Reflections on the Daniel Fast

A little while ago, our church and school here in Guatemala participated in the Daniel Fast. If you’re not familiar, the Daniel Fast involves saying no to certain food choices for a short period of time in order to focus on spiritual growth and renewal. It’s based on the foods that Daniel (from the Bible) eats when he is brought to Babylon in captivity. 

This is not the point of my blog today, but may I invite you to consider cultural differences for a moment? If you live in North America, imagine your pastor announcing that everyone is going to complete a time of fasting… and then everyone (or more or less everyone) does it. They don’t argue. They don’t complain (publicly). They participate. I cannot imagine a hypothetical situation at my church where my pastor would announce a Daniel Fast that we’re all doing because I can’t imagine people actually doing it. Cultural differences are wild, y’all.

We completed three weeks of Daniel Fasting. Because the school and church are very integrated, the school staff and church members participated. School families either participated or didn’t based on their involvement in church. (School staff all attend the church that’s connected to the school; many families attend the same church, but others attend different churches or don’t attend church.)

I live outside of Antigua. It’s about 30 to 45 minutes to get into town, depending on how long I wait for a bus. While I never feel unsafe inside the compound that I live in (with security cameras, concertina wire, and a security guard at the gate), it’s not wise for me to walk around our small village after dark. So I don’t generally go anywhere on weekday afternoons after school. It would need to be quite a quick trip to catch the bus into Antigua, run whatever errands, catch the bus back, and arrive home before dusk. 

That means that a) weekend trips into Antigua are valuable because they provide some variety in my week and b) I almost always go out for lunch since it’s many restaurants here are very affordable and I’m not spending money on anything else throughout the week. I have a strict budget, but a weekly lunch out is much more affordable than in Canada, for example.

We started the Daniel Fast on a Saturday. No eating out for lunch that weekend! Two weeks before we started, I caught Covid. That meant the weekend before the Daniel Fast began, I also didn’t get to go out to lunch. I was feeling a little sorry for myself about that. One of my few pleasures in life… gone! An extra opportunity taken away, just because I was sick!

Because of the general once a week trip into town, I plan my meals carefully and make my grocery list accordingly. I usually have a couple of easy-to-throw-together-with staples-won’t-go-bad meal possibilities in my pantry cupboard, like pasta noodles and a jar of pasta sauce, just in case I need something additional during the week. Preparation for the Daniel Fast was much more extensive. I spent numerous hours online before the first Daniel Fast grocery trip, researching recipes, planning out meals, and making my grocery list. Subsequent Friday afternoons had at least an hour dedicated to recipe research and planning. 

I ate healthy, flavourful food with a lot of variety. And yet, I got really tired of what I was eating. I got tired of not being able to eat certain foods. I got tired of all of the rules. And I was still really grumpy about missing my weekly lunch out.

I had really great intentions about taking lots of pictures of my food during the Daniel Fast. Instead, I took exactly two photos. This one… (a salad with a great homemade salad dressing)

And then I was reminded about where I am and how much privilege I have. I have the time to research recipes and make a variety of food. I have the financial resources to buy not just a variety of food, but enough food. I have the ability on a regular basis to eat out once a week. I live in a world where somewhere around 800 million people face hunger. I live in a country with a vast amount of food insecurity – where close to half of children under 5 are stunted due to chronic malnutrition. And I can eat a variety of healthy food and not be hungry… and I am still complaining about it. 

I needed a big attitude adjustment. 

Our return to regular food after the Daniel Fast was nice. I enjoy being able to buy a bigger variety of food and to not have to plan so thoroughly for every meal. But I hope I don’t quickly forget that attitude adjustment. I hope I remain more grateful for what I have and for my ability to choose what and when and where to eat.

… and this one. The start of a delicious vegetable soup.

Just Your Typical Day of Online Classes

Before devotions, I look over my schedule and carefully pack all of the day’s necessities. Even though I have a nice office space, the wifi on the elementary side where my office is located is so bad that through experience I’ve learned that, unless I’m willing to hotspot my computer and use up all my phone data (even the extravagant 13 Gigs a month that I can get for $16 CAD), I need to move over to the high school side. (The high school side is equipped with better wifi since teachers generally teach their online classes from that location.) I pack everything I’ll need into my backpack, and I head over to the “hallway” of the high school. (It’s an outdoor space that is covered by a roof but open on the sides. I think North Americans would call it a porch in any other circumstance.) I set up at the table that my Spanish teacher Gladys and I refer to as my “second office” – laptop, binder, textbooks, pencil case, AirPods, phone – everything out and ready so I can begin classes as soon as devotions are finished. 

As far as views go… can’t complain about this one! It’s just a little breezy…

After devotions, I come back out to my workspace. I send the link for the class through the WhatsApp group that we use to communicate with students when they’re at home. I join the Google Meet myself, and I begin to welcome the students as they enter the online classroom.

“Good morning, Eunice!” 

“Good morning, miss!” I hear in response. 

“Good morning, Jazmin!” 

“Good morning, Miss Pasma!”

I greet each student by name as they enter the class. As I greet each student, I check off their name on my class list, the best way to keep track of attendance and to know that we’re ready to begin. But really – more important than the attendance is the connection with students individually and not just as a homogenous group on my screen. Students spend 6 hours in front of their computer or phone on days of online classes, and how much of that time is authentic connection? I have a feeling it’s not much. 

In fact, it’s this lack of authentic connection that is my most frequent frustration when teaching online. It’s very easy for students to stay muted unless I call on them. I finish teaching a concept, and I ask, “Do you have any questions?” Students stare blankly at me. Maybe one or two students will bother to shake their head to indicate that they do not have any questions. I have commiserated about this lack of authentic communication with Seño Gladys, my Spanish teacher, on a regular basis. She told me that sometimes her students stare at her, staying so still, that she will say to them, “Students, breathe!!! Are you still alive???” It makes us laugh when we tell each other the stories of our experiences, but obviously we both agree that the best classes for students (and teachers!) would have students at school in person every day. 

