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English professor in panama city helps families, schools


Every Friday afternoon, Joel Alvarez gets his disco lights and music ready. When he turns on the Zoom camera at 6 o’clock, he is surrounded by blue lighting, or lights of some other color. Sometimes, he adds a hat or a special piece of clothing. Then, he is ready for the party.

But this is not just any party. It is also an English class at the University of Panama. And Alvarez is not just the event’s D.J. He is also the professor.

During these weekly parties, students play competitive grammar games in teams. The winning team gets to hear their favorite songs. Parties, however, are not all Alvarez’s only specialty, says university student Linda Bermudez.

“It’s really nice having classes with him. We get really entertained. And we learn a lot too -- that’s the more important thing. But we also get entertained with him.”

University of Panama professor Joel Alvarez, during one of his virtual "grammar party" classes

University of Panama professor Joel Alvarez, during one of his virtual "grammar party" classes

At the university, Alvarez is known for working especially hard to connect with students and help them expand their professional goals. He is a respected educator in Panama, involved in everything from training English teachers to planning and speaking at conferences.

Yet, that is still only part of the story. Alvarez has a whole other life in humanitarian causes. In the past several months, that has taken the form of helping needy families and schoolchildren around Panama City.

Helping families in need

During the coronavirus crisis, Alvarez has been identifying local families who need food and other assistance. He requests and gathers donations from friends and other people. He goes to the stores to purchase supplies. And, he delivers the donations himself to the families.

“I try to identify where is the real need…where there is impact.”

Alvarez says he visits with the families when he makes deliveries. He talks with parents about how important it is for their children to continue their education even with schools closed across the nation.

Francisco Santamaria is one of Alvarez’s friends and a donor. Sometimes he goes with Alvarez on his delivery trips. Santamaria likes meeting the families and hearing about their lives because, in his words, “if we are living in our bubbles, we will never know how difficult (a time) others are having.”

Alvarez says that the number of people willing to help his aid operation keeps growing.

“Every month, more friends are joining to the group.”

In July, a friend of the professor asked their friend group to help provide aid to a local home for ?the elderly. They have been delivering food, clothing and supplies such as disinfectant products and face coverings.

Along with providing basic necessities, Alvarez volunteers as an English teacher for children in low-income neighborhoods.

In 2019, Alvarez was a volunteer English teacher for a local elementary school. Because of the pandemic, he now teaches the students online through video calls.

In 2019, Alvarez was a volunteer English teacher for a local elementary school. Because of the pandemic, he now teaches the students online through video calls.


The families of these seven, eight, and nine-year-old students do not have computers but they do have cell phones. So, Alvarez teaches them in small groups over video calls.

Alvarez says changes in Panama’s education system has left the country without a “strong reading culture.” So now, he is gathering donations of books for a nearby elementary school. His longer-term plan is to start a reading circle program at several local schools. Volunteer teachers would lead the circles.

More than a teacher

Alvarez has done humanitarian work for a long time. His service includes eight years in the U.S. Peace Corps in Panama as Program Director for Teaching English, Leadership and Life Skills.

Back in the virtual classroom, university students Linda Bermudez and Daniel Gonzalez help Professor Alvarez prepare games for their weekly grammar parties.

Gonzalez has been studying grammar under Alvarez since the spring. He says the professor pays careful attention to the troubles and learning styles of each student. And he pushes them to identify their larger callings and goals beyond school.

“Professor Alvarez is not only a good professor but he is a very, very, very good person.”

Gonzalez says that, to him and others, Alvarez is a guide – showing them the way to be better people, not just better students.

I’m Alice Bryant.


Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


disco (lights) – n. special lights that are meant to look like lights in a nightclub

D.J. – n. (disc jockey) a person who plays recorded music on the radio or at a party or nightclub

entertain – v. to provide amusement for someone by singing, acting or doing something else

impact – n. a powerful or major influence or effect

bubble – n. a condition in which similar members of a community reinforce their shared experiences

elderly – n. people who are old or rather old

low-income – n. people who earn less than, or at least not much more than, the poverty level

style – n. a particular way in which something is done, created or performed



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