Bethany’s Life in Guatemala Volume 10: All Done Homeschooling

I’m all done with my stint in homeschooling. 

I sent the boys off with a whole sheet of stickers to enjoy at home (with apologies to their mother! But they have strict instructions to share with their siblings and not stick them onto anything that shouldn’t have a sticker!) and with some sadness in my heart. I know I’ll still see the boys here at school, but it’s been so great to have classes with them almost daily. I never want to teach a whole class of grade 1 or grade 3 students, but it’s really nice just having two kids, and since almost all of my students are online (and I don’t even get to interact with them – it’s all asynchronous learning), it was really, really nice to have in person classes. 

Plus they’re really funny! They’re seven and nine, so there was a lot of joking and play fighting (sometimes some moments of actual fighting), lots of solar-powered robot demonstrations, rocks brought from home to show me, compass explorations, lots of playing with my Apple watch, and lots and lots of love. 

I’m happy to have a little bit more flexibility in my schedule, but otherwise I’m very sad to pass them off to Eden who will be taking over the homeschooling. She told me that she’ll invite me as a guest speaker and/or guest audience any time they need one! 😆

The extra flexibility in my schedule will be very helpful since I’m starting an AQ course on Monday (Ontario teachers, you know what I’m talking about!), so it’ll be nice not having to take little bits of work home with me to finish at work. I should be back to finishing everything during the school day. Here’s hoping!

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 9: Today’s Reflection

Vacation. Sweet, sweet vacation. 

I’m so used to having a March break, a glorious week off of school in mid-March. This isn’t technically March break – it’s semana santa, our Holy Week break. So it actually starts in March this year, but of course, timing varies from year to year based on the actual date of Easter. 

Regardless: I am happy to have a holiday. No days at all off of school – except for last week’s exciting trip to Migración to renew our visas – has been strange for me. 

This is good work. Good, but hard. It’s hard to be teaching students I’ve never met. (Side story: Two weeks ago as we walked through the plaza in front of the Catholic church in Jocotenango on our way to church, a little girl ran up and hugged Tegan and then ran off. We speculated that it was one of her students, but she didn’t say anything, not a “hi”, not a “Miss Reschke”, nothing. Later Tegan got a text saying it had in fact been one of her students. At church, Eden had two different students come up to her and talk, and then outside of the grocery store, another student waved and said hi as he went past with his dad. I had no one. Not a single student greeting me. Poor me!)

It’s hard not knowing students personally. I’m sure it’s incredibly hard for students to be learning only through a video. Probably hard enough for their other subjects anyway, but especially so for English. They would normally be doing so much talking and listening and more talking in class, but who do they get to talk to now? (I had them send me an audio message for their final test of the first quarter. It was so great to hear actual voices and to ensure that my students were doing a little bit of talking, but it’s nothing like what it would be in class.)

When students drop off their work at school every Friday, some of them create these fancy title pages for their work. I’ve never asked them to. They just do it. Small signs that tell me they really care about their work.

If my students are struggling, I just have no way of knowing why. In class, there are lots of hints you can pick up on. Are they just having a bad day? Are they struggling in general with English? Is a particular unit hard? Is one skill particularly hard? I feel like I have no idea right now. Is it because they aren’t watching my teaching videos before they do the homework? Are the instructions unclear? Is there no parent at home ensuring that they do their homework? Are they helping out in a family business for a significant number of hours a day, leaving little time for school work? Who knows?! Certainly not me!

My heart aches for students who can’t be at school and who really need to be. It’s so hard. It’s so, so hard. 

At least now we have a week off to enjoy, guilt-free. 

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 8: The Joys (and Pains) of Living Mostly Outside

I love how much outdoor time I get here in Guatemala. While mornings can be a little chilly, the day warms up beautifully almost every single day. Depending on the classroom – the direction its windows face, what side of the building it’s on – sometimes during the day I need to keep my cardigan or blazer on, but lately I’ve been losing that part way through the day. If I’m chilly, I only need to go sit in the beautiful sunshine in the middle of the courtyard, and in a few minutes, I won’t just be warmed up, I’ll be blazingly hot and feeling like I’m getting a sunburn. (Don’t worry, Mom – I don’t stay out in the sun for more than ten minutes at a time! No sunburns here yet!)