If I turn my head and look to the side, I have this beautiful view from “my second office” 😍

My students have come a long way in their ability to use technology and to use it well for their online classes. My grade 11 students received classes exclusively through Zoom last year, so they are well used to this format. My grade 10 students, who were in middle school last year, only had videos posted to a Facebook group that they watched asynchronously, doing worksheets to show their understanding. Of course, there were some benefits – students could watch a video multiple times if they were having trouble. They had extra flexibility in their schedules – easier to share a phone between multiple family members. If they had internet issues, they could watch the videos later. Synchronous online classes are a whole new ballgame for them this year. And wouldn’t you know it, their very first online class of the year was English.

I did have an in-person class with my students on the first day of school, and I tried to prepare them for their first online class. “I’ll send you a text in WhatsApp with the link to our class,” I told them. “Even though students aren’t at school, teachers still meet together for devotions. And think about today. Did we finish devotions exactly at 8:00?” A few of my students shook their heads no. “We will not start class until after devotions, but devotions often finish at 8:10. So don’t worry if I don’t send you a message until 8:10, or 8:15 or even 8:20!”

The next morning, I indeed sent them a text around 8:10 with the class link. I only received one frantic text before that from a student saying (in Spanish, of course), “Miss, I can’t connect to the class! I don’t have a link!” The students successfully joined the class, and by 8:20 – yes, a full ten minutes to get everyone connected to their first class 😂😭😂 – we had begun class. 

And then we tried to do English class online – a totally new forum. It was PAINFUL. I discovered quickly that I could not ask a question and wait for someone to volunteer an answer, a technique I can easily employ in an in-person class. If I didn’t choose a person to answer, students just stared at me, all deer in the headlights. Each time I asked a question and then asked a specific person to answer, we had to wait through an uncomfortable 20 to 45 seconds of silence waiting for the student to figure out how to unmute in order to give the answer. I asked students to type answers to a question in the chat so that they could all participate. Two students out of 15 typed something in the chat. That concerned me so much that I looked up “chat” to see what the Spanish word was – maybe students just didn’t understand the English terminology in an online class! Since the Spanish is “el chat”, I knew that wasn’t the problem… 

Thankfully students have come a long way in their ability to navigate technology. Students can easily type answers or questions in the chat, and they can use the “raise hand” function to let me know that they have a question. Now we never have to wait longer than 5 seconds for someone to unmute, unless their internet connection isn’t great and they’re having trouble hearing. That is the more continuous problem – poor internet. As I teach, I can often see a student or two “leaving” the meeting only to re-enter immediately, a sure sign that their internet is so weak that they lost connection to the meeting. Occasionally I’ll get a text from a student as we are working on a workbook page saying, “Sorry, Miss, my internet failed and I didn’t hear the instructions. What are we doing?” 

Of course, teaching online does have a few benefits. Students are not allowed to bring any technology to school when they’re here in person, and I don’t have the projector that I’m used to from my classroom in Canada. We do almost everything “old school” when we’re in person. When we’re online, I’ll take advantage of the tech tools at our disposal. One day we were playing a Kahoot (for those of you not in school yourself, Kahoot is a fun competition-based game platform. We use it to practice or review grammar concepts or vocabulary), when suddenly the electricity went out at school. That, of course, meant we lost our internet signal, and I got kicked out of my own class. By the time I set up my computer to hotspot internet from my phone and rejoined the class, I was greeted by the faces of only six students, all waiting patiently. The other nine had also been affected by the electricity outage. As we continued the game, students slowly trickled back into the class and rejoined us in our game. 

Basically any response to these experiences is one part shrug emoji (🤷🏻‍♀️) and one part flexibility in figuring out what will work in the moment. For the past week, we’ve had all of our classes online as we await an inspection from the ministry of health to ensure that we’re practicing all the pandemic restrictions required. I’m so tired of only online classes and can’t wait to return to our hybrid method. My Spanish teacher told me just yesterday in our Spanish class that on Thursday, she had to cover another teacher’s class, and she had no free periods, spending literally the entire day from 8:00 to 1:30 in classes with the short recess break as her only reprieve. She said she has a whole new appreciation for how students experience their online days. 

I fervently hope that mandatory online classes are very soon a thing of the past in both Canada and Guatemala. By the time I’m back in Canada, I hope to never need to teach an exclusively online class. But I hope that when we use digital tools, I’ll remember the joys and frustrations I’ve experienced here and have a little perspective. In other words, I won’t complain about poor internet again!

Two Years after My Adrenalectomy

March 13, 2020. 

Friday the 13th, no less. I still remember the hint of uncertainty in the voice of the surgeon’s administrative assistant when she called me to tell me the date that my surgery had been scheduled. There are probably a fair number of people who would have turned down a surgery scheduled for a Friday the 13th, but I was desperate to get rid of the tumour that had turned my life upside down, and I had no such superstitions.

I’ve written in various places about my life with pheochromocytoma, my journey to diagnosis, and how my life changed afterward. But it’s still a topic that I find myself thinking about regularly, a topic I have more to write about, and a topic I want to keep writing about. One reason is that my pheochromocytoma posts receive regular visits from Google searches literally around the world. I have a feeling that they’re being read by people searching for their own diagnosis, people who have just received their own diagnosis, people who are wondering what’s going to happen next. 

That’s certainly something I did. The night I got the first lab test results that indicated that the underlying cause to everything was in all likelihood a tumour in my adrenal gland, I Googled the heck out of all things pheochromocytoma. By the next day, I could have told you what diagnostic imaging was available and what was preferred by doctors to confirm the diagnosis, how an adrenalectomy was performed, and what studies said about the correlation (or lack thereof) of tumour size to symptoms. But while I did my fair share of Pubmed reading, I also read every story that I could. How were people’s symptoms similar to mine? How were they different? How did people get diagnosed? Did they also have such a hard time getting a diagnosis? (yes, they did.) What had been their experiences in surgery? What was their recovery like? 

Today, two years after a life-saving and life-changing surgery, here are a few of the reflections I’ve had recently. 

