“I have letters for you from the states!”

Gasps. Giggles. Cheers.

“And today we’re going to write back to your penpals.”


“In english!”

Scared gasps. Screams. Protestations.

I never claimed to be an english teacher. But when I met with the women’s groups, what they seemed to want, more than anything else, were english lessons for their kids. And I reminded them that I was here to work with them, not teach english. But if that’s what they really wanted, if there was an available space to teach, if their kids were serious and if they were willing to sit through some culture and geography lessons as well, I would come to their communities once a week and do my best to teach english. I have now committed myself to doing this in six communities (the newest one starting just last week).

I show up, like promised, sometimes paying for transportation and often walking home as it gets dark. I prepare posters and other teaching materials (most of which is funded out of my living allowance). I sit through multiple hours a week with kids and I. Don’t. Particularly. Like. Kids.

Sometimes we wait up to an hour for the person with the key to the school to show up. Sometimes I teach the class in the street. Sometimes I get all the way to the community and find out that no one is coming because they’re all getting weighed by the health center that day. Sometimes the kids annoy me to the point where I walk home on the verge of tears because I feel so frustrated.

That’s basically what this entire last week of classes has been like. Because I thought it would be fun to do a Pen Pal project through World Wise Schools.

I seriously underestimated the challenges this would pose to the students and myself.

I have spent the last week translating the letters from the students in the states into Spanish, reading them to my own students and then walking my groups through writing responses. The first two parts are cake compared to the last one.

First we go through all the parts of a letter in spanish and we discuss what we should include. Then we translate it into english together – using words and phrases that we’ve learned in the past few weeks/months. Basically, they have to copy my example letter and fill in the blanks with their own information – information I’ve taught, information we’ve gone over, information they should have in their notes.

You guys. It’s too hard. For them and for me.

I think some of them are too young to really understand what is needed from them. And I’m pretty sure that I lack the spanish fluency to make the directions perfectly clear. They would benefit from more frequent classes, but I can’t offer that. I would really appreciate it if they at least attempted to participate, but I’m starting to realize that their aversion/inability to participate is a byproduct of the prevalent teaching methods throughout Guatemala and not just them being difficult. To top it all off, I’m becoming more and more aware of a personal lack of patience that does not help the situation at all.

So the letters… Oh dear, the letters.

I have to give credit to some of the older students – some of them really pulled through and produced some respectable letters. Even getting the spelling right on some trickier words! And the really overwhelmed, younger students? Well, I just told them to draw a picture instead. The rest? Well, I’m not even sure if some of those letters are worth sending.


I’m not going to stop meeting with the groups – I made a commitment after all. And sometimes the students surprise me with their comprehension and retention, with their excitement and the classes are thoroughly fulfilling. But, oh man, am I more often frustrated. And filled with a newfound respect and admiration for teachers. How do they do this?!

How do they deal with the kids who never bring their notebook and spend the entire class disrupting? How do they teach at a pace that is fast enough to keep brighter students engaged without leaving behind the students who struggle? How do they take into consideration special needs and still keep things fair? How do they deal with the relentless, headache inducing yelling of children?!

Teachers, I salute you.

And will be immediately switching my World Wise Schools approach to a picture and video based exchange.

This entry was posted in Volunteer LIfe. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Frustration

  1. pskillz says:

    This is exactly how I felt when I started teaching the asthma education classes…. minus the whole language barrier. My hat goes off to you and all the wonderful teachers out there!

  2. Andrea Clark says:

    It sounds so frustrating, but also amazing how much you’re doing even if you don’t know it. GET IT GUUUUURL!!!!!!

  3. Purney says:

    Teaching is my passion. Each day brings a new challenge, a new behavioral issue, a new patience level to push. Differentiating instruction is difficult considering the various levels of learners in all of my classes. And engagement is difficult as well for the planning I must endure to keep everyone’s attention for a whopping 50 minute class period.

    However, I commend YOU Ms. Gilbert. For starters-you say that sometimes you’re not even in an actual classroom or building, but the street?! That right there is insanity because the students don’t have a solidified learning environment. Then there is a definite language barrier that you must conquer not only to teach them a new language, but to build this background on a culture you’re just now learning yourself. Relating the material to their every day lives is going to be a struggle!

    You can say you have admiration for teachers but in retrospect, ask any teacher if they struggle with cultural differences (English Language Learners) and it’s an everyday battle. There are specific DEGREES in what you’re trying to do. So keep at it. It sounds like you’re making actual progress. Focus only on the positive because the students with behavioral issues and the students who are struggling will bring you and your patience-level down.

    Love you Carmen! I’m 100% positive you’re changing kids’ lives out there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s