Dispatch From Abroad: Teaching English in Panama

July 17, 2009

By Emily Primack

I am currently living in a rural village called La Palma in Panama teaching English at the secondary school. I teach 7th, 8th and 9th grade which is an awkward age no matter what country you live in. My students are more than a handful but after teaching for three weeks, they have started to grow on me.

Though my school already has an English program, the teacher barely speaks English and it is actually easier for us to converse in Spanish. She basically hands over her classes to me everyday and I have complete freedom to teach them whatever and however I want. The first time I entered the classroom I noticed a sign that read “God created me to be a winner, not a loser so this term I will study hard.” I took a picture and then kindly removed it, leaving the rest of her very religious posters.

I try to speak only English but after they stare at me for a good five minutes, I switch to Spanish. My students are stunned by how many games, songs and activities I know. We just finished learning the basic body parts and the song “head and shoulders, knees and toes” has definitely made a comeback. I’ll be walking to the store in my village and hear kids teaching it to their siblings!

We have done activities using chalk, water balloons and construction paper and all of a sudden, the students are starting to grasp the information more quickly than before. The reason for this is that normally the students are forced to copy the board full of English verbs and sentences for over an hour. The content might be the same but the technique I use is completely different from what they are used to, and it is working. Many times, the teachers do not have the resources to play fun games and the school does not have enough money to provide them. It is not even guaranteed that my students will show up to class with a piece of paper and pencil.

While teaching I have learned that you work with what you have. Initially my goal was to motivate the students to learn English and teach them about some American customs – however, I am starting to notice that my fellow teachers are hungry for ideas to spice up their subjects. I took the easiest songs such as “B-I-N-G-O” and the easiest games such as “I Spy” all for granted. Now more than ever, I appreciate my earlier school years.

Every day my students surprise me with their English knowledge. One day I will try to explain direction words (up down left right and so on ) and they will look completely confused. But then, there are days like yesterday when we played a game and the team that lost came up to me and said “Mission failed.”  Seems like Wall-E is a good source of English phrases. I have so much fun with my students and being able to teach them is really an adventure.

Emily is a sophomore in the Elliott School with a major in International Affairs and a concentration in International Development.  She is currently abroad teaching English with Learning Enterprises in La Palma, Panama.

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