Teaching in the Philippines can be a heroic act. And hearing the story of Dellijane Villasor Panlilio, the teacher who went viral last week for a TikTok video showing her taking the moving up portraits of her lumad students, there’s no doubt she’s up there with our medical frontliners and our OFWs.
It still amazes Panlilio, or Ma’am Delli to her students, that a TikTok video of hers caught the attention of the online world. In it, she's seen taking the portraits of their Ata Manobo students for their moving up exercises. The 20-seconder has so far garnered over 30,000 views since it was posted on the video-sharing app last June 1. It's also made the rounds of Facebook, thanks to a Teacher Julius, a content creator and fellow teacher who posted it on his social media account—which got 8,700 views.
The 25-year-old Panlilio, a Grade 10 teacher from Tagum City, Davao del Norte, didn't expect the attention. She says she was just happy to share on her social media account how that day went. Taking the grad and moving-up portraits of students is something the teachers of Kapatagan Integrated School have been doing over the past years. On that day, Panlilio shot the photos of the completers (kindergarten and Grade 10 students), while her co-teacher, Queene Araña, took charge of the photos for Grade 6 students. “Bago pa lang ako sa Kapatagan, ginagawa na namin yun,” Panlilio tells ANCX.
The Davaoeña is now on her fourth year in the Kapatagan Integrated School, which offers elementary, junior high school and senior high school education. It has a student population of about 600 and employs 18 teachers in total (including the school head).
In the past few years, Ma’am Delli would just use her mobile phone to take the students’ photographs. But this year they got to borrow a DSLR camera from the sibling of a new co-teacher. “Kami na rin ang nag-e-edit at nagpi-print [ng pictures],” Panlilio offers. “Kami na din ang naghahatid sa bahay nila if hindi nila makuha sa school.”
She says the portraits serve as the teachers’ moving up and graduation gift to their students. “Nakaka-happy din kasi nakikita namin sa mga bahay nila na naka-post ang mga pictures na ibinibigay namin,” the teacher says.
Panlilio graduated in 2016 from the University of Southeastern Philippines in Tagum City. She worked for a couple of years in a private school before the opportunity to teach in Kapatagan Integrated School presented itself. The latter is located in a far-flung barangay in Kapatagan, Kapalong, Davao del Norte—87 kilometers away from where Panlilio and her family lives.
There was an urgent need for more teachers then due to the implementation of the K to 12 program so she, along with other new teachers, were requested by the DepEd Division Office to serve in public schools. “Halos puro mga bagong guro ang in-assign nila sa bundok kasi malalakas pa daw ang tuhod namin, mga adventurous pa kami,” the young educator recalls.
Panlilio had misgivings accepting the job in the beginning. “Bukod sa masyadong malayo, delikado din dahil nagkakaroon doon minsan ng armed conflict,” she tells ANCX. "Mahirap ang communication kasi walang signal. Tapos malayong lugar pa ang pinagkukunan ng tubig.”
But she eventually took on the challenge in order to help provide for her family’s needs. Her parents had no stable source of income. Being the eldest among three siblings, the young teacher felt the need to step up.
While Panlilio knew from the beginning that the literal journey to Kapatagan would not be a quick trip, she didn’t realize it entailed traversing several mountains and crossing a swamp just to get to her place of work. The school can only be reached by riding a motorcycle and after a lot of walking. It’s a destination clearly not for the faint of heart, especially someone like her who’s used to city life.
“Nung unang punta ko doon, nakasakay ako sa habal-habal. Yung intestines ko parang pumunta lahat sa paa ko. Hindi mo talaga siya ma-imagine,” the young educator recalls laughing. “Hindi namin in-expect [ng mga kapwa ko teacher] na may komunidad pa pala sa area na yun, sa layo niya.”
The great barriers
Since it would be too expensive to hire a habal-habal that could take her to the mountains and back daily —something that would set her back a total of P2,500 every week—Panlilio learned how to drive a motorbike. This allowed her to go back home to her family every weekend. “Lakasan na lang ng loob!” she says.
It usually takes three to four hours to reach the school from Tagum City, and the teachers have to drive and trek carefully since landslides in the area are commonplace. “Mapapaisip ka kung makakauwi ka pa kaya sa inyo ng buhay,” she says.
But Panlilio was confronted with another difficult challenge when she began teaching the kids of Kapatagan: dealing with the language barrier. The Davaoeña had to learn to understand and speak the Manobo dialect. “May mga words kami sa Bisaya na hindi namin puwedeng sabihin kasi iba ang meaning sa kanila. Sensitive din ang tribo kaya hindi ka pwedeng basta magsalita ng hindi mo alam,” the teacher shares.
