Saturday, January 24, 2015

I Did Not Sign Up for Teach for America

I did not sign up for Teach for America. Despite their heavy recruiting on campus last year, I knew that Teach for America was not really for me. I have no educational background past my own experiences in Rock Hill School District 3 and Washington and Lee University. I didn't know if I even fully believed in the Teach for America program. I have plenty of friends who were, are, and will become Teach for America teachers, and I admire them for choosing that seemingly difficult path.

Nonetheless, I feel as though I have been thrust into a Teach for America position, except at the administrative level. I am working as a Guidance Counselor at National Heroes Institute (NHI), a private school run by United Church of Christ in the Philippines. We have 477 students, grades 1-10, but we never have all 477 students at school. Since I have arrived, my main tasks have involved addressing issues of attendance and grades for the 400 high school students (grades 7-10). Class sizes in the high school range from 34 to 63. My largest classes in high school were 35, and we all complained about those crowds. I am told that these are lower than the public schools, which can have 50 students in a single fifth grade class. The elementary school classes have more reasonable class sizes of 7 to 22. The high school classes are broken up into grades and sections with three sections for grade 7 and two sections for grades 8-10. We have 16 full-time teachers and 3 employees that teach in addition to their nursing or administrative jobs. Unfortunately, if a teacher is absent for any reason, a substitute does not fill in, unless it is long-term maternity leave. This leaves classes unmonitored for one or more classes on those days.

My supervisor and one of my host moms, the highly respected Dobert Mahika Tindoy Moriles, is the current school administrator (head of staff) and daughter of the founder of NHI. Eleazar Tindoy established NHI in 1957 and served as the administrator and principal for many years. He wanted a school that could serve the community, particularly students who came from poor families. In high school, if students have to repeat a year, they may have to pay heavy fines. The school was significantly damaged by Super Typhoon Yolanda last year and is still recovering. When I arrived in October, only two of the six buildings had power, and we had no wifi access. In November, we finally received power to the classrooms and got wifi access soon after. Without power in the classrooms, I was sweating after standing for ten minutes. I cannot imagine trying to teach students 7:30-4:30 every day with no lights, fans, or air conditioning. Even now, not every classroom has a fan. The windows remain open in hopes that a breeze will come through to give some respite from the heat. The campus sits on a hill, and we are constructing another building behind the farthest classroom building. Construction wastes end up washing downhill when it rains (which is almost every day) and can flood into the windows of classrooms in the back. The students simply try to mop up most of the water and avoid the puddles when that happens.

Elementary School students celebrating United Nations Day in October

My only previous experience educating children has come from summer camp settings. While I will always believe that school would be better if more camp aspects were integrated into the classroom, I don't know how much of that I can apply to the Philippine educational system context. Serving as the Guidance Counselor puts me in an administrative position, which limits me from creating a specific learning environment for smaller groups of students.

I spent much of my time before Christmas developing a record-keeping system for grades, attendance, and discipline. At the very least, this box will be checked off when the Department of Education comes for their annual inspection. As one who loves creating Excel spreadsheets and organizing anything, this gave me something busy and productive to do. It kept my mind and working hours busy. I tried implementing an attendance and late policy to try to improve the punctuality of students who live in a society that runs on Filipin@ time. When I tried talking to students who were late, I found that they could understand me speaking English, but they got "nose bleeds" when they tried to answer my questions (the words they wanted to say were beyond their English language knowledge). I watched the terror on their faces, which may have come from feeling like they were in trouble, not knowing the English words to explain themselves, or fear of messing up the English statements. With my native English-speaking children, I would ask students open-ended questions and allow them to steer the answers and explanations. Unfortunately, the language barrier meant that I had to ask yes-no questions. Every time I asked one, I imagined a lawyer standing up, saying, "I object!" because I was asking leading questions. I heard stories of family situations and transportation issues that would have been excusable for me, but Ma'am Dobert explained that they were only making excuses and could make it to school on time if they really wanted to.

I feel like a fish out of water in this educational system. I don't know the educational standards or grading methods. I don't know the "typical" family situation and what should be considered out of the ordinary or excusable as a reason for being late or not studying. If I happen to learn of an abusive or unsafe situation, there isn’t institutional accountability in place to help the students or family. I actually don’t know how to keep records or do almost anything administrative without a computer. I have tried to apply what I know (shout out to Northwestern High School Attendance Office) to this Philippine system, and yet I’ve learned that that doesn't quite work out of context.

When I went back to school after Christmas, we adjusted part of the attendance policy. The security guard at the gate would have every student who arrived after the flag ceremony started, at 7:25 am, sign in. I would then receive the list of late students, write them late slips, and deliver them to each class. They would bring me the slips when they came to serve their study hall after classes ended for the day due to their late arrival. The first day we did this, 46 high school students were late, 10% of the school's population. The next day 110 students were late, over 25% of the population. I spent a majority of my 10-hour workday simply writing all of these names down and recording them on my spreadsheets. It was exhausting, and it didn't feel like anything was changing. I got frustrated when I went to deliver the slips to classes and found that some of the students who had come late had already left by jumping over the fence in the back. 

