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.