Monday, October 11, 2010

Teachers' day

This was my column on the date indicated above.

World Teachers’ Day was celebrated last October 5. I was made aware of the fact because I received quite a number of greetings from former students, fellow teachers, and a handful of current students.

Yes, I continue to teach despite my crazy schedule; I’ve been continuously teaching two nights a week and on some weekends in the last 12 years. It can be physically draining and the demands can take its toll on one’s health. But the psychological rewards are beyond compare. There’s the fulfillment that comes with seeing eyes light up when students finally get a difficult concept. There’s the satisfaction that comes with being aware that one has contributed to another person’s growth.

I continue to teach because rather than whine nonstop and flail around at the shortcomings of the educational system, I choose to be part of the crafting of the solutions. There’s a gaping mismatch between what academe produces and what industry needs and clearly, one of the more direct things people in industry can do to help narrow the gap is for them to teach.

Along the way I have learned quite a number of lessons; proof that even teachers can learn—in fact, must learn —from students. Of the many things I learned from my students, three immediately comes to mind: Patience, humility, and appreciation for diversity.

I’ve always been a person in a hurry and my students have taught me that if I wait, they will get it. Some people take longer than others, but they do get there. I’ve also learned to forget about my corporate rank or whatever stature I have in the profession every single time I entered my classroom. Students don’t really care who teachers are unless they see that the teachers care. And finally, I learned how to appreciate people for who they really are—warts and all. Students today come in different packaging and need to be treated as individuals rather than as a “class.”

It’s a good thing that something like the World Teachers’ Day is being instituted in many countries because I think it is important to continuously inspire as many people as possible to become teachers. A world without teachers is unthinkable. But given how teaching has become an almost thankless job, only the noble or the ones without choices opt to become teachers.

I had the chance to validate this when I had dinner recently with a college friend who, bless her soul, has opted to stay in the country and continue to teach would-be teachers in Tacloban City despite persistent and lucrative offers for her to uproot herself and her family and move to the United States. Had she decided to accept the offers, she would have received ten times her current salary. Many of our friends have left for the proverbial greened pastures. Of course they gave up senior positions in universities here to teach basic math or English in the United States.

But my friend has decided to stay in the country despite the many aggravations because she really thinks she is needed here. As it is, she is one of the very few remaining Math teachers in our alma mater with specific expertise in teaching elementary math teachers.

“So how is the current crop of students aspiring to become teachers,” I asked. It took her quite a while to answer as she mulled the question in her mind. “There’s bad news and there’s good news,” she finally answered. She noted that while there continues to be a number of promising students, the overall quality of students who go into education courses have really been on a steady decline. She observed that the students that enroll in education are typically not those belonging to the top 20 percent of their high school graduating class. Many just want a four-year degree so that they can work abroad as domestic helpers or salespeople in malls. The sadness in her voice was unmistakable.

But just as quickly, she turned to become upbeat and inspiring once again. There’s hope, she said. There’s always hope. And she started talking about the new innovations they have introduced to increase retention of learning.

There are many kinds of teachers. There are those who focus on ensuring that students learn what is in their syllabus. There are those who function more as facilitators and coaches rather than as teachers. But what people remember most about their favorite teachers would be their character—about how they inspired others, or how they were like founts of hope. My favorite teachers were like that. I don’t really remember what they taught me—all I remember was that they encouraged me to learn and to become better.

What really got me to write this piece was that ten-minute video clip that went viral over the weekend in the net. It’s a recording of Solita Monsod’s last lecture for one of her economics classes this semester at the University of the Philippines. The video was presumably taken without her knowledge by one of the students.

Most of us who know, or are fans of Monsod, can be forgiven for singing paeans to the lady. Monsod is brilliant, yes. But then again, there are many brilliant people in this country. What makes Monsod distinct is that she is a feisty, no-nonsense person who has never been known to hold her punches. The fact that she is funny and articulate makes the whole packaging even more distinct.

Monsod uses her last lecture to remind her students about their sacred responsibilities to the University of the Philippines, to the country, and to the Filipino people who subsidized their education in the state university. She alternates between cajoling, sweet-talking, scolding, even threatening her students about the importance of being honorable and about being part of the solution rather than of the problems of the country. Of course there’s the whole “were from UP, we’re the best” bravado. But all throughout, she was inspiring and funny.

One wishes most teachers were like Monsod who see teaching as preparing students for the larger roles they are supposed to play in society rather than simply as imparting technical knowledge and making students digest and regurgitate facts.

But Monsod is not really alone. I have told you about my friend in Tacloban City. There are more out there. One of my best friends teaches at the Bicol University in Daraga, Albay. She is another unsung hero of the teaching profession. She could have joined her siblings abroad, or taken on administrative posts in the university. But she has decided to stay where she is—teaching future social workers in the country. Social work—there’s another profession that clearly needs more students.

We should find more opportunities to celebrate, honor, and recognize good teachers.

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