Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

28th October
written by Michelle


Last Thursday  the school where I have worked the past few years held their clausura or graduation ceremony.  The room was colorful; full of little girls running around in their handwoven huipiles and cortes, mother’s carrying babies in the original “Maya wraps” and young fathers who have replaced their work boots with their nicely polished black leather shoes. Santa Maria is beautiful town of about 30,000 people nestled on the side of a volcano, about 15 minutes drive from where I live. It is hard working agricultural community, where most families earn just enough to get by day-to-day, but not enough to get out of the cycle of poverty. It is a good reflection of Guatemalan deepest social issues-  lack of job opportunities, little access to health care, limited educational options, a deep rooted machista ideology and too many NGOs with good intentions giving paternalistic handouts.

This is the backdrop for our school, Proximos Pasos.

And as I sat and watched 11 of our girls walk across the stage to receive their certificate for completing 6th grade I felt mixed emotions.

•    •    •

I have taught English to many of these 11 over past 2 years, and some I have known some since 2008. I am proud. They have worked hard and have been committed to their studies. They have had excellent teachers and I believe graduate knowing new skills and expanded ideas. They have learned that they are important and deeply loved by God. They have had access to computers and professional cooking classes and hot showers and field trips. Things most girls in Guatemala would only dream about.

You might be thinking, only 11 girls made it to 6th grade? But wait, don’t you start with a class of 30 in 1st grade?

Yes, but when you consider the average grade completed for girls in Guatemala is just 3rd grade, then you realize these 11 are super stars.

And these super stars are precious. They are Paulina, Blanca, Mishel, Karla, Loida, Andrea, Heidy, Maria, Claudia, Rosenda and Estanfy.

As we applauded and cameras flashed, I felt a twinge of sadness. I know for many of them this is it. They are done studying. They will not go on to jr. high or high school, what we call here basicos or diversificado. They will go to work. They will stay at home and take care of younger siblings. They will become part of the cycle of poverty that keeps you where you are just to survive. They will fall captive to the idea that says you will stay here because you’re a women. This is the ugly side of a machista culture that gives boys preference in studying, where as girls are often required to stay home or work. It’s not fair, but it just is.


Before the ceremony started, I ran into Mishel, one of the 11 who I first met in 2008. We bonded because of our shared names. I gave her a hug and a huge, “Felicidadae!”

Are you going to study next year?

She shook her head.

Why not?

“I have to work.”

But you’re such a bright and gifted student.

“Mis papas van a mandarme a vender.” (My parents are going to send me to sell in the market.)


“In Guatemala City.”

Her eyes welled up with tears.

And mine did too.


After the ceremony I took a picture of the graduates. The shortest one standing in the back is Paulina, one of my favorites. She is a spunky and creative and just a teeny bit mischievous. One of those students who has so much potential to unlock. She shined during our oral presentations and can get along with almost anyone.

I leaned over to be at her level, Are you going to study next year?

“No, Seño .”

Why not?

“My parents won’t let me. I have to work.”

My heart was crushed. Where are you going to work?

“En la casa.”

She turned the other way so I wouldn’t see her eyes start to water.


These girls are 12, 13, 14 years old. And this is it. Their chance to go to school, to keep studying is done.These girls know education is a gift, not a right and sadly it’s a gift that is taken from them too soon. Maybe this hits close to home because I am a teacher and I will always be an advocate for education and learning and opportunities. But I am also a new mother, a mother to a little girl.

And my little girl who was born in the same country as my 11 students. She is Guatemalan and yet I know she is born with privileges that my students will never have.  I know my daughter will have the opportunity to go on to jr high and high school and probably even the university. She will not be forced to sell vegetables in the market when she’s 12 or quit school to work in the house at 13. She will have the opportunity to study and learn and go to school, and I want the same for the girls in Santa Maria.

 •    •    •

 I am not naive enough to think that I can change a culture or a community. I don’t think complex social issues can be changed by simple solutions, nor by an outsider at that. But I am convinced that we need to do something. I want to research what programs in other third-world countries have worked to help keep girls in school longer? I want to interview and talk to families in Santa Maria; find out from them what is the biggest hindrance? Is it money? Is it having help at home? And what are solutions? Have you heard of any NGOs or programs that have been successful with keeping girls in school longer? Please do share.


the cutest future graduate:




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?


