I’ll be honest. It’s not easy to find good leaders. The top-down employee hierarchy and rote memorization taught in the public schools is not a good way to build leadership. But Lorena’s story is the perfect example of how great leaders build others up and give them opportunities to grow themselves.
Lorena Pitti, Habla Ya's School Director in Boquete. Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. —Jack Welch (CEO of General Electric 1981 - 2001).
The founders of Habla Ya saw potential in Lorena when she first started at the brand new Habla Ya Language Center back in 2005. Lorena began by teaching English a few times a week (back then Habla Ya also taught English) and was gradually given more work and responsibility as she proved her competence.
When both founders had to leave for a month-long trip, they trained Lorena and two other colleagues to be in charge of the school. Ever since that moment, Lorena never returned to being “just a teacher.” Though she continued to teach because she loves it, she mainly worked in the Reception team managing day-to-day administrative tasks and student concerns.
That was 9 years ago and Lorena continues to lead our Boquete School in her majestic and magical way. Everyone who meets Lorena falls under her spell. Lorena is one of the most genuine, loving, open, warm and conscientious people you will ever have the pleasure of meeting.
What I find particularly impressive is how she has used what she has gained through her experiences in order to build others up. Whether it is another staff member, teacher, student or host family, Lorena’s positive influence has helped others move through difficult personal and professional situations, as well as grow into strong leaders themselves.
Lorena has been an invaluable key to the success of the Habla Ya schools and program. I luckily had a few minutes to sit down with her and ask her about some of the experiences that have forever changed her over the past 9 years. I hope that you enjoy our conversation.
Lorena, first tell me about your family.
I have a 9-year old son, who is very special to me. Jose is autistic, which of course comes with its own challenges, but we grow together every single day. Thankfully Habla Ya has allowed me to properly care for him, even permitting me to travel to Panama City for his monthly treatments. Through these treatments, Jose has gained the ability to talk and express himself in appropriate and safe ways. He continues to improve through every session and we are very grateful to have the ability to communicate better now.
In 2013 I married a wonderful man who is my perfect companion and who loves my son as his own. We are very lucky and happy to have a beautiful union.
Lorena's son and husband
I think it’s very special that you and Ericka (the Academic Director) both started when the Habla Ya Language Center was brand new. Tell me about the beginnings of the school.
Habla Ya started in August 2005 as a Language Center teaching English to the locals and Spanish to the expats that had relocated here. I signed up to give some basic English classes and after a few months, the owners of the school decided to focus on the Spanish programs since there was more demand in learning Spanish. Ericka (click here to read Ericka's interview) trained me to start giving beginner Spanish classes and I fell in love with the position. I really love teaching Spanish to absolute beginners and also to older students.
Not long after the school had been open, both of the owners had to go on a month-long trip. They left Ericka, Janeth (previous Academic Director) and me in charge of the school. Now, it's worth noting that both of the owners are Panamanian men and it is quite a big deal in our culture to leave three women in charge of a business, especially three teachers who had never managed a business before! Luckily we pulled it off just fine and settled into our “new” roles.
I guess the founders were smart enough to leave us in our new roles when they came back! Me to the left, Erick in the center and Janeth to the right.
I will forever be grateful for the opportunity that the school owners gave me to learn leadership, administrative and management skills.
Nine years as the School Director must have taught you a lot, especially since you basically started with no management skills. What have been the biggest lessons that you have learned?
I have grown more than I ever thought possible in this position.
First of all, I have learned patience. Lots and lots of patience. Sometimes we have students who are very distraught for any number of reasons. It’s my job (and my team’s job) to calm the person down, talk out the situation and find a solution. This is much easier said than done! Although most people’s first instinct when someone is yelling at them is to be defensive or run away from a problem, I have learned to take a breather and settle my thoughts before approaching the student. Then we can have a professional conversation with our heads on straight. I learned this through lots of practice, trust me.
I also would say that I have learned that it’s important to separate work from personal life for multiple reasons. A student who is upset and shows his or her frustration, doesn’t have anything against me personally, so I have to remember to deal with the situation in a professional manner without taking it personal. This is something very difficult for Panamanians, especially, because we are quite emotional people.
When we come to work with a positive attitude everything goes better
But it’s also very important to always come to work with a positive attitude because this reflects to the students and can cause them to have a lesser experience if we are not at our best. I always encourage our teachers to motivate, motivate, motivate their students, even if they find that difficult to do because of a tough personal situation. We have to make sure that the students know that we care about them and their progress. That’s why it’s important to separate work from personal life, so that we can actively focus on each in the appropriate time.
I know you must have hundreds of stories to share over the time that you have worked with Habla Ya. I would love to hear about when you had to fix a very difficult situation.
It’s true that my team and I have encountered many difficult situations over the years. One thing you learn about with people is that there is usually much more going on “behind the scenes” than one initially realizes. This is again why I always have to tell my team to please not take things personally. Almost all of our students are happy people but the truth is we do have to deal once in a while with someone not being very nice to us... in those moments we have to think that maybe that person is just having a difficult time and we're simply caught them in the middle of it, and then we're in a better position to help them!
I will tell you three stories that stick out to me and which I will probably never forget.
This first couple’s story is very common in our school. I was the teacher of a beginner Spanish class of mostly older retired students. There was a husband and wife in the class who had moved to Boquete and wanted to learn Spanish in order to communicate better with the locals. The husband especially was very frustrated and felt that he would never learn Spanish because of his older age. What he was especially lacking was a good attitude, motivation and confidence.
I spoke to him separately after class one afternoon and shared with him my own personal experience learning English. Learning a language is not impossible, but it does take a lot of dedication and practice. After our talk, the student rededicated himself to his studies and improved a lot in the remaining weeks. They recently came back to visit me in Boquete (they now live in Panama City) and they are now almost fluent in Spanish!