Our dining room table is on the porch. We’ve got a roof over our heads for the upcoming rainier months, but otherwise, we always eat outside. Even now, as I write this, I’m sitting inside my “home office”, but I have both windows wide open and it feels like I’m more or less outside. 

I love my home office!

Tangent – but related story: 

This week, in class with one of my in-person students, I read a short picture book and we discussed it. One of her unknown words was picnic. Yes, what is a picnic? You know when you eat outside instead of inside, I told her. That’s a picnic. We went on to the next page until I suddenly realized that that was a horrible description to give to someone in a tropical country. Wait – let’s go back to picnic, I told her. Do you eat outside every day? Yes, she does. Okay. In Canada and a lot of the United States, it’s way too cold to eat outside for most of the year. So people eat inside. A dining room has to be inside. A picnic means taking food to a park and sitting on a blanket to eat. That’s when and where people eat outside in Canada. (It was too complicated to get into patio sets that get set up in backyards during the summer.) It made me realize again how intertwined culture and language are. 

Back to living outside: 

I really enjoy so much outdoor time, but it’s not all a joy. You’ve already seen how allergic I am to things that live outside, so that’s great fun. Another thing that we experience is the invasion of those critters into living spaces very easily. Critters and dust. When you don’t have doors that seal at the bottom and you have screenless windows that you leave open all day, you really just have to sweep almost every day, and you have to be vigilant about food and food storage. Just today, Tegan found a giant praying mantis in her room. Better her than me! Still, I wouldn’t trade those things for the colder climate of Canada!

This week, another unforgettable event occurred that I feel occurred mostly because of the indoor/outdoor factor. Eden and I had just gotten to school and were getting our materials ready in the staff room. (The staff room is a classroom that has long tables set up in a rectangle. Each teacher has a permanent location where one can store one’s stuff, sit to mark and plan, etc.) From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw movement head right under our chairs, but when I looked, I didn’t see anything, so I shrugged it off. Until Eden turned to me and said, “Did you see that?” Okay, not a coincidence. I wasn’t about to search for whatever thing had just run underneath us – I didn’t want to find whatever it was. But Eden looked around the room, searching the corners, catching a few odd glances from the other teachers. Eventually, she got up and started looking around. That garnered enough attention to have the other teachers ask her what it was. She told them that something had run under our chairs. Probably a mouse. 

Of course, that was not welcome news to most of the female teachers in the room. There were some immediate protests and gasps of horror, and then some help searching (mostly from the one male teacher in the room at the time). Of course, there was also some immediate teasing. One teacher was quite horrified by the thought of a mouse, and her nearest seat neighbour around the corner of the rectangle of desks picked up her motorcycle helmet and rubbed the strap against the head of the poor terrified teacher. Shrieking ensued, naturally. But in the midst of the teasing, screaming, and good-natured ribbing, the mouse was located in the corner. Calls were made to bring a broom. A teacher went downstairs to get a broom from the janitor’s closet, got distracted and had a conversation with another teacher, finally brought said broom upstairs, the mouse was trapped in a corner and attacked with a broom, and finally the mouse was put out of its misery. 

We gathered our students and headed over to devotions a little bit late (but with a very good reason for being late, I felt). When we returned, I came back to the staff room to find two female teachers standing outside of the door, not going in. “Still? No!” I said in Spanish. They told me that they thought it was probably safe, but they didn’t want to be the first ones into the room. I steeled my nerves and bravely entered, peering around piles of student work into the dark corners while my colleagues stood at the door, occasionally letting out little gasps and shrieks that, it turned out, were for my benefit in hopes of scaring me. Thankfully, I had steeled my nerves better than that. Also thankfully, I didn’t encounter any mice because that would have led to some of my own screaming and probably jumping on a chair. 

Once we were settled and actually working again, my colleagues felt the need to regale me with stories of former school years when other colleagues had encountered various mice in various classroom situations. Worst was the story of a poor primary teacher whose students told her, “Seño, there’s a snake under that ball.” She picked up the ball, and sure enough… a snake. Of pretty decent size… although the snake got bigger in subsequent retellings when my American roommates returned to the staff room and also had to hear that story, so who knows the actual truth of the size of the snake? 

All things told, though, as long as no one requires me to do the mouse killing, I’m going to be okay with the painful side of the outdoors and I’m going to keep glorying in the joyful side. 

