Two years teaching English in Panama
Larry Lahosit/For the Madera Tribune
Anson Lihosit, with three adult students he taught while working as an English instructor in Panama as part of a Peace Corps assignment.
Danny was almost ready to head home from Panama after two years of work as an English-teaching volunteer. He walked me to a corner store where we bought soft drinks and he introduced me to the Chinese owner who smiled and nodded. Small children waved and greeted him as we exited, “Hello, teacher.”
We walked down the Pan American Highway where five-ton trucks raced by with full loads of logs, not slowing. As they drove past kicking up a cloud of dust, gears crunching, air horns blasting, our hair fluttered. We walked to the school where he had been working, and now I would work. The classrooms were whitewashed concrete block. Each class had two ceiling fans but most were broken. The room felt like an oven. Blue-and-white uniformed students sat perspiring at wooden desks, many of which were also broken and covered in graffiti.
In the hall, students high-fived Danny. He introduced me to them in English. I was impressed by the size of the school. In a community of 1,200, the school had nearly 1,000 students every day. Many middle and high school students came to study at my school from smaller villages, up to two hours away. We walked across campus to the office where I met the school principal, a very short and round middle aged woman. She smiled wide as she shook my hand in the waiting area. The secretary smiled behind a wooden partition that made it look like a bank. I introduced myself, including the Latin American title of Licensiado which means “the Licensed One” and refers to a person with a university education.
“Licensiado Anson Lihosit.”
“I won’t even try to remember that,” she said and ended our meeting.
Next, Danny took me to meet some of the teachers. Since there was no teacher’s lounge, five well-dressed teachers sat in the shade on outdoor concrete steps in the middle of school. As we approached, two ladies in heels stood, “Hello Danny.” The English teachers asked many more questions in our introduction than the principal.
“Are you from Ohio like Danny?”
“No, I am from California.”
“Is that close to Ohio?”
“But you must have known Danny before joining, right?”
“Are you a teacher?”
When I answered “No” to the final question, they smirked.
Danny showed me the project he was most proud of, the library. The large, dark room was equipped with one broken desktop computer and a few bookshelves full of textbooks along the walls. It was mainly an empty space. Off in a corner, three bookshelves were arranged in a U shape. The concrete floor was covered with a colorful rug where three students holding books sat on seat cushions giggling. He explained that he had received a grant and donated books from the United States to create an inventory of books and a reading area for the students. The collection of second-hand books was in both English and Spanish, including large picture books, books organized by the reading level and even chapter books!
Danny finished the tour and headed overland through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala bound for Ohio, not California. I returned a month later after completing my Peace Corps Training. On my first day at the school, the principal asked me to speak at the morning assembly in front of the student body and staff.
“Sanson, please say something,” as she extended the microphone to me. This would be my first formal speech in Spanish. I climbed up the concrete steps to the wooden podium as my stomach gurgled. I tried to smile as I held the microphone looking down at 700 young faces. The neatly dressed students looked up at me. My voice trembled and my legs felt weak. My shirt was already wet with perspiration. I kept my speech short and handed the microphone back to the principal. She looked disappointed.
As the students rushed to their classrooms laughing and talking loudly, two English teachers came up to me. “Do you have anything planned to do in our classes today?” I asked for their class schedules and explained that I would be taking the first couple of days to get comfortable.
“Pft” came out of one of the teacher’s mouth as she dropped her class schedule page in my hand. It took me three days to receive all of the six English teacher’s schedules. Some told me they did not have it on them or that their schedule was going to change soon. Most of the English teachers at my school were women around the age of 30.
I went to the library and noticed immediately that Danny’s reading area had been changed. The seat cushions and the colorful carpet were gone, displaying the exposed cold cement floor like the rest of the room. The U shape arrangement of bookshelves had also been rearranged to an L shape. The books were also all out of place or left on the floor near the shelves. The librarian played a game on her phone. Without putting her phone down, she explained that she had changed it. Students like to sit there out of her sight and use their phones.
Once I worked out a schedule, I met with the English teachers. The Peace Corps had mandated that I first observe classes for a few months. As I tried to explain this in Spanish, a teacher interrupted.
“Don’t bother for a few weeks. We’re in final exams.”
I later discovered that exams would not even begin for a few weeks. I had nothing to do. So, I attended classes regardless. From the outset, I realized that the Peace Corps had very different ideas and expectations than the school. I had been told to observe and assist for the first three months. After a brief introduction to the class, each teacher asked if I had an activity ready. Of course, I did not, but observed and took notes as instructed by the Peace Corps. The teachers smiled and began their own lesson.
The classroom environment was very different than what I was used to. The lessons were read and written by the teacher on the whiteboard in front and the students would copy it in their notebooks. Students would shout out the answers when the teacher asked questions, no hands up. The students frequently talked to their friends during lessons. But as I have seen in my mother’s second grade class before, the good teachers are easy to spot: in two of the veteran English teacher’s classes the volume and behavior were always in control.