27th September
written by Michelle

If you’re reading this I am guessing you have either:

a) been on a short-term mission trip or b) sent money to someone going on one.

Now, I could write a whole book about the benefits and limitations of short-term mission trips. I have seen short-term mission trips go very well or very, very badly.

The organization that we work for hosts teams of college students, youth groups, churches and rotary club members throughout the year. A big part of my job is coordinating the details so those groups come prepared and our Guatemalan staff is empowered to host them. We work hard to help these groups understand that their role is to serve, learn and catch a vision of what God is doing here. If you have been one of the people who has come to serve and learn in Guatemala with us, I have nothing to say but thank you. I really enjoy what I do and the people I get to meet.

So, Why Do We Serve?

Now, weather you consider yourself a religions or spiritual person, or have ever taken a mission trip, I’m guessing some of the times that you have felt the best about yourself were times when you were helping other people, right? And I’m guessing being generous once encouraged you to want to keep living generously. Because you probably learned whether consciously or subconsciously that being generous is contagious. It gave you a sense of dignity and empowerment, right? And I believe we were created to serve other people, because maybe it’s only then that we realize that living for ourselves is not the way we want to live.

The thing is having the opportunity to serve oversees or locally is just that- an opportunity. By definition it means you know how to make that happen, you know where to go and how to raise support so that you can serve.  Gerber and I are firm believers that GENEROSITY is a POWERFUL AGENT of CHANGE both on an individual level and in a larger community.

However, what can happen in short-term missions is that well-meaning people come from other countries to give, but in the process take away an opportunity from someone else in the host country. There are not simple answers. We fall into patterns that have been reinforced historically, economically and politically for years. Some people or countries (in this case, Guatemala) get very good at being receivers, and others (in this case, the States) become very good at being givers. But we if tried to change it? What if we did something different?

The truth is we need to BE both. Givers and receivers. As individuals, as communities, as churches, as teachers, and countries. We need to be both, givers and receivers.

Guatemalans Helping Guatemalans

This October we want to provide Guatemalan students the opportunity to serve other Guatemalans.  These 12 students may not have the same kind of resources that you or I have, but they want a chance to be generous. They want a chance to serve people in their own country, in their own language and own culture.

We’re taking them to a community where we’ve been working the past few months, a village called Coyolate. In the southern part of Guatemala where the humidity sticks to your skin and beads of sweat still form at 8 at night, are about 40 families who live on Government “donated” land.  After their own communities disappeared during the civil war, many people fled to Mexico as refugees and when they returned they were given this land in 2000. The community school was just completed in 2004.

We’ll sleep under mosquito nets, and spend days mixing cerement, and building water filters with families. We’ll probably eat a lot of eggs, beans and tortillas and I’m sure if my husband has anything to with it, there be a few chamuscas played on dirt fields with tall sticks marking the goals. We’ll have debriefs in the evenings and some activities with the local school. At one of our recent meetings when we told the students to bring their bathing-suit. They looked confused. Why? They asked. We will shower by bucket without the privacy of walls and curtains. Hence the appropriateness of a bathing suit :)

And more than anything that we accomplish during that week, we hope these students will understand that if you say you want to follow Jesus, then what you DO often means far more than what you SAY.

Like any trip it costs money to do this. Food, transportation, supplies, etc.

These students have been working hard, really hard. They have been selling cookies and muffins at recess, hosting garage sale kind of events, asking fellow students and community members to raise money. So far they have raised about $705 — which when you’re doing it by collecting fichas in increments of 2-3 quetzales (roughly 25 cents) that’s A LOT. And we want to match their effort.

Will you help us?*

*Watch this video they made to find out more or go to here and scroll down to Healthy Communities and write “Student Mission Trip” in the note.


4th September
written by Michelle

I realize I’ve been absent from the blog world for awhile. Sometimes I think being absent from the blog world may mean I’m actually being more present with the real world. However, I do want to share what’s been happening…especially because there are so many people I miss connecting with. I know pictures and post don’t suffice for long distance friendships, but it’s a start.