One Year

Exactly one year ago today, I underwent surgery to remove my adrenal gland – and, more importantly, the tumour that had grown within that adrenal gland. 

I’ve written about life with pheochromocytoma, my struggle to be diagnosed, and how life changed afterwards. If you’ve been around for long enough, you certainly know most of this story. But please indulge me again, because this is easily one of the most significant events in my life within the last decade. 

I wonder how much we can appreciate our health until it’s gone. I think it might be one of the easiest things to take for granted unless and/or until it disappears. I might be a very strange case, because I didn’t realize that my health was gone until it was restored to me. That sounds crazy, I know. But it’s only in retrospect that I can see the long slow descent into poor health that took over a decade. I didn’t know it was happening at the time. 

By the time that I was going to the hospital emergency department, I obviously knew something was wrong. By that time, I was convinced I might actually be dying. But even then, I described myself as okay in between my crisis episodes. I just didn’t know that I wasn’t okay. 

I didn’t know. I didn’t know how much health was lost and what needed to be restored. I couldn’t remember. But God knew. God remembered. And God restored. 

One year ago, I underwent surgery to remove my adrenal gland and, more importantly, the tumour that had grown there that was producing extra adrenaline – sometimes 20 times the adrenaline my body should have had. I knew that I would feel better after surgery, but I just figured I wouldn’t suffer those awful life-crushing crises any more. I didn’t know what God had in store for me. 

Let me give just one example.

I used to wake up with a headache almost every day. A person just can’t actually take Advil every day of their life, no matter how much they may want to, so I would wait and see if this was the type of headache that would go away, the type of headache I could ignore, or the type where I really did need to take some Advil to make it through the day. Somewhere between 3 to 7 times a month, the headache would develop into a migraine. I am so thankful that I didn’t have some of the worst migraine issues – I rarely had photosensitivity or problems with noise. (When you often end up sucking it up and continuing to teach through the migraine, that’s really, really fortuitous.) But I did often have awful nausea accompanying the migraine, getting worse as the day went on to the point that I would just try to lie absolutely still in my bed so that I would just have the migraine headache to deal with. Migraines run in the family, so this was just an unfortunate genetic inheritance, it seemed. 

As the weeks after surgery went by and I kept feeling better and better, I stopped waking up with headaches. I was thankful not to have any migraines, but I wasn’t really holding out any hope that they were gone for good. I expected them to be a part of my life forever. But time kept passing and I just never got a headache, let alone a migraine. Over the summer, I flew to Alberta and stayed with my sister, taking care of my nephews. When the older one started school in September and came back with a cold, one morning I woke up with a bit of a sore throat and a headache. Just a headache, nothing more. But I was pretty miserable, wondering how did I do this almost every day for so long? 

The real benchmark for me was a week of lost sleep before coming to Guatemala. With variants of concern identified in Canada, I often lay awake in bed for hours, wondering if I would really actually be able to fly out of Canada and enter Guatemala. I never had the slightest bit of a headache. Previously, lack of sleep had been my number one migraine trigger. While getting a good night’s sleep wasn’t enough to prevent a migraine, not getting enough sleep pretty much guaranteed that I would pay with a migraine. We arrived in Guatemala close to midnight, and with the time going through customs and immigration, driving from the airport, and getting settled in at a new place, I fell asleep well after 2 am. With the time change, bright sunlight shining in, loud motos driving by outside, and dogs barking in the street, I woke up at 5. While I felt absolutely exhausted, I had no headache. No migraine. Nothing. I could only marvel at the goodness of God in the timing of this healing. 

It’s not just the goodness of not worrying about a tumour or about the next crisis. It’s the day to day goodness of good health. It’s the gift of being in a new country and a new job and new community and feeling good, every single day. 

I do not take this for granted. I literally thank God for my health each day. 

