A Day in the Life of an English Teacher at UPAVIM
The following is excerpted from the blog of Sofia Gomez, one of the new English teachers. It’s a personal account of a regular day on the ground at UPAVIM …
The school I’m currently teaching at is the Alternative Learning Center (Centro de Aprendizaje Alternativo in Spanish, C.A.A. for short) of an NGO called UPAVIM. The school is a private K-6 school, though it’s located in La Esperanza, an impoverished and marginalized area in the outskirts of Guatemala City. So while in general the families and inhabitants of the area are of low socioeconomic status, the students who study at UPAVIM are “well-off,” so to speak, in the community.
A few years ago, the incorporation of the English program enabled the school to expand from only a half-day to a full day. This is great in that it gives the students in the community a better opportunity in furthering their education (as English is a valuable asset), and it also keeps them off the street (diminishing in a small way the temptation to join gangs or keep busy in less productive ways).
This year, thanks to donations, UPAVIM finished expanding their building, and there is a new floor that has new classrooms and an English office. Prior to this year, grade levels shared a classroom. Left is one of the new classrooms; imagine that with a makeshift wooden wall in the middle to divide the room, and that’s what classrooms were like last year. [Note from editor: no need to imagine; the archive photo on the right shows the old dividing wall.]
The students are enjoying all their space this year because they can now run around, shout, and play. It does however make it a little more challenging getting them to settle down during class hours, but it’s delightful to see them enjoying their new space.
A normal work day for me starts at 7am. The teachers set up and prepare from 7:00-7:15, then the students arrive from 7:15-7:30. My first graders greet me each morning with a hug and a kiss (making beso (a kiss on the cheek), is fairly common here), and it’s cheesily my favorite part of the day.
At 7:30 we have breakfast provided for by UPAVIM’s kitchen. The breakfasts get distributed to the classes, then the students pray together, eat, clean up, and brush their teeth. By around 8:15, they’re ready to begin their lessons, and I head out of the classroom. I have planning and preparation time (and sometimes meetings) from 8:30-11:30, then from 11:30 to 12:30 I have my English class with first grade.
At 12:30, students get ready for lunch. Hot lunch is dropped off by their parents every day, and some kids opt to get lunch from the kitchen (they bring clean tupperwear every morning, and we deliver it from the kitchen to their classrooms). As space is limited, they don’t have a playground nor a cafeteria, so the kids eat, play, and learn in their classrooms. I eat lunch with my fourth graders (ideally for half an hour, but lunch rarely gets distributed on time, and then they all brush their teeth with four classes sharing one bathroom), and we start classes at about 1:15. I have class with the fourth graders until 2:45, and then they pack up and clean their classroom. We head down for dismissal shortly after, and they’re out of the door by 3pm.
Fridays are park days in the morning, and the students participate in a physical education program at one of the public parks. At the park, which is not very far, but takes about half an hour to get to by bus because of traffic, the kids first eat breakfast (sandwiches provided by the school kitchen). After breakfast they do some sports programs with the instructors. More than just a green space, the park is more of a sports complex with several football and basketball courts, gymnasiums, and a forested area with trail in the back. We stay until about 11:30, and then head back to the school for lunch.
I know my situation is far from unique, but it’s definitely something that’s new to me. Teaching English here is challenging, to put it in one word. To begin with, I’m faced with a class of students with varying levels of English proficiency. Though I know this is not uncommon, it adds to the challenge. We have a basic curriculum that was implemented three years ago, though since it’s fairly new, it hasn’t been rigidly followed. The past month was supposed to have been spent reviewing topics they covered in previous years, but with my older students, I find myself re-teaching most of the lessons. The students don’t have books, and neither do us teachers have a particular one to follow. I spend most of my break researching and creating lesson plans.
Additionally, like any other teaching job, I also have to take into consideration the students’ different learning styles and strategies, and their personalities and behavioral issues. The first month has been an adjustment and experimental one getting to know my students, assessing their English levels, and figuring out what works and doesn’t with them.
My first graders are the sweetest; hearing them share little stories, getting hugs from them, seeing the look of pride on their faces when they remember their English vocabulary, and more makes my day. The fourth graders are quite challenging and full of energy, but at the end of the day are good kids (so far no attitude problems, thankfully).
And finally, there’s having to understand the Guatemalan culture, and more specifically, that of La Esperanza, the neighborhood in which the school is located. As I mentioned briefly earlier, it is an impoverished area in the outskirts of Guatemala City. It’s a neighborhood plagued with gang violence, and in general, life is tough in La Esperanza. There are also a number of students who have problems at home or with their families (whether it be gang related or not); added to that, it is not uncommon to witness violence around the community on a regular basis.
Yet the name of the neighborhood is still somewhat a symbol of what can be, as esperanza means hope. Just last Friday, the students didn’t have classes, but we started the morning with a mini march around the neighborhood against violence. In this caminata contra la violencia (walk against violence) the students participated in carrying flags decorated with the words “peace,” balloons, and other posters and banners highlighting the importance of values such as respect. It was to a small degree a way of trying to actively better their lives in the neighborhood.
While the one word I’ve found to describe my experience here is challenging, I’ve also found that it’s the good kind of challenging. Teaching here has left me feeling frustrated and exhausted on some days, but it’s also brought me countless smiles and proud moments in the classrooms, and at the end of the day I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity; to be doing something new, different, and fulfilling, and above all, to be doing something that I love and from which I’m learning each day.