Closing a Chapter

This is an entry to the “2017 year-end essay writing contest” that my friend, Jerson, started. Also a teacher like me, he spent his 2017, In Transit.  In much the same way, so have I. The title to this essay is deliberately vague. I thought it best describes the transitions in place and thought that this whirlwind year has taken me. So, let’s begin.

It was in May 2017 when I tendered a resignation that closed a chapter of my life as a classroom teacher. My leaving the classroom arose from a painful experience of a school community failing to do what is right. Despite the efforts of a few faculty, no meaningful consequence for grave student misconduct was served. (I have heard that some students have become emboldened further to commit other infractions against their peers, their teachers, their school, and even the wider community outside the school. To me this only underscores the scope of our failure. Had we taken action as adults ought to have in that situation then perhaps bad behavior would not continue to happen. To have been an adult in that situation would have been to understand that hard lessons are part of young people’s journey to responsible citizenship.)

Although it was only one challenge among many others that I had faced regularly as a teacher, it was the only event in my three fraughtful and joyful years of teaching that found me sobbing in the bath, hurt and spent. I felt useless and ineffective. Nothing that I had done in the last three years had helped my students choose what was right. They did not respect me enough to honor my trust. I couldn’t help but take it personally. Even after I distanced myself from my emotional response and resolved to shape the experience into a learning opportunity for my students and for myself, the adults around me who were more seasoned and senior were either indifferent or did not rise above their learned helplessness. That to me was tragic — how our school just caved. It was not an isolated event but a symptom of a far broader and insidious problem of messed up incentives in the public school system. We measure enrollment figures, drop out rates, cohort survival ratios, achievement test scores, etc. but do not look at what behavior is encouraged in our teachers and our school administration to make these numbers look good on paper.

I thought about what I could do from my vantage as the lowest ranked foot soldier of the public school system. Was it within my sphere of influence to realistically do something about it? Perhaps, only as far as my classroom was concerned, and even then I was constrained by many other factors — how parents brought up their children, the prevalent teaching philosophy of the faculty, and the directives of the local and national leadership, to name just a few. In order to have an impact beyond the classroom, I have to aim for the authority and influence of a high position because the system that runs our public schools is still largely operating along a culture of obeisance. This means I would have to spend some fifteen to twenty or more years of my life working on this project, learn along the way to kiss ass, and pick my battles (which is to say, to look the other way and keep my head down some if not most of the time).

Knowing this led me to confront myself. I know that my dream for education is a life’s work. This is a long haul endeavor which requires years of commitment. Yet thinking about the fifteen to twenty years minimum that I would have to dedicate to this project while my peers continued to improve their professional credentials and their financial capacity, I realized I just don’t have enough foolishness left in me anymore to continue on this trajectory. The mission to serve the people (my UP baggage) just isn’t compelling anymore, seeing as so many of my fellow iskas and iskos themselves never did bat an eyelash when they aimed to secure cushy positions in the private sector or overseas. This is perfectly within their rights to do, of course. But still, I couldn’t help but feel resentful when well-meaning friends left messages of encouragement on my Facebook while I saw their glamorous lives documented on social media. As you can see, I became bitter and jaded. Yet as people have told me time and time again, I was not a tree. I was not beholden to anybody and didn’t owe anyone anything. In much the same way, the universe didn’t owe me anything either, even if I was being makabansa or makatao. If I wanted to be happy and fulfilled, it was up to me to make it so. So I left.

Having said all that, I will always treasure the excitement I felt when I prepared lessons for my kids about Economics, World History, and Afro-Asian Literature. Until now I cherish the moments of inspiration when in the middle of a discussion something clicks in my head or when a student shares an insight and we all come to understand a concept more deeply and fully. (This is what eureka is like for a teacher.) I remember fondly the awe I felt each time I saw in a student the shimmering possibility of just who they could be. Blinded by their insecurities and adolescent worries, they could not see what I saw: an inchoate greatness. I worked so hard because of that potential. This is the great part of teaching that I miss. But I don’t know if I will find my way back to it someday.

For now, everything is more or less up in the air and I spent the latter part of 2017 focusing on landing on my feet and starting over. I am slowly re-igniting the other parts of myself relegated to limbo when my teaching life had taken front and center, and left little room for anything else.

