In a final debriefing session, the 2017 Teacher Match group of 20 volunteers reunited in order to give voice to the challenges and successes of our individual six week assignments in Panama. Our discussions were lively and varied. As I listened to the many conversations circulating our dialogue, I realized that it was a lot of information to take in, if not for myself, certainly for our Panamanian guests. Many of the challenges others and I experienced in the Panamanian public schools revealed a lower level of educational preparation than most of us have experienced in our varied service as professional educators.
During our discussion of the challenges and successes in our mentor roles, many voiced criticism about the public schools’ lack of teacher preparation, inadequate curriculum, resources, lesson planning, too much dead time, little understanding of differentiated instruction, the mislabeling or lumping together of students, no formal diagnosis of students with special needs, little exposure of students to literacy, and teachers’ daily struggles with classroom management.
Although the critiques my colleagues and I echoed were valid, I kept thinking about our Panamanian visitors who specifically came to learn what they might do in the future to improve the experience for everyone, especially for teachers like us. While there are merits to the honest, straight forward collective feedback we offered, I felt there was one ingredient deficient in our conversation: How can we, as Partners of the Americas’ volunteers, better demonstrate our own diplomacy as Americans in a global partnership with others?
If we consider one definiton of diplomacy as “the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way”, I feel like we fell short in the realm of being more sensitive to the the Panamanian educational system as a whole. Even though the Panamanian schools and their English programs did not measure up to our criteria, isn’t helping them to improve exactly why we came to serve in the first place? The art of diplomacy beckons an extra measure of cross-cultural sensitivity, particularly in situations that may be counter-intuitive for most. While my colleagues and I were eager to make more significant strides toward best practices in the English classroom, for some it wasn’t within the scope of our brief tenure or school placements.
While I cannot speak for others, the power of my experience in the Teacher Match Program emanates from the relationships built with the teachers and students in the schools I served. This meant being in the classroom every day, ready and available to model a new strategy, activity, or game to compliment instruction, which otherwise felt chaotic and loosely structured. These relationships constitute the warm embraces and the elated smiles of the children, the energetic conversation of a young teacher telling me how much she enjoys her job, the earnestness of another teacher voicing her compassion for children either with disabilities or who come from troublesome homes, or the teacher who dares to say, “I need help with classroom managment, can you help me?”
There is a young woman who especially comes to mind as I think about the strengths of the relationships I developed with the Panama Bilingüe teachers. From the moment we met, this teacher was eager and excited to receive constructive feedback on her classroom and teaching practices. After observing one of her classes, I emphasized the need to scaffold her lesson plan to prepare students for the culminating assignment. I modeled how to set up her plan so as to avoid the pitfalls that typically happen when students are given a task without the necessary supporting schema. Much to my pleasure I watched her implement the details of our conversation with the next group of students she taught that very same day! As my days carried out at this particular school, she and I had multiple opportunities to share ideas, and whenever in doubt she was faithful to ask for added direction. Even now as I write this reflection, she and I have been in touch via email about her progress at school.
Each and every time I take part in any type of foreign service, I always return to my country with a deeper appreciation for the many ways the American culture has extended access to the keys of knowledge and learning for me and all Americans. For those of us who teach in the American Public Schools the catch phrase, “measurable results” is all too familiar. Yet when we talk about cultural exchanges like the Panama Teacher Match, “measurable results”, as essential as they may be, cannot upstage diplomacy because ultimately diplomacy is the ingredient that helps our actions to speak louder than our words.