Recently, one of my students sent me a message and asked me “What did you learn for the past two years?”
Of course he was referring to my career as a public school teacher in the Philippines. He was one of my students in a premier secondary school where I taught Literary Criticism. Having no initial answer to his first question, he sent me another one – “What did you learn when you left us?”
The context of our conversation was, I resigned from my work as a teacher in a well-established high school where intelligent students study (most of them economically well-off) and applied for a job as a public school teacher through Teach for the Philippines. At the back of my head, I reflected:
How challenging it must have been to give benefits up and all the chances of producing publications just so I could become “a third grade teacher in a public school”; is it really any different?
Teaching in a public school, our questions were answered.
I learned that education in this nation is necessarily painful.
The literary pieces I taught in high school served as a springboard for them to inquire on morality and society; on the capitalist and the communist; on death and life. They were concepts back then. Teaching in a public school, the stories in books became stories in life.
As a public school teacher, I experienced the realities of poverty, and how challenged teachers are in battling against child labor.
I remember that day when one of my students, having failed third grade, told me that he will stop studying because he needs to work for his family. As a 17 year old young man, he took the responsibility of being the bread winner – and so it was a choice between going to school or going to work. Arrangements were made – of going to school earlier so he could still accomplish both – but the daily grind of accomplishing both tasks was grueling.
It was absenteeism. It was moral dilemma. But to be a public school teacher, you would understand that sometimes, you can only do so much. Back then, I used to believe there were only two sides – the black being the student will fail if he does not go to school; the white being the student will pass if he accomplishes all academic requirements.
I learned how to value reasons behind behavioral challenges because of the conditions they were facing. That I can’t just give a failing mark to a kid who wasn’t able to answer her exam – because I understood how she needed to take care of her five siblings before going to school. That I can’t just reprimand a kid for not having submitted his assignment because his parents separated the night before.
I was pushed to the core as to how I can battle with hunger and sickness – how every factor affects education so much – and that our teachers need more support in educating our society to be more conscious towards the issue of poverty.
As a teacher, I got so frustrated with the problems I needed to solve – and that no matter how hard I spend my own money just so they could all eat during recess, it just doesn’t solve the root cause of hunger. I got so frustrated with “changing the world” because the problem was overwhelming that teaching alone can’t solve it. I understood that the only thing I can do is to teach and inspire; but then, how can I keep my kids inside the school if some of them, because of the circumstances they live in, decide to go out?
There are no definite meanings to goodness and evil – everything can be understood based on contexts. It is all about taking those risks that make education worth it – with all the failures and the successes that surface at the aftermath. After all, trying is better than giving up.
I understood that the public school system is a microcosm of the Philippines.
Entering the school premises, I always make sure to drop by the library. But how can we develop the love for reading if most of the time, that although the library is filled, people do not go to the library and take charge of those resources?
In a parallel universe, how can we keep debates in congress filled with substance; how can we keep the masses informed of their rights – if we don’t take advantage of options for participation? The books themselves become eaten by dust – like the natural resources of the Philippines – others disregarded; some left underdeveloped.
However, the students ask questions and play outside. I remember my students asking me if they can keep books from our classroom library because they want to read to their younger siblings at home. They draw their dream houses, they hug and always send letters of appreciation. They are diverse and talented – and although young, they have insights to life that are valid and vital.
The Filipinos are the treasures we all need to protect. We are hopeful and happy; we always work hard so we can keep our families intact with our aspirations. We are loving and appreciative – and we always want people to listen to our voices.
If there’s anything I learned, it is that we can properly function better as a nation if our leaders lead us while giving considerations to our questions; and whether we as normal citizens take charge and become leaders on our own, able to help others help themselves as we progress individually.
We must recognize that students from public schools are not “those” kids, but “our” kids. We can only help them to start reaching higher once we speak their language and let them know that we fully support them.
I learned that to be vulnerable is the best way to teach.
I remember having been interviewed on-air as to how difficult it is for a man to be a teacher in the Philippines – the premise being that “teaching” is innately a maternal task. I wanted to clarify that what makes the question much more difficult is the mere fact that I am not the best man to answer the question because I am not straight, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to say that to the DJ.
With a longer introspection, I began to realize that in fact, being a gay teacher is much more difficult than that of a heterosexual one, especially in elementary, when kids encounter everything for the first time. I wouldn’t lie for I know my students deep inside, know that I am gay.
But what makes my job more important is that they continuously respect and obey me, and constantly show appreciation and understanding of my lessons. Most importantly, some call me “bayani” and back then, another called me “Hesus.” I want them to label me as great, yes – more so, I want them to label me as gay; and that in the end, gay teachers and gay people are in verity, great people.
One time, during Valentine’s, I was asked by one boy whether I have a boyfriend – and this was in front of the room. I told him that I don’t have one – and he immediately replied, in Tagalog, “Too bad. If you had one, I will write him a letter.”
Perhaps greatness exceeds gender, and I want everyone’s consciousness and perspective not to be limited with stereotypes but to bend with the positive flux of influence and time.
Tomorrow, I will graduate from the fellowship. It will be years again before I teach while I venture on new paths towards education equity.
But this fruitful and liberating; humbling and rich experience I had with the public school system was the most beautiful experience I ever had.
I hope more Filipino graduates would serve this nation and teach.
I am congratulating all of my co-fellows and co-teachers for making every teaching day a day of leaving marks. I know we can all vouch for the fact that beyond making our students know life; we ourselves learned more valuable insights. Thank you as well to the people who established Teach for the Philippines – I hope more people will have the same vision as you all have for the betterment of the nation.