One: I’m one of the lucky ones. My surgery was completed laparoscopically and went incredibly well. Don’t get me wrong – I felt like I’d been hit by a truck afterwards. Laparoscopic surgery is still surgery. But I was left with three small incisions that healed well. Pathology and post-operative monitoring left no reason to suspect a malignant tumour. (With pheochromocytomas, it is notoriously difficult to discern a malignant vs benign tumour, and really, the only reliable sign is metastatic cancer that has begun to grow elsewhere in the body.) Follow-up genetic testing so far hasn’t revealed any genetic cause, which is incredibly fortunate because it reduces the likelihood of my remaining adrenal gland developing another pheochromocytoma. Following other pheochromocytoma patients through social media has given me a window into the experience of living with a malignant pheochromocytoma. Sometimes when I read their stories, I can’t believe that I got to have surgery and never look back (except reflectively). I can’t imagine what these patients go through day after day, year after year. 

Two: I know I’m lucky. Really, really lucky. But I don’t always feel lucky. I wrote in my very first blog post about pheochromocytoma that my journey had started four years previously. But it became really obvious once I started losing symptoms that I had actually been living with the tumour for something more like ten years. Facebook memories continually remind me of just how much my life was disrupted by constant, ever-evolving, and ever-increasing-in-awfulness migraines. To think about ten years of life affected in this way – it really sucks. It’s great to have good health to enjoy now… but what would my life have been like without those ten years of awfulness? And that’s just the physical side of things. I have done a lot of emotional healing post-surgery. But I’m still not completely healed from the trauma of this experience. I keep a very close eye on points of data that might indicate a tumour recurrence. Sometimes when my resting heart rate is high, I need to take some deep breaths and remind myself that I just had Covid, or that I literally didn’t get a chance to sit down during the day. (My resting heart rate dropped 30 points after surgery. Since my watch gives me this data daily, it’s easily accessible to monitor.) After years with headaches happening almost daily, the change to being headache-free was shocking. But it makes it hard to have a headache now without wondering what’s causing it. I also have bloodwork done annually to monitor my metanephrine levels. It’s hard not to worry while waiting for these results. I am working hard at living in peace and not in fear. But it’s hard work. 

Three: I wanted a story to be able to explain things. I had been so sure that I would receive news from genetic testing that the cause for my tumour was genetic, that it was very unsettling to receive the news that there is (so far, at least – genetic testing for pheochromocytoma is still a relatively nascent field) no genetic mutation that explains my tumour. My surgeon had been quite sure I was a genetic case. My age alone made it likely. I was so unsettled after speaking with my genetic counselor that it took me a little while to realize this was actually good news. A genetic mutation would reveal the cause for my tumour, but it would also point to likely recurrence or future follow-up needed; it would plot the path for monitoring. Instead, I need only the most basic – my annual metanephrines test. No fear of another endocrine system failure in the future (à la MEN 2, definitely the scariest possibility). Definitely not von Hippel-Lindau – very good news. Et cetera, et cetera. Go down the list of mutations and their scary consequences… and I was glad to have avoided them. So why was I so set back? It took a while for me to realize that the genetic mutation story was a story that I could tell to make sense of my experience. Yeah, it would suck. But the tumour would have had a cause, and I had received the treatment, and we could all wrap things up with a nice bow. But now I have no origin story. My body grew a tumour just because. And can you ever really trust your body again after that happens? 

Four: I am indeed learning to trust my body again. I’m still working on trusting that I won’t grow another tumour. But there was another area that I needed to learn to trust my body and the messages it was giving me. For more than four years before diagnosis, I had gone to my doctor again and again with new symptoms and irregular blood work, and I was shrugged off each time. Yes, your platelets and white blood cell counts are high, but they’re not that high. That shaky feeling? It’s not blood-sugar related. No need for any further follow-up. By the time that I was visiting the emergency room, I was given the message implicitly that I could not be counted on to explain what was happening, or that I was exaggerating, or that I was wrong about the severity of what was happening. Sometimes the message was explicit – like on one visit where three different medical staff members told me that perhaps I was just experiencing a panic attack. One side-effect of these messages were to make me stay home from the hospital when I had a pheo crisis. It was so miserable to be in the hospital and not be believed, and they didn’t do anything to help, anyway! It was the belief that I might not actually live through the episode that finally sent me back to the hospital the time that I finally met the right doctor who made his miraculous diagnosis. 

Years of learning to ignore my body’s truths isn’t undone overnight, but I’m working on it. It’s helpful when I have a headache to be gentle with myself, to treat my body with kindness, to believe the message it’s giving, and to be curious about the cause, which of course helps with the fear of recurrence anyway. In many ways, the physical healing was the easy part. Remove the cause of the extra adrenaline in my body, and my hormones all normalized, and the cascading consequences of their imbalance slowly (or quickly, in some cases!) disappeared. The emotional and mental healing require more time. And I think it’s okay to take my time. My body will always bear three little scars along my back, the only outward signs of the surgery from two years ago. What emotional and mental scars I will always have yet remains to be seen. Just as my physical scars have lightened month after month and are continually less noticeable, so too will my mental and emotional scars continue to grow lighter and less noticeable.

Still one of my favourite graphics about the symptoms of pheochromocytoma

Just Your Typical Guatemalan Bus Ride

I have already written about what it’s like to take the bus in Guatemala, but sometimes when you’re living in a foreign country, you just need to write about an experience twice because it’s so different from what you experience in your home country. Last time was very informational. This time it’ll be a story. 

Today, as usual on a Saturday, I took the bus into Antigua. I completed some errands, enjoyed a chai latte in a cafe off of Central Park (especially enjoyable because yesterday was our last day of a three week Daniel Fast). Then, as usual, I went to the grocery store and market. I didn’t have too much that I was carrying home, so instead of splurging and taking an Uber home, I decided to hop on a bus. Just as I got to the busy street behind the market, a bus came by. It didn’t actually have a sign indicating where it was going, but the assistant (the guy who leans out the door and yells the destination) came along behind it pretty soon and said, “Chimaltenango, Parramos!” to those of us waiting at the bus stop. 

