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

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