How was I making a difference? Why were we focusing on this one time of day that we wanted students to be on time? I was extremely frustrated and felt that my work was doing no good in the bigger scheme of things. I questioned a lot. What was I doing here? What could I do here? What does a guidance counselor even do? How could I work within a system I didn't know? How could I do any good without trying to change the systemic issues I saw? I questioned my motivations for coming to the Philippines. I questioned what brought me joy. 

Then, I remembered what I had said and written so many times. I want to spend my YAV year building relationships. Cobbie, our site coordinator, always tells me I'm "intensely relational," which I didn't fully believe or understand until a few days ago. What kept me going when I struggled? Those moments I spent Googling whatever it was Francis, my 11-year-old neighbor, wanted to learn. That time a child yelled out, "Hi, Angela!" as I walked through the market. Every time students tell me "Maayong udto!" (Good lunchtime) when it is still morning or "Maayong buntag" (Good morning) when it is clearly afternoon, testing my Visaya skills. The times a fourth grader comes into my office just to see what I'm doing on my computer. The fact that I can't leave my office without receiving at least 5 greetings from students. I came to build relationships with these wonderfully amazing, talented, beautiful, goofy, and brilliant students.

I may not help to improve anyone's grades. I may not encourage anyone to wake up a little bit earlier so they can arrive at school on time. What I can do is show that I care. By holding them accountable, I am saying that I noticed that you did not come to study hall or class. I will not give up on you, even if you did come to school late seven of the past eight school days. I will still love you, and I hope that you can see that through the many slips of paper I write and pass out. If I still love you and I want to keep building those relationships, then I cannot run away when I feel hopeless or that my work is meaningless. After all, it's not about what I do, but how I do it. I cannot let my job get in the way of my work, which is to love on each and every student under my care. If I truly want to be a role model for these students, then I must stay with them through the frustrations and celebrations; through the overwhelmed times and the free times; through the tardiness and the perfect attendance. I must stay at the table. It's time to look for the abundance in this simple living.

NHI students during the morning flag ceremony

Sunday, January 11, 2015


As of today, it has been 136 days since I have seen my family. 136 days since I hugged and kissed them goodbye. 136 days since I told them "I love you" in person.

In those 136 days, I have changed and grown in ways I never could have imagined. My theology has shifted. I hold my beliefs with stronger conviction. I have completed applications to 9 seminaries. I have been pushed, pulled, stretched, challenged, and survived. I have seen the face of God in some of the most unexpected places. I have felt pure joy; overwhelming sadness; pride swell within me; hopelessness wash over me; humility slap me in the face; my sense of self pull me down; frustration due to cultural, personal, and generational differences; and God use others to rescue me from myself. Some of those 136 days have been easy, but so many have been incredibly hard.

I have found the discomfort that comes with border-crossing ministries. I have tried not to run from the discomfort too much, but I am scared. I am afraid of myself and my ability to get in my own way. I am fearful of a rut, trough, valley, low point, or funk that could become debilitating over a long period of time. I worry about what it will take to get out of the rut, while allowing myself to dwell in the discomfort.

When I answered the call to be a YAV, I knew it was the logical next step in my journey. I didn't question my decision because I felt that I was born for this. No amount of enthusiasm, planning, or training could have actually prepared me for this year of my life. It has been so much harder than I ever expected. So many aspects of this year have brought me pain, jealousy, loneliness, resentment, and anger, none of which is necessarily what I want to feel toward those around me.

Before this experience, the longest time I had spent away from my family and country was 124 days when I studied abroad. Every day I spend here expands the length of time away from my family. 136 days and counting.

I have 201 days left of this year of service. Every additional day here means that I am one day closer to returning to my childhood home and family. Even as I struggle to find meaning and purpose in my life and work here on what seems like an hourly basis, I know that I am always drawing closer to seeing my biological family in person again.

So what will I do for the next 201 days? A lot of that is out of my control, but how I respond to these next 201 days is completely in my control.

If you are reading this, I sincerely thank you and count you in my support system that is essential to my well-being during this year. If praying is your thing, I could really truly use your prayers right about now and throughout these next seven months. If you're not so into prayer, then I would greatly appreciate any and all optimistic thoughts, well wishes, positive vibes, and/or good chi. I know that I cannot do this without God's help, but I also desperately need this awesome support system.

I have 201 days to be present. 201 days to seek God in every situation. 201 days to try to do some good. 201 days to do life in the Philippines. 201 to strengthen relationships with my family, students, church community, neighbors, and YAV community. 201 days to be full. I can do this, but only with your help and God's ever-loving presence.


I originally wrote this on a boat returning home to Leyte after taking a vacation this week. Immediately after "finishing" this post,  I pulled up iBooks and read a sampler of Max Lucado's books that I had downloaded free from iTunes some time back.

