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4th February
written by Michelle



The start of a new school year always makes me a little excited. And last Wednesday was the first day of English classes.  (remember Guatemala is on a January - October school calendar…so, dear teacher friends come June I’m always feeling real jealous of you…but for the most part I’ve adapted to this school calendar)

I have been teaching in some capacity for the past 8 years. And I have always been a firm believer that the details matter. When I taught English in Santa Barbara I learned pretty quickly that High School Students are not going to just start spilling information. I know a lot of teachers have students write them a letter on the first day of school, but I never found those to be that genuine. The students that want to sound impressive, do, and the rest that could care less write 5 sentences about their summer vacation. I taught mostly the latter type of students. I wanted something that they could do quickly, finish in class and was slightly fun. I used to have them make a facebook profile.  I gave the categories, like…

music most listened to, people who you love, people who annoy you, what you do when you’re not at school, favorite sports teams, last book you read, favorite and least favorite subject in school, If you had 3 wishes, etc.

And I always got honest, sometimes hilarious, responses. I got the details…the little facts and insights into who I was teaching.

Because I know that before I can teach the what I need to know who I am teaching.



For the past 3 years I have been teaching in Guatemala- different culture, different context and, but same purpose.  I want to know who I am teaching, before I try to teach the what. I want some of details about their lives. In many ways I find it harder to get those details with little nine and ten years old.

In a culture that values the family unit above all else, the question that I have learned to ask my students on the first day of school is:


Who do you live with?


I find out more from this question than any other. I learned early on that if I ask, who is in your family? Then I could get hundreds of cousins and aunts and uncles and little girls look at me with big eyes, as if to say Miss, I have to draw aaaallllll of my family?

So I have changed the question.


I give the girls a worksheet with a blank spot to draw who they live with. And I often find out as much by what is not there. Like this one: She just has her Papa, hermano, and hermana. As I was walking around, I leaned over next to her, “What about your mom?” She looks up, without blinking, “se murrio.” She died.  I am sure she’s not the only one who plays the role of mother in her house.

These are things I want to know.


Another girl draws her dog, chicken and cat. I want to know this, too : )


I love that this girl started to draw her mom wearing a colorful huipil (pronounced we-peel) and corte (the traditional Guatemalan blouse and skirt). She is drawing what her mom, and in fact what almost all most women, wear in her town. She is representing who she lives with. Interestingly enough by the time the girls are in 6th grade, thanks to north American media, fashion and dare I say, Justin Bieber, they no longer draw pictures of women wearing traditional clothes. When asked to draw the people they live with they chose more “American” styles- pants, mini-skirts and tank tops- even tough very few women actually dress this way.

I ask this question and hand out this worksheet on the first day of school because I do what to know them, but I may have a few anterior motives as well.


A Few Simple Teacher Tips I’ve Learned from The 1st Day of School Worksheet


1) I want an easy, non-intimating way to see what they know/remember from the year before

  • Two months is a long enough time to forget “eight” and “three.”
  • I can get a quick idea and overview about what level the class it at
  • And quickly identity what students are going to need some extra help and review

2) I want to see who finishes first and who doesn’t have time to finish

  • This is not a timed activity, but I put a little slash mark on the back of the papers of the girls who jump up first and tell me they’re done. These girls usually are the ones who work quickly, and just get things a little faster. I want to know who they are.
  • I give a 2-min warning when we’re about to finish and without fail there are usually 5-7 girls who are not even close to being done. I collect their papers and tell them it’s ok. But I make a small dot in the corner of their paper. This reminds me that these girls most likely will work slower and need more support.
  • This information is super helpful when I put the girls in groups, because I am able to do mixed ability-level grouping just after the first day.


3) We celebrate little things-like favorite colors and birthdays.

  • When we do our birthday unit I have a calendar on the wall with all of their birthdays written on it.
  • The school also does a big birthday celebration every trimester to celebrate the girls. Many girls don’t ever get to celebrate their birthdays at home and some aren’t even sure when their birthday is. Like this little girl…I asked why she left it blank. Because I don’t know what my birthday is. I told her that was fine. Inside my heart sunk a little bit.


4) Learning girls’ names when they all have TWO

  • When I first started teaching in Guatemala I would look at my roster and see names like this: Rosa Sandra Juarez Chiroc
  • How do I know if she was Rosa or Sandra? Her classmates call her Rosa. Her mom calls her Sandra. I was just lost.
  • So on the first day of every year I have the kids make their own name tags- and I ask them to underline the name that they want ME to call them. This has saved hours of confusion.

Now my homework is to memorize all these names before next week. I sometimes wish I was teaching full-time, but for now my three English classes is enough with the other work I do. I think no matter what country, what age or what school I will always love teaching and get a tad bit excited for the start of a new school year.

Are you a teacher? What are some your favorite things to do at the start of a new year?



  1. Chelsea

    Wonderful post! love hearing about your teaching- you are such a giftedl teacher and these tips are so practical.

  2. Cathi

    I LOVED this post. I eat up insights into authentic teaching. This year, my first day with my 7th graders involved Philip Phillips’ American Idol hit “Home.” It was a mini lesson on theme, something for us to share and remember. They made name cards, drew symbols to represent themselves, while I took role and made seating charts as to where they chose on their own to sit. The words of the song made me feel better, reassured them to “Settle down…it’ll all be clear…hold on as we roll down this unfamiliar road…I’m going to make this place your home…” I love my students this year more than ever, and I think that lesson, that song, helped let them know that I was ready to love them. You clearly did that with your kids with your intentional planning. You were ready to fall in love. What a joy it is to teach!

  3. Leila Clark

    This was fascinating. It’s so neat to hear how you are utilizing your teaching skills and adapting to your Guatemalan cuties! Congrats on all of your success. XOXO

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