Now, I was warned away from taking a Chimaltenango bus during my orientation last year. They’re not actually the most convenient bus, because I am not going to Chimaltenango when I get on a bus – my destination is Tizate. But if you catch a Chimal bus and get off about 200 metres before you would on a “regular” bus, you can make it work. The other problem is that Chimal buses are often very full. But it was hot. I was sweaty from walking through a market full of people. I didn’t want to wait for another bus while standing in the full sun. So I got on the bus. 

When I got on, I discovered that every seat already had two people sitting in it. I should have just turned around and gotten back off. But I’m living in Guatemala, so it’s time to do things the Guatemalan way, right? Plus, I didn’t know how long I would have to wait for the next bus (it’s not like there’s a schedule!), so I decided to tough it out. 

Everyone studiously avoided eye contact with me, because they didn’t want to give me any indication that they would be willing to slide over and make a miniscule amount of room for me to sit with them, three adults in a school bus seat. Now, if I really had done things the Guatemalan way, I would have just chosen a location, asked for them to move in Spanish, and sat down. And they would have squeezed over and I could have sat down. But it was hot and I was very sweaty, and I didn’t really want to enter into other people’s personal space quite that desperately. Most buses are outfitted with overhead racks and railings, so I put my backpack and my shopping bag, both full of my groceries, up on the rack and held onto the railing overhead, balancing myself in the aisle as we bumped down the cobblestone streets of Antigua. 

By the time we left Antigua proper and were heading into Jocotenango, the bus stopped and picked up a bunch more people. The assistant came down into the bus and asked people to move back, telling some people beside me to shove over and telling me to sit down. I ended up sitting next to two sweet little old ladies, but the seat across the aisle (I mean… hypothetically across the aisle. I was already sitting in the aisle, pretty much) also had three people in it. Hard to tell if this was an advantage or disadvantage. One obvious drawback was that the third person in that seat and I were sitting pretty much right against each other. On the plus side, it kind of held us in place and I couldn’t really fall off the bus seat. 

I’ve been in buses in Canada occasionally at rush hour that got so full that the bus driver basically said, “Sorry, we’re full,” when we stopped at bus stops, and we didn’t pick up more people. That is not the Guatemalan method. You just keep shoving more people into the bus – after all, that’s more money in rides. As we drove down the road, every time we stopped to pick someone up, I cringed internally. Soon every seat had three people in it. Every time someone got on, all of the “third” seat people had to stand up to let them squeeze through to the back of the bus. Still, we picked up more people. Soon there were people standing in the aisle. One of the little old ladies sharing the seat with me got up to leave the bus, and I watched her struggle through the hoards to get to the front. (Again, if you are picturing a Canadian transit bus with wide aisles and lots of people standing up, you are picturing the wrong thing. Remember, this is a school bus. The aisles are barely wide enough to walk down as it is!)

I planned my own exit carefully, getting up with lots of time to spare, grabbing my backpack and grocery bag and excusing my way to the front of the bus so I would make it to the front before I wanted to get off. (Remember, I did NOT want to accidentally miss my stop – the bus was ultimately heading farther away from home!) 

With the added bulk of my backpack and grocery bag, it was very difficult to get through people, and by the time the bus actually stopped in San Luis and I had to get off, I still had to get past two more seats. I had trouble squeezing through, and ultimately just had to shove past some people who were standing up, leaning over the other occupants of the seats. Sorry to everyone! By that time, the assistant was already asking me for money, because unlike a regular bus ride, if you’re taking the bus to Chimaltenango, the assistant won’t collect it until later in the ride. Maybe when people get off? I don’t know… I never take the bus all the way to Chimal. But I was like, “Sir, I will give you your money when I successfully get off this bus!” I did have the money ready to hand to him, and passed it over when I finally made it off the bus. Unbelievably, three more people got on the bus at that stop!!!

After being packed in with so many people, getting off the bus was a relief. Of course, then I had the joy of hiking up the 100 metre climb in altitude to get home, and my lungs have not yet made a full recovery from my bout with Covid. I should have just taken the Uber home!

I have learned my lesson – don’t take the Chimal bus. Just wait for a better, less full bus. On the other hand, these are the experiences you don’t often get as a tourist in a country. I really am living the typical Guatemalan experience in many ways!

A Week of Observations

If you’re familiar with the teaching world, you might already know what kind of observations I am talking about from my title. If you’re not, you might think I’m going to tell you about some things I noticed over the last week. That’s not exactly wrong, but it’s not precisely correct, either. 

As part of my new role as TEFL co-ordinator, I spent the last week observing my teachers in their English classes, sending them documents with notes about their observations, and then meeting with them one-on-one to talk about their teaching. 

Besides working with students, this is one aspect of teaching that I LOVE doing! Thinking about how to refine one’s teaching, continually learning, looking into research, honing one’s skills… Yes, please! To all of that!!!

Over the last week, I’ve visited a grade 12 class, a grade 3 class, and a grade 9 class. It’s so fun just to see such a variety of classes and students. And my TEFL team this year? We are small but mighty. I have very experienced and capable teachers that I am working with, and it is a pleasure to encourage and challenge and support them in their work. 

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that visiting a primary class means getting hugged by practically every student. They don’t care that I’m not their teacher and they don’t really know who I am or why I’m in their class… they’re just warm and welcoming and all wanted to hug me when I said goodbye at the end of class! (insert melting heart emoji)

My COVID Experience

Almost two years into the pandemic, it finally happened: I got Covid. 

The day I tested positive, I did all of my regular things – walked down the hill, caught the bus into church, picked up a few things at the grocery store, went to Cafe Barista for a chai latte after church. (In retrospect, it’s hard not to cringe at the amount of contact with others that I had, but I didn’t know at the time!) I talked to my parents via video chat as I usually do in the afternoon. I felt absolutely fine. 