So here’s quick update from the past month…


#1 Teaching: We have 5 more weeks (not like I’m counting) until the end of our school year here. I realize SO many of you just started back to school- and it’s still weird for me to be ending school in October. But I will miss my lovely girls from Proximos Pasos (the all girls school in Santa Maria de Jesus) and my mostly, charming students from Vida y Esperanza (the co-ed school in Santa Lucia)


#2 House Hunting: We spent August signing papers, meeting with lawyers, banks, and all those other important people you meet with when you buy a house! Yes, here it is…still a work in progress. We did some painting and cleaning before I moved in a few weeks ago… and it’s slowly starting to feel more homey. Just 10 minutes from Antigua (15 if I am driving : )


#3 Water, Coffee and Graduations: Gerber continues working in Parramos building water filters and working with families and local leaders to plan for what’s next. I have been enjoying some time with new friends and making time for coffee dates here. It’s funny how cultural the idea of a “coffee date” is— definitely not a Guatemalan norm. And many of Gerber’s dad’s students just graduated from Harvest Bible University. For many of them it was their first graduation ever! And we got to join them for the celebration.

#4 Birthday parties, Soccer and Wedding Planning: I’ve always wanted to be a tia and now I have five (soon-to-be) nieces and nephews thanks to Gerber’s wonderful family. Now none of them will probably call me tia, but that’s ok. I’ll accept la gringa. We celebrated one of his nieces birthday’s with a piñata, churasco (bbq) and firecrackers! Wedding planning is underway and so are lots of emails, skype calls and details. But we still make time for some fun- Gerber’s fun is any form of soccer and since I can’t play very well, we settle for foosball. My form of fun usually involves walking to the park with coffee or chocolate in hand, especially when someone else buys it for me : ) We’re thinking of having all three at the wedding: coffee, chocolate, and maybe foosball. why not?!?

(totally kidding about the foosball….although I bet a certain mr. someone might actually like that idea)

22nd July
written by Michelle


…some days end in tears.

Yesterday was one of those days.* My 6th grade class had been unusually difficult. Of course, it wasn’t the whole 6th grade class, just a handful of pre-pubescent boys with emptied out plastic pen containers, perfect for shooting spit wads. I was trying to teach the difference between “do” and “does” and they were trying to teach their compañeros how to make weird burping noises while shooting wads of paper.

boys. boys. boys.

• • •

{doesn’t matter what country or language. spit wads and burps are universal }

• • •

I made them stay after class and gave my best “if-you-do-that-again-talk” in my angry (spanish) teacher voice. I signed their agendas. Wrote notes to each of their parents. And watched them leave one by one.

The door closed. And the tears came.

There is something about being a teacher where one bad day can make you feel like every day is a bad day. If you’re a teacher you get this, right?

I believe teaching is a calling. Good teachers are called to be teachers because they have a love for students and a passion to teach. But teaching is a unique profession where you spend hours and weeks with a group of kids, investing  day-by-day for 10 months of the year, sometimes with few tangible results.

I find it’s hard to measure sucess as a teacher.  And maybe this is true for other professions as well. Counselors, pastors, parents and social workers probabaly feel something similar. But that’s why one bad day, one discouraging class, or eight spid-wad-throwing-boys can make you doubt and question  and occasionally cry.

I’ve always said good teaching involves meeting students where they are at, in order to challenge them to get where they could be.

I guess my struggle is how do I meet 6th grade boys where they are at?

suggestions welcome.

have a wonderful weekend!

*note: even though many of you are currently enjoying summer break, in Guatemala our “summer” doesn’t start until October. So in US school-calendar terms we’re in about the equivalent of “March” right now : )

23rd May
written by Michelle

When I came to Guatemala my first DIY project was this Pottery Barn inspired chalkboard. I made it 1) to fill up empty wall space in my apartment and 2) to write down my weekly schedule and things to-do.

Well, apparently my weekly schedule has not changed since March. If you look closely at the picture you’ll notice that I have written “Steph comes (sister)” and “Andrew comes (brother).” That was a good three months ago! It’s not that I haven’t done anything different since then, it’s just that the idea of planning out my week and writing some weekly schedule doesn’t happen as often. At least not in the same way I am used to.