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 7: Homeschooling

One of the things that I have really been enjoying about my work, as petty and small as it makes me sound, is that I can do all of it during the school day and I don’t take school stuff home with me here in Guatemala. If you read my earlier post about my routine of school work, you might be a little surprised by that. Preparing and teaching both online classes and in-person classes and then marking all of that work – it is a lot of time. But our jobs are designed to be done during the school day. And this isn’t “our” as in just the TEFL staff – this is “our” as in all the teachers here. We leave at 2:30, and we do not generally take work home with us. This is particularly helpful when a not insignificant number of the staff are also pastors in the church network and can do their pastor work outside of school hours. It also allows teachers to spend time with their families and have real lives. (I have to say, after the gift of such a manageable workload for a year here, heading back to a Certain School in Ontario will be a difficult transition! 😭)

If you read my last blog, you are now familiar with Julianna, the director of Global Shore Opportunities. Julianna is Canadian by birth, but she’s lived in Guatemala since 2004. As my TEFL director Beth put it to me, Julianna would say that she’s here by choice, but what about her kids? They don’t have a choice about whether to live in Guatemala or Canada. They’re all very happy to be living in Guatemala… but what about if they want to go to university in Canada in the future? So in addition to attending the school here and taking their classes in Spanish, these kids also do some homeschooling curriculum that ensures that they will be prepared for a Canadian university if they so choose.

This past weekend, the former homeschooling teacher returned to Canada. At the end of this month, our one Guatemalan TEFL teacher will return from her maternity leave and my roommate and colleague Eden will take over as the homeschooling teacher. But for the month of March, Beth and I have divided up homeschooling responsibilities as a sort of stop-gap measure. For the past week and for the next three weeks, I’ve taken over the homeschooling of two young boys. I’m only seeing them for a total of four hours a week – it’s not like actual full homeschooling would be, given the aforementioned stop-gap nature and, you know, the fact that I already have a job to do here. 

So, homeschooling. It’s quite fun! I have two young boys, grade 1 and grade 3, and we do a lot of reading together. We do Bible work and history work and language arts, and we always take a movement break. Otherwise it would be a lot of sitting! We race around the soccer field or have a jumping jack competition. I usually lose, but in the end when we go back to class and we’ve gained the ability to sit and listen again, I’m the real winner in the end. 

The homeschooling adds some more hours of work to my already busy week, but I feel like it does use my skill set very well. Seriously – taking a pre-planned curriculum that’s reading based and making it relevant and accessible to two kids? Easy. Coming up with comprehension questions on the fly (since the pages for our particular book are missing from the binder)? I feel like I could do that in my sleep after 15 years of prior teaching. Sprinkling in little mini-lessons to teach reading strategies and vocabulary? I’m a natural. 

On the workload front, it was a squeeze to fit in the extra responsibilities, but with a lot of very intentional focus and continuing to work while eating instead of taking actual breaks for food (teachers, I know many of you know what I’m talking about!), I did manage to fit almost all the work into my work day. I did head into school 10 to 15 minutes early most days, but that didn’t really feel like giving up much. The real challenge will be this upcoming week: we are heading to the city on Friday to renew our visas*. We still need to get all of the same work done… just in four days instead of five. We’ll see! 

*Visa renewal allows us to stay in the country for more than our allotted 90 days that the visa we entered with permitted. We’re already in March – how have two months already gone by?!

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 6: The Director’s Message and Some Outtakes

For your heartfelt, very meaningful content today:

I have tried to share some of the importance of school here and what it means not to have students in school. In the Spring 2021 newsletter from Global Shore, the director, Julianna Konrad de Pelaez, does a much better job than I ever could. (That only makes sense – although we are from very similar farming family backgrounds in southwestern Ontario – even to the point of going to the same church, although not at overlapping times, Guatemala is now her home permanently. She lives and breathes this work that God is doing here. I get a glimpse into things; she sees things much more fully.) So to give you a much better glimpse, I offer you this link to the spring newsletter and encourage you to read Julianna’s words for yourself.

And on the much more lighthearted side:

Look. Sometimes you feel on top of your teaching game, and sometimes you wonder just how many mistakes you can make. It’s especially bad when you have to rewatch yourself make all of those mistakes and edit them out of your teaching videos. I’ve compiled several of them into a short video for your viewing enjoyment, should you so desire… I promise that I’m a better teacher than this in real life. (I hope!)

Nothing like watching all the mistakes you can make in a short time and thinking, “What is my in-class teaching actually like?!”