I noticed quickly that the students were not retaining the information they were copying in their notebooks.
“Is it sunny today?”
“What is your name?”
When I asked the children in blue and white questions over the material from the week before, I usually received scrunched-eyebrowed, perplexed looks back. From elementary all the way to high school, the only English that was memorized was the responses to common greetings. I was the third Teaching English Peace Corps Volunteer in Torti. Panama officially described itself as bilingual (Spanish/English) and offered English in all grades. Yet, English was limited to this conversation:
“Hello. How are you?”
“I am fine, thank you.”
After final exams, I explained to the teachers that I could help them with activities and lessons. One teacher took me aside, “We are setting up a work area in the library and we will come to you when we want your help.” Undeterred, I returned to the library to prepare a lesson plan schedule and a calendar for teacher meetings. After the first few meeting times, they quit coming. Even when I walked around the school during class breaks, it was hard to find them.
Teachers of other subjects sparked conversation with me. A science teacher liked to practice his English, the religion teacher talked about the current world events that had been on the news the day before and the elderly and nearly toothless art teacher would always say hello in English, “What’s up buddy?”
Eventually I was able to work in English classes. I tracked down the teachers, one by one. This proved to be exhausting. The true enjoyment only came in working with the students who wanted to get my attention and ask me questions. Most of the questions were how to pronounce their name in English or what the answer was on their classwork. But more and more often the students greeted me in English, “Hello, teacher.”
The Panamanian school year was very different. The schedule was by trimester with three main breaks, one being from December to February: summer vacation. Easter Week was another week out of classes which extended into two, since for holiday travelers it was difficult to return to Torti in public buses. In the month of November, there were national holidays every week. Then there was Farmers Day, Black Ethnicity Day, Workers Day, Students Day, and more where classes were cancelled for large school celebrations. One week, classes were cancelled while the teachers struck for a long-awaited raise.
In February, we attended staff meetings before the start of the school year. We reviewed the rules, set class schedules and dates for events and celebrations for the entire school year! I noticed several new faces, including two new English teachers. As the principal shouted that the school copy machine was to be used sparingly, I asked the science teacher why there were so many new teachers. He told me that teachers leave the school every year. They take jobs nearer to their families. The school system in Panama sends teachers to schools where they are needed. They are sent all over the country, usually several hours from their parents or children. After a few years, they have enough points to request a position nearer to their family. New teachers are also not paid for the first three months of work; a probationary period so to speak. The teachers at my school earned points by serving in the middle of nowhere with hope that, eventually, they could work at a school closer to home.
I met with the English teachers to reintroduce myself and explain that I was there to help them however possible. Like the previous year, I would like to work with them to create lesson plans so that we could agree on activities. This time I did not stalk the teachers, and they asked for assistance with even less frequency.
A common Peace Corps activity was to offer a seminar about leadership and sex education to students and sometimes adults. Since I had already helped other Peace Corps volunteers with this in other villages, I considered it valuable. Just like in my own U.S. hometown, teen pregnancy in Panama is common. When I pitched the idea to the principal, she shrieked “Sanson! I don’t have time to talk about that!” I went around school explaining the seminar to teachers, hoping that they would support me. One of the English teachers explained to me that sexual education in the schools had become a national discussion since Christianity speaks against pre-marital sex. I abandoned the idea.
Teachers from other subjects were friendlier. The Physical Education coach let me help teach basketball and softball. The students liked to play against me. I slid around the muddy field in softball and ran up and down the oddly shaped cement basketball court, usually winning. I shied away from soccer. Panamanian children could make any American adult look like a fool. I was also invited to attend a science class where the students presented their lab results. I often ran into the old art teacher around town. “What’s up buddy?” One night I saw him at the local casino, while watching a soccer match. He staggered over and sat down next to me with great difficulty before asking me to buy him a drink. We enjoyed the match together and he bought the next round.
Finally after nearly a year on the job, I was invited to help high school students after school. Alongside two Panamanian English teachers, we tutored nearly 50 high school students. “Why do the letters have so many different sounds?” students asked.
“It doesn’t make sense,” they said and I eventually told them that English is not phonetic like Spanish. This means that if one can speak Spanish, he or she can read and write it. It’s actually a better language.
“So why is that?” They asked and I gave a lesson on the history of England, explaining that the island had been attacked and defeated on various occasions by different foes. All of their different languages were forged together to make the English language. After seven months of attending these classes, students’ scores surged. They could answer questions. They understood questions.
The author, a graduate of Lincoln Elementary and Liberty High School, reported to Panama for Peace Corps Training in February 2015. For the past two years he has served as an English teacher in the small jungle village of Torti.