A New Schedule*

The word schedule here is always accompanied by an asterick that signifies: *tentative, this may change. The school where I work, the relationships I have and the country where I live often operate within this assumption.  So in my effort to live here and live well I have adapted (well, I am still adapting- it’s an on-going process really). Of course, I still like to make plans and schedules, however I now know that on any given day things may change. I will always be a J (for those of you who speak Myers-Briggs) and I am convinced that type J people may get more done in life, but I am also learning that they (ok, I) can waste a lot of energy and stress planning, preparing, worrying and then re-doing when something doesn’t go as planned. Sometimes I envy type P people (i.e. my boyfriend) because they can respond to changes with an ease, flexibility and even a little excitement! (which I don’t think I will quite ever understand)


The Things That I Would Have Written on My Calendar During the Past 3 Months


We took our 7th-9th graders (Basico) to a three day Campamento about 2 hours from the school. And they loved it. The crazy games, sleeping with your best friends, the campfire, meals together, worship nights, prizes, dress-up night and probably just being away from home. I enjoyed most of it. Minus the 5:30 am wake-up calls with a trumpet. (not kidding, 5:30 in the MORNING!)

There is something special about taking kids away from their normal surroundings and putting them together for 36 hours. Good things happen. Funny stories. Hopefully some spiritual growth and learning. And powerful conversations. I kinda thought I had “finished” my years of camp when I left high school ministry in Santa Barbara. Guess I was wrong.


Teaching English continues 3 days a week at Vida y Esperanza with these lovely maestras and 1 day a week at Proximos Pasos with these precious girls (see below). I will always love teaching; however, it has been a challenge adjusting to a new system and a different way of teaching. Not to mention that I now teach in “Spanish,” even though I am teaching English.


This has probably been one of my favorite parts of work so far. Getting to coordinate and plan (“plan” is used loosely here) when teams from the States come to severe here for a week or two. I like being able to connect with them and be a bridge between the country where they and I come from and the country where I now live. I like listening to their ideas, questions, and observations. And I like being able to explain and share a little what I’ve learned about Guatemala and how God is a lot bigger than country lines and languages. This team of stunning college students is here for a month working with Gerber and another staff member building water filters and latrines in a community near Antigua. I get to join them for dinners, conversations and whenever translating or touring in Antigua is needed.

Back to My Schedule*

It’s Monday afternoon and I am going to attempt to write on my the calendar for this next week. Of course with an * next to everything that is planned.

What’s on your schedule this week?

21st March
written by Michelle

Let’s be honest, words like resign, retire, or change have a much better connotation, than the word Q.U.I.T. “Quit sounds like a 4-letter word you mutter under your breath when you’re fed up with something. However, about a month ago I officially quit my job in Santa Barbara.


quit (kwt) - To give up; relinquish


It’s hard to quit or “give up” things that are good. I loved teaching high school English in Santa Barbara. I loved the students who I worked with and their challenging, yet creative ways of expressing themselves. I loved learning the best way to connect with families and patiently listen to parents’ concerns and frustrations. I loved working with a diverse and spirited group of teachers. But I also think sometimes it’s easy let the good and the comfortable, prohibit us from embracing change or exploring something new.


Not Sure What’s Next


For most of life I have lived with a pretty clear picture of “what’s next.” I have had goals, expectations, and plans since I was probably about the age of 10 and quitting anything was not part of those plans. For as long as I can remember I have known more or less what to expect every year: school starts in August, ends in June, two months of summer, and then, repeat. I went from Kindergarten to high school, then college and grad school in the same fashion. Then, I started teaching within the same system.

Part of my journey this past year has been letting go of my plans and my expectations. It’s been a process of listening, waiting and embracing the unknown. It’s almost like God has been asking me, “Do you trust me even when you don’t know what’s next?” And to be honest, this has been a hard process. How do we live with goals and dreams, but also the faith to admit we have no idea what’s next?