I get to meet people from all over the world and it's so special when our students come and visit us again. These student had classes with me many years ago and they paid us a visit last month.
On another occasion, I again taught a class of older students and one day we had a man enter our class (previously it had been all women). One of my students became very aggressive and difficult and refused to be in the class with this man. After the class finished, I took the student aside and asked if we could talk about the problem. The student obliged and asked if we could talk at a restaurant.
At the restaurant, the woman completely opened up and shared part of her secret past which was very very difficult. It involved a lot of abuse from men, understandably why she had a very difficult time accepting the man into the class. I was thankful to her for sharing the story with me and we decided to work through the problem together, her promising me to make an effort to continue in the class with the man.
About a week later, I personally experienced a very difficult situation when the father of my child left my young son and I. As I said before, I try to keep work and my personal life separate, but this particular day was just unbearable. I began crying in class and had to excuse myself in order to collect my emotions.
After I finished the class, the student who had shared her difficult story with me immediately came over to talk to me about what was going on. I told her the situation and she stuck by my side and gave me strength to get through the hard times. You see, we were both holding each other up through our troubles.
At the end of this woman’s program, we had become good friends through our shared situations. I survived mine and I am happy to say that this woman and the man in the class also became good friends by the end. This woman still lives in Boquete and every time I see her, she always tells me, “Lo hicimos (we did it)!”
Now I will give you a positive story from working at our front desk. One Saturday I was at the school and an older couple came in to inquire about Spanish lessons for the following week. Since it was already the weekend and our Academic Department had left for the day, I took down her information and promised to call her on Monday to let her know if there was availability in her schedule for the following weeks (it was high season and we were packed for next week).
Unfortunately on Monday the Academic Department couldn’t give me a definitive answer (we were waiting to get some placement tests from other students) and they asked that I wait until Friday (the lady’s schedule was a bit complicated as well). I called the woman and told her the situation. I promised again to call her on Saturday.
I was not scheduled to work this particular Saturday, so I sent an email to one of my team members with all of the information about this couple so that she could call the couple and finally confirm the classes for this woman and her husband.
I showed up to work on Monday and immediately saw that I had received a bad review on the internet from this prospective student saying that I was irresponsible, unprofessional, a liar, and many other terrible things. My colleague had never called over the weekend and the lady took all of her anger and frustration out on me over the internet.
Of course this made me very sad because I knew that I had followed all of the necessary steps so that this would not happen. I immediately called the lady and asked if we could speak in person. She came to the school that afternoon.
First I told her that I did not want to give any excuses nor blame anyone, but I explained that the job had been delegated to someone that did not follow through. I showed her the email that I had sent to my colleague with all of the information for the client (I translated it for her through Google Translate) and this not being my intention, the woman started crying.
I felt terrible and started apologizing profusely and she told me that she felt miserable for writing the bad review on the internet. She had let out her personal frustration by wanting to harm me through the internet and she felt awful for what she had done. She told me that she was going through a very tough time personally with health problems and that she had just left the hospital the week before.
Because she felt very bad about what she had done, she told me that she would take down the bad review and she thanked God for putting me in her path to help her understand that she shouldn’t make abrupt decisions without first finding out all of the truths of the situation. She also sent the school a letter, meant for the school owners, congratulating them for having me as part of the Habla Ya team, saying that I am a brave person and that I handled her situation very well.
She did end up taking Private Spanish lessons at our school and enjoyed them very much. This woman still lives in Boquete and every time she sees me, she always calls me “Mi Amiga Lorena” (My Friend Lorena).
The relationship that I see at the Boquete school between all of the staff from the different teams is really remarkable. How did you form such a tight-knit team?
The owners of the school placed the responsibility on me, Ericka and Janeth at the very beginning to lead our team members as if we were all one family. We have stuck to this because it really is so important for our team and to be able to work effectively together and for our students.
Erick, Janeth and Lorena with three of our first Spanish teachers
We want everyone to feel special and truly a part of the team, because we cannot do our jobs effectively if even one link of the team is missing, physically or even in “spirit”, meaning not fully focused on their job because of an overwhelming personal matter. We are here for each other through the good and bad and that helps us all move forward together as a team, as a school, and as a business.
An example of something special we do is every month we have a birthday celebration at the school after hours. All of the staff participates from all teams (even the cleaning team!) and we enjoy time to chat and celebrate the people with birthdays or other celebrations (wedding, baby, etc.). Our Human Resources Director is very sneaky and she always manages to surprise the people we are celebrating sometime throughout the day with a little gift. Surprises are fun and give us something to laugh about (laughter is the cure for everything!).
Do you have any big plans or projects for the Habla Ya Boquete campus?
Actually, since we were the starter school, we are now positioning ourselves as the established institution giving support to the Bocas del Toro and upcoming Panama City campuses. Therefore, we are really focused on keeping the same excellent quality that Habla Ya is known for in order to provide the best example for the other schools.
Lately I have been focusing a lot of effort to increase our Home Stay program. This is an extremely important part of our students’ experience, so I always spend a lot of time making sure that our relationships with the host families are very good. We have over 100 families, so this takes a lot of time visiting and catching up with families that I don’t always see often!
Of course we have families who occasionally have to leave the program for various reasons (health problems, moving, family relocating to Boquete and no more room available for a student, etc.), so I also have to keep my eyes open for new families who fit our high standards and who we could invite to join our program.
¡MUCHAS GRACIAS, Lorena por tomarte el tiempo de contarme sobre nuestra Escuela Habla Ya en Boquete!