About an hour after the phone call, I started to feel a tickle in my throat, which quickly transformed into an actual sore throat. I was concerned. At all previous times when I had wondered if I possibly had Covid, I didn’t know anyone else who was positive. But this time, I knew a few too many people in my circles in Guatemala who were Covid positive themselves. I knew I needed to take one of the antigen tests that I’d brought with me from Canada – and I needed the results before Monday morning, when I was supposed to be at school for a full day of teaching. I also didn’t want to take the test too early and have a false negative. I waited for another hour, and then I used the technique I’d heard about just that week on a CBC podcast – I swabbed my throat, and then swabbed my nose. And then I prayed for an accurate result. 

No doubt about it… that’s a positive result.

And indeed, once the 15 minute of developing time had passed, the test was clearly positive. And then, even while I was thankful for a result that meant not having to question whether it was actually a false negative, I sat in disbelief for a good 10 minutes before actually figuring out what I needed to do. Which was, of course, to let people know and figure out what to do about all of my classes for the week. 

I called some family members and notified others. I texted the school director, and then I went to my office to look at school stuff. I teach a lot of classes a week, and our English department already doesn’t have enough staff to have subs. Thankfully, Max, the Communications Director here, could cover some of my classes, even though it meant taking him away from his Comms work for the length of my absence. Our teaching assistant Ella covered some of the classes – she was basically my proctor for the tests that we had scheduled. And I actually still taught my online classes – sitting out on my porch, at our dining table. It was both hard and helpful to still teach my online classes – super helpful, since I had to give those tests, and it meant not just handing things over to a sub and hoping for the best. I could still see students, review and practice with them, and ensure they were well prepared for the test. And hard – I was tired, and it really wore me out. There were definitely some moments that I caught myself staring off into space, glassy-eyed, and had to regather my mental faculties to continue with class. 

As far as Covid symptoms, I’m so very thankful to have been thrice vaccinated and to have had a very mild case. In week 1, I was very tired. I slept more than 10 hours every night. After the first full day with a headache and a sore throat, the fatigue was my only symptom. In week 2, I suddenly got some nasal congestion, and that meant I kept waking up at night, gasping for air. Now, 3 weeks past my positive test, I’m feeling good again… until I walk up a set of stairs with my mask on and really notice the effects on my lungs. This morning I went for my first run post-Covid, and it was the hardest run I’ve done in a long time. I ran my usual Saturday morning route out through Pastores, but when I got to my turn around point, with the downhill running all behind me, and the prospect of running back uphill the whole way home, I stopped running and walked back. I’m not that intense about running! 

My phone giving me this super helpful notification that my energy expenditure, steps, and walking distance had been lower than usual. 😂

At the end of all of this, I’m so thankful to have a team that pulled together in my absence and made things work. I’m thankful to have had lots of Guatemalan colleagues who texted while I was away, asking if I needed anything, telling me they were praying for me, and who greeted me enthusiastically when I returned to school. I’m thankful that I was well vaccinated and had a mild case, and so thankful that I didn’t need any medical attention. 

I was also feeling great about not needing to worry for the next little while about getting Covid until the next variant comes around. Then I listened to another CBC podcast that explained that if you get one variant of Omicron, it offers you no protection against this other very similar variant of Omicron. And doesn’t that just feel like the most Covid thing. 

I’m so happy to be back with students, and to feel more clear-headed when I teach them, whether in person three days a week or online the other two days of the week.

The Learning Curve

Hello, and welcome back to my blog! Yes, it definitely has been far too long!

I’ve been back in Guatemala for more than a month, and each weekend, I have intended to sit down to write a new blog post, but I’ve been very busy. I have drafted several, but they also weren’t quite what I wanted to say. Now as I sit down to write a new draft, I think we’re at the point that, happy with it or not, I’m just going to have to let it go and post whatever gets written here today. 

I’ve settled on “The Learning Curve” for the blog, because it encapsulates quite well my experience and that of the students for January, I think. 

Students first. After one year and 10 months away from school, students have finally been able to attend classes in person once again! Students are attending in person on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It’s quite the adjustment for them. Just today I was talking with the school director, and she said she’s reminding teachers that they should think of their students as being two years younger. Do you expect grade five students to be able to do this, but they’re struggling? Well, would you expect grade three students to be able to do this? Students (and teachers! and parents!!!) did the best they could over the last almost two years of learning via videos at home, but it wasn’t the same. Thankfully, now that they’re back at school, we’ll better be able to help them!

Then there is the learning curve for online classes. High school students receive their classes by Zoom/Google Meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, since they need to cover material or acquire skills, etc, and M/W/F is just not going to cut it the number of hours they need to attend. I taught online in Canada back in the spring of 2020, but it was a learning curve for me to figure out how to teach ESL classes online effectively and to remember how to use Google Meet effectively. (It’s been a while!) But… my learning curve was nothing compared to my poor grade 10 classes. Remember that high school here is really grade 10, 11, and 12, so this year’s grade 10 students did not take any online classes last year. Instead, I posted teaching videos to Facebook for them. I taught this poor class their very first online class on their first day of online classes. It… was… painful. Most students couldn’t figure out how to unmute if they were called on, or they couldn’t figure out the chat, or they didn’t understand what I was saying or asking them to do. Thankfully, by the time I taught the students again, they’d already had 5 different online classes, and their teachers had walked them through the rules of online classes and they’d had some time to figure out unmuting, using the chat, and raising their hand virtually. We’ve gone from an entire hour-long class that was pretty much 15 students staring at me like deer in the headlights to being able to participate more or less effectively. I still wish we were at school for those days, but at least we get that class time together and students can do more than watch a video of me talking at them. 

