance when—or if—there will be class.  We’ve made some progress—future posts will tell you a little bit about our work teaching English—and we’ll continue to do our best.  But perhaps the most encouraging news lies with the School of Natural Resources.  Run by Volunteer Peten’s director, this unique institution exists outside of the broken system.  Our interactions with its teachers and students, and great experiences observing classes there, have impressed upon us the possibility of creating real educational opportunities, if not for all kids in San Andres, at least for a few that are motivated to seek them out.  My next post will introduce the school in more detail—the teachers, the kids, the challenges, and the progress that’s being made.


  1. I hope the San Andreas teachers don’t read your post — but I suppose there’s little chance of that given it’s in English. It seems depressing, but if that’s where things are, the first step has to be recognizing that fact, as it’s the starting point. Looking forward to hearing about Mateo’s school.

  2. […] The difference between the School of Natural Resources and other schools in San Andres is noticeable the moment you walk onto the grounds.  I was scheduled to observe the first few classes of the day, and when I arrived at 7:01, I turned into the courtyard to find it deserted.  I was a little confused, until I realized that class had started, and the students—all of them—were in the classroom, seated, silent, notebooks out, eyes on Mateo as he introduced the day’s lesson.  To the left of the main white board, a smaller board hung, neatly charting the day’s schedule.  One side of the larger board was dedicated to reminders about upcoming exams, projects, and events.  [If none of this strikes you as particularly remarkable, please read my last post.] […]

  3. […] Petén tries to do in San Andres to unclogging a blocked artery–trying to address a problem (the failing education system) that could cause disaster in the future.  What we’re doing now with Mayan Families is more […]

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