Teacher Stories: Maria - La Libertad, El Salvador

Internally Displaced People
Social and Emotional Learning

This story was collected as part of Teachers in Crisis Contexts (TiCC) Event Series to ensure that the voices and experiences of teachers working in crisis and displacement permeate all aspects of the event. For more stories, click here.

“How Does this Make You Feel?” Social Emotional Learning Reduces Stress for Teachers, Students in El Salvador

Name: Maria Guadalupe Alvarenga

Role: English Teacher

School: Centro Escolar Canton Mizata

Location: La Libertad, El Salvador


“How is everyone doing today?” Maria

Maria Guadalupe Alvarenga, who teaches English at Centro Escolar Canton Mizata in the La Libertad region of El Salvador, starts her social-emotional learning (SEL) exercises with this question. 

For this particular SEL exercise, the students form groups of three or four. The boys tend to stick together – they are 12-13 years old, after all. Each team chooses a leader who is charged with picking one yellow and one pink star from the cluster taped to one of the walls. These stars each have a real-life situation written on the back, and the leader returns to their group and reads the scenarios aloud for discussion and decision-making on what emotional reaction is provoked. 

Thirteen-year-old Melvin and his group are the first to share a scenario: “you are in class one day and realize your best friend has left the country. How does this make you feel?”

“This makes me feel sad,” Melvin says. “He is my best friend.”

This scenario is a familiar one. In El Salvador, a high prevalence of gang-perpetuated violence and economic instability lead many to flee the country in search of a more peaceful and prosperous future for themselves and their families.

At  first, Maria was skeptical before participating in SEL workshops provided by FHI360. “I thought these activities weren’t for me, but I learned all of us humans need this – how to be more conscious, how to relax,” she said.  Before the workshops, Maria would get angry and nag her students, sometimes without provocation. “I realized I loved it – it was a stress relief for the situations we as teachers find ourselves in.” Now, she believes all teachers need SEL training and capacity building.

“We need to start changing the world with education,” Maria said.

Thirteen-year-old Kelly shares her group’s scenario next: “how do you feel when you compare yourself to another student who did better than you on a test?”

MariaMaria interjects. “You are unique. We have to be tolerant but also defend our rights,” she says. “Enjoy and celebrate your successes,” she reminds her students.

The children enjoy SEL activities. “I like it because we get to discuss how we feel in different situations that we might face in real life,” a student named Josue says.

Maria ends this SEL activity with a guided breathing exercise. She and her students sit in a comfortable position on the floor, eyes closed, their hands resting palms-up on their laps. 

“One, two, three,” Maria counts. “Feel how the air enters our bodies. Let the air slowly out.”

The class sits in silence, breathing together as a cohesive unit. 

“Remember,” says Maria, “when your friend upsets you, when it is really hot, when you have a headache, do this breathing exercise. Concentrate and relax.”


*FHI 360’s Millennium Challenge Corporation-funded Strengthening the National Education System project supports the government of El Salvador in developing a flexible and dynamic workforce that can meet the demands of a quickly evolving global economy. As part of this project, FHI 360 provides training for 3,000 teachers like Maria working in communities with a high prevalence of gang violence with 120 hours of comprehensive professional development to build essential SEL competencies, such as self-awareness and emotional management, to improve their overall well-being and resilience – because teachers cannot teach kids to be well if they are not well themselves. 


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.