Wednesday, February 6, 2008


There's The Rub column item by Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:48:00 01/29/2008

MANILA, Philippines -- On the few but happy occasions that I see my elementary and high school classmates, who are often one and the same, talk drifts to the pranks we mounted on our hapless teachers and how the same teachers dealt with those who were caught in the act. We remembered those teachers well -- to a man, woman, or priest -- their foibles and their virtues, the names officially given to them by their parents and the names we secretly gave them for some characteristic or other. Most of them we recalled with fondness, especially the ones who, quite apart from the terror they filled our hearts with, also filled our minds with the light of learning.

I don’t know if that is a generational thing or not, or indeed if it is a provincial thing or not. I do know that the teachers of my time and place were held in high regard by our community. In my street, there was a widow who taught preschool in her house and drew a not very small class to it. It also subbed as some sort of day-care center. She lived to a ripe old age (she was already advanced in years when I was in elementary school) devoting pretty nearly all her life to her calling. People said she renewed her marriage vows only with her work after her husband died. When she died, poor if not entirely penniless, it wasn’t just our street that turned up at the wake and plunged into deep mourning.

I remembered these things in light of the project of the Philippine Business for Education (PBEd) called “1000 Teachers Program,” which aims to recruit the country’s best and brightest to become teachers. The project aims to restore the luster in teaching, changing the public’s perception from “titser lang” to “titser ko, idol ko.” “In reality,” PBEd says, “teachers are not just teachers. They are classroom managers. They are chief operating officers of cramped classrooms with some of the most rowdy and academically challenged students.”

It’s a laudable project, and I’m all for it. First off though, Jesli Lapuz is right: the first thing you need to do to improve the lot of teachers, never mind their image, is to give them better pay. I’ve said it repeatedly: Every time I hear talk about raising the pay of soldiers (which gets to be rife when they get to be restive) because they’re risking life and limb to protect the country and receiving crumbs for their pains, I think of the teachers. Soldiers risk life and limb to protect the country’s body, teachers risk life and limb to protect this country’s mind. Which do you think is more important?

As to scale of impoverishment, I recall that the Association of Concerned Teachers once used to call public school teachers “the new national animal,” having replaced the carabao for that dubious honor. No profession is more grossly overworked and underpaid. Which is why public schools often resemble a tiangge, the teachers supplementing their income by selling tocino and bra payable in four “gives.” But which is better than soldiers supplementing their income by enforcing drug and gambling activities and robbing banks.

But raising pay alone won’t make them better teachers, or draw better entrants to the fold, any more than raising reporters’ pay will make them less prone to corruption, or draw better-quality recruits. The only way really that you can do that is by appealing to idealism, particularly youthful idealism in the case of prospective recruits. That is not as unrealistic or unreasonable as it sounds. The best and brightest of my generation were drawn to activism like moth to flame or like knight to lonely quest on the strength of it, on the heroic notion of changing the country, if not the world, even if one had to give up one’s life for it.

There’s no lack of encouragement from the movies for such a choice in life. Only recently I saw a powerful one in the form of “Freedom Writers,” which tells of a young teacher’s miraculous feat of turning a “hopeless” group of kids mired in a culture of death and violence into achieving students. There’s a lot more where that came from.

You do need to change the environment, too, to make that choice an attractive one. The appeal of activism in my time also rested to a great extent on the public acceptance, if a violently grudging one by parents (something I can appreciate only now as a parent), of activism as a noble, if quixotic, calling. Teaching isn’t greatly admired these days, publicly or privately.

That isn’t helped by sayings, though quite witty ones, like, “People who can’t do, teach.” As horrendous, and foolish, a belief as you can find, many teachers also being great doers. In any case, I don’t know that Alexander, who did, would ever surpass -- or even come close to -- Aristotle, who taught. It’s not helped either by songs like Juan de la Cruz’s “Titser: Public Enemy Number 1” or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” ("We don’t need no education”) at least where they are taken out of context. For all its seeming anarchy though, “Titser” is just being playful, not cruel.

Certainly, it is not helped by lauding teachers as the CEOs of schools. That is not a promotion, that is a demotion. I recall my teachers with the greatest fondness not because they managed to discipline me but because they managed to inspire me, not because they managed to put order into my life but because they managed to drive me to quest restlessly for knowledge. At their best, teachers rank among the most creative of them all, among poets, artists, and philosophers. At their best teachers produce the greatest masterpieces of all, their canvasses being young minds, vast as the universe itself, their opuses, as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” shows, being the army of students sparked with the love of learning.

At their best, teachers don’t just teach, they do.

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