Thursday, June 7, 2012

On Teaching English in Panama (update)

Well.

I'm 29 days away from crossing the one-yeark mark here in The Land of Chancletas and Platanos. That means Panama for the slow.

Things have absolutely taken off since my last post on teaching down here. At the time, two months in, I was supposed to be teaching a conversational English course at the University of Panama, but, naturally, it fell through.

Since then, business has grown tremendously. Via word of mouth and mostly free promo, I've become something like the go-to dude for English Classes With Long-Haired Brown Americans in Panama City. Shazam, bitch!

Over time, teaching private English classes along with maintaining a busy schedule of teaching cardio and/or dance classes

here:


here:

here:

and maintaing exactly no social life become quite difficult to manage. I am but one luxuriously haired person. I cannot be in several places at once. I cannot spread my awesomeness too thin, damn you. After returning from a week in Bocas del Toro, Panama with the Nomadness Travel Tribe and hearing inspiring stories of entrepreneurship and receiving a great deal of positive feedback and support, I got to thinking about what more I could do with my life down here. Even with what I lacked socially, I knew that I would be here for the foreseeable future, so I had better kick things up a notch. 

While walking around Casco Viejo with a particularly great individual who I thought I was dating but probably wasn't dating me, that was also beginning a similar journey of business ownership, the idea hit me:
MUST. DO. PORN.
MUST. OPEN. A. SCHOOL.



YES.

i don't know, but it works, right?
It made perfect sense. Because of Panama's position as a hub of the Americas, there is an endless demand for English here. Most people here in the capital have had at least some interaction with the language. Most of my professional students tell me that they need the language to broaden job opportunities, get a promotion, change jobs, get a job interview, move abroad, etc. The benefits of acquiring a new language, especially here, are endless. Some have children learning English who they can't help with their homework. Others realize the cap on opportunities that comes with not mastering a second tongue and see the need to set themselves apart. And so: a school it shall be.

But how? A fixed location? An office? Rows of uncomfortable wooden chairs and a white erase board? These are all things bound to come in the future, but for now, the most accessible way to get started is to continue offering the same service that had worked up to that point: personalized English classes in the student's house or office. The only "overhead" is the highly affordable advertisements I'd place, weekly champagne to de-stress, and taxi fare. Easy.

So, just as I had done my first week in the country, I simply started advertising, but more. The whole point of creating this business is finding others to take on the classes that I personally don't have time to do. I figured that because I am awesome, I can train others to harvest their awesomeness, thus, duplicating said awesomeness, thus, imparting linguistic services and sharing our cultivated, refined, well-dressed awesomeness unto the world. Everyone wins, yes? Yes. 


I plastered my immediate neighborhood with flyers. Hung announcements high and low, in coffee shops and supermarkets:

(in Spanish)
THE BRITISH ARE COMING.

LEARN ENGLISH IN YOUR HOME OR OFFICE WITH AWESOME NATIVE SPEAKERS, LEAD, TRAINED, PAID, AND WHIPPED INTO SHAPE BY AWESOME LONG-HAIRED BROWN AMERICAN, WHO, DESPITE HAVING LOCS, IS TOTALLY NEITHER A RASTA NOR A CRIMINAL AS YOU SMALL-MINDED AWESOME-DEFICIENT SOULS MAY THINK. AWESOME. and AWESOME.

My idea was to legitimize myself. First step to being taken seriously? Hiring some nice, clean, white people.

BAM. Instant credibility. And not the hostel-hopping, hemp bracelet-wearing, Latin America-crossing kids in sundresses and flip flops and dirty white people dreadlocks. I mean like bathed, deodorant-loving, coleslaw-eating nice, respectable white folks. Gimme your coins, dammit.

Step number two: a logo, website, business cards, and more white people:


and then

that's me-----> www.englishinpanama.com

and then


*holds for applause*

So yes: legitimization. And professionalism. And formality. The idea is to not come off as just "some dude" giving random English classes. There are dozens of English teachers who've wandered down to Panama, deciding that, as English speakers, they can teach English. This is far from true. There are countless things native speakers of any language take for granted and inject into their everyday speech without knowing background or actual meaning. For example: last month, despite having a planned lesson, the student came to class with a list of words he'd found somewhere, wanting to discuss.

