It’s been about a month since my arrival in Panama and I can’t help but smile when I think of all that I have already accomplished! I have managed to teach two classes of English to 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders, spent a night with no electricity (only candles), and tried a classic fonda dinner that only cost me $2.50. Not to mention the facet that I have made many acquaintances in San Miguel just as I had hoped. The list of goals that have been accomplished this week is endless!
One of the most important things that happened to me this week was teaching. I cannot explain how nervous I was Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. I had knots in my stomach. I knew I was prepared but I didn’t know if I was ready for what was to come in terms of the gap in Panama’s education system. The school in San Miguel has about eighty-five students ranging from Kindergarten to 6th grade and only four teachers. There is one teacher for Kindergarten that has about fifteen students, one teacher that teaches 1st and 4th graders in a class of about twenty-five, one teacher for 2nd and 3rd with a class of about twenty-five, and one teacher for 5th and 6th grade in a class of about twenty-five as well. These are just estimates, sometimes there may be more or less in a class depending on attendance. I know some of these numbers seems similar to those of inner city schools in the U.S but there is definitely a difference. Teachers in the U.S only have a class full of 1st graders alone, not one class with both 1st and 4th graders. There is also a special education teacher that works with about ten students, something that I was happily surprised to see.
Students poured into the classroom yelling “Ticher! Ticher!” and took their seats, some sharing because of the lack of desks. I could feel the sweat running down my face, not only because I was nervous but because there is no fan or air conditioner. The class went better than I thought; the students were excited about learning and made it so easy to teach. It broke my heart to find out that some students did not even know how to write their own name, or anything for that matter. I know that this happens in schools in the U.S. but students generally get the chance catch up and attain a higher standard of living than students facing the same obstacles in Panama (the average Panamanian only makes $8 a day!). This definitely has to do with the amount of teachers and the lack of individual attention being given in these overcrowded classrooms.
Despite this growing problem, I was happy to see that the MEDUCA (Ministerio de Educacion) is working to accommodate special needs children. I decided to approach Maestra Dianeth, the special ed teacher, to better understand the school’s stance on mental health. She was able to provide me with valuable information and put the Panamanian education system in perspective. The rural town of San Miguel is growing so rapidly that the government has not been able to keep up with it; thus, a deficit of teachers in this area has resulted. Most kids fall behind because by the time they realize that they don’t understand instructions or material, the teacher has already moved on to help other students. They end up just getting lost in between. The students that Meastra Dianeth works with are students that get so stressed and full of anxiety that they can no longer learn properly in a classroom setting and a couple of cases suffer from more serious disorders like as Tourette’s.
I began to wonder more and more about the mental health of the community in San Miguel and whether or not they have resources other than the school to help these children. Is there another institution that encourages mental stability? After reading several articles by the World Health Organization, it has become clear that Panama is one of the countries the lags behind in mental health support. Changes in the mental health sector have only begun in the past decade with many still not being implemented. I have realized that this is another way in which the Panamanian government is inadvertently inhibiting its society from blooming into a bigger and better entity. A group of people cannot progress if they are not healthy and educated.