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Schooling Your Expat Kids in Latin America

Tammy is a fourteen-year expat veteran who calls Panama home. She homeschools her bilingual, third-culture kids in the jungles of Panama.


Are You Overcommitted to Your Expat Schooling Plan?

The day I dropped off my daughter at a Panama preschool I knew it was a mistake. She clung to my hand as tears streamed down her face. I don’t blame her. It was a mistake. We both looked out at twenty half-crazed Panamanian kids rattling off in Spanish like hail on a tin roof. I knew at that moment they were going to eat her alive.

“This is how I am going to school my expat kids?” I thought. I shoved her through the door anyway.

That October day was a turning point in the schooling of my expat kids. I forced my child to enter into a learning environment that was nothing short of cording off kids for crowd control. Zero to little learning was taking place in this typical Panamanian preschool. She came home every day disheveled and shocked.

I promised her everyday kindergarten would be better. It wasn’t. Kindergarten was worse than preschool. We struggled through those kindergarten days together, then fought through monstrous amounts of first and second-grade homework from the private Catholic school. Eventually, frustrated and angered, we paid thousands of dollars for her to attend a new “alternative” school for third and fourth grades. Our difficulties continued when we realized the “alternative” school so strongly marketed as the answer to our school failures actually had no academic advancements taking place.

Fifth and sixth grades were at a British school, where we once again paid thousands of dollars in registration fees, hoping an English only curriculum might be our saving grace. Sadly the teachers assigned to our child were the same low-quality instructors we left behind at prior schools.

Are you keeping count? My daughter attended four schools in a matter of five years. Then we bailed. I look back and wonder why it took us so long to figure out our expat schooling plan was not working and really began to research if you can homeschool overseas.


Latin American Schools Are Not Like U.S. Schools

Despite the fact that she did well in preschool through sixth grade in a typical Panama school environment we decided to abandon our educational plan and homeschool. We found our main concern was the teaching methods used up too much precious time and energy of our children.

No wonder we found our expat schooling plan was a failure. A quick search one day while waiting at school pick up gave me the answer. A news report states that Latin American schools' educational achievements were stagnant and were projected to get worse. This was exactly what we experienced year-after-year in the Panama school system.

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Take a look at the map below. It is the test results of countries that participate in the PISA test administered by the OECD. Red countries are those that fall below its standards, while those in gray refused to participate.

In Central America, Costa Rica is the only country that agrees to test. 2009 was the last time Panama participated. They ranked third to last above Peru, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan.

2009 was the last time Panama participated in the PISA test. The PISA is known for its testing of high school students around the world, especially in math and reading. It is conducted by to rank educational results on a world scale.

2009 was the last time Panama participated in the PISA test. The PISA is known for its testing of high school students around the world, especially in math and reading. It is conducted by to rank educational results on a world scale.

Here's Why We Left the Latin American School System

We gave it a good try for several years, but we knew our expat educational plan was failing our child. We saw few educational advancements during those years, but lots of frustrations, here are just a few of our experiences:

  • An unusual amount of energy is placed in Latin American schools on rote memorization. Textbooks are rarely used and a lot of emphases is placed on copying down endless lessons in notebooks. In our opinion, Panama schools place importance on wearing certain uniforms on certain days. Teachers placed more importance on neat and clean pages than the quality of the information placed on those pages. There were times when my child did not copy down her work in the proper notebook nor in the proper color pencil and she was penalized.
  • Parents are required to attend endless meetings. It appears the only reason attendance is demanded is to sign the attendance sheet. Nothing of substance was discussed. Most topics could have been covered in an email from the school.
  • Continual financial obligations were always coming. Then there are the teacher notes which arrive every Friday. These notes usually state your child's cooperation is required and involves a participation fee. An excellent example is "wear a yellow shirt on Monday." Great! No uniform to iron for Monday! But wait, you read the letter again and realize your child must pay a mandatory $5 fee in order for your child to wear a yellow shirt to school.
  • Your child is assigned endless amounts of busy work. The only way to finish is with parental help. My daughter and I copied down 15 pages of facts on the Virgin Mary in cursive at age six for her religion class. I became well versed in copying my six-year-old daughter's penmanship.
  • It is impossible to schedule a teacher meeting. Generally speaking teacher's office hours are predetermined. Consequently when you are desperate to speak to your child's teacher you must go only at this predetermined time. It is usually for 1 hour, say between 12 and 1 pm. He or she attends ALL parents at this time. Expect a line of fifteen other upset parents. Once you make it to the head of the line, count yourself lucky if you are granted a 3-minute audience with your child's teacher.
  • The teacher is the child-rearing expert and you are just an ignorant parent. I had many clashes with my daughter's teachers during those years of private school. One battle I remember with clarity is being told at the pickup gate that my duty was only to get my child to school on time, and that the teacher would then take over my parental duties. Latin American parents culturally turn over many child-rearing responsibilities to teachers during primary school. These parents believe it is a teacher's responsibility to discipline their unruly children.

You Tried and It Didn’t Work; Now What?

I might sound critical of the Panamanian educational system. I’m expressing that the teaching methods used in the three schools we attend did not fit our daughter. My family holds many well versed and educated Panamanians in high esteem.

With access to the internet and the right curriculum packed and/or shipped to your new country, the education of expat kids is not an insurmountable obstacle. Best yet, when moving to a new country with a large expat community you will find many retired educators who are willing to offer tutoring services.

Be certain to investigate the local homeschooling laws in your new country of residence. A good place to start is the Home School Legal Defense Association. Their services are invaluable in assessing local laws. We used them ourselves when researching our move to Panama.

Finally, when moving to a foreign country with children, whether you decide to homeschool or enroll in a more traditional school, living as an expat in a new country is an educational experience every single day. Life as an expat child is an endless classroom.


Cindy on June 05, 2020:

Hmmm, the list you add to cons in those schools is my experience at schools in USA

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