Over the years, we have collected some stories from our past volunteers and staff. We have put a couple here, and you can also read one by Jonathon Engels here: Three Years Running.

A Memorable class, by Maddie

Spending time with small children, and maybe I’m biased but el Hato kids in particular, provides a regular stream of cute stories and experiences. Melvin Orlando, for example, with his counterfeit Winnie the Pooh backpack (POOO) or Laura who at 6 years old has memorised the entire pledge to the flag of Guatemala.  These are treasured memories for me, but also sort of ‘you had to be there’ moments.  My time spent helping out in kindergarten class of El Hato school was memorable in so many ways, but I’d like to bring back a particular day that stuck in my mind for a different reason.

As usual Dora, the chaotic and charismatic kindergarten teacher, putters up the hill on her scooter 10 minutes late.  The other classes have already begun.  As she parks she’s swamped by her adoring pupils greeting her with such enthusiasm you’d imagine they last saw her weeks ago, not yesterday.  After a little bit of marching, hopping and jumping to wake everyone up (although they seem pretty awake to me) minute wooden chairs are lowered and tables are wiped.  We all expect to start off with some songs, maybe some vowel sounds or numbers, but Dora walks around the room and frowns.

“Whose chair is that on the table? Clara?  Where is Clara? And Juan Alberto, why is he not at school today?” Nobody knows.  There’s always an empty seat or two. “Melvin, where were you yesterday?  Looking after your sister!” She digs a register from her desk still frowning and proceeds to summarise each child’s recent attendance, encouraging applause for regular attendees and tutting at the others. “Look at Clara’s chair niños. Her chair is crying, it misses her! When you don’t come to school your poor chairs are crying and crying for you!”

She changes tack “Carlos, your daddy works in Antigua doesn’t he?”  Carlos is caught unawares, surprised to be suddenly singled out.  He blinks silently.  “Carlos’s daddy has a good job in Antigua, who wants to work in Antigua when they grow up, raise your hand”.  Small blank faces and big eyes look up blankly.  I raise my hand “Seño Dora, I’d like a good job in Antigua”. “See!” she says and raises her own hand, “I would too!” A forest of tiny hands shoots up amid a chorus of “yo tambien, yo tambien!” “What job would you like?” She scans the room, “Edgar?’” Panic.  Sideways glances.  “Laura?” No response from the smartest girl in class isn’t a good sign.  “Who wants to be a fireman, a doctor, a teacher?” Relief floods the room and mingles with a shrill refrain of ‘yo, si, yo quiero’.  I’m not sure if they’re really following, but I can what she’s trying to do.

“Right,” on goes a very serious face. ‘You can’t be a teacher or a doctor or a fireman if you don’t go to school every day.  If your mummy wants you to help collect wood you have to say “Mummy no!” She wags her finger, “I’m going to school today to learn! What do you say niños?”  They imitate her perfectly, back on the familiar ground of repeat after me. “If your mummy says you need to look after your baby sister or brother, you say “Mummy no!”” They echo her words, giggling. “You must say “ask a neighbour or an auntie to watch the baby, I have to go to school to learn””.

I’m intrigued. This sounds like pretty radical stuff for rural village Guatemala. My heart goes out to Dora, she really wants these kids to make it.  She’s struggling against the current of early marriages, large families and limited education.  But she’s trying.  From what I can see, with Las Manos supporting the school and providing English classes, these 6 year olds are the most likely so far to break the cycle of rural work, lack of education and poverty.  Antigua’s bustling tourist industry is just a short downhill bike ride away, and with teachers like Dora pushing them forward, they may be ready to seize the opportunities it presents in the future.  On top of this, I just heard that Las Manos are opening a preschool.  Looks like the little ones won’t be staying home to look after the even littler ones much longer and hopefully there’ll be fewer chairs crying in Dora’s classroom!