For some parts of this year, I felt great anxiety that I was back to the drawing board again while other people my age went about settling down into careers or starting families and having children. While I know clearly that I do not want this cookie-cutter life script for myself, it begs the question what do I choose for myself instead? I do not have ready answers only that 2018 will take me even deeper into the new paths that I trod this 2017.

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Half-hearted Attempts at Praxis

In three months, I will have been serving for three years in the field though not quite as the Gurong Pahinungod that I imagined I would be when I was in college. In the end, I turned out to be a full-fledged public school marm in my high school alma mater tilting windmills in the exigency of the service. I promised myself when I started to keep my wits about me, to approach my service not as a career professional but as a participant observer. You see, I am ambitious in my own quiet way, overblown with chutzpah, really. I thought then that I was entering public service for "research," to uncover the ills that beset our educational system, to see for myself the state of affairs independent of my professors’ views as outsiders of the public school system, so that I could formulate solutions grounded in thick understanding of the real situation on the ground. An underlying thread in this conviction is a distrust of what I was taught in the classrooms of UP Diliman, those esteemed halls that for all the admiration that my school pride can muster, is still at the bottomline situated in the core of imperial Manila whose faculty and student body are still by and large, citizens of the center who without a second thought call events, contests, and organizations in Manila as Philippine so and so without considering if it were truly representative of the country as a whole, where Tagalog friends with whom I can most be myself failed to consider time and again that their childhood experiences were not mine, too, because I came from the peripheral South where Pong Pagong just doesn’t hold a soft spot in our hearts or that perya/arcade place that used to be in Cubao. So I wanted to learn for myself, without the colored lenses of the privileged Manila-based academic.

True enough, the view looks different from here at the bottom. Only, I feel too much in the thick of the things, treading water desperately to stay afloat in this roiling mass of public school teacher responsibility, which could very well pull anyone under if she did not deal with care. So much has happened so fast, I cannot keep up a habit of reflective inquiry into the why’s and how’s. I am exhausted. Right now, I do not know if I have one more year in me left. I worry about my well-being. I might be acutely depressed.

Where do I find the strength to carry on when I feel burned out? Where shall I find the vigor and bull-headedness to carry on despite all the things that go wrong and are never made right; the system’s culture trains its leaders and members to sweep points for improvement under the rug under the false name of being committed to the general good.

If I draw strength from the potential of what I do now creating ripple effects in our government this seems naive to me. I think Gandhi probably had the right mindset to this, of doing something not for the sake of results, but because it was the right thing to do.

New Year Wishes

While we’re talking about wishes for the new year ahead, one fervent desire in my heart, aside from the dreams I have for myself, is to someday see my students bloom into the great human beings they already now hold within them. I see it now and then, like glimmers winking in and out, unstable threads of possibility that at times shine bright and clear during moments of win or awesome. It is this wish that often keeps me going even when the work environment is sometimes toxic. Maybe, it is my leap of faith in the manner of Soren Kierkegaard, what I choose to believe, my own hand grasping at straws for a meaning that doesn’t exist in this indifferent universe. Kierkegaard couched this in the terms of love, of finding a soulmate. I wonder if it is a love that is enough to sustain me for the rest of my days.

Public Servant

Nakakita ako ng salita-public servant-at biglang nagkamoment. Yung nag-unravel sa utak ko ang meaning no’ng salita. Maganda yung connotation na gusto i-evoke ng salitang to eh. Kumpara sa government employee o official na sa neutral to negative na pagtanggap nakaugnay. Pero, bilang empleyado, may ibang meaning na ito para sa akin mula sa lived experience ko ng pagiging public servant. Talagang literal pala ito if you allow it. Hindi manungkulan ang serve dito kundi magpakaalipin ka. Ganyan minsan ang nangyayari sa mga overzealous na baguhan o sa mga taong may puso. Nagpapakaalipin sila at more than willing naman ang iba nilang kasama na i-exploit sila. Gusto kong matawa nang sumagi to sa isip ko dahil sa morbid hilarity at insanity ng public service. Hindi naman hanggang dito lang ang mukha ng pagtrabaho sa gobyerno pero isa siya sa mga realidad nito. Masalimuot. Pero hindi naman ako pumasok sa sistema na naive. May mga apprehension na. Ang tanong siguro para sa akin ngayon, hanggang saan mo kaya? Ano ba talaga ang impact mo? Worth it pa ba?