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 5: Extreme Allergic Reactions

Look, some of my blog topics are going to be very serious, and some are going to be a lot more light-hearted. We will run the whole gamut of the human experience here. Today’s topic is definitely going to be on the more light-hearted side…

So as my family can attest, I have a history of reacting to bug bites. I remember that as a kid I would get huge lumps of mosquito bites. We’re talking reactions that were swollen, hot, hard, several inches in diameter. If I was unfortunate enough to be bitten right on the back of my knee, I wouldn’t be able to fully bend my knee for a couple of days. 

Thankfully that reaction has died down to a more tolerable “still react badly but no longer look diseased” kind. 

Well, naturally there are delightful things to react to here. There are teeny tiny little ants under our clothesline, and inevitably, every single weekend, when I do laundry, I get bitten. I immediately get a big swollen reaction about the size of a quarter, that after a couple of days fades away into a blister, that after about a week in total disappears just in time for me to do my laundry and get bitten again.

Then last week Wednesday afternoon, I discovered what I thought was a mosquito bite on my arm, up near my shoulder. It was itchy. I tried my best to ignore it and not to scratch it. 

Hours later, when I was lying in bed, I suddenly thought, wow, my arm hurts. I looked at the bite. It was a big red swollen reaction, much bigger than the usual quarter-sized ant reaction, but also way more than my typical mosquito bite. I revised my premise from mosquito bite to ant bite – after all, I had first noticed the bite when I was working out, and there are always ants crawling around on the floor in my workout location. (This kind of comes with the territory when most things are outside and inside spaces don’t really have doors that bugs can’t easily get through or screens on windows.) So, an ant bite… but definitely bigger than my typical “clothesline ant” reaction. I grabbed the tube of hydrocortisone cream that I just leave out on my night table here (no point in putting it away!), slathered it on the bite, and went to sleep. 

Wednesday night: “It’s not that big!”

On Thursday morning, my bite hadn’t decreased in size at all. I showed it to several people because it was quite impressive in size. But over the day, the swelling spread… and spread… and spread. By Thursday afternoon, my arm was swollen from armpit to elbow – literally. It was hot, obviously red, and noticeably swollen. I went home to get some Benadryl, and on the way stopped to show people how much it had grown over the day. They (very reasonably) suggested that maybe it was time to see a doctor. And yeah… that’s probably good advice. Except I am used to reacting to bug bites. And what is a doctor going to do? Give me antihistamines? I have some here, and I took some. Administer an epipen? If you catch up on my medical history, you will immediately understand why unless I actually think I’m dying, I don’t want to experience additional epinephrine running through my body. I took the Benadryl, took a regular antihistamine, slathered on some more hydrocortisone cream, went back to school, and tried desperately to stay awake for the last hour of work. (Thanks, Benadryl! You always make life so fun!) After school, I took a shower and finally drew a line around my reaction so that I could track the swelling and growth. 

It’s too bad that I didn’t turn my arm just a little more in this photo – the swelling goes even further, all the way down to my elbow, on the bottom side of my arm. You can *just* see the line curving out at the very bottom from this angle…

The swelling did seem to stop then. I think gravity was actually exerting its influence, since the only place that the reaction was outgrowing its line was around the bottom, by my elbow. Around 7:30, I deemed it late enough to take some more Benadryl. I took two and pretty much immediately fell asleep. When I woke up, the swelling still hadn’t grown any more. 

Thankfully by Friday afternoon, my arm was looking impressively better. The swelling had really gone down, and while it was still red, it wasn’t so hot any more. It took until Saturday afternoon for all the swelling and redness to actually go away. It also took another week (!) for the itchiness to go down.

Once the swelling had disappeared, you could finally see the location of the bite again. It wasn’t just one bite – it was actually three. I’m not sure if that’s what caused the extremeness of the reaction, or if it was also the type of bite. When I showed her my arm and described things, my very wise sister hypothesized that it had been a spider bite. 

“Don’t you think you should have an epipen just in case?” my mom asked when I talked to my parents that weekend. Again… I’m going to do anything I can to avoid the feeling of extra epinephrine. I also really don’t think I’m in danger unless I get bitten near on my face or neck. But also, in an abundance of caution, I do think I’ll go to a doctor much earlier in the reaction timeline next time! (And praying there ISN’T a next time!)

