We sat in with Silvia Iraheta and Jessi Renehan, a school director team working in El Progreso, Honduras, to learn about their collaborative process as an American and Honduran director team. Their school, the Villa Soleada Bilingual School, is a low-fee private school serving 300 students from grades PreK-9 providing a quality bilingual Spanish-English education. (*The conversation has been translated from Spanish to English for our audience)
Silvia*: I began working with the organization in April, 2015 as a volunteer transitioning the following year to a full-time role as the social studies and Spanish teacher for primary. In 2018, I was offered my current role as director.
Jessi: I started volunteering with Students Helping Honduras—the organization that runs the Villa Soleada Bilingual School–when I was in college. In my fourth year I worked as a summer camp counselor for the bilingual school’s summer enrichment program and loved my experience. I was already getting my degree as a middle school teacher, so when I finished I applied to work at the school. I originally applied as a teacher, but once the academic director position became available I decided to try that for a different experience.
El Progreso is in Northern Honduras near San Pedro Sula.
What has the experience been like to learn to collaborate with someone who is from another culture, who speaks a different language, and has different customs?
S. This was our first academic period as both academic and administrative directors, and it was a great experience, since we had previously met, but we had not worked in this position together. I believe that it being our first job together helped us solidify our communication, learning from each other, both in the language and the process of collaboration. That is what is required to be successful in this position. Despite not having work experience and being nervous at the beginning, we have achieved great goals working together throughout the school term.
Silvia Iraheta, Villa Soleada’s Administrator
J: I agree with Silvia, since we both started with limited experience, our communication has been really important. We communicate about everything!
S:In working with teachers, parents, and students, we have had to put into practice our language skills to support each other. Having tools like our phones and the computer to help with translations and to clarify any misunderstanding has also been essential. We utilized these tools, including Whatsapp messaging groups to make sure we strengthened not only our communication but also the communication between the team of teachers and with the community.
J:The most difficult thing has been to communicate when I am under stress or pressure. Not only am I stressed, but I also have to translate in another language or have to think in another cultural context. This is what I love about working with Silvia, because when I am at a high level of stress she is calm, and vice versa–we can share the responsibility.
S:Jessi compliments me and keeps me laughing and calm.
Jessi Renehan—Villa Soleada’s Academic Director
As a team how do you conceptualize your roles working with teachers from different cultures as the school has both American and Honduran teachers?
S:With respect to communication, this is where Jessi helps a lot with English, translating information. However, it is also a motivation for the American teachers to learn Spanish as it will help them communicate with families and facilitate their transition in living here in Honduras.
J:We learned a lot from the first year but we have a lot of things we look forward to improving upon for the next year working together, especially continuing to strengthen this communication amongst the team. The fact that the American volunteer teachers often change every year complicates that quite a bit. Therefore, the most important thing is to work on building leadership amongst the Honduran teachers as they are going to be the ones that are more constant in the school.
S:One of the methods that has worked well for us has been developing leaders in each of our three areas: preschool, primary, and secondary. These leaders were responsible for representing the teachers in that area which helped us as directors have more direct contact with the needs of the teachers and be able to better support them.
Are there responsibilities that one of you has that the other does not?
J:Silvia has all of the administrative responsibilities and I am in charge of the pedagogical aspects. I am glad we divided it that way because there are lots of things that she does that I would never be able to do here.
S:That is really the only area where there is some division–although we include each other in all of the decisions we make. My part is more focused on documents, attention to parents, where Jessi is more responsible in educational quality. On paper, I am the only one that can sign official documents and stuff like that, but in the day-to-day, we share the load.
J:I am also a bit more responsible for the North American teachers and all of the logistics and supporting their well-being as well as providing training. We have always shared in this labor but for next year we are trying to do so even more. For example, in our summer institute which is 5 weeks, I am not the only one training, but Silvia and even the other teachers will be directly involved.
Aside from being the only bilingual school here that also has American teachers, are there other things that make your school unique?
J:Yes definitely! I have been part of an association of bilingual schools in the area which meets to share resources and ideas. While we do have some things in common, our student population is completely different. Our focus is on making bilingual education accessible to students whose families have limited resources where the monthly cost of these other schools is often 4x what our students pay. One example of this difference is that at one of these meetings the directors were sharing that they have a big issue that sometimes their students are gone for a month for vacation and that they missed school. In our case, I commented that for us we do not have that problem, but that we are losing a lot of students because they have migrated in the caravans–a totally different reality.
S:Also, our school is the only one that belongs to a non-profit and that has the largest number of students on scholarship. Many of our students come from children’s homes and from certain family situations that put them at risk, whereas in these other schools it is generally families with more economic resources. In addition, having a large number of our teachers being from the US and volunteers definitely sets us apart.
In your opinion, what benefits does being bilingual hold for your students?
J:For us, it is much more than just being bilingual, it also is about receiving a high-quality education with high expectations. For many of them, their parents are illiterate, and some of the students have already passed the educational level of their parents–it is about continuing and being able to support their family moving forward with better work opportunities.
S:A bilingual education for these students means an opportunity for a brighter future. Here in Honduras, those who are bilingual have many more opportunities to get work.
Thinking forward to next year and the opportunity to work together for another year, what are some of the things that you are looking forward to?
S:We are excited about the school construction and the new buildings so we can expand our secondary program. We are also excited to add new students as we continue to grow a grade each year. We also definitely will learn from our experiences and mistakes last year, knowing that this year will be different and better building off of our strong foundation.
J:We are going to do a lot of similar things, but better! I want to strengthen our team in many areas including scheduling, communication, etc. Now that I know what it means to work here for a year, I can use this to support our new American teachers and to improve upon everything we do. I am excited!
S:We want teachers and students to feel comfortable and at home and to want to be here every day. There is a lot to look forward to next year!
Educators at Soleada Bilingual School
El Progreso Honduras
We are excited to highlight collaborations like these that show that the work as an educational leader can look very different across global contexts. We look forward to sharing more stories like those of Jessi and Silvia and we are excited to see what they will accomplish in their second year as a team!
Meet Silvia and Jessi : https://globaledleadership.org/silva-and-jessi-iraheta/