The third learning curve is my own. After two months away, I was happy to be able to find opportunities to converse in Spanish and to feel like I could find my way. Then I ended up moving to high school classes, and knew I’d have a big challenge ahead of me, teaching new grades and a totally different curriculum this year. And then school began, and I had so much to do as TEFL coordinator and not enough time to do it! Plus any time that one of my team members asked me a question, I’d say, “I’ll find out and get back to you.” And then I would wonder, Why am I in charge, when I don’t know anything???!!! Thankfully, the school director Karina has been incredibly helpful, and I have a team of experienced teachers who are not new to Guatemala and who know a lot more than I did last year. This learning curve has really pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me to grow, though! Just last week, a colleague told me that he noticed a big difference in my Spanish – even from the end of last year. I have an excellent Spanish teacher this year, but I’d only had one class up to that point, so she can’t take credit quite yet. I told him that the real difference, I think, is that last year, if I had a question, I asked my TEFL coordinator, Beth. This year, I’m the TEFL coordinator, so I just have to go and ask teachers, secretaries, or principals myself. I have had to use a lot more Spanish and figure out a lot more than I ever imagined! But it’s good!

We are already done with one month of school here. We’re almost halfway done our first quarter, and we’ve more or less settled into a rhythm. Hopefully, in the midst of that rhythm, I’ll find time to update my blog more regularly!

Providing Some Basics to Understand the Guatemalan School System

I have talked quite a bit lately about some of the specifics of pandemic education here in Guatemala and the struggles that students are facing both because of the pandemic restrictions and pre-existent to those restrictions. But it’s made me realize that I never wrote a post I had intended to write long ago, giving an overview of the Guatemalan education system. This post is obviously designed with my Canadian friends in mind (or readers from other countries – hi!) to help you understand some of the differences from the education system you’re used to. 

Let’s start at the very beginning (because it’s a very good place to start). Primary school contains grades 1 to 6. Many students in Guatemala begin school in grade 1 at approximately seven years of age. Our school has two grades before that, kinder (think junior kindergarten) and prepa (think kindergarten). Students in kinder and prepa have a shorter school day than the rest of the elementary classes. They arrive at the same time in the morning, but they leave earlier. (Of course, you’ll remember that students just aren’t coming to school right now because of Covid. But that would be the pattern if they were attending school in person.)

Primaria is very much like elementary school in Canada. Students have a homeroom teacher. They learn how to read and write. They learn basic math skills. They have subjects like social studies, science, and art. Students also take an indigenous Mayan language. In our region, that means students are learning Kaqchikel. And of course, students at Global Shore are learning English, too. Right from kinder and prepa

Once students graduate from primaria, they enter básicos. This is sort of like your Canadian middle school or junior high. At Global Shore, our básicos students have a homeroom teacher and then have different teachers for each subject so that a teacher can specialize in one subject area. “Básicos” means (surprise, surprise) “basics”, and is so named because students are learning the basics of each subject area and not specializing. (That’ll make more sense in a minute once you learn about high school.) There are three grades of básicos, named primero básico (first básico), segundo básico (second), and tercero básico (third). 

Every once in a while I’ll receive a text from a student who obviously used Google Translate to assist in making the text English, and it’ll say something great like, “Good morning, Miss Pasma! It is [NAME] from the rank of third basic writing to you!” I love those texts, and I don’t correct them, because I don’t want to get into the cultural explanation of grades, and also, who wouldn’t want to receive a text that starts like that!

Our primaria and básicos classes use the same school building, and there are three of us English teachers covering the classes from grade 1 through grade 9. If students were here in person, they’d get two English classes a week in their primaria classes, and three a week in básicos. There is one class per grade in the primaria age range, but básicos grades are split into two classes per grade. (Any middle school teacher is nodding their head already… they know why!) I teach segundo básico and tercero básico English classes, and I think of them as being just two classes (because they’re just big groups of students on Facebook), but I would actually have four classes in person if students were actually here. 

Once students graduate from básicos, they enter carreras (careers), sometimes called diversificados (diversified). Students choose a stream to study and take classes with a cohort of students studying the same thing. One of the carreras is secretariado, for example. These students learn typing and shorthand skills along with their other subjects. Global Shore has several different carreras streams – secretary, graphic design, early childhood education, bachillerato. (I am very hazy on these streams – both the options and what they exactly study or prepare for, because I don’t teach any carreras classes (except for some Zoom classes that I’ve been the substitute for!) and because they’re located in the building next to us. The majority of my knowledge comes from the fact that my Spanish teacher is a secretary teacher, so I have quite a good idea of what those students are learning! We talk about it often in our Spanish classes!

A lot of Guatemalan students don’t go to university, and many of the students who do go on to university either work first or work and take university classes part time, so carreras really is job preparation. Several of our carreras streams are bilingual, meaning students graduate from them with a high level of English fluency. This also means students have a skill that serves them well in a very difficult and competitive job market. 

Of course, this also means that you need to find a carreras program for your area of work, so the high school has a considerably smaller population than the primaria and básicos classes, because even students and families who love the school sometimes go elsewhere in order to attend the carreras classes they would like to or need to. For example, the twins that I met on my home visit would like to study engineering and pre-med (to become a civil engineer and a doctor), and that will mean leaving Global Shore since we don’t offer those streams.

While school attendance is technically mandatory up to the end of básicos in Guatemala, it is not uncommon for students to attend only through primaria. The end of básicos is another high drop out moment, as students and families figure that’s all the education they need or can afford, or as they need their child to join the workforce, or take care of siblings, or whatever the case may be. 

This does, of course, make me quite concerned for my tercero básicos students who have not been AT school in a year and a half, and especially for ones who have started working with parents while they’re out of school anyway. And I’m very worried about tercero básicos students who are struggling in their classes. If students don’t pass their classes, they need to redo the grade. What are the chances of students just dropping out instead of returning and redoing a grade? 

In the end, although I worry for my students, I remind myself, as I said last week, about what is within my control and about what is mine to do. I am glad that our principals are the ones making decisions about students progressing to the next grade or redoing work. I am glad that the principals know the families and their various factors. I’m glad that God knows these families and cares for them even more than I do. 

One Student’s Story: Obstacles to Education

Last week I mentioned doubling the number of students that I’ve met, from two to a whopping four. I want to talk a little bit about one of the other students that I’ve met in person. I want to respect her privacy and honour her as a person, so I’ll be talking in a little bit of vague generalities instead of telling specific details. But I’ve decided that I can tell her story in a way that honours her but allows for you readers to have a better idea of some of the struggles that my students face here. 

