Filipino teachers thrive in America's toughest schools


Posted at Oct 22 2008 01:00 PM | Updated as of Oct 22 2008 09:29 PM

Anne Mangonon shows off her American History and Government classroom to her mother Isabela, who teaches English at an adjacent high school.

BALTIMORE CITY, Maryland -- Isabela Mangonon still remembers the scene clearly.

She was teaching an English class when a troubled student decided he didn’t want to listen anymore. The student stood up and tried to leave the room, which prompted Mangonon to call him back and ask that he return to his seat. The student then grabbed Isabela's shoulder but was pulled off by school cops who prevented the scene from turning uglier.

“We talked it out. It was an internal problem. They just pulled the kid from my class. I still see him around and greet him ‘Hi Ian, how are you?’ But he would answer ‘I don’t know you!' So I say ‘OK, thank you,'” Isabela tells ABS-CBN’s Balitang America with a smile.

Isabela is a teacher at the Dr. Samuel Banks High School in Baltimore City. Her 27-year-old daughter Anne is also a teacher, working at nearby Thurgood Marshall High School. Anne narrates that she once stepped out of the school at the end of her class and witnessed a shootout at the school’s parking lot. She dropped on all fours until the shooting stopped.

It was only later at home that she noticed a bullet hole in her car.

Lara Tan, 28, is a newbie teacher at a Baltimore City high school for the past three months. She says one of the first things she noticed were the metal detectors students pass through everyday on their way to their classrooms.

Lara, Isabela and Anne are just three of about 600 Filipino teachers recruited by the Baltimore City public school system since 2005. By most accounts, it’s one of the toughest teaching jobs in America. Two Filipino teachers were driven to commit suicide although peers say it was not totally a result of pressure at work. But all agree that teaching in Baltimore schools is physically, mentally and emotionally draining.

Longing for love

Anne says her experience at Thurgood Marshall High School is a far cry from her beginnings at the Montessori School in Greenhills, San Juan where she used to teach.

"Mahirap sa una. Iiyak ka pero kapag nakasanayan mo na, natutunan mo na sistema ng school, ng city, ng mga bata, ang kultura nila, OK ka na," she says.

[It's hard at first. You'd cry at first but when you get used to the school system, the city, the kids and their culture, you'll be OK.]

She agrees Baltimore City is one of the most difficult places for a teacher.

“The root cause is the family. Most of the students have single parents or come from broken families. They have many stepfathers. You’ll see in my class record there are brothers but they have different surnames. Pagdating sa bahay lagi sila nasisigawan, walang pagkain, binubugbog(When they get home, they scream at each other. They have no food and get beat up),” she said.

Anne says the tense family situations lead to a lot of pent-up hostility and resentment that surfaces in school and taints how the kids deal with authority figures.

The Baltimore City public school system recently mounted an outreach for over 900 high school students who dropped out at the start of the year. They include students with failed grades, are pregnant or care for children, or just lost interest in going to school.

“You have to show them you’re not here only to be a teacher, rather you care too. Parang sa atin, natutunan natin mahalin mga estudyante natin, nagke-care tayo kung ano magiging sila pagkatapos sa classroom mo, ganun din dito. Pakita mo nandun ang pagmamahal mo sa kanila, na hindi nararanasan sa bahay nila. Mga Filipino caring talaga,” she says.

“These kids long for love,” adds Isabela.

Underfunded school system

Baltimore City public schools have blazed trails for years. They were the first to implement racial integration before it became mandatory; the first to ban prayer in public schools and opened the first all-girl’s public high school in the US. Balitmore City also hosts the third oldest high school in America.

But Baltimore City is also among the most underfunded school systems in America. They came under added pressure when US President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that called for students to meet certain educational criteria, among others.

Reeling from a severe budget deficit at the turn of the decade, the Baltimore City public school system took out a loan, which they managed to repay in two years. Still, there is continuing controversy over its practice of “emergency contracts” that allows them to recruit teachers out of state, including those hired from the Philippines.