An Introduction to Senior High School in RTPM-DSHS

This introduction was delivered on June 17, 2016 at the RTPM-DSHS Gymnasium during our school’s Senior High School Parents’ Orientation.

A good afternoon to all of you, dear DuScian parents! Welcome to those who have been with us for the past four years and to those who are here with us today for the first time.

I’m Miss Sue Quirante. I teach Economics in the Junior High level and I am also part of our school’s K to 12 Speakers Bureau. The Speakers Bureau consisting of Mr. Amorin, Mrs. Arbas, Mrs. Labang and myself were trained in 2014 to spread the word about K to 12 and Senior High School to DepEd’s stakeholders. This is why I am here with you this afternoon.

We have been busy in the last two years making materials, presentations and exhibits. We even organized a day camp and a career panel last year to prepare our 10th graders for Senior High. We have also held orientations for parents and students just like this one. After much anticipation and perhaps even anxiety from some sectors of society, we are finally here. We are in many respects, hitting the ground running, and admittedly not as geared as we would like to be. But having recognized that, I would like us to first of all, appreciate why we are here and why we are doing what we are doing.

One problem that greatly burdened our educational system before K to 12 was how to improve the outcomes of young people in our country. From 1975 to 2004 the typical cohort survival rate in our public schools was pretty dismal. For every 100 pupils who would enroll in the first grade, we could expect only 65 of them to graduate from elementary school. Only 58 would enroll in high school of which 42 would graduate. Where do 58% of them go? Do we merely write them off as failures?

When we look at the quality of education, we didn’t fare all that much better. The TIMSS or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study revealed that in comparison to other participating countries, our Grade 4 and Grade 8 students performed at the lowest ten percent. Internal testing by DepEd also showed that only 30% of high school freshmen had mastered grade six competencies in English, Science & Math. DuScians are part of that rare 30%. But graduating from high school did not automatically promise employment success. In 2009, data collected by DOLE revealed that the country had 972,458 unemployed high school graduates even as over 650,000 skill-based jobs were available and had no takers. This shows a mismatch between the skills that our graduates bring out of basic education and the skills that the world of work requires from them.

This is the context or the challenge that the K to 12 reform package was devised to address and Senior High School is one of its features aimed at improving the prospects of our high school graduates in both work and life. This is quite apparent when we look at the subjects being offered in Senior High. Their core subjects are mandated by CHED to ensure college readiness. Their applied and specialized subjects will help them determine what it is they really want to do in life through experiences in the classroom, through conducting applied research, and also through experiencing the responsibilities and challenges of a job during their work immersion. What Senior High School and the K to 12 Reform Program really aim to do is to provide our young people with more opportunities and better options, whether that is pursuing a college degree, landing a job or starting one’s own business. By the time they exit basic education at age eighteen they will be equipped and legally able to pursue any of these opportunities.

With such high hopes we are here. Your sons and daughters, 185 of them, are pioneers; 116 girls and 69 boys; 41 are enrolled in the ABM or Accountancy, Business & Management strand and 144 are enrolled in STEM or the Science Technology Engineering & Math strand.

We anticipated this. When we conducted preference surveys last year on our grade 8 and 9 students, we found out that out of 282 participants, a significant majority or 97.6% planned to pursue a college education after senior high school. While 6 students or 2.1% planned to seek employment and only 1 student considered starting a business. The highest course preferences were related to STEM and ABM namely Engineering (28%), Medical Technology (18%), Accountancy (15%), Medicine (14%) and Business Administration and Management (12%). This is the reason why Science High offered the Academic Track because student preference was central in the consideration of our track offerings. We also offered the General Academic Strand and the Humanities and Social Sciences Strand but these did not garner enough student demand which would allow us to open these classes.

In addition to considering our students’ preferences, the Division Office of Deped Dumaguete also conducted consultations with industries and businesses. One of the fastest-growing industries in our city with an increasing demand for employees is the IT or Information Technology industry. This is the reason behind our offering of two ICT courses under the Tech-Voc track which are Medical Transcription and Computer Programming where students earn National Certificates Level II from TESDA at the end of Senior High. We have no enrollees to these courses yet this semester but we do have the facilities and the LGU has also previously pledged its support.

