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Teaching ESL in Panama

Teaching English as a second language (experienced teachers will call it teaching English as a foreign language or TEFL) in Panama appeals to people who like to travel, experience other cultures, like variety, and are proficient in the English language. You may have just completed your degree, but still have student loans to pay back and finding a job where you live is a problem. You may have completed a contract in another country and are looking for something different and a change of scene. In any event, teaching jobs in Panama are relatively easy to obtain, requiring only the basic qualifications in most cases and involving a minimum of paperwork and time. Feb, March, July, and August are probably the best months for finding ESL (EFL) teaching jobs in Panama.

Credentials

The requirements for getting a teaching job in Panama are not as strict as those in Europe and Asia. Although not always required, having a degree in English, Applied Linguistics, or Education is preferred by employers, as well as having a good score on the TEFL. Certification can be acquired at universities or online, which may automatically qualify you for a teaching job in Panama. Online certificates are better than nothing. The International TEFL Academy offers a 3-month part-time course online for $1,350-$2,095. TEFL or TESL certificates earned face to face and that include some observed classroom teaching are better. The best of these may be the CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults), which can be obtained at some universities, or at a British Council, International House, and other schools located worldwide. This TESOL certification is a significant addition to your credentials, but again probably not necessary to teach ESL in Panama.

Expect competition for these jobs because of the large expatriate population, but proficiency in English, experience, and excellent qualifications will go a long way toward securing a teaching job in Panama. You can make a good impression at the local interview, and speaking Spanish is helpful, but again is not a requirement.

Documentation

A current passport and a Visa will cover your stay for 90 days, and the Visa can be easily renewed. A work permit may or may not be required or paid for by your employer. You will need to hire an attorney since the process is quite involved, time consuming, and expensive. In addition to the initial $100 fee, the following will be needed for a work permit: a police or criminal background check, notarized copies of credentials, a certificate of health, and two letters of recommendation, one for Immigration and one for the Labor Department.

Job Outlook

Jobs are fairly plentiful including those at universities such as La Universidad Technologica de Panama, local schools, language centers, and international schools. Teaching ESL in the business community of the larger cities is also an option. Job openings are posted on various websites such as The International School of Panama, Quinn's World of TEFL, Transitions Abroad, and Dave's ESL Cafe.

It is always helpful to speak with current or former teachers in Panama to get the inside scoop. If possible, plan a short trip to Panama, stay at an inexpensive hostel, and contact the school or schools you are interested in to set up a personal interview. Mailing a resume is not nearly as effective as being there in person, and communication by phone is not easy unless you speak Spanish well.

Work Schedules & Salary

You can expect teaching schedules to vary considerably depending on the type of school. Language schools offer afternoon, night, and weekend classes, usually consisting of 8-week courses meeting twice a week for 2 to 2.5 hours. The salary averages $15-$16 per hour, so you can earn quite a bit by teaching several classes. Salaries at local schools and universities range from $800 to $1500, with international universities paying as much as $2500 and up (paid monthly, some offer direct deposit to your bank account). Teaching jobs at International schools are usually considered full-time positions (20-25 hours) with a Monday through Friday schedule, 9am-4pm, and some weekends. Vacation times are generous, anywhere from one month to two or three, depending on the school. Fortunately, the cost of living is moderate, health care costs are low, and your salary should provide the necessary support to live in Panama. You'll probably have extra money to save or use for travel adventures if you teach at an international university. The expenses of relocating and getting started with a teaching job in Panama average $1,000-$1,300. Be sure you have a detailed, written contract, usually for one year, so there will be no misunderstandings between you and your employer.

Advantages

Panama like most Central American countries is known for friendly people, and you'll enjoy teaching students who are eager to learn and actively participate in class. English is understood almost everywhere and spoken fluently by a small percentage of the local population. Buses and taxis are inexpensive, so managing daily activities is not difficult. The country uses Balboas, the equivalent of the U.S. Dollar, so there is no problem with currency exchanges or fluctuations. Since Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin America, you can enjoy your leisure time at the beach, attending cultural and educational events, and participating in the various social activities, groups, and clubs sponsored by the large expatriate population.

Disadvantages (or things to remember)

Mild and humid tropical climate with little seasonal variations; housing allowance may or may not be included, although it may be partially paid by the school. Accommodations may be limited depending on the school, and if a school provides accommodation, you may have to share with other co-workers. Books and reading materials are scarce, so bring your own or have them sent to you. Regular communication by phone between Panama and back home is often unpredictable - Skype is a good option. Traffic can be a problem, especially in Panama City, and grocery stores do not always carry the products you need. Be prepared to slow down as you go about your usual routine; no one is in a hurry in Panama.

Conclusion

Teaching in Panama pays better than teaching in Costa Rica, but not as good as teaching in Korea. Whether you accept an ESL teaching job in Panama for a few months, a year, or decide to renew your contract for a longer stay, it is certainly an opportunity worth considering. Since it's relatively easy to get a teaching job in Panama, it's a pretty good place to get some experience and pad your resume for the higher paying EFL jobs. Just remember that employers like to see that you can stay with one school for 2+ years so 3 different schools over 3 years in Panama gives you the experience schools want but also makes them question if you're the kind of teacher they can keep around.

April 2013 - Sharon L Slayton

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