Sometimes it’s easy to get discouraged when problems are so numerous and insurmountable, when a situation is difficult with so many obstacles to overcome. Such is the education system in Panama.

Our Peace Corps assignment, my husband’s and mine, is to work in the Escuela Normal in Santiago, which trains all public school primary teachers in the country. We are to work with the English program, to strengthen the language skills and methodology. What we have found so far is that the program seems to offer classroom skills to work with young children, such as songs and games, rather than teaching English. The truth is, the students at the school cannot speak English, despite years of study.

For example, if they learn a children’s song (“If You’re Happy and You Know It” or “Good Morning Mr. Sun”), they memorize the sounds, the words have no meaning and their rendition is barely recognizable. Learning is rote rather than integrated and cognitive. Another example: a unit on clothing vocabulary. Words are written on the board, pronounced, repeated, defined and entered in students’ notebooks. They may do matching games with the vocabulary and label diagrams. At the end of the unit, they have a test. Oh, teacher, they plead. Will it be hard? Ay, no, es facilito, she assures them. Don’t worry, it’s easy.

If it were me, (and you who know how I like to teach Spanish at SMU) I would role-play shopping for items such as girls buying party dresses in a department store, or students in a shoe store trying on boots or shoes … we assign roles for customers, clerks, we ask how much things cost, what sizes and colors. I would bring a large bag with clothing items, students reach in a pick out something and describe it. This encourages use of the target language. It’s active, not passive.

In class, if I notice a quiet student, I may try to draw her out. The teacher might say, oh, don’t expect much from her … she’s lazy, she doesn’t do the work, she’s slow -right in front of the student. But, scratch the surface and you might find that she has to walk several miles to get to school, she has only one uniform and washes it each night, there may not be enough food at home, no electricity to study in the dark, she has chores to do or younger kids to care for when she gets home … many reasons for inattentiveness. We can’t even pop in to observe classes without prior consent from the department – the coordinator has to sign off on this.

I submitted a course proposal for an English class I want to teach. I had to write it according to the Ministry of Education guidelines. The department chair scolded me for placing things in the wrong columns, such as content information in the resource area, or mixing up methodology with objectives. You have to fix it, I was told. They will never accept it like this. It’s format over substance, always.

One Peace Corps volunteer nearby says that in teaching English in her community, attrition has weeded out all who don’t want to put forth real effort. She’s down to working regularly with one or two people. So that’s where she puts her energy.

That’s where the impact is, I guess. We can touch one person at a time. Progress is excruciatingly slow. I hope I feel that I have made a difference in my community by the time my service is finished. Maybe I will have to be content with having touched a few people in a meaningful way. I can’t expect to turn the world upside down, after all.

(The opinions expressed are my own and in no way reflect the views of the Peace Corps.)