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 4: Chicken Buses

Picture this: you’re in a school bus that’s painted garish colours, crammed in on all sides by other people and their purchases. There’s music blasting on a radio, and the driver seems to be driving like he’s making up for lost time, speeding around curves and over speed bumps and potholes alike. The driver is honking his horn as if it’s the only thing keeping the bus running, and his coworker is leaning out the door bellowing the name of a city at anyone, whether they look like they care or not. 

Where is this chaotic scene taking place? Guatemala, of course! You’re riding a chicken bus to get from one place to another, just like any other Guatemalan who doesn’t have a car or a moto. 

The famous chicken bus in its native habitat

Once a school bus has lived out its life in North America, it’s driven down to Central America where it gets to live a second life. It typically has some work done – I’ve heard that most buses get a manual transmission put into them, although I haven’t paid enough attention to know whether or not that’s true. Buses also get racks put overhead – key, because a lot of people riding the bus have a lot of stuff with them. They generally get a metal railing installed on the ceiling the length of the aisle. This is important because the bus will often start driving as soon as everyone is on, not once everyone is in their seat, and it’s helpful to be able to hang on while you head to your seat or while you get up to move to the front in advance of where you want to disembark. Additionally, some buses seem to have new seats installed – the seats are wider, meaning you can squeeze a third person in (and I do mean squeeze – have you been on a bus in a while?), although this means really squeezing your way down the aisle. And the seats are then also installed closer together, a key factor in being able to fit more people in your bus and maximize your income if you’re running the bus (although it makes it difficult for a taller-than-the-average-Guatemalan Canadian woman to fit her legs into the space comfortably. Especially given the bumps over potholes and speed bumps – sometimes the kneecaps take quite a beating!)

And, if you’ve ever seen any photos of a chicken bus in Guatemala, you know that the other drastic change to the bus is decorating the outside. Red, white, yellow, green, blue – buses are painted vibrant colour combinations. They can also then have fancy chrome added or sometimes decals added to the windshield (enough that sometimes one wonders how well the driver can really see the road!) The colours matter when you have an adult population with a relatively low literacy rate – even though the bus will say what route it is taking, that doesn’t matter much if people can’t read the sign. So the colours also indicate where the bus will go, and this way people know which bus to take. 

These chicken buses are the equivalent of public transit in North America, with a few key differences. Have you ridden a city bus lately? Even if you haven’t, I’m sure you know that they have route maps and schedules. And if you wanted or needed to ride one, you would check ahead of time to see where the stops are that you need in order to get on and in order to get off. And then you would check to see what time the bus would come by, and you would be at the stop a couple of minutes before the bus’s scheduled time, expecting it to arrive at that time. 

Meanwhile here in Guatemala, if buses have schedules, I sure don’t know what they are. And you can’t look up a bus time on Google Maps like you can in Canada. You just head to some location on the bus route, and you wait for your bus to come by. We’re actually fortunate that from home, a couple of buses come by and all head through Jocotenango (church location) and into Antigua (nearest city, where we generally do our grocery shopping). Once in a while we’ll come down the hill and just miss a bus and have to wait a while (like 20 minutes has been our longest wait time so far), but other times, it’s a short five minute wait. Today I crossed the highway just as a bus rounded the corner, so I hopped on and was in town in record time. 

Buses have some sort of standard stops, but you can also wait anywhere along the bus’s route and hop on, and you can also get off anywhere along the route – just go up and ask the driver to stop and let you off. 

Buses come in a variety of colours

Why are they called chicken buses? There are a couple of different stories to explain this name. Some say it’s because passengers are crammed in like chickens. My preferred story is actually that people take whatever they have to sell in the market with them, including live chickens. 

Besides the bus driver, there’s another staff person on the bus who stands in the doorway and yells the destination at people. Once in a while, he comes down the aisle and collects bus fare from people. These people have the most excellent memory for who has paid and who has not yet. I think I would be awful at that job, but every person I’ve seen has been so good at their job. 

Would you like to have a job where you lean out the front door of a bus? You need to be really good at hopping in once the bus driver has actually started driving. You also need to remember who has what stored inside the back door of the bus, because when those people get out, they expect you to get their stuff for them again!