So she asked her students to teach her. “Nakiusap ako sa [mga bata] na turuan nila ako’ng mag-adjust sa lenggwahe nila,” she recalls. The kids devised translations of commonly used Manobo terms so their Ma’am Delli could at least understand their basic needs.
That the job demanded a lot doesn’t quite capture it. Panlilio majored in Math but like many other teachers in remote areas like Kapatagan, she also had to learn to teach other subjects. “Iniyakan ko talaga ang Science nung umpisa kasi hindi ko alam paano siya ituro,” she says, looking back. There was even a time when she had to teach two classes at the same time—Music, Arts and PE in one class, Math in another.
On her third week at Kapatagan, when she had already settled in, she got a call from a school principal offering her a job in the city. She turned it down and decided to stay put. “Bukod sa nahakot ko na sa bundok ang mga gamit ko, naawa din ako sa mga bata dito, kasi mawawalan na naman sila ng teacher. Hindi kaya ng konsensya ko na maiwan sila,” she says.
The biggest motivating factor that made her stay in Kapatagan over the last four years is knowing how badly the Lumads need learning opportunities. “Dati, may Grade 7 akong estudyante—hindi pa siya pamilyar maski sa alphabet. Dun ako nagising na kailangan talaga nila ng teacher na mamahalin sila at makakaintindi sa kanila,”says Panlilio.
Heeding the call of teaching Lumads entail a different level of understanding of the teaching profession. She needed to adjust her teaching style to suit the needs of her students. “Hindi mo pwedeng ipilit ang gusto mo,” Panlilio says, sharing a realization. “Kailangan mong mag-compromise para makuha nila ang learning na gusto mong ibahagi sa kanila. Kaya kapag nagtuturo ako ng subject ko, which is math, itinuturo ko din paano nila magagamit ang math sa pang-araw araw na buhay nila.”
The past school year has been tough both for teachers in Kapatagan and its local students. For one, modular learning proved to be a method very incompatible with the Ata Manobos. Most of the students’ parents could neither read nor write, so they could not assist their children with the assigned lessons. Hence, even if teachers weren’t allowed to go to the community, Panlilio would find ways to tutor her students so they could catch up and understand their lessons.
Because it was extra difficult to travel to school and pick up their modules, teachers like Panlilio feared students might just choose to drop out. Pre-pandemic, when face-to-face classes were the norm, students would live with the other tribespeople near the school. But when the pandemic struck, this was no longer advisable. So Panlilio and some of her co-teachers would have to travel 45 minutes to an hour from school to get the modules to their students’ homes.
Being away from her family during a very challenging period was one of the most painful sacrifices Panlilio had to make for her job. Especially when her parents fell ill. Her 45-year-old mother suffered from a mild stroke that led to memory loss. Her father, 51, on the other hand, had to be treated for kidney stones and anxiety.
“Umiyak ako sa school head ko noon kasi gusto ko na bumaba [ng bundok] at magpa-transfer sa school na mas malapit sa amin,” she says. “Kasi baka mamaya may mangyari sa parents at wala ako sa tabi nila.” But since she was only on her second year of service then—she’s required to complete a minimum of three years—her request for transfer was declined.
Panlilio herself suffered from anxiety and depression during this time—which made it difficult for her to drive the motorcycle now. She has to ask her younger sister to drive her to and from school. “Natatakot din ako pag-uwi niya kasi dahil sa landslide, tapos ang layo, hindi sya masyadong familiar sa daan,” says the Davaoeña teacher.
The Panlilios are slowly recovering from their health-related setbacks, however, says Ma’am Delli. But her mother is still on medication while her father still suffers from the occasional anxiety attack. “Kaya ang hirap talaga nilang iwan,” she says. “Nasa school ako, pero ang isip ko nasa pamilya.”
The best consolation for all these sacrifices, she says, is seeing how providing education to the Lumads has somehow changed the children’s outlook in life and how learning has empowered them. “Yung nakikita mo na naa-apply nila yung tinuturo mo. Na kaya na nila makipagsabayan sa mga tao sa siyudad nang hindi nabu-bully,” says Panlilio. “Ang sarap din sa pakiramdam kapag sinasabihan nila kami ng, ‘Salamat Ma’am kasi tinuturuan nyo kami.’ Nagpapadala sila ng ‘thank you’ card kahit na mahirap para sa kanila ang magsulat. Nasasabi din nila sa amin, ‘Mam, gusto namin maging teacher kagaya n’yo.”
Photos courtesy of Dellijane Panlilio