While seeing Panama’s sights and enjoying the Isla Palenque tropics always has its upsides, we wanted to involve ourselves in the community. We made our way to Boca Chica’s elementary school today to teach English. For those planning an extended stay or move to Palenque, this easy-to-arrange experience holds rewards in all directions.
The school blends in with the rest of the town, standing out with a few colorful decorations in the front and a basketball court on the side. Exit the Boca Chica dock, walk up the main road, take a right at the restaurant, a left once the road ends, and you’re there. The principal, one of the two full-time faculty, unlocked the gate and let us in.
“Bueno!” the kids screamed. They had no idea we were coming, but the look on their faces allowed no doubt of their excitement.
I happen to be an elementary school teacher in the US, teaching a mostly-Hispanic population. Granted, the vast majority of my 5th graders knew English while this primary class didn’t know one word. A lot of work to be done; very little time to do it.
We covered the alphabet, basic greetings like ‘hello’ and ‘nice to meet you,’ and the numbers 0-10. The kids lit up with enthusiasm, sometimes shouting to the point where I had to quiet them down. They loved the concept of being on camera as well, often crowding around Luke to see themselves on screen. We had two hours with them, leading a number of activities and getting a feel for how the children go about life in this small town.
After the lesson concluded, we met with Donna Skinner, the main English teacher and leader of the school’s improvement over recent years. Born in Bermuda, she became an educational consultant in Florida and owned five private schools before moving to Panama. She volunteers one day a week at the school, teaching the 4th-6th grade classroom. She explained to us how she got more than $20,000 in grants and private donations to provide the school with amenities Americans take for granted: desks, chalk, air conditioning, and windows to name a few. She contracted workers to build the playground and expand the school to add two more classrooms.
The school consists of three classes: kindergarten, grades 1-3, and grades 4-6. This means the kids will stay in the same class, learning the same content, for three years at a time. They’re expected to come out of elementary school with basic reading and writing skills. The closest middle school is 30 minutes away, the closest high school an hour. Only a small percentage of the population makes it that far, and Donna has no recollection of anyone attending college.
These factors have no bearing on the fact that these children are as impressionable as they are adorable. We walked around town after school got out and saw them running through the neighborhoods. ‘Señor B, Señor B, hello!’ they would yell. They learned that today. One lesson is all it takes to have a positive impact. Should you have the opportunity, try it for yourself and find out there’s way more to education than what goes on in the classroom.