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Compass Workshop with the Lake Atitlán Community

On August 14th, 2021, I had the honor of doing an introductory presentation of Compass Education concepts and materials for a group of educators in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, near our home in the village of San Antonio Palopó. The workshop was sponsored by Sarah Robinson-Bryan and her NGO, PEG Partners (Proyecto para las Escuelas Guatemaltecas or the Guatemalan School Project). Participants included primary school educators from the David LaMotte School in Tzanchaj and a pair of teachers from a group called FUNDIT, travelling music teachers based out of Chimaltenango, a city about halfway between Guatemala City and the endangered paradise that is Lake Atitlán. All participants with the exception of Sarah were Guatemalan educators with limited or no English.

It had long been my dream (much delayed and interrupted by the global pandemic) to bring the common language of systems thinking and sustainability to the varied schools, education groups, and philanthropic organizations located around the lake, as well as in the US where I reside part-time, and beyond. Speaking of common language, I gave the presentation in Spanish (a language in which I am working hard to become proficient) to native speakers of Tzutujil, who teach bilingually in order to help preserve their indigenous culture. 

Due to systemic failures and intentional historic geopolitical disenfranchisement, LaMotte School students fall into socio-economic strata such that they normally wouldn’t be able to afford even “public” school. Outside support from groups like PEG and Rotary International, with whom I teamed up to write a construction grant for their school, seem to have supplanted many governmental or traditional cultural and societal systems. Without interventions, these students would likely be entering the workforce sometime during their primary years. The interventions themselves, however, lack the kind of systems and sustainability thinking needed to impart efficiency and efficacy. My goal for the workshop, therefore, was the Compass Education goal: to empower educators with the tools to encourage students as sustainability advocates and systems thinkers.

We began with activities such as “That Person Over There Thinks…”  We generated working definitions of systems and sustainability in which the Spanish versions came out remarkably close to Compass definitions. We discussed examples and non-examples of sustainability in the various projects being proposed and executed around their school, their community, and the lake region. We drew “How to Make a Tortilla” and discussed systems diagrams and vocabulary. 

As mentioned above, a team of us had written a grant for construction of their 3-classroom school. The main (but not only) purpose of writing this grant had been to address the issue of government accreditation. The existing building – the school was founded about 14 years ago – did not meet either safety standards or standards for accreditation by the Ministry of Education. Without this accreditation, the students would not receive certificates allowing them to continue their education. Given the safety concerns, space, and accreditation issues, construction was already addressing multiple needs. 

Then it got better. 

Another Rotary member, fellow systems thinker, and director of a different NGO approached our team during the grant writing process and proposed that the bathrooms be constructed using a fixed-dome biodigester. Sanitation, water quality, and pollution are huge issues around the lake. This project could address those issues and serve as a resource for the school and community. It  will produce biogas that can be used for cooking as well as liquid and solid fertilizer for a permaculture garden.  It will also be used as a teaching center for sustainability and systems thinking, circular economy, nutrition and sanitation (which is also circular – eat, poop, cook), as well as a pilot for similar projects around the lake and the country.

Unfortunately, the health situation in Guatemala has not improved to the point where students are allowed to return to school. This and other factors have imperiled both the school construction and the biogas project. Fortunately, this has not dimmed the enthusiasm and energy with which these educators approach their own learning or their dedication to their students. Using Compass tools (in particular the Compass and Iceberg) and activities, participants eagerly addressed issues such as student and family engagement, dropout rates and causes, punctuality (“Hora Chapina,” or Guatemalan Time), how to address learning disabilities, classroom management, and many others.

My family and I moved to Guatemala in 2016 on a two year teaching contract. This was where I first encountered Compass Education at another international school in the capital. I shared it with my 5th grade teaching teammates, and subsequently experienced the finest year of teaching and learning in my 20 year career. Under the mentorship of Mike Johnston and others in the Compass family, I have become a practitioner, educator, and facilitator for Compass Ed. 

I want to thank Nicole and the entire team at Compass for allowing me to use their materials and resources for this introductory workshop. I want to again thank Sarah from PEG for organizing and funding this day of learning, and for her very timely questions (in English) and subsequent translation for participants when my Spanish or my stamina faltered. Many, many thanks to all the participants for their hard work, questions, and interest. And finally, thank you to my particular friend and fellow systems thinker Dr. Jessica Kind for her explanation of the function and benefits of the biodigester, and her interest and encouragement in helping to spread systems and sustainability thinking around the Lake Atitlán community.

Mark Mains

Mark Mains

After careers as a US Army paratrooper and an actor (among others), Mark has been an education professional for 17 years in Mukilteo, Washington, USA, and most recently in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Along the way, he earned an M.Ed. in elementary education and National Board Certification. He has developed and facilitated training in subjects such asTeacher Evaluation as a Growth Model and The Power of Public Narrative. He is excited to be working with Compass Education to promote Systems Thinking and Sustainability among educators worldwide. To learn more about Mark, go to

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