This past week I attended a meeting with a team of professionals that work for the Ministry of Education in the province of Panama Centro (this includes San Miguel). The team consists of a psychologist, two social workers, two speech pathologists and several other members that facilitate workshops and parent meetings. Their job is to go to different schools in their region in order to evaluate student needs, meet with parents, and give workshops to teachers regarding teaching methods. They also focus on students with special needs and how to implement activities that will cater to this student population.
As I traveled from San Miguel to Los Lotes primary school (a 45-minute bus ride), I couldn’t help but imagine what this workshop would be like. I had my notebook in hand and reviewed every question that I wanted to ask for my research. I truly had no idea what to expect. First of all, I had no idea where the school was, so that in itself was an adventure. Luckily one of my students from San Miguel was on my bus and she helped me ask someone for directions. Once at the school, I was in awe! The school was huge compared to the tiny schools in San Miguel and La Chapa. There were students everywhere and so many classrooms! I was eventually taken to a computer lab (yes a computer lab!!), where I was to meet with the director of the school and the rest of the team from MEDUCA once they arrived. I first noticed that we were in the dark, the lights had been out for two hours. Second, I realized there were two A/C units in the lab! Like I said, I was in shock! I was definitely not in San Miguel anymore.
Once I got settled, I was able to ask a few questions to the director of the school. He informed that his school had 263 students, 40 special education students, 12 teachers, 1 special education teacher (who is on maternity leave), and 1 teacher dedicated to teaching English. These demographics made me feel sadness to realize how neglected the San Miguel and La Chapa schools are. As he explained, Los Lotes is NOT a multigrado (multiple grades) school, each teacher has one grade at a time, and unlike San Miguel some students come in the morning and some in the afternoon. It was interesting to see how different this school was from what I was used to seeing if it was only 45 minutes away.
The team from MEDUCA finally arrived and they allowed me to ask them the questions that I had ready for them. The majority of them they didn’t know, which was very disappointing, but they promised to provide me with more detailed information via email. I asked about standardized testing and international education ranks. This was definitely an interesting topic. Panama does not have any standard testing, why? Just because it had never been suggested/proposed; some of them didn’t even know what standardized testing was! When they are asked to participate in international education ranks they only test 3 or 4 schools in one province (there are 9 provinces) and use those results to generalize for the rest of the country. I was not surprised by this response. This is a prime example of how Panama has neglected to provide any standard for their education system. I mentioned how standardized testing was implemented in many countries and one social worker explained to me how about a year or two ago the subject of this kind of testing was brought up but was dismissed, and that there are currently efforts to propose a standardized testing system.
The rest of the meeting consisted of the team giving a workshop to teachers on how to effectively teach students with different learning styles. There were several activities that were presented and how to cope with a child’s possible difficulty with the activity. It was very informative and the teachers seemed to be learning plenty, although every once in a while they seemed uninterested. After the workshop was over, I spoke to the main presenter to see what kind of research she had done to obtain these methods for the workshop. She explained to me that she had been a part of a research group that was gathering information on effective teaching methods used in the United States. She was then hired by the Ministry of Education and was trying to get this particular method to be used by all teachers in Panama.
After these past couple of months in Panama I have yet to understand how such a developed country can be so underdeveloped at the same time. The country is thriving with businesses and capital but everything else is lagging behind; education is at the top of the list. I’d like to believe that I am making a difference somehow during my time here, but it will take some time before change can truly happen in this country. It is comforting to know that there are currently elected and appointed officials in Panama who are trying to cause effective change like the team from MEDUCA and Kalu Yala.