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.