8 weeks ago, September rolled around, with a new semester here, new interns, and myself in a new role, taking on our education program in addition to our other programs and operations in San Miguel.
In the past, I’d filled various roles in my work here. Rio Clean-Up Day, afterschool programs, water testing, health care interviewing, overseeing a full house to name a few. But the most I’d ever taught ESL was to Kinder students for a few weeks and a few days of assisting or subbing in San Miguel classrooms. But when September came and I faced the first week of teaching all of our ESL classes, running all our afterschool programs, continuing to work on research and being a resource for health and wellness, and managing operations in San Miguel, all while living in the house alone – I just about went and hid in my room. Of course, I didn’t, and instead faced my fears.
2 months later I could not be more thankful for the challenges that initially scared me so much. Standing alone in front of class after class trying to teach English was the single most nerve-wracking thing I have done since moving to Panama – turns out it was also the best way I could have improved my Spanish and gained confidence in myself. Knowing in the past only about 25 students meant I spent a few weeks learning the names of about 175 more. However, when I was dragged by the hand to meet more than a few mothers during parent-teacher conferences I was able to show I was paying attention to every student. I’ve learned just how much I can push some classes and how approaching things differently completely changes situations. The San Miguel 5th/6th class, notorious in the last years for filling teachers with dread and resulting in a lot of frustrations, is now my all-time favorite class. Their jokes and complaints and smart-aleck ways are still there – but they share space in the classroom with attention and respect and hard work because I asked more of them. And then of course there was working with teachers and working within the educational system in Panama and in this area. Through my time in some classes I learned what an incredible difference a good teacher makes in the education of a child; through other experiences I learned how badly hurt a student can be by structural violence or a teacher who doesn’t care.
Above all, the most important challenge I faced, and still face everyday, is that of long-term relationship building. I asked myself for a while why exactly that was a challenge. Of course, this semester was difficult. But it’s much more than just the long days and workload of the last months. I realized it’s been the most challenging part of my work here because most of what I do really just boils down to making myself vulnerable day after day. Community outreach is a daily exercise in breaking yourself down; it is making the decision to allow cracks in your own foundation of values and beliefs and what you know to be true, so that you can really see the world from someone else’s perspective. If you can’t be vulnerable and open to making mistakes or feeling wrong you will not be able to learn and see through another’s eyes; if you can’t learn or see you can’t understand; if you can’t understand you can’t build relationships; if you can’t build relationships you will never begin to really become a part of a different community.
Continuing to do this work in the future and future semesters means facing new challenges – being vulnerable all over again. Right now, we’re looking towards the likes of expanding our ESL programs to the Los Lotes secondary school, attempting to set up a market in San Miguel to foster local business, adapting to students changing grades and classrooms and to changing Kalu Yala interns. Regardless of what the unknowable future brings as we head into November and to the end of this semester and year here in Panama, I will be thankful for what I have in the present, easy or challenging. As I leave to spend Thanksgiving in the States and look at returning to spend Christmas in Panama, I will be grateful for these two worlds I live in and travel between, will count my blessings as the many people I now call family spanning thousands of miles, and will appreciate the strength and happiness that I’ve gained from allowing myself to be vulnerable and embracing what scared me the most.