Monday, September 26, 2011

On teaching English in Panamá

I'm about two months into private English classes here in Panamá. It all started with $15 and six ads in La Prensa, spread out over the course of three weeks. Then came  canvassing with flyers around areas of Panamá City where people with money are known to live. The calls were plentiful from the start. Then came word of mouth. One student became two. Two became five. Then a pair of sisters. Then a set of three coworkers. And then the husband of another student's coworker, and so on. Now, I have ten students spread around the city. Business is good, but tiring. And I love it.


Common Questions:

Have you taught English before?
No. I am, however, a lover of the English language. Good grammar and proper syntax are (at times) sexier than over-sized genitalia. Sometimes. I am a writer. I read a lot and have to fight not to judge those who pillage and violate English. I understand words. No, I don't have a Bachelor's. Are there idiots with their Masters who have a Southern rapper's grasp of English? Yes. Am I teaching advanced grammatical concepts yet? No. I have however, logged countless hours bashing and correcting formerly bottle-fed adults who coin words willy-nilly on various social networks. Dragging fools through the mud is no walk in the park. This counts for something, yes? I thought so.

How do you run your classes?
In my mind, any amount of struggle involved in running your own business or having some degree of freedom with your livelihood will always be preferred over being an employee. So class cancellations, short attention spans, ridiculous commutes, etc., are all surmountable challenges compared to being an employee of a Panamanian company. Low salaries and the Panamanian work ethic would undoubtedly cause me much grief. I'll pass. Give me an independent struggle any day.

So.

In the first session, I meet and talk with the student(s) to explain my methods and how I operate. We chat in English so I can determine their level, observe their pronunciation, and how limited or advanced their vocabulary is. I figure whether they'd like grammar-intensive lessons, or want to focus more on conversation. This is when I have to remind them that "speaking English good" is impossible without a knowledge of grammar so the previous question matters not. We set a schedule. I always stress the importance of confirming and/or cancelling in advance. And that, if they have any burly, athletic Panamanian cousins or siblings, photos and measurements should be forward to me immediately.

Every class is different. Every student learns differently. I have ten different students at ten different levels. I use a combination of three different English textbooks, all by Betty Azar. They are insanely thorough. The website also has additional activities, resources, links, etc. Also, this nifty thing called Google also connects me with an infinite amount of sites, forums, school portals, etc., where I can get ideas and materials to spice up classes. The amount of resources that have interactive activities, additional projects, multimedia components and such FOR THE FREE is surprising.

How do you determine prices?
Look. I offer a damn good service. I come to my students. Hypothetically, they can learn English in the comfort of their home with their hair in rollers while dressed in white tights, mesh tank, and white bra. Or, in an awesome air conditioned cafe. Or, in your office, without having to leave work, forward calls, step away from the desk, or any of the above. Considering that good English schools here charge anywhere from $500-$800 per month (easily twice what most Panamanians earn monthly), my rate is a great deal. I charge one set price for solo students, give a discount for pairs, and a deeper discount for groups of four or more. Depending on the number of classes, I may or may not adjust the price. Even with three classes a week, I still have to brave Panamanian public transit, coming and going. I still have to pay bus and/ or taxi fare, coming and going. Besides, long hair won't maintain itself for free. So there's also that.

For example, one student is Manpower's Director of Sales in Latin America. I then picked up two coworkers, who recently led me to another woman who I start with tomorrow. This week one commented, "Since we bring you more business, you should give us a good discount, 'un buen precio!'" I was legitimately annoyed. I explained that I already gave the discount usually ONLY given for three or more even though you only get one and two classes per week, respectively, to avoid each person in the office paying a different price. You get a private course. I give you a copy of each lesson. I email extra activities that you can do on your own, if you choose. And my hair is long. These things do not come cheap, bitches. Need I remind you whose country invaded Panamá in the late 80s?!?! NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND. That should halt any future mouthy outbursts.

How do you maintain some wondrous, luscious hair?
Let's stay on topic, shall we?

Do you need a degree or certification to teach English in Panamá?
Not necessarily. In a University setting or at one of the international schools? Perhaps. Do I want to dress up everyday and tap dance for a Panamanian business? Fuck no. Two weeks ago, I was supposed to begin teaching an English Conversation course at the University of Panamá. Here's how I got that job:

*phone rings, in Spanish*




Me: (in Spanish) Hi, I'm calling for information on your English for Foreigners course...












Professor: Ah, yes! (provides information)


 
 







Me: Ok. Thank you...
 
 









Professor: One second, what is your native language?


  









Me: English...

     










Professor: Bueno. We're looking for a native speaker to lead a conversation course. No books, just conversation....
 
 










Me: (raising eyebrows, with genuine interest) Oh?

 










Professor: Yes, would you be interested?



 







Me: Of course.









end scene.

It was, literally, that easy. Will your experience be as easy? It depends: how long is your hair? At any rate, in true Panamanian fashion, the first day of class arrived and I was informed that they wanted to wait for more students to register before starting the class. This was, of course, after buying all kinds of faux-professional garments and clearing my schedule on Mondays and Wednesdays for the following eight weeks. Nevermind that 15 students sharing an hour and a half of conversation time is insanity. Upside: as a University employee, my Spanish course is free. At this point, whether the class happens or not doesn't matter to me. I earn more independently anyway.

Now, if you wanted to wake up and iron your clothes everyday and teach in some prestigious academy and get a paycheck and teach the children of government officials, and carry a briefcase and such, then your ass had better have some form of certification.

Will I get TEFL or ESL certification in the future? When I'm ready to tap dance for a check, sure.

What are the challenges of your work?
I've learned that many Panamanians, because of the heavy American presence here (see: the Panamá Canal), speak at least some English. Apparently, many schools require English and, therefore, they at least know the basics. Could they hold a conversation in English? Probably not. I compare this to my experience with Spanish. I've studied for years, but have rarely put it into practice outside of a classroom in a real-life setting. My job entails: 
-Unteaching the wretched English they learn in the streets and from American television. 
-Reteaching basic grammar points that they sometimes attempt to rush me through. 
-Breaking down how to actually form sentences. 
-Explaining things in Spanish at times, then playing dumb when they slip into Spanish while talking to me. 
-Reminding students that if you won't pay my rate, 
     1) five other students will and 
     2) you are free to pay double at some English academy across town. 
-Fighting resistance when they insist on battling me over the grammatical differences between Spanish and English. This works well for my students from Spain:

"Okay, let's both stand up. Sit down if you were born on the Iberian Peninsula. Remain standing if the nationality on your passport says, American. Okay. Let's continue."

 Otherwise, it's awesome.

The experience is beneficial in three very important ways. First, teaching English was on the list of things I set out to do here in Panamá. I am fulfilling a big goal of mine. Second, I get to directly improve the lives of Panamanians everyday. When asked why they want to learn English, 10 of 10 students have told me that it will help them obtain a better job and/or be able to go to America to work or study. I feel like this balances out all the sinning I do (being a heauxmeaux, sex without the intention of creating an offspring, liking a few T-Pain songs, etc.). Third, I get to practice speaking Spanish. Most of my students then correct me if I make a mistake. It's a win-win situation.

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