Aside from consulting industry, our Division Office also closely vetted the teachers who applied for Senior High and I think it has been quite apparent during this first week alone from the impressions of your sons and daughters (you should ask them after our orientation today if you haven’t asked them yet) that our Senior High School teachers are of a different caliber. They are more than qualified. They have all either completed or are pursuing graduate studies. Some of them have industry experience or are joining us already with several years of experience teaching in the college level. Mr. Amorin will be introducing our senior high faculty this afternoon so you will get to know them all  very soon.

Senior High School holds so much promise for our young people. But I understand that the new and the unknown can sometimes be a cause of fear. However, let’s consider this piece of wisdom from Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” So I hope you can in typical DuScian fashion, channel the curiosity of scientists to test new ways of doing things and solving problems. Let’s give Senior High a chance. I hope you will walk with us on the road to rebuilding our educational system so we can prepare a better future for all our children.

Once again, good afternoon to all of you.

Dream Date?

This post was written as part of the National Children’s Book Day 2015 Blog Tour. This week’s writing prompt is naming a creator of children’s books or books for young people that one would want to have a date with.

Uhhh my introvert personality is interfering with my ability to write this second installment of the National Children’s Book Day Blog Tour on Titser, Titser! Now, while being my kind of introvert does mean avoiding noisy crowds and feeling completely drained an hour into a house party, it doesn’t mean I’d run screaming and hide myself in a dark hidey hole the minute a person taps my shoulder. Also, while I do go on dates with myself I have also gone on dates with other people, that is, people whom I call my friends. That’s the thing, really. I can and do go on dates with friends, but imagining myself going on a date with a complete stranger just completely fills me with dread. Even if it were with the greatest author that ever lived whom I consider a personal hero and kindred, Ursula K. Le Guin. But, well…I’ll go out on a limb and think in the hypothetical for the sake of children’s books and books for young people in this country!

A local book creator I would probably want to go on a date with if I were a more extroverted person would be Rob Cham. Early this year, he released a silent comic called Light with Anino Comics. It was utterly marvelous! I loved it instantly! It reminded me so much of Polytron’s Fez, a video game and art piece in one. But then it also had the vibe of Legend of Zelda, Legend of Mana and all the other adventure and puzzle games I treasured in my early teens. It was also like a cartoon from my childhood. There is not a word in Light but it is completely engaging. Rob Cham built the story locomotive and laid down the tracks, but the story itself runs on the reader’s imagination. For a gamer like me, reading Light actually feels like having a go at a video game. You are right there, in the game of the story, playing the character.

But then, I’m no extroverted social butterfly. So when I was at a reading of Light at Uno Morato early this year, despite the prodding of my boyfriend whom I strongly claim is a lesser fan of Rob Cham the man than I am, I failed to scrounge up enough courage to walk up to him and ask/plead him to sign my copy with his silver pen. If I can’t even manage to ask for an autograph, I shouldn’t even dream of going to a date with the guy. I might run out of fingernails to bite and take my frustration out on!

You know what else would be awesome? Meeting Robert Magnuson and telling him in person what an awesome awesome cat Kuting Magiting is and that Porcupirate Plans the Day and The Great Duck and Crocodile Race were really cute and funny and that when I read his books, his characters are quite alive in my head.

While we’re being hypothetical, I might as well add that it would be awesome to have a friendly conversation with Sir Bong Redila, creator of Borderline, Fables from Melag and Kahon (a short story in PIKO, a comics anthology for children that came out early this year, too!) because I would also really like to tell him how intriguing his comics are to me, how they are like Alice’s looking glass allowing me to inhabit an other world. If I could just relax!

But even now thinking that one of these creators might stumble upon this post and read it is making me feel nervous! It feels safer to be a fan standing in the sidelines, awed and inspired by their work. I would totally cheer them on (and buy their books for my nephews and nieces and arrange meet-ups so I can lend my copies to friends) but always as an anonymous person in the crowd because what if they didn’t like me as a person? What if I said something inane or insipid? What if they turned out to be completely different from what I imagined they would be like? What if they thought I completely misread their story? The thought of it is just far too terrifying. So I think I’ll pass up the dream date. But give me one of their books and I would even free up my Friday night schedule for it.