Trying to Teach

Before I came to Guatemala, I was of the opinion that education was the best route for social development. I still think that, but I have seen through my experience with schools in both the private and public sector that education needs great support to function effectively and that finding that support can be extremely difficult.

In the public school, I teach English to all grade levels (from ages 4 all the way to 15) two days a week. Especially at the beginning, I didn’t feel qualified or very capable. I still don’t believe that 3 months is enough time to teach them much, and of what they will have learned, I wonder where or when they would use it in their day to day lives. But though I am not a trained teacher, and though my remaining time here is only a small portion of their school year, I teach English because if I don’t at least try, they won’t have it at all. When I leave the English classes at Santa Rosa will end, because although the government requires English as a course in school, they give no funds to pay an English teacher’s salary.

School at Santa Rosa began about 4 weeks ago, and about 2 days ago bags of school supplies arrived. “Wow, those are really late aren’t they?” I commented to the school’s director, Sergio. He replied, “Well, they’re actually pretty early this year. Last year they didn’t get in until mid-April.”

To me both of these things indicate an unacceptable lack or organization or a discouraging lack of importance given to education by the government. A conversation with one of the teachers at my private school, Vicky, told me that she thinks it’s a combination of both.

Vicky points out to me that in public schools there is often only one teacher charged with the care and education of 50 students or more. She tells me that with 2 aids and only 20 children, it can be hard for her some days. The solution to the problem, one might think, would be training more teachers. But the teachers are already trained. There are an unbelievable number of trained teachers in Guatemala who are not working. It’s all about the money.

Vicky believes that the government doesn’t really care about education, especially of younger children. A lack of oversight and incentives for public school teachers (as well as that dizzying lack of government support) leads to teachers who sometimes leave their students in the classroom with nothing to do while they do other things or leave the school entirely. I sometimes walk into the classroom to give my English class and find the students sitting in their desks, talking quietly. “Where’s your teacher?“ I ask. “She left.“ They say. And then proceed to pull out their notebooks for English. I was absolutely shocked the first time I saw that. But who’s to reprimand them? What would happen to them, even if they were found out?

As for the disorganization that leads to lack of funds, late supplies, and lack of oversight, I believe that must have something to do with the lack of continuity of the government in Guatemala. Every four years the government party changes, and along with it change all the institutions, sweeping away any progress that might have been made or any lessons that could have been learned from the past administration.

I sat there contemplating as Vicky told me all of her thoughts and finally asked “What can you do?” And her reply was “Nothing. Keep trying to teach.”

An ineffective government seems like one of the most frustrating impediments to social development. Especially an ineffective government that the people have no trust in, nor any belief in their power to change it. And even though Vicky feels like she can’t do her job to the best of the abilities because her children can’t focus because they’re hungry, or because they don’t have money to buy software to use the computers, isn’t it better that she’s at least trying? Again, I think it is, but at the same time it feels like there is so much wasted–energy, resources, time– by having to work in such an ineffective system. But what are the incentives that anyone has for change? In William Easterly’s book The Quest he cites Steven Landsburg’s The Armchair Economist in which he says “People respond to incentives, all the rest is commentary.” Whose responsibility is it and who is capable of putting into place those incentives? Is it the government who should put in incentives for the teachers, much like the U.S. has done through programs like No Child Left Behind? If so, who then puts the incentives in place for the government? I suppose it could be the people, if they are empowered and united, but it doesn’t seem like that would happen here in Guatemala with so much distrust and apathy towards the government. And rightly so, in fact there is probably more of a deterrent for the government in improving education because with education their people might better understand the wrongs that the government has been done to them.

It seems like foreign governments would be the most likely candidate to put the pressure to change, or the incentives to change, on the Guatemalan government, but is that their place? The magnitude of the problem is really discouraging, so much so that you almost don’t want to think about it. But every day at school I am forced to think about it. And I’ve never been more grateful for my education before.