Two Howard High ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers have just returned from a trip to Guatemala, in an effort to learn more about the area in which 95 percent of their students were raised.

Ellen Smith and Andrea Dyer say their journey will make them better understand the needs of their students.

They say there is no better way for teachers to connect with their students, than to see and experience their backgrounds, and their culture. That is especially true of students from other countries, who have little connection to a new school, in a new country.  That’s why the duo went out of their comfort zone to visit Guatemala. Dyer said, "I was hoping to experience the culture of our students, and I think we achieved that."

Their students come to America for a better education, and a better life.  Most are living with family members who are not their parents.  Their desire to learn is great, but their basic daily needs are often overwhelming. Smith said, "They need school supplies, uniforms, jackets, snacks, many of the things we take for granted." Dyer added, "I had one Guatemalan student who spilled some ketchup on his pants during lunch. He missed the next day at school, and we found out he had to miss school to wash his pants, because he didn't have an extra pair."

In Guatemala, the teachers stayed with families, who made them feel at home, providing meals and local transportation.  Their trip was incident-free, although they admit they had concerns about visiting a country not always known to be a safe environment for visitors. Smith said, "I was kind of expecting it to be more dangerous, but it wasn't, we never felt threatened at all.  We did get stared at a lot, because we're different," she said, pointing out she is well over six feet tall, white and blonde.

Both teachers describe their experience in Guatemala as life-changing, inspiring them to return to Howard this school year with renewed vigor and determination.  They’re working with immigrant students who often speak no English.  Their challenge is to convey the importance of finishing high school, enabling them to attain better jobs, and better lives for their families. "So many of our students are almost 18, and they would rather get a quick job than get their diploma," Dyer said. "I've always wanted to push them to graduate from high school and go on to college, but when they hear their parents back home really want them to finish school, it makes a difference."

Almost all of the students in the Howard ESL program are in need of basic school supplies, and some are in need of school clothing, snacks and other daily needs.  There is also a need for volunteers to help with basic reading skills, because the families who care for the students are unable to do so.  If you can donate cash, items, or your time, click here to contact the teachers.