Teaching English in Panama
Jobs are Plentiful, Pay is Reasonable
Living in Panama is not as difficult as one might suspect. Whether you are looking to relocate, retire, or just spend a few months under the tropical sun, you can easily support yourself as an English teacher.
I spent a year in Panama City. A short drive from two oceans, it is ideal for snorkeling, surfing, or just lounging on beaches. Tap water was drinkable, fresh seafood plentiful, and work easy to come by. I lined up
a position with La Universidad Tecnologica de Panama by email before I arrived, and within weeks of my arrival, with very little legwork, I found work at two other schools as well.
Some of the teachers held TEFL certificates but many had no credentials other than being a native speaker (a few didn’t even have that).
Spanish is helpful but hardly necessary. Many Panamanians know at least some English, and in the classroom most schools demand that the teacher only speak English with students.
The typical language school offers afternoon, night, and weekend classes. Students range from college age to older business people. Private primary and secondary schools teach English as a language or use English for
other subjects. Generally, these schools prefer licensed teachers but it never hurts to investigate.
Most commonly the 8-week language courses meet twice a week for two to two and half hours each class. Some pay hourly, others by the course. Either way, the going rate is about $15-$16 per hour. Working five courses (which is still only 25 hours of teaching each week) can make you feel like a king.
Visas to Panama
Many foreigners end up working on the sly. A tourist visa is valid for 90 days and renewable for another 90 at the immigration office. Restarting the clock on a tourist visa is as easy as a weekend in neighboring
Costa Rica. There are penalties for overstaying a visa. Enforcement is inconsistent. For more information, see the U.S. Department of State page for Panama.
To go the legal route in Panama can be painstaking. Work visas cost $100 at the time of this writing and require a copy of your contract, a criminal background check from your country of origin (in the U.S. these are free and can usually be easily had
from your local police before you leave), and a Certificado de Buena Salud, which one can get from a local doctor for a brief consultation plus an HIV test. Additionally, the work visa applicant must present two letters: one to Immigration (Direccion Nacional de Migracion y Naturalizacion)
requesting a work visa for a visiting expert and a second to the Labor Ministry (Ministerio de Trabajo y Desarrollo Laboral) for a work permit (Permiso de Trabajo en Calidad de
Tecnico o Experto). Both letters justify the need for a Panamanian company to hire you as a foreigner who provides a service or expertise that could not be provided by a Panamanian citizen. Both these letters must be drawn up by a lawyer,
and the fees can be expensive. A majority of the foreign teachers I met never bothered with the whole process, preferring a weekend in Costa Rica or a fine upon their departure from Panama.
Another option for supplemental income is private lessons. A fair rate is $15-$25 per hour. The downside can be reliability. In the end I found it best to try to get students to commit to two weeks or a month at a
time and pay ahead, but this is not always possible since the average Panamanian lives paycheck to paycheck (on the two national paydates each month the traffic and nightlife is explosive).