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Our Teachers in Panama: Pioneers in Paradise

Melissa Moberg and students“Diversity is an important thrust for the education department. We want our students to be very successful in teaching any student who comes into the classroom.” —Tiffany Wheeler

Some people call Panama a paradise of biodiversity: Caribbean beaches and aqua seas, mountains and private islands, coffee farms and brilliantly colored wildlife. 

It’s easy to see why there might have been a bit of competition among Transylvania education students to earn a place in the inaugural program that placed two student teachers from Transylvania at Balboa Academy in Panama City.

Being a Pioneer in paradise is quite a draw.

And it’s somehow fitting that the launch of the program coincided with the centenary of the opening of the Panama Canal—that essential connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that created a bustling cultural crossroads. Both parties hope the program marks the beginning of a multidimensional relationship.

A teaching oasis

For Transylvania students Melissa Moberg ‘14, a history major and education minor, and Brianna Hill ‘14, a Spanish language and literature major and education minor, Balboa Academy became a professional oasis. Both had already experienced student teaching in Fayette County public schools in Lexington, Ky., and both found a very different teaching environment at the private school that educates pre-K through 12th graders.

Working in Balboa Academy’s high school, they discovered a demanding teaching environment that encouraged creativity. They interacted with a student population that represented the world (over 30 nationalities) and cared deeply about making a difference in it.

The student teachers worked with devoted, seasoned model teachers and mentors who showed them new ways to interact with their students, the subject matter, and the classroom dynamics. More than anything else during their extraordinary stay in Panama, they say that developing their own approach to teaching was the most transformational part of their experience.

Melissa and Brianna hikingHow it began

The collaboration between Transylvania University and Balboa Academy began with an impromptu visit to the academy by Eduardo Nino-Moreno, the former director of campus diversity and inclusion for Transylvania. Drawing on his many years of experience in Panama working for the United Nations, Nino-Moreno recognized the potential of a partnership between two educational institutions that shared essential philosophies.

As Erinn Magee, Balboa’s high school principal, explains, “Balboa Academy and Transylvania University are both small, tight-knit schools with a strong sense of community. When I visited the campus of Transy, I felt like I was at home. Everyone welcomed me, greeted me with a warm smile, and was happy to see me. Balboa Academy has the same feeling. Because we have a transient, international student body, most of our students remember what it was like to be the new kid in school. We all work hard to treat everyone with kindness so that no one has a bad first day.”

Why international study?

Broadening the student teaching training to include an international experience takes students outside their comfort zones, places them in new cultures, and introduces totally new ways of doing things.

Jennifer McCloud, assistant professor of education and the faculty member responsible for supervising Transylvania student teachers, explains that these things are essential to being a teacher. International experiences provide opportunities “to develop empathy for those who are different; to build problem-solving skills; to adapt to something completely new; and to recognize that not everyone experiences the world in the same way.”

Brianna Hill '14 and Melissa Moberg '14 reflect on their experiences.

Tiffany Wheeler ’90, associate professor of education and the education program director at Transylvania, adds that it's important for Transylvania students “to have multiple experiences in dealing with diversity of all kinds: gender, racial, socio-economic, and religious. This is essential to being successful in relating to students, meeting their needs, and making learning relevant for them—deeply caring about who the learners are and their backgrounds.”

This program also helps education students fit in a study abroad experience, which is a challenge with so many other requirements. Teaching at an international school like the Balboa Academy gives student teachers a chance to learn new approaches and look at education from a more global perspective.

“When students are well-prepared and have developed their wholeness, their humanity,” McCloud reflects, “that ends up translating into success. Success comes with those opportunities and experiences.”

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