An interview with emma gallagher, a former teacher

Q) Who/what inspired you to become a teacher?
A) Well, since I was young I’d always wanted to work with children and young people particularly those in need. My original plan was to be an art therapist, but while I was working towards this I tried teaching, and right from the start, I realized it was for me.

Q) What do you love about teaching?
A) I love the relationship I have with my kids, that we can have fun together. I love the challenge of trying to inspire them everyday and I love that they never fail to inspire me. Truly, I feel at my happiest when I’m around kids. 

Q) What else motivates you as a teacher?
A) Seeing the progress of my students. After I have taught a class for a while, it is amazing to look back and see how far they’ve come. I’ve only been teaching at Camino Seguro for 4 months, but already I can see so many changes: differences in their behavior, in their English ability, and in our relationship. 

Q) How many students are there in your school and your classes? 
A) They are much bigger classes than I am used to, from teaching in Korea; there are 16 kids in one of my classes, 18 in another, and I have a class of 24 boys!

Q) What are the children at Camino Seguro like?
A) They are all very loving, playful and curious, just like other kids. Of course they differ from most kids because of their backgrounds and other factors in their life. 

And this coupled with the size of the classes, makes it more of a challenge to organise and control my classes and to make the lessons fun and engaging for all of them. Emotionally too, it is a little different; with these kids it seems to take longer to build a relationship than with the children I’ve taught in the past. Especially with the older boys I have (in the 3rd grade). Just recently, they have started to come to me at the end of the class for hugs, whereas my other students in the past seemed to do so much more readily. This was a little hard for me at the start. 

Q) Are there any other ways that teaching these children is different from what you have experienced teaching in other settings? 
A) Well, there are practical differences. The class sizes are much bigger than in Korea. In teaching language, time to speak is vital and the more students the less opportunity. To keep the classes fun and lively with so many students requires much more preparation. Plus, I only have then for a short time with the children every day; I have a lot to pack into a short time, and it is a challenge to keep it all relevant and useful. Other kids in ESL programs typically have years and years of tuition while our kids are likely to receive much less.

With regard to behaviour, all students have backgrounds that their teachers can’t entirely understand, and which may be affecting their behaviour at school. Just because children are rich doesn’t mean they have perfect home lives and just because children are extremely poor doesn’t mean that they have terrible home lives with unsupportive parents. Having said that, poorer kids often have to overcome some kind of disadvantage. For instance, compared to my kids in Korea, the kids here are much less likely to have siblings or parents who speak English and much less likely to have lives outside school that are conducive to studying and doing homework

On the other hand there are similarities where you might have expected differences. The kids I taught in Korea had so much materially, so much the kids here could never dream of having, and yet all of these kids, regardless are ecstatic over receiving a sticker for hard work. I guess because the sticker represents recognition and that’s more important to kids than anything material. 

Q) What has been the best part of your work so far?
A) I think it’s pretty simple. It’s having the kids respond to me, when my little kids say “it’s English time, yay!” it’s a great feeling. And when I felt like I had finally gotten through to my older boys. There’s not much more to it than that. The best part is the fact that I look forward to seeing my kids everyday.

Q) What has been the hardest part of your work so far?
A) Actually seeing the dump where the kids live. I had taught for two month at Camino Seguro [which is close to but not on the dump] before I got the chance to visit it. Of course, I knew that was where they lived, but just to see it and smell it really brought it home to me what these kids face. Thinking about my lovely children and connecting them to this place of danger and disease was horrible. Knowing about the landslides that occur and the fires and that this is where my kids’ parents work and where the kids might have been, was quite overwhelming. It really showed how important Camino Seguro is. Without them, the dump would have been the only possible future for the kids.

Q) Do you have any advice for teachers who work impoverished children?
A) If you’ve been a teacher before, don’t expect the same immediate responses and results, it takes a little bit longer to build relationships and to gain trust and respect. Remember also that your kids may have had bad experiences with adults and authority and you now have a chance to show them otherwise. Oh, and don’t wait two months to go where your students live; go as soon as possible so that you can understand where they come from when they enter your class.