03 April 2023

Source: World Bank study cited in The Economist magazine

My barkada calls me Rina—we are teachers in a public school in Manila who meet after class to exchange gossip about school and our students.* Mostly, though, these meetings are really griping sessions—I suppose to let off steam from the many frustrations we must endure to simply get on with what we otherwise love doing. For example, the other day, I recounted to my barkada that I was again called to the principal’s office. Our conversation went this way:


P: You do know that you have again failed almost everyone in your class? 

R: Sir, I simply gave them a simple reading and vocabulary test. It was an easy exercise, but almost all flunked! They just didn’t understand a word!

P: Bakit hindi mo Tagalugin? (Why don't you use Tagalog?).

R: But, Sir, my subject is English. How can I pass them when they do not understand even a simple English text?  And it is not only the language. Many of them just don’t know how to read.  And those who can read don’t understand what they are reading--Engish or Tagalog! Remember, they are already in 7th Grade!

P: No, I think it’s the teacher factor. May I remind you that we all get bonus money from DepEd (Department of Education) based on our promotions? Also, many parents of your students are complaining that you’re very strict! You young teachers, just because you have passed the professional licensure test, you think you know it all.

With a smirk, obviously displeased that I had answered him back, he asked me to leave. My eyes were brimming with tears as I sought Alexa who is not a member of our barkada but is nonetheless my trusted friend. She was three years my senior at St Mary's College and I idolized her. She is so smart she could easily have taught in a private school but decided to stay here in our local National High School to teach the less privileged children.


By way of background, our school has about 3,000 students. We are small when compared to the national student population of twenty million—about eighteen million in public schools and two million in private schools. Most of us are all cramped into rooms meant to accommodate far fewer students.  This is another reason we have difficulty teaching properly. My class, for example, has about 50 students. We are separated from the next classroom consisting of another 50 or 60 students by a comparatively small, movable blackboard; the sound level makes it often impossible to be heard, especially with people chatting at the far end of each room that’s difficult to reach because of chairs leaning against the side walls. Also, we usually have three shifts of classes per day, and mine is too early for some students so there are a great deal of absenteeism.

I finally found Alexa in the canteen. I had expected her to be sympathetic, but when I told her about my conversation with the principal, I was surprised that she defended him!


“You actually can’t blame him, Rina,” Alexa asserted. “We teachers, our principal and supervisors--we have needs too. The promotion bonus helps a long way, especially since, as you know, the salaries of teachers have been very low and stagnant for some years now. On top of that, we sometimes take it upon ourselves to buy pens, notebooks, and other school supplies for children who can even less afford them. Kasi kawawa naman sila. (One feels sorry for them) As to the facilities of the school, do you know, I hear that in the province it is not unusual for schools to ask their students to bring their own chairs!”


I was unconvinced, “I know what you mean, but students in high school not knowing how to read, or not understanding what they read! It is the system—the way the schools are run—it is just too hard for me to understand. The more teachers accept the bonus system, the more we are perpetuating it!”


“If you really want to help,” continued Alexa, “come after school and meet some others who think as you do.”


For the next few weeks, I observed how Alexa and some other teachers voluntarily tutored children through special classes. They grouped students according to abilities in reading and comprehension, and then developed ways to maximally help these differentiated learners. It was plodding work for both teachers and students, but it paid dividends. Their students did learn some skills and improved their scores in exams. And the teachers felt less guilty about the mass promotions at the end of the school year.

It was too late for me to join the ongoing remedial classes.  Instead, I was asked to wait until the next school year. Meantime, I was eager to do my own little project, helping ONE student in my 7th Grade class. I selected Jack—he sat at the front of the classroom, and always seemed eager, although he was one of those who could read but without comprehension. I asked him how he could have survived all these years in elementary school. He simply copied assignments and test answers and didn’t tell his teachers—although I am sure his teachers knew. But it seemed to me that Jack wanted to better himself – and I decided to give Jack a chance.

Firstly, I asked him to stay after school. This was a great sacrifice not only for him but also for his family. Every after school, Jack would go to a garbage heap and collect recyclable bottles, plastics, and empty cartons, and sell them to a junk shop near where his family lived. He could earn as much as a hundred pesos a day--sometimes even more--a tidy sum he would give his mother as pantulong (aid). She worked as manicurista who went door-to-door in the slums for home service.

In no time I noticed that Jack had a curious mind. I wanted this intellectual curiosity to be a motivating force that would drive his interest in reading comprehension. I recently heard an interview with a celebrity who said he always had a thirst for knowledge and that his one regret in life was he didn’t have the opportunity to go to university. But he made up for this lack of schooling by becoming a voracious reader. I too wanted to mitigate this lack of opportunity with Jack.

Months passed. When we started, Jack knew how to read a-ba-ca-da style. I agree that this Tagalog style is a good reading primer because it is more phonetic than English. So the first month, we concentrated on reading proficiency a-ba-ca-da style. But I wanted Jack to also know some English. Learning English would help him with competition: he would get a better salary in industry, and expose himself to a wider worldview. His dream was to be a contract worker abroad. Gusto kong mag tabaho sa barco para matulungan ko ang aking pamilya at sana makakita naman ako ng ibang bansa. (I want to work on a ship so I could help my family, and perhaps see other countries as well). I informed him that if he knew and could read some English, he would be better able to get employed there! After all, you cannot be a seaman abroad if you cannot communicate with your foreign bosses!

Even as the school year ended and Jack was naturally promoted to 8th Grade, even as I joined the remedial classes of Alexa, I continued tutoring Jack. When we started English, I lent him a Pepe and Pilar book, a basic book written in English. He started practicing reading by himself—opening the book even after he reached home and well into the night.

I am proud to say that now I lend Jack more advanced books, and he loves learning about ships!  

I tell myself, this is one way I could reform the system!  I have read elsewhere that 90% of 10-year-old students in Philippine public schools cannot read or cannot understand what they read. In one international reading exam given, I was surprised to learn that even more affluent students in private schools generally scored lower than their foreign comparables. I guess we are just a texting instead of a reading nation.

Maybe I am biased because I am an English teacher, but I also think that sacrificing English whilst encouraging the use of Tagalog or native dialects/languages is dysfunctional. Whether we like it or not, English is the world's language of wider communication (LWC). In the near future, as our population grows whilst those in developed countries shrink, there would be an increased demand for labour, especially skilled labour.  Many more Filipinos could have better opportunities for work there than now. But we need to communicate in English.


If I were DepEd, I would even make English the sole medium of instruction in school. That way, our young children, whilst their minds are still enormously malleable, could easily become coordinate bi-linguals-- speaking their local language at home and English at school. We can always think of national identity once we have lifted ourselves out of poverty!


*Technically, one should probably call them “pupils” rather than “students”, but in this article, I will refer to everyone at school, even the younger ones, as “students”. (VHoffarth)


Based on interviews done by AJ Garchitorena, instructor and research associate, Miriam College