Teacher Appreciation Interview with Karin Pogharian of Escuela Caracol

Escuela Carcol, Guatemala
What inspires you to teach Escuela Caracol’s students?

Karin Pogharian: Escuela Caracol is located in a small village whose Maya Kaq’chikel inhabitants maintain their traditional language, customs and colourful attire. Students come to Caracol from San Marcos as well as from several villages around the lake. The school is multicultural and trilingual, with many students coming from expat families who come from a wide array of cultural backgrounds.

San Marcos is a unique place, at a crossroads between tradition and modernity. The need for education which is flexible and forward-thinking seems to be even more important in a community such as this one. We’re not stuck in old ways but new ways shouldn’t be accepted blindly. Integrating local Mayan stories and customs into our curriculum is an integral part of our philosophy. On the other hand, we want to prepare these children to be a voice fortomorrow and to take the development of their community into their hands.

I am inspired by Escuela Caracol – by the idealism with which it was born, by the love that permeates it and by its bright future which lies ahead.

How has Escuela Caracol reached its goal of providing “not just more education, but a different kind of education”?

Karin Pogharian: We want students to have a feeling of who they are and not just what they know. By adhering to the Waldorf approach, we closely study child development so that what we present to students really meets them where they are. We start and end each day with a handshake and the lighting of a candle with the students standing around in a circle. The beginning and end of each class as well as meal time is marked by a verse. These rituals foment a sense of respect in the children – respect for their education, for their teachers, for themselves. 

The education we provide aims to form youth who can think outside the box and find creative solutions to problems. We don’t want children to memorize facts which they can easily forget. We teach them using stories or narratives which contain the teachings, the facts or the history which we want to get across. In the primary grades, these stories reach the children in their feeling, and we believe that what is received with a strong sense of feeling will stay with the children and really nurture them in their growth.

In our classrooms, we maintain a “nature table” where we bring elements from nature, or special objects which children have collected from outside. This foments a respect for nature and a connection to its rhythms. The Kindergarten is characterized by a softness. This ambience – created with the help of natural materials and toys, gentle singing and activities which resemble those in a household – helps the children stay in their world of innocent imagination which is appropriate for their age.

What do you love most about your work with Escuela Caracol?

Karin Pogharian: Working at Escuela Caracol has been a great challenge – a challenge that I was looking for when I moved here from Bogota, Colombia. We are constantly pushed to find creative solutions and to create a new road. We take decisions as a group. Working with the other teachers and staff at the school and fostering an environment based on honesty and building a strong ties tells me I’m in the right place and I am happy to show up to work each day.

On a personal level, what does empowerment mean to you?

Karin Pogharian: Empowerment to me means having the tools to face the world we live in. One feels empowered when one has the ability to DO, in all senses of the word. When one can speak, act and live in a way that is sincere with oneself, we feel empowered.

What are the biggest challenges to improving access to education in San Marcos La Laguna?

Karin Pogharian: In the recent history of San Marcos, formal schooling has not been prioritized in the general culture. In 1975 no resident of San Marcos (Marquense) had progressed beyond the 5th grade. Of course this has changed, but the reality is that the parental population is in its majority uneducated and illiterate, and fosters a low appreciation or value of education.

San Marcos residents speak the Mayan language of Kaq’chikel. Compared to other dialects of Kaq’chikel, the San Marcos dialect is unique to the village, and so written texts or teaching resources in the Marquense’s native language are virtually non-existent.

Spanish is the official educational language, yet most locals speak Kaqchikel at home and in their daily dealings. Due to economic need, families have children working instead of attending school. Sadly, alcoholism affects many families, leaving children virtually abandoned or in worse cases, abused.

There is a lack of qualified teachers in the town. Secondary education does not exist in San Marcos and is costly (and meager) around the lake. It involves travel, and is therefore limited. Most of the teenagers who do complete middle school, usually go on to seek work instead of pursuing secondary education.

Five years from now, where do you envision Escuela Caracol?

Karin Pogharian: In five years Escuela Caracol should have over 100 students and a strong, trained core of teachers. We want to continue with up to 80% indigenous students. We want to be financially stable with an endowment. It should develop a strong reputation regionally and nationally as a model of creative, child-centered (Waldorf) education. We should be developing plans for middle-high school. We should have more sports facilities. Caracol dreams of a curative education program and a stronger music program with a chorus and instrumental music instruction.

What advice would you give to prospective teachers?

Karin Pogharian: A teacher is somebody who is prepared to face surprises each day. We have to be firm but flexible. We have to come to class prepared but open to changing our plans. We have to have imagination to create, but as much as we have an image of the children and what we expect them to do, we have to look deeper inside them and recognize their potential and who they are as individuals. When we believe in the children, they come to life and your classroom comes to life. In the Waldorf pedagogy, we say “meet the children where they are”. Our curriculum is based on the development of the child and where they are in their thinking, feeling and doing. 

Based on my experiences teaching in the primary school, I know that when the children are interested and challenged in what they’re doing, they are motivated by an insatiable curiosity and a seemingly endless source of energy, which then in turn inspires and motivates us as teachers. Take a step back sometimes and question what you’re bringing to the children and what you could bring them. Try not to limit yourself to one book or one way, and ask for help – other people can be your most valuable resource.