Teaching the teachers
Extract from article by Arnold R Grahl on the RI website

Realizing that getting children into schools isn't enough to solve illiteracy, Rotary shifts to mentoring and coaching teachers

Guatemala Literacy Project

On Carolyn Johnson’s second visit to the central highlands of Guatemala, she met a first-grade teacher who made a shocking confession. Before taking part in the Guatemala Literacy Project, the teacher was convinced that her students could not learn to read.

“She said ‘We were willing to go through the program because it was a day out of class and you gave us books and you provided us with a nice lunch, but we knew that you were crazy,’ ” says Johnson, a Rotarian who helped design the curriculum for the project and now serves as a technical adviser for the Guatemala Literacy Project

That teacher and more than a hundred of her colleagues each received several in-classroom coaching sessions over eight months. They learned how to replace rote memorization drills and repetition of words on a blackboard with exercises that engage their students in critical thinking.

“She went on to tell me excitedly how 45 of her 50 students were moving on to second grade because they had learned to read,” Johnson says. “The program has made believers out of 90 percent of the teachers we have worked with. They are excited about being teachers again, and they go into their classrooms believing they can make a difference.”

After decades of investing in literacy projects, experts have realized that simply getting children into the classroom — either by removing attendance barriers or providing supplies — is not enough. Before students can succeed, the quality of the teaching in that classroom needs to improve.

A model project

The Guatemala Literacy Project began 20 years ago, setting up computer labs and supplying textbooks for middle school students in the western and central highlands. It has evolved to center on teacher mentoring.

Johnson, a member of the Rotary Club of Yarmouth, Maine, U.S.A., visited the region in 2006, seeking a literacy project for her district. She ended up leaving her job as a primary school principal after seeing the potential to address a deeper problem — the students’ poor reading skills.

“The primary school teacher in me realized you don’t start reading in the seventh grade. You have to start in the first grade,” Johnson says.

Over the next year, she returned to Guatemala several times, meeting with nonprofits, teachers, community members, and school administrators. She developed a curriculum based on the Concentrated Language Encounter method used widely in other parts of the world. A partnership was formed with the nonprofit Cooperative for Education (CoEd), which has a strong presence in Guatemala.

Five trainers hired by CoEd, with the help of local Rotary members, lead three two-day training sessions, usually in January, April, and July, for about 150 primary school teachers. Between those sessions, each teacher receives in-class coaching. 

The Guatemala Literacy Project still supplies textbooks and equips two computer centers where students get hands-on experience using standard business software like Windows, Word, and Excel for an hour a week. Fees collected by school administrators and managed by CoEd are used to replace books and equipment when they wear out. 

Each year, a new global grant from The Rotary Foundation extends the effort to another 40 or so primary schools and a dozen middle schools selected after meetings with community leaders, parents, teachers, and administrators. More than 480 clubs in Guatemala, the United States, Canada, Cayman Islands, England, and Japan have provided financial support. Every year, about 50 Rotary volunteers take part by delivering materials and visiting classrooms. 

After completing the training, most of the teachers continue to use what they’ve learned to enhance education in their communities.

“Does it always happen? No. But more often than not teachers continue to use the approach to learning, if not the specific model,” Johnson says.