I also have to say, given the picture that I painted early of people all crammed in, that perhaps the pandemic has been good for creating space on the bus, especially for a Canadian who likes her personal space. Capacity limits are technically in place (I say technically because I really don’t know how seriously drivers take them. I’ve never seen anyone turned away!) and temperature checks are done at the door of the bus (again – I’ve never actually seen someone read the thermometer, but it technically gets pointed at everyone!), but ridership also just seems to be down. I don’t mind having the additional breathing space and being able to get a seat. It also makes it feel much safer – much less worry over pickpocketing or theft when you can see everyone and not have people packed in close to you for long periods of time. 

Despite all my description here, I kind of think that you need to ride a chicken bus to really know what it’s like. I know that some of my friends and readers have done just that. From your experiences, what did I miss in my depiction here? 

Additionally, I don’t have too many pictures of buses, and I don’t have any really excellent ones. I also don’t have enough to capture the wide variety of bus colour. If you’d like to get some better visuals, do a Google image search for Guatemala chicken bus and enjoy!

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 3: School Has Started!

I know. Last week was already about school. But I’m a teacher, so you should fully expect to read more about school over my year here, teaching in Guatemala!

I need to write about school this week. Because it was A WEEK. An incredible week. A good week. A hard week. So pretty much your typical week when it comes to school. 

On Monday, parents came to pick up packets of work for their children. One thing that is very different from Canada is that students need to pay for their photocopies here. That has been quite a different idea for me to wrap my head around. I’ve had several conversations with Beth, our TEFL director about it. Because my first instinct is to make sure I give the fewest number of pages possible, but giving nothing isn’t an option right now and besides needing students to do work that they then turn in to be marked so that I have grades, students also need to do work to learn. So I will balance thorough, thoughtful sheets with saving space. Beth also reminded me that students expect that cost. At many private schools in Guatemala, students are required to buy books and then don’t really use them, so this is also a way to ensure that students only pay for what they actually need. 

On Tuesday, the halls rang out with the joyful sound of children. Such few children, but what a joy to have children at school! The children of teachers and staff are at the school. Having them doesn’t violate municipal regulations for Covid, it means students can actually be at school, and it means students aren’t at home alone or requiring child care while parents work. 

We started Tuesday the way we always do – with a devotions time full of listening to God, worship, and prayer. I spent a lot of that time crying. I can’t believe how good it was to listen to children sing with gusto. I haven’t been in a space like that since February 2020. It was so good. 

On Tuesday, I also posted my first video in a Facebook group. Still kind of crazy to me that I am teaching and purposely using Facebook. I also received some very cute texts through WhatsApp from students asking questions about their work. 

I don’t have any pictures of students or school, so please enjoy this very cute text from a student! 💕

Tuesday through Thursday, I uploaded teaching videos to Facebook, answered questions through WhatsApp, and TAUGHT REAL STUDENTS IN PERSON!!! I have one student in person in my segundo básico class (grade 8), and two students in person in my tercero básico class (grade 9). It’s so helpful to have in-person students and get to have real interactions instead of just online, and it’s also really helpful to get one data point of information for where my students might be in their English level. 

In typical roller-coaster teaching fashion, classes went really well and really badly. When I finished my last class on Thursday, I came back to the staff room and told my TEFL colleagues, “I’m really worried about my online kids. When you can spend 3x longer explaining the concept in person and they’re still struggling with it… how are the online kids doing when they just have 5 minutes of explanation?” Sure enough, that has certainly been the class and activity that I’ve had the most texts about. When parents come next week Monday and hand in this past week’s work and pick up the next packet, it’ll be very interesting to see how students did. 

In addition to teaching, editing and posting videos, and answering questions, this week we also needed to plan our next two weeks of class. We need to turn in our lesson plans for the coming week by Thursday afternoon before we leave school. To give some context, remember that Guatemala is a country with a chronically underfunded education system. In November, the Congress literally voted to make cuts to education and the health care system in order to increase their stipends for meals. So when teachers aren’t paid a living wage, when no one checks in on their work, when they sometimes live long distances from school… why bother showing up on time? Why bother having lessons planned for the day? Global Shore is consciously different. Teachers must arrive on time for the day or they aren’t paid for that day of school. Their lesson plans must be turned in to be looked over. And those handouts… remember the handouts that get photocopied? You also have to give those to the secretary to make copies for everyone. 

