Joel is the principal, the fifth and sixth grade teacher, the head of the hygiene committee, and the student council advisor at his school of 89 children.
I think it is important to paint a picture of what it is like to be a teacher in rural Guatemala. Many teachers in rural Guatemala decide they want to be a teacher in their last few years of high school. They “major” in teaching and get their high school diploma stating that they are teachers. Though many, if not most, teachers crave more training, the reality is that many of them cannot afford college and limited quality training is available to them.
In addition, many of the schools in rural Guatemala, including in our partner schools, are multigrade schools. That means that one teacher will teach two, three, four, or more grades at once. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.
Finally, add to this equation that the Guatemalan government spends less than 3% of its GDP on education and you find classrooms with no supplies, students with no textbooks, and schools with no toilet paper.
Despite all these challenges, we all know teachers who see their profession as a vocation. They live to be in the classroom.
Joel is one of those teachers. When you arrive at the Chuijomil school, you will be greeted by a big smile and a hug. Boy do I miss hugs right now. Imagine putting on all of these hats. Joel is the principal, the fifth and sixth grade teacher, the head of the hygiene committee, and the student council advisor at his school of 89 children. Someone with all of those jobs could have reason to be tired or even a bit grumpy about everything he needed to do outside of teaching his students.
But not Joel. I remember the first time I met Joel was in a student council workshop. MM trains student council leaders in each school monthly. Marcos, our Education Coordinator, was conducting the first workshop with the students on teamwork. As is normal in our first year in a school, the children were shy. They didn’t participate as actively as Marcos had hoped and I could see him start to look to me for support. Then, Joel jumped up from his seat and joined the activity - the human knot - and the whole dynamic changed. The children’s shoulders dropped and giggles could even be heard. I liked Joel immediately.
I often feel like leaders fall into two categories, almost something like extraverted or introverted leaders. The extraverted leaders like to lead in the moment and don’t shy away from the spotlight. The introverted leaders work behind the scenes to make it all happen smoothly, sometimes without being noticed.
Sometimes, you find a leader who does both. Joel can be found with a spoon in his mouth balancing a lime in a race with his student council leaders and there are quiet signs of Joel’s presence all over his school, in the signs made by student council leaders reminding the rest of the children to wash their hands, or in the fact that their hygiene corners are always beautiful and complete.
One day, Joel saw that the training the kindergarten and first grade teachers in his school received from our Board member and literacy expert, Juan Antonio, was incredible and he advocated. First, he asked that the second grade teacher be included in the training because she split time with the first grade as well. Then, he asked if the rest of the teachers could be trained in the literacy techniques because he thought they would be valuable to everyone. Happily, our education coordinators went after school hours and trained the rest of the teachers.
In September, toward the end of the school year in Guatemala, we bring all of the student council leaders and their advisors together for a gathering of leaders. Students share what their year-long project was, what they learned, and how they feel like leaders in their schools and communities. The second year that we held the event, I noticed that the children, from all of the schools, were much more prepared than they were the year before.
“What happened?” I asked Marcos.
“Joel.” He said. "Joel called all of the student council advisors and motivated them to motivate their student councils to prepare something really good.”
So, when we implemented leaders of the month this year, I wasn’t at all surprised when Joel was voted by our staff as the teacher leader of the month. With everything on his plate, he was the first student council advisor to have held elections for the new student council, they had already cleaned all of the water filters that MM provided and sent notes home to remind the children to bring their water bottles every day.
When asked what motivates him to work so hard for the children, Joel shares, “We have seen a big difference in our school. I have seen so many changes in the personal hygiene of the children thanks to the support of Mil Milagros,” he says. “Now, the children know to wash their hands after going to the bathroom, before and after eating, and also that they need to brush their teeth. It is great to see all the teachers involved in making sure the children are staying clean and healthy. This is a big achievement for our school.”
It sure is and we are proud to support leaders like Joel in making these achievements happen.
Every Tuesday at 10:30am (EDT) I will be going live on our Facebook page to share our weekly series ‘Leaders who inspire’. Make sure to tune in - or you can catch up through our blog posts!