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.