My student – I’m going to refer to her as S, for student – is new to the school this year. She’s older than her classmates, meaning she probably had to repeat one or two grades previously. From the beginning of the year, she was obviously struggling. Sometimes she just wouldn’t turn in her homework, and homework that she did turn in was often done completely incorrectly. I wondered if she was even watching my teaching videos on Facebook, or if she was just randomly filling in answers on her homework sheets. Because we have a Facebook group set up for each class, I could see that she was, in fact, watching each video. I talked with my principal about her, and that was when I learned that she was a new student. Coming from another school can often mean a transition period for students as they adjust to our specific school expectations as well as just higher expectations than public schools. Plus our students have much more English instruction than the average Guatemalan public school to give them a higher level of fluency by their graduation and to improve their future prospects. 

So, S was at a major disadvantage and was already starting the year behind her classmates. I began leaving notes of explanation on her work, writing grammar rules and vocabulary in (my broken) Spanish to help her understand. But I also left a note at the top of almost every piece of paper. “S, please text me if you have any questions. It would be a pleasure to help you if you don’t understand your work.” Her work did not improve. 

By the end of the second quarter, S’s grades had dropped even further. I have a large repertoire of techniques to draw upon to help students, but all of them rely on actually seeing my student in person. Not even having video calls with this student meant I had no ideas of how to help her. 

Shortly after report cards went home, I was sitting in church at the end of the service, waiting to be dismissed by the usher (Covid protocols mean we wait and dismiss a few rows at a time). I turned to see a student and her mother. They introduced themselves – it was, of course, S and her mom. We spoke for a few minutes in general before the conversation turned to the inevitable topic, her classwork. 

“We really want her to do well; we know how important that is,” Mom told me. 

“I know. I know how hard it is to learn a language,” I empathized. (Honestly, could I be better prepared to empathize on that point?) “I know how hard it is to learn from videos, too.” 

“It’s just…” Mom said. “S doesn’t have a phone to use for her homework.”

“Oh,” was all I could say, brain whirling. My Spanish is coming along, but conversation with Spanish speakers can be challenging. Throw a mask over everyone’s faces, and sometimes I wonder if I understand anything correctly. Did I understand Mom correctly? How was S doing any schoolwork without a phone? How was it helpful that I wrote on every week’s homework, “Just text me if you have questions!”?

“I want to help S,” I said. “But I need to talk to the principal. We can brainstorm ideas for how we can help S in her Spanish classes. Can I talk to you about those after the principal and I talk?” (Okay, I didn’t say brainstorm because I don’t know how to say that in Spanish!)

I left shortly thereafter and went to my regular Sunday afternoon location, the cafe down the street. And then I cried. I cried for S, who wants to learn and be at school and can’t. I cried because she couldn’t afford even the cheapest phone, while I went to a cafe and bought lunch for approximately $8 CAD each week. I cried because even the way that I had tried to help had just been rubbing salt in the wound. I cried in frustration for all of the students here and around the world who have been out of school for so long. 

A later conversation with the principal confirmed the problem. S does have occasional access to a phone – after all, that’s how she’s watching the teaching videos that I’m posting. But she shares that phone with her step-brother, and he uses the phone for his classes for most of the week (he attends a different school). S gets to use the phone on Thursdays, doing the week’s worth of lessons in one day. She’s behind in most of her classes, and she probably has no parent supervision, both parents being away working all day. The principal and her husband were trying to work out a solution, hoping to lend the family a tablet to use so each child could access their lessons as needed. But the tablet is old enough that it doesn’t have a SIM card for data use, and the family doesn’t have wifi. 

The principal and I brainstormed a couple of ideas for how to support S. I had hoped that she could come to the school for an hour a week to have an in-person tutorial with me. That wouldn’t break any Covid rules, and it would provide a really good opportunity for her to get one-on-one help. But the reality is that, with parents working and the distance from home to school, it’s not going to happen. So right now, I’ve been writing up a personalized lesson in addition to the work for the rest of the class. We’re going over the basics of English. I’m not making any assumptions about what S may or may not have learned in previous schools. I’m also sending a voice message each week to go along with the paper, going over pronunciation of the words or concepts we’re learning. 

I’ve seen S a couple more times at church since our original meeting, and each time I ask how she is and how her English work is going. She’s so grateful for my help, but I wish I could do more. The biggest difference has actually just been that her work is now being done carefully and attentively. She clearly cares about it again. I think just meeting me in person has made a big difference. If I were taking a class and not passing a single assignment, I would definitely assume the teacher hated me. Even before I started sending the extra lessons, S’s work had already changed. Sometimes students just need to know that their teachers care about them. 

And in the end, that’s really all I can do. I can’t change the systems that are unfairly disadvantageous to S and so many students here. I can’t change the family dynamics that are prioritizing her step-brother’s education at the cost of hers. I can’t change the Covid protocols that means that students are entering their 17th month being away from school in person. That’s not the work that God has called me to, and that’s not my responsibility as a guest in this country. 

All I can do is teach the best that I can given the tools that I have and the resources that my students have access to. And I can love them and care about them. That is the work that God has called me to do. And I will do it with joy. 

Home Visit: In Which I Double the Number of Students I’ve Met!!!

This week, I had an amazing opportunity. I got to accompany our school pastor on a house visit, and I doubled the number of my online students that I’ve now met! 

You’ll remember that the vast majority of our students are not allowed to come to school and only receive lessons by video through Facebook (elementary students – high school students are fortunate enough to have Zoom classes). So besides the three in-person students that I teach (children of my colleagues who are allowed to come to school), prior to this week, I had met a grand total of two students. 

My boss Beth texted me on Monday and said, “Hey! I have a great opportunity for you! What about going on a home visit?!” Pastor Jervin was heading to a family with students in segundo básico (grade 8) on Tuesday, and I was invited. Lexi would come with as my official translator. 