This past week and next week, parents will come on Monday, and classes happen from Tuesday to Friday. But the plan is to change the turn-around day to Friday, so that classes will happen from Monday to Thursday, and on Friday parents will come and switch out materials. That means we actually need to have our lesson plans turned in by Wednesdays and get the copies done. In order to make that turn-around happen, this week we handed in lesson plans and handouts for two weeks. So yes, in our first week of school we had to write lesson plans and handouts for the next two weeks. Another crazy and fun factor is that we need to have 3 “midterms” throughout each quarter, each approximately 3 weeks apart. So I have already planned and made photocopies for a test for the end of week 3 and I haven’t even gotten any student work back yet. Literally who knows if students will pass or fail, if it’s incredibly easy work or incredibly hard work for them?! Not me!

I don’t tell you these differences to critique the educations system in general or the work that Global Shore is doing here. If you understand the cultural differences, many of the differences in how schools run make sense. But I hope that the stories give a little insight into my life in this past week and in the kind of work that I’m doing! 

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 2: Online Education

Last spring, Ontario schools pivoted rather rapidly and unexpectedly from in-class to online at-home learning. Granted, I was actually off of work recovering from surgery during the set-up and first week of implementation, but I came back to work into a system that was functioning well. My students each already had their own Chromebook, and they were used to using them independently during class. It was a given that each home had wifi, and while connectivity might not always be strong enough for the whole family to have great internet access, I could generally see my whole class for devotions each morning and students were able to complete their learning online. It was a definite challenge for students to switch from in-class to online, but they were well equipped. 

My new students in Guatemala will be starting classes this coming week. We were very much hoping that students would be able to come to school in person – restrictions have eased from the very strict lockdown that stayed in place for much of 2020, and the Ministry of Education was requiring schools to submit a Covid plan to be approved before students began their school year. However, we received word this week that because our department (think province) of Sacatepequez is in the red (as determined by percent of Covid tests completed that have positive results), we will not have students coming in person. While we are in the red or orange, students must take their classes online. We anxiously await yellow or green. 

So just what does online education look like in Guatemala? 

My students in Ontario all had their own Chromebook. This is obviously not a given for all students – even in our younger grades, students didn’t necessarily have a device. But JKCS put together a plan to loan out school devices to families for as long as needed. Here in Guatemala, it is even less likely that students have a device. If they do, it’s almost certainly a phone. It’s much more likely that there is a phone or two that parents own and use. It’s already a significant difference to plan lessons and work that will be seen (and likely not done) on a phone. That phone might also need to be shared between multiple students. 

Next let’s consider wifi. I held out for as long as I could before getting wifi for my own home in Canada… and I think I got it back in 2015. It was simply not feasible to live without wifi in my home. Here, I am blessed to have regular wifi access – at home, and throughout a lot of the school. Of course, concrete and block walls mean there isn’t great wifi accessibility into each of the classrooms and offices, but my TEFL colleagues and I have been enjoying the sun and warm weather while working in the courtyard where we generally have great wifi access. Wifi is much less likely in the average Guatemalan home than Canadian. Many of our students simply do not have wifi at home. What they do have, however, are phone plans. My Guatemalan phone plan has 8GB of data a month, but anything that I access through Facebook and WhatsApp don’t count towards that 8GB – they’re basically free. (Let’s save the conversation about the ethical implications for another time… but that would be a very good conversation to have!)

It is quite ingrained in me from teaching in Ontario that students do not belong on a teacher’s social media. I let students follow or friend me once they’ve graduated, if they really want to by then. So please imagine my… culture shock to hear that our main educational resource is Facebook. It all comes down to that free data access. I’ve been added to Facebook groups with my fellow teachers and students. I’ll post my teaching videos there. I’m also a part of WhatsApp groups where students can text with questions as well as sending things like voice memos – a great tool for the English teacher! Parents are picking up an envelope with worksheets for the week, students will complete them, and they will swap out the old for the new on a weekly basis. Considering that my students might need to share a phone among multiple family members, and considering what we know about student engagement and attention span, I’m aiming for a five minute video, with a maximum time length of ten minutes. I don’t know my students, and they don’t know me, and I get approximately ten minutes of one-way video interaction with them a week (two classes), with worksheet feedback on how they’re doing and what they’re understanding. 

So it’s definitely going to be a fun challenge! 

And… if you’d like a little taste of what those videos look like, I’ve added one here for your enjoyment.