Room for Something New


When I “planned out” my life I never imagined leaving Santa Barbara to come to Guatemala for a year. And I never imagined that I would want to stay longer. I didn’t plan on leaving my job. And I certainly didn’t plan on falling in love with a country, a man and a life with more unknowns, than knowns right now.

But I’m learning that quitting something, leaves room to start something new. My dad used to always tell me when we say no to one thing, we say yes to something else.

What is something that you quit or let go of in your life?

11th July
written by Michelle

I have not done a great job at regularly updating my blog thus far. A lack of internet and lack of time are my two biggest excuses. I feel like I jumped into life down here quickly and surprisingly rather smoothly. I started working at the school two weeks ago and I just finished my second week of language school. I’m making some friends and I found a great group to play ultimate with on Sunday afternoons. Besides battling mosquito bites (no exaggeration, at one point I had 27. I counted!)  and searching for some dark chocolate (yet to be found in this land of chocolate con leche) I am doing well. Sometimes I fear that one day I am going to wake up and realize this is not a 3-week trip. I am not going home next month or the month after for that matter. Nope. I actually live here. Weird. I don’t think that’s hit me quite yet.

Unrelated to Guatemala, I got an email from a friend this week telling me that an article I wrote is the Westmont Magazine. I’ve never had anything I’ve written published and to be honest, I am not if this counts considering its my alma mater, but it’s exciting nonetheless. This article probably sums up more of who I am and what I belive than anything I’ve posted on here in awhile.

If you’re interested you can read it here.

Coming soon: In Defense of the Besito, Living without a Mirror, and Why Guatemalan’s Don’t Hurry.

21st December
written by Michelle

It is Monday morning and I am not in school. Usually at this time I would be in 2nd period, taking attendance and reminding my ever-so forgetful freshmen to take out their silent reading books, but not today. nope. Today I am sitting in my pajamas with uggs on my feet and a cup of tea in my hands. And it is glorious.

I like many things about my job, but the fact that I am 27 and still get a 2-week Christmas vacation is definitely up there! It’s a rough life, but someone’s gotta do it.

Here’s to Winter Break, 2 week vacations and no bells dictating the structure of my day.

5th June
written by Michelle

To be quite honest, I don’t normally love graduations. They are long and sometimes boring, filled with cliché speeches and those horrible-why-were-they-ever invented blow horns, but yesterday’s graduation was a highlight of my year. This was my first graduating class from San Marcos. I have had the privilege of working with many of the students who graduated yesterday since they were freshman. That’s four years of teaching, reminding, listening, being patient, getting frustrated, forgiving, yelling, getting frustrated (again), relearning, reteaching and then doing it all over the next day.

Notice, the proud graduate in the picture. I know this kid. I have known him for 4 years. And the local newspaper could not have picked a better picture to put on the front page. This is a guy who hated school. He got in trouble in elementary school and once told me he spent more time in the principal’s office than his own classroom. He spent that past 6 months in my English class and every morning it was like pulling teeth to get him to pay attention. He liked to take 20 min long bathroom breaks and he spent more time sketching in his notebook than answering questions. I argued with him and took a way his cell phone, and often made him stay in at lunch to finish his assignments. I would assign nightly homework and he would moan “aw, ms. acker…I’m over this.” Sometimes I wanted to respond, “well, fine. I am over you too.” But something kept him (and maybe me) going. He finished. He did it. And I could not be prouder. This picture captures it.

For many of my students last night may be the only graduation they ever have. A lot of them go on to City College or start working, but may or may not actually have another graduation. Last night was their time to celebrate. I think one of the joys of my job is that I too get to mark time and celebrate with them- another year is ending, a season is done. I too, get to feel that sense of accomplishments that comes with finishing something. The year is done. Grades are entered. Good-byes are said. Yearbooks signed. Computers shut down. Doors are locked.

Today was my last day.

I love that there are natural markers to my job—clear endings and beginnings. Even though it’s becoming a familiar rhythm every 9 months, I still get a little sad at the end of each year. Don’t get me wrong I will be the first teacher to adamantly claim that “yes, June, July and August are three great reasons to teach” but there is something wonderful that happens between September and May… and that is the something that keeps me coming back.

So, here’s to the class of 2009. Congrats.

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