Milerith’s pigtails, one held fast by a red rubber band, the other side bound by a black one, bounce and swing back and forth as she chases her friends through the school’s grassy courtyard. A strong wind coming down from the velvety green mountainsides above set the pine trees to swaying. A bell rings and the children begin to fall into lines, the blue and white of their school uniforms forming neat columns outside the classroom doors. Milerith, who is deaf, joins in the queue, bouncing on her toes and bubbling over with excitement that school is about to begin.
Inside, Efigenia Montezuma moves across the class’s floor with a swish of her long red dress, the hem of which nearly touches the cracked and stained concrete floor. She arranges her notes and stacks yesterday’s art projects on her desk as the children file in and take their seats, replacing the room’s dusty silence with laughter.
Light filters in through the glassless, cement windows and open doorway. Overhead, the two bare fluorescent tubes don’t buzz and illuminate teacher Efigenia’s 2nd grade classroom in the Cerro Otoe school. This remote community in Panama’s comarca Ngäbe-Buglé has only been accessible by paved road for a few years. Until then, only a rough mud track that wasn’t navigable for months out of the year connected Cerro Otoe to the outside world. In this indigenous community the school is the center of town and the primary reason that Milerith and her family live in Cerro Otoe.
“We moved here from a different area which was more expensive and the children had to walk more than an hour each direction to school,” said Milerith’s mother, Ana Quintero. Of the family’s 9 children, 7 attend the Cerro Otoe school and two have already completed their studies.
“Of all the children, Milerith is the most excited to go to school. She’s very social and is always encouraging her brothers and sister. I don’t know how she came to be so curious, but she wants to understand absolutely everything,” says Ana of her 8-year-old daughter.
Thankfully for Milerith, Panama passed legislation in 2000 making it possible for children with disabilities, such as Milerith’s hearing impairment, to study in an inclusive environment with children who do not have disabilities. “Before that, people with disabilities didn’t go to school. They were forced to stay home—they were lost, treated like vegetables—you didn’t even hear of a deaf or blind person getting married,” says Ana. “Education is a means of defending yourself. Since my daughter can’t hear, it’s all the more important that she be able to defend herself—so it’s extra important that she receives an education.”
For Efigenia, teaching in an inclusive classroom has provided a series of both challenges and rewards. “I didn’t have a strong training on working with children with disabilities. Only one course during one semester at the university where I did my teacher training. Then I had a 2-day seminar for sensitization on working with children with disabilities. So, to work with Milerith, I’ve had to research—mainly on the internet over my phone—about what it means to be deaf and how to work with deaf children in the classroom,” she says. “To me, inclusive education is an action of teachers based on the rights of education to every child—indigenous or non-indigenous, with or without disabilities.”
Milerith has been Efigenia’s student since first grade. In those two years the resourceful educator has learned a bit of sign language, mainly the alphabet and numbers, and adapted the first and second grade curriculum according to her own criteria and perception-based assessment of Milerith’s condition and educational needs.
“Having to adapt my curriculum to Milerith’s needs has made me a better teacher. I have become a researcher and if I have another child with a disability in my class, I will learn that much more,” she says. “I’m happy with learning new things, with what I’m doing now. And I’m happy to have Milerith in my classroom. I really like it and how it’s made me grow. Having Milareth in my class has helped me to learn to adapt the curriculum to help not only her, but for other children in the class with learning disabilities. Now they’re learning faster,” remarks Efigenia.
While Efigenia feels that she has grown personally and professionally through her experience as an inclusive educator, it’s not something that comes naturally to all teachers. What’s more, she feels that for inclusive education to be truly effective, teachers need more support from institutions like the Ministry of Education and the secretariat for the Rights of People with Disabilities (SENADIS). “Inclusion only becomes a priority for a teacher when you get a child with a disability in the classroom,” she says.
“Teachers need specialists who teach us how to work with deaf children or with other disabilities. We need examples of adapted curriculums.”
Given the opportunity, as Milerith and Efigenia show, when students and teachers share a passion for leaning, they can overcome almost any obstacle—be it a lack of electric lights, specialized training or even physical disabilities.
“Being a good inclusive educator requires motivation. You need to research things you don’t know how to do or haven’t been trained to do. But you must do something,” she says. “You have to have a calling to teach. If you have that calling and passion it will motivate you to find ways to reach students so learning can be significant and really mean something.”