This was definitely a providential moment. While I may not fully agree with Max Lucado's theology, he had some pretty choice words that I clearly needed to hear this afternoon. Below are some of the quotes that spoke to me most.
And fear feels dreadful. It sucks the life out of the soul, curls us into an embryonic state, and drains us dry of contentment. We become abandoned barns, rickety and tilting from the winds, a place where humanity used to eat, thrive, and find warmth. No longer. When fear shapes our lives, safety becomes our god. When safety becomes our god, we worship the risk-free life. Can the safety lover do anything great? Can the risk-averse accomplish noble deeds? For God? For others? No. The fear-filled cannot love deeply. Love is risky. They cannot give to the poor. Benevolence has no guarantee of return. The fear-filled cannot dream wildly.
His most common command emerges from the "fear not" genre. The Gospels list some 125 Christ-issued imperatives. Of these, 21 urge us to "not be afraid" or "not fear" or "have courage" or "take heart" or "be of good cheer." The second most common command, to love God and neighbor, appears on only eight occasions. If quantity is any indicator, Jesus takes our fears seriously. The one statement he made more than any other was this: don't be afraid.
If we medicate fear with angry outbursts, drinking binges, sullen withdrawals, self-starvation, or viselike control, we exclude God from the solution and exacerbate the problem. We subject ourselves to a position of fear, allowing anxiety to dominate and define our lives. Joy-sapping worries. Day-numbing dread. Repeated bouts of insecurity that petrify and paralyze us. Hysteria is not from God. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear" (2 Tim. 1:7).
You faced your share of seismos moments in life, but in the end you didn't go under. Here's a prayer that we won't either.
Excerpts taken from Fearless by Max Lucado
 I want a spouse who makes me happy and coworkers who always ask my opinion. I want weather that suits me and traffic that helps me and a government that serves me. It is all about me.
But how do we make the shift? How can we be bumped off self-center?...We move from me-focus to God-focus by pondering him. Witnessing him. Following the counsel of the apostle Paul: "Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, [we] are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Corinthians 3:18 KJV).
Beholding him changes us. Couldn't we use a change? Let's give it a go. Who knows? We might just discover our place in the universe.
Excerpts taken from It's Not About Me by Max Lucado
Use your uniqueness (what you do) to make a big deal out of God (why you do it) every day of your life (where you do it).
At the convergence of all three, you'll find the cure for the common life: your sweet spot.
Sweet spot. You have one, you know. Your life has a plot; your years have a theme. You can do something in a manner that no one else can. And when you find it and do it, another sweet spot is discovered. Let's find yours.
Excerpts taken from Cure for the Common Life by Max Lucado
Others of us have written our own Bible verse: "God helps those who help themselves" (Popular Opinion 1:1). We'll fix ourselves, thank you. We'll make up for our mistakes with contributions, our guilt with busyness. We'll overcome failures with hard work. We'll find salvation the old-fashioned way: we'll earn it.Christ, in contrast, says: "Your part is to trust. Trust me to do what you can't."
Excerpt taken from 3:16: The Numbers of Hope by Max Lucado
The greatest example of this humility is none other than Jesus Christ. Who had more reason to boast than he? Yet he never did. He walked on water but never strutted on the beach. He turned a basket into a buffet but never demanded applause. A liberator and a prophet came to visit him, but he never dropped names in his sermon. He could have. "Just the other day I was conferring with Moses and Elijah." But Jesus never thumped his chest. He refused even to take credit. "I can do nothing on my own" (John 5:30 NRSV). He was utterly reliant upon the Father and the Holy Spirit. "All by myself"? Jesus never spoke such words. If he didn't, how dare we?

We can rise too high but can never stoop too low. What gift are you giving that he did not first give? What truth are you teaching that he didn't first teach? You love. But who loved you first? You serve. But who served the most? What are you doing for God that he could not do alone?

How kind of him to use us. How wise of us to remember.

Could you use some high-octane boldness? If you want to outlive your life, you could. As long as you are stationary, no one will complain. Dogs don't bark at parked cars. But as soon as you accelerate—once you step out of drunkenness into sobriety, dishonesty into integrity, or lethargy into compassion—expect the yapping to begin. Expect to be criticized. Expect to be mocked. Expect to be persecuted.
So how can we prepare ourselves? Simple. Imitate the disciples. Linger long and often in the presence of Christ. Meditate on his grace. Ponder his love. Memorize his words. Gaze into his face. Talk to him. Courage comes as we live with Jesus. 
Excerpts taken from Outlive Your Life by Max Lucado

I made it home to a delicious dinner, which included vegetables, and some quality time with Judy and Francis. I feel refreshed, renewed, and ready to get back into the routine tomorrow morning. I think that going forward, I will intentionally make time to meditate on God's Grace through devotionals or podcast sermons, rather than meditate on the glowing screen showing the latest episode of Criminal Minds. Message received, God. Thank you. Here's to 201 days.