These teachers are deemed crucial for the city public school system to meet new Maryland state-wide targets including passing high school assessment (HSA) scores in Algebra, English, Government and Biology to graduate from high school.

Culture shock

Isabela says that the first time she came to Maryland, she was astounded by the attitude of her students.

“Noong una pinapatulan ko sila kasi nahu-hurt ako. Eventually, napag-aralan ko hindi pala dapat ganun ang approach. Na-realize ko I have to change," she says.

[The first few times, I would fight it out because I was offended. Eventually, I learned that my approach should change. I realized that I have to change.]

When her students would get rowdy, she said she would mimic their accents, yell "What ya say?" and get their attention.

“I tell them, 'You Americans speak wrong English.' Inu-unawa ko na lang sila. Minsan nadadala sa ganyan. Minsan naman kapag nag-iisa na, kinakausap ko(I try to understand them and sometimes, it works. Other times, I talk to them when they're alone),” Isabela said.

A former head of the Filipino Department at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Isabela carries 26 years of teaching experience in PUP and another eight years in private schools.  She has several academic degrees under her belt and is the treasurer of the Filipino Educators of Maryland.

As part of the second wave of teachers from the Philippines in 2005, Isabela feels she has been given a unique view of how the Baltimore school system works. After all, she is one of the few teachers who came  to Baltimore City under a J-1 or teacher exchange visa.

“At first, I felt disrespected. I felt there was discrimination because of my race, because I am Filipino. One student even said: ‘You Filipinos come here to steal our dollars’ but I said: 'Don’t say that. I’m here only because I was invited to teach. I said I was offered a scholarship by the Baltimore school system, that’s why I grabbed the opportunity," she said.

Earning respect

Nowadays, Isabela feels that she has earned the respect that she didn't get when she first came to teach at Baltimore.

"May kaunting respeto na, hindi tulad dati, hindi ako nakaramdam ng respect. [There's some respect now, not like before when I didn't get any respect.] The kids know me now. Even if I teach Grade 9, I also get to handle classes in Grade 11 and 12 when they ask me to substitute. I don't mind," she says.

Isabela says school authorities have developed a liking for Filipino teachers. “What they like about Filipino teachers is that everytime they ask us to do something, we do it. We just obey. Some of the local teachers don't do that," she says.

Lara says one change in teaching style that she had to adopt was meeting school norms at West Baltimore High School. "In the Philippines, you have the freedom to use the best strategy to teach your kids. It's different here, you have to follow the standard set by the state or city even if it's difficult. You have to make do and make sure that the kids are learning."

Lara says she decided to work in the US for professional advancement. She says she was also bored in her previous job as a teacher in Marikina. The pay, she insists, came a distant third in her decision to go to the US but adds that: "At my age, I also want to save."

Isabela says the first batch of Filipino teachers who came to Baltimore made a good impression on local school officials. She said the school system overhired 150 Filipino teachers this year but allowed them to stay instead of sending them back to the Philippines.

“Nag-uusap-usap kaming mga teachers na dapat galingan natin [We talk among ourselves that we should do good], to do our best, to always be on time. Sa awa ng Diyos, marami sa amin proficient ang rating [By God's grace, a lot of us have proficient ratings],” she said.

Isabela recently earned her advanced professional certificate, which makes her a tenured and certified Baltimore City public school teacher. She is scheduled to return to Manila in December to lecture to fellow teachers at the Maricaban Elementary School in Pasay City.

She also says she is unafraid of the possibility of not going back to Baltimore City school because of the US financial crisis. After all, she feels that many Filipino teachers are "recession-proof" and could even keep the door open for other Filipino teachers to go to the US.

“To be honest, I've noticed that a lot of local teachers here are not as patient. Some resign in the middle of the school year because teaching here is very stressful. We Filipinos are used to stress. Tayo namang Filipino sanay na sa hirap. Kaya yung naipunla nating kahirapan madadala natin sa tagumpay (We Filipinos are used to hardship. That seed of working hard will lead us to success)." she said.