You see, I have never been a public school teacher.
I was once behind the lens, doing the interviews, listening for inspiring sound bites that I may share to the viewing public. I met these teachers in the mountains, on remote islands and across far-flung barangays, each of them willing to traverse dangerous seas and rivers just to teach.
As I shared on TV the stories of these public school teachers from different parts of the country, they have inspired so many. But in the end the person they moved the most was me.
An opportunity came when I learned about Teach for the Philippines (TFP). It is a non-profit organization that recruits, selects, and trains promising young Filipino leaders to teach for two years in public schools. I thought it might be the chance I have been waiting for, so I took the leap, left my job in the media and joined TFP.
We are called Teacher Fellows, each coming to the table with a diverse background. Some are nurses, engineers, or journalists — all are willing to take up the challenge of teaching in a public school.
With or without teaching experience we were accepted because of our passion, our grit, and a strong desire to provide Filipino children with an inclusive, relevant and excellent education.
And that summer of 2015 during our Summer Institute, my name was finally called.
Andrea Pineda… Siargao!
To go or not to go, that was the question. Should I leave my ailing father behind? Can I bear to work so far away from my friends and family?
Together with co-fellows Bryan Mangahas and Arnikan Abueva, we came as first timers on an island we barely knew and in a town we will soon call our second home for two years.
Welcome to Numancia Central Elementary School located in the heart of the mangrove town of Del Carmen in Siargao Islands, Surigao del Norte. We were miles and miles away from home.
During my first year, I was an English and Science teacher to Grade 4 students. My co-fellows, Arni and Bryan, taught Grade 5 and 6 classes, respectively.
Only this time I was not behind the camera. I was in front of the classroom. There was no script, just a lesson plan. The students were now my audience. As I stepped into my first class, the experience was unnerving. Will they like me? Should I smile? They say first impressions last. Whether it was good or bad, I had to keep on going.
The responsibility of shaping so many hearts and minds was overwhelming. I had the power to make or break a dream. As any public school teacher I also faced the lack of books and school supplies, unmotivated and rowdy students, and pupils absent for days and weeks at a time.
I tried to reach out to my slow learners, repeaters, over-aged students, and even a girl with a physical disability. Then there were times they wouldn’t listen or would cut class. They would bully each other, and things would get out of control. Sometimes their minds would be elsewhere—on the beach or in the farm.
Like the waves that surround our little island, there were definitely highs and lows. In the midst of my frustration, I wondered why. Was it me?
It tested my patience, my leadership, and my resourcefulness. And I learned to seek help from my co-teachers, co-fellows and TFP family.
It is hard work—a continuous learning process, and we are not alone.
Life Outside the Classroom
As I got to know my pupils one by one, I became their student. My co-fellows and I slowly learned the Surigaonon language and culture.
Did you know that Surigaonon for tomorrow is silom? And they call a cat, miya, and a dog, ido? Did you know that they believed in the Ayuk, a supernatural being that goes out to kill at night?
But behind the charm and quirks of this town are families struggling to put food on the table.
Being in a fifth class municipality of Del Carmen some of our students face a life of poverty outside the school. Most of them are sons and daughters of farmers, laborers, and fishermen.
Some of our students have no choice but to help their families by selling dayo-dayo (shellfish), pasayan (shrimps), lato (seaweeds) or anything their fathers would catch from the bounty of the sea.
Yes, they would miss classes. But can I really keep them out of the streets?
In order to understand, I visited my poorest and most vulnerable kids by boat or by bike in the outskirts of the town.
No matter how hopeless they thought their situations were I want the parents to know this is how much we cared for the education of their children and that we should work together.
One of my Grade 6 students, Mark, would wake up very early in the morning to walk around the community, shouting “Pasayan! Pasayan!” (shrimps) at the top of his lungs. I would buy his shrimps, at first out of pity, because I wanted him to get to school soon.
I have never seen a kid so determined he rarely missed classes. Until he shared with me, “Nag-aaral akong mabuti para makatulong ako sa magulang ko (I am studying hard so I could help my parents).”
Knowing each of their stories, I was able to teach my students better. I was able to listen more to a community that lives and breathes on its own. Upon knowing their “whys,” I discovered their dreams. And it answered our own “why’s,” the purpose for why we were assigned here.
I learned to teach not just by looking at a blank sea of faces. For in my lenses, I see a future pilot, a nurse, an engineer, or a teacher.
I learned to move the spotlight away from myself and onto my students so they could shine, because in a public school where you can see slices of society’s ills, there is a pot of gold waiting to be discovered.
Test of a Teacher
When my father died last December due to cardiac arrest I questioned my own decisions. I was so far away. I felt useless. I was not only a teacher. I was a daughter who chose service to the community over her own family. I felt guilty.
But knowing my dad, I knew he would be very proud of me. I honored him by succeeding and by finishing what I started.
Often, I would tell my students, they are worth every sacrifice we teachers have to make. Even if we have our own personal struggles our students will always be worth it. Even if they live in shanties, they deserve an equal chance.
The goodness we impart as teachers ripple throughout generations. It breaks the cycle of poverty. Together with the community we can succeed in transforming the country’s public school system to be the best it can be.
My Grade 4 students may not have much. There are things that some simply couldn’t have like bag, pencil, or a new uniform. But I know in the future they will make waves, bigger than what we see in their island.
For what they have are teachers with a heart. And that makes all the difference. Teaching is love made visible.
[Entry 180, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Andrea Pineda is a fellow of nonprofit organization Teach for the Philippines. She started teaching in Siargao Island in 2015. Previously, she produced feature segments for 24 Oras, the flagship newscast of GMA News and Public Affairs.