What as on the list?
  • however
  • on the other hand
  • conversely
  • throughout
  • nevertheless
  • correspondingly
  • in any case
  • by the same token
  • likewise
and so on...


Really, though?

All words you may know and use, but being tasked with explaining them on the spot (to a student with a low intermediate level of comprehension) without a lesson and exercises to back it up? Not so easy. None of the materials I had on hand had these words and phrases explicitly spelled out. I didn't have internet access at that moment, so I couldn't hit any favorite sites for pre-designed lesson. Somehow, by the grace of Saint Damita Jo Jackson, I pulled it off. I double checked my explanations that night and there as only a 6% bullshit level here! 

Even as a writer, I've had to brush up on grammar points. I've come up with dozens of teaching activities that can help with certain tricky topics. I've become a much better listener. I've learned how to switch gears when students start yawning or getting distracted. Without dropping my pants and yelling "FOCUS," I've grown pretty damn good at reeling them back in and keeping the class flowing properly. 

I'm growing. I'm almost two months in and things are going quite well. Aside from individual classes (now including Spanish classes), I'm expanding into more businesses. Current clients include the Director of BBVA and his staff, the sales director of Panama at Citibank, the Corporate Banking team at Scotiabank, and the owner of airport liquor and perfume distributor Brands & Product. Not bad for a first year in The Land of Chancletas and Platanos. There are many fascinating things at play here: 

a few clients

First, the relative ease which with I was able to increase my income. It's essentially a virtual agency. Students call, I give them the same rundown of how it all works, I match them with a teacher based on schedule and location, here's my banking info, and scene. This ease, it's worth noting, does NOT exist in the employee world. But that's another rant all together. I'm never not aware of the fact that the average salary for Panamanians is between $350 and $500 per month, depending on who you ask. I can EAT $350 in gummy worms in a DAY. This includes police. This includes government employees, University professors teaching for YEARS, and the vast majority of people with whom I interact with daily. So my ability to say, "I'm gonna start a business and charge XYZ," and have this actually happen, is not to be overlooked or taken lightly. 

Also, I occasionally think about the privileges I'm afforded being an American here. The ease with which Americans have popped up and sprouted business empires of all sizes here. All of this, of course, in country about the size of South Carolina. When the Nomadness Travel Tribe went to Bocas, I couldn't help but notice that the majority of the businesses that lined the main street in town on Isla Colón were obviously owned by foreigners and employed Panamanians. I often comment to friends interested in Panama for whatever reason that "If you're educated elsewhere, especially America, there's basically someone here who will pay you to do whatever it is that you know how to do." I am always thankful for my position and ensure that I don't ever give off "aloof American" like soooo many of my pale-skinned countrymen here are known to do.

Thirdly, I am also aware of the way I'm viewed here as a Black person, specifically one with locs. Race is another post altogether. This week, while standing (in a suit) beside a non brown teacher in jeans and a polo to greet a new student, they extended their hand and greeted them first, assuming they were Alex and, therefore, in charge. 
Anger. Such anger. Given the noticeable slights, odd glances, and "Oh, YOU'RE the person behind the ad" body language, I know what I'm up against. I know I need to present myself more professionally than the next guy. I've had students finish a class and then tell me they feel my rate is too high. Would you walk into a business, use the service and then complain about the price? Are we on earth right now? Would you do this to the next person? 
Despite all of this, I'm happy. Despite having to repeatedly justify and explain the value of the service, reminding people that they don't have to leave their office/home and face this deathly traffic and are receiving a completely unique, personalized private class and that if they don't like my motherfucking rate that they're free to work eight hours and dive into traffic to go across town to an expensive group class where they have no say in the curriculum and most certainly wouldn't tell someone, after having taken the class that they would rather pay X amount instead. Happy despite consistently flaky students. Happy despite stress induced anxiety attacks I've brought on myself as of late. Happy despite having essentially having created a second (or third?) job for myself, limiting my free time even more.
Happy, happy, happy. 

And independent, independent, independent. If I want to skip a morning class to drink coffee and watch porn while you give yourself gray hairs in your cubicle, goddammit I can do just that. And I do.

Happy, happy, happy.

It's only going to get better. I'm working to automate this thing, remove myself from the teaching equation, and create more time to do things like dance, write and leave the city. All is a work in progress. But again, I'm happy. as. fuck.

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