We left the school pretty early on Tuesday morning because there have been some protests and lots of traffic lately. We made it to the other side of Antigua without too much traffic, and found our way to a quiet village beside the highway connecting Antigua to Guatemala City. 

As soon as we entered the house, I was introduced to Mom, Dad, and Little Brother. Boy Twin and Girl Twin soon joined us. 

[Side note but very important: families agree that photos and stories of their children can be used online and in other media the share the story of Global Shore. I am allowed to share this story – and I’m allowed to use student names and pictures. I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’ve decided not to use names. I have thought a lot about being a teenager and having my teacher write about me online. So I’ve decided to share the story and not any details that feel too personal.]

I actually didn’t know about Little Brother – because I teach students by recording videos and then receiving homework papers at the end of the week. There is only so much sharing about personal life one can do that way. But as soon as I entered the dining room where we sat, Dad announced me to the rest of the family as “The famosa Miss Pasma!” Why am I famosa? Because even Little Brother watches the English videos with his big brother and sister, practicing his English with them!

Little Brother is quite the student in other ways, too. He is four years old, not attending school yet, but he sat quietly at the table, and in between smiling shyly at us visitors, he was practicing his writing in a lined paper notebook. He has already mastered manuscript (printing), so now he’s developing his cursive skills. At four years old. 

He’s not the only very capable student in the family. Both the twins are excellent English speakers, so we got to know each other using a lot of English and the occasional translation from Lexi. Girl Twin told about starting ballet lessons from the age of four, and I got to watch some videos of dance recitals at various ages. Boy Twin told us about learning the marimba (Guatemala’s national instrument) from about the same age. I was shocked, and joked about him not being tall enough to play but having to reach above his head in order to play. Dad said that was why they had turned him away the first year he’d tried to take lessons, so the next year, when he’d grown one more centimetre, they brought him back – along with a stool for him to stand on. Sure enough, in watching the videos of him playing in marimba groups, in the earliest years, he’s standing on the stool in order to reach the marimba. 

As we sat and talked, looking at photos and watching videos, Mom made some horchata for us to enjoy. Everyone’s horchata recipe is a little different, and Mom made hers with sesame in addition to the traditional rice and nuts. Yum! 

Lexi eventually asked the twins to head outside with her in order to film short videos to send to their sponsors. (Each student at the school can be sponsored – this helps to defray the cost of their education. Some of my students still need sponsors! If you’d like to sponsor one of them, head to the Global Shore website and look for students in Grade 8 or Grade 9! There are two Grade 8 girls available as I’m writing this!) While Lexi had the twins outside, I moved around the table to sit right next to Little Brother. I asked him if he could read, too, or just write. He happily flipped to earlier pages in his notebook and read to me the sentences that he had written in previous weeks. That is a kid who is very ready for kindergarten!

Eventually it was time for us to say goodbye. Pastor Jervin asked me if I would pray for the students and family. My Spanish teacher here at the school has been telling me that this time would come – that when we have students in person again eventually, I’ll pray for students regularly, and sure, I can do it in English, but how meaningful is it if I can do it in Spanish and the student can understand me too? So she has been assigning me homework like writing out a prayer in Spanish – one to do in prayer meetings with the staff, one to pray over students. She’s been challenging me to pray in Spanish in my own prayer time. I agreed to pray… but chickened out on the Spanish front and asked Lexi if she would translate from my English. I’ll get there eventually, Marielos!

Before leaving, I asked if we could take some pictures first – with the whole family and then with the twins and me. Little Brother was sad about us leaving, so he got his own picture with me. [As I said above, I have decided not to post these photos here, but since my social media settings are private and not public, if you’re friends with me, you can see photos there!]

Thus ends the story of the house visit – but our day was not quite over. 

Since we were on the other side of Antigua, Lexi and I headed out for an errand a little ways down the highway. Contrary to what we had expected – given the protests, we had no issues with traffic. We returned through Antigua and came back towards the school and home. As we approached our village along the highway, we suddenly ran into completely stopped traffic. The intersection where two highways sort of… cross each other? (it’s complicated) was at a standstill. Apparently the roads to Chimaltenango are where protests were happening, and the road on either sides of a Y, both of which head north-northwest to Chimaltenango, were totally stopped. We waited for a bit, with traffic edging forward ever so slightly. Eventually one of the guys who stands in the door of a bus and yells at people got out and directed traffic, and that moved things enough that we could slip by on the shoulder of the road. We wouldn’t take the route through the village of Tizate anyway, always choosing to loop around the back way for a much less insane ascent, but the bridge at the bottom of the village has been closed for the last two weeks anyway, so you can’t take that route. As we started climbing up the back way, we came upon a chicken bus backing its way down the hill. This road is not really designed for two-way traffic at the best of times, and it’s certainly not designed for chicken buses or trucks – but that hasn’t stopped them. So when a truck coming down met a bus going up, one of them had to back up out of the way. We backed all the way down to the highway and waited, eventually heading up behind another truck. About halfway up, our line of vehicles was stopped when we ran into another truck trying to come down. We put the car in park and waited, not really able to see what was happening around the curve of the road, but trusting that we would eventually see traffic heading one way or the other. And sure enough, eventually, traffic started creeping forward again. The truck had been moved off the road onto a driveway, but behind it was a pickup that had basically driven halfway up onto the shoulder at a pretty steep angle. Since the truck in front of us could squeak past it, we knew we could, too. And we did. As we finally made it up to the top, back to school and home, Lexi looked at her phone and told me she had texted someone as we first stopped in traffic at the bottom of the hill… 25 minutes earlier. I could have walked home up the hill twice in the amount of time it took us to drive up. Fun times. 

This road is not really built for two-way traffic!

Throughout the rest of Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, each time I looked out from our porch, I could see a line of traffic snaking down the highway from Parramos to Pastores, that Chimaltenango route still apparently slowed down by protests. However, there were also police stationed at the bottom of the hill (and apparently at the other end of the road), preventing people from taking our teeny little road as a “shortcut”.