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LIGAYA AVENIDA: They need teachers to bridge multi-cultural divide – Photo by Christian Esguerra


Why the US wants Filipino teachers big-time

By Christian V. Esguerra
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 17:26:00 06/16/2008

Filed Under: Education, Global Expansion, Minority groups, Overseas Employment

SAN FRANCISCO? One day, a brown-skinned, Filipino kid was scolded by his white American teacher in class here. Instead of answering, as he had been told to do, he looked down timidly and avoided eye contact.

Thinking he was being disrespectful, the teacher was infuriated all the more. But what Ligaya Avenida, 64, later saw on hindsight was a glaring example of cultural disconnect common in the American school system years ago.

By staying meek in the face of authority, a common Filipino trait, the boy thought he was doing the ?right? thing, explained Avenida, a long-time teacher and administrator in the San Francisco Unified School District.

In the American context, he was not.

Cultural implications

?It had a cultural implication,? she said in an interview. ?Here, you look directly at the person even if you?re being reprimanded. If you don?t, that?s a sign of disrespect.?

Many school kids coming from immigrant families apparently knew very little about American culture and educational system, leading them to occasional trouble with mentors in the United States.

But between students and teachers with the gulf of cultural differences between them, the city?s school district, with a big lift from Avenida, saw that more had to be done from the latter?s end.

It looked for new mentors who could better deal with its culturally diverse student population. The search eventually led to a familiar face in the global diaspora: the Filipino.

Since the 1970s when the problem of cultural divide first came prominently into national view, hundreds of Filipino teachers have found employment in American schools, says Avenida, who now runs a recruitment agency for international teachers.

Perfect fit

Her company alone recruits 600 to 700 Filipino teachers annually. The number dwarfs Hong Kong and Mexico, where her company, Avenida International Consultancy, enlists only 50 to 70 teachers every year.

She says the bulk of her recruitment is from her home country because of Filipino teachers? facility in both the Filipino and English languages. This flexibility makes them a perfect fit in school districts with a large Filipino-American population. ?They needed teachers who understood the students,? she says.

Their quiet search for greener pastures could be just as worrisome, however, a contribution in small or large measure to the Philippines? continuing ?brain drain.?

?The reason I don?t feel bad about it is because the truth is, the Philippines has a lot of teachers,? says Avenida, arguing that it?s just a question of how effectively the Department of Education is filling positions left behind by migrating teachers.

With few well-paid employment opportunities in the country, more unfortunate Filipino teachers are forced to settle for menial jobs such as being domestic helpers in Hong Kong or Europe for bigger bucks, she says.

Important contributions

The issue of brain drain aside, Filipino teachers have been making important contributions to the American public school system, she adds.

?I say they are the perfect teachers. They have what the Americans are looking for. They have a very high level of commitment.?

Since starting her business five years ago, Avenida says she has heard mostly positive feedback on Filipino teachers from different school districts around the US. A common account is of Filipino mentors arriving in school early in the morning and staying way into the evening to complete the task at hand.

She argues that her recruits, the centerpiece of her business, would not have lasted long if they didn?t meet the standards of American education or performed beyond expectations.

That?s why she always tells her teachers to see themselves more as key contributors to a student?s development than nameless mentors from the Far East, perpetually indebted to America for employment.

?I always tell them that they have so much to offer to American schools,? she says. ?They have shown that they?ve done great things for the students.?

These contributions were particularly noticed around 30 years ago, when the American system was struggling to devise a curriculum that would address the educational needs of children from immigrant families, Avenida said.

At that time, San Francisco, for instance, was seeing the arrival in droves of students who were ?not blond and blue-eyed,? recalls Avenida, then teaching in the city?s unified school district. The San Francisco school district covers 110 schools from elementary to high school. The new students were mostly from Hispanic, Chinese, and Filipino families.

?There was a very clear disconnect,? she says. ?The teachers were white and didn?t understand them, especially their culture.?

New strategies

The cultural disconnect was highlighted in 1970 when 1,790 Chinese students, led by Kinney Lau, sued the San Francisco school board for allegedly discriminating against them. Avenida remembers Lau, 12, spending a year in middle school sitting idly in class while teachers delivered lessons in English, a language he didn?t yet understand.

Four years later the US Supreme Court sided with the complainants, noting that ?students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education,? according to a New York Times report.

San Francisco?s response came in new strategies for learning, taking into account the students? respective cultural backgrounds and value systems, according to Avenida.

She was herself tapped to familiarize fellow teachers with Filipino culture so they?d know how to deal with their newly arrived wards.

In training sessions that would go on for years, she would tell them, for instance, that when a Filipino child didn?t look up to a teacher reprimanding him, he wasn?t being rude. He was actually showing respect, consistent with the traits he had learned back home.

Or when a Pinoy kid didn?t engage an American adult in a conversation, it didn?t mean he was dumb or uninterested, Avenida argued. He was probably just thinking of the days back in the Philippines when kids were told not to participate in usapang matanda (adult discussions) .

Family values

?I did a series of training on the values of the Filipino family and how the value system of the Filipino could either negatively or positively impact the children?s learning here,? she says.

Besides sessions on cultural sensitivity, the school district also hired more Hispanic, Chinese and Filipino teachers to deal with the emerging student population of non-English speakers. From the 1970s to the 1980s, she says the district hired 400 to 500 Filipino mentors.

Later in the 1980s, Avenida was put in charge of the district?s bilingual education program. This time, she says, a new batch of students born of immigrants? parents was struggling at rootedness, unfamiliar with their folks? native tongue.

She came up with a similar program for Fil-Ams, but had no takers. Apparently, the Fil-Am mentality was unlike that of their Hispanic or Chinese counterparts?they preferred to lose their mother tongue and totally embrace English as their ?first? language.

?The Filipino families were thinking, ?Why learn Filipino??? she recalls. ?They said they didn?t need to so we weren?t successful with them.?

How recruitment began

Avenida?s own recruitment of teachers outside the US formally began in 1998 while she was San Francisco?s assistant superintendent for human resources. That year, she had around 400 teachers accepting an early retirement package offered by the school district.

She filled the vacancies by getting teachers from Mexico, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. Going by the successful recruitment of non-American teachers in the 1970s, she knew that with their knowledge of a second language, this new batch of mentors would be an asset to the district.

In the Philippines, she sent flyers to select schools like the University of the Philippines, her alma mater, the University of Santo Tomas, and Philippine Normal University. Around 150 applicants answered her call and she brought 15 new teachers to the US.

The high mortality rate in her initial recruitment was indicative of the stringent process of bringing in foreign teachers. She maintained the approach when she put up her company after she retired from the school district in 2002.

Hard work

At the end of the recruitment process is the promise of huge salary Filipino teachers can only dream of earning in their home country. Avenida swears her recruits get a minimum of $35,000 annually. Others reportedly get as much as $70,000, depending on their level of education, expertise and experience.

Recruits are assigned a variety of subjects ? math, science, journalism, psychology, special education.

Getting to the green pasture, however, requires a lot of hard work. Avenida reveals everything about the American educational system?good and bad, especially the bad?before formally including applicants in her company?s ?database? of prospective teachers in the US.

?Students, they?re the most difficult and most challenging aspect of teaching,? she would tell them in the orientation seminars she regularly holds in Manila.

Scary stories

Avenida?s account seems plucked straight out of a Hollywood flick: Students ignoring the presence of teachers, talking and fighting and rushing out of the classroom at the bell. Many of them ignore mentors as well when they bump into them in the corridors.

?Sometimes, students here are almost evil, they would throw things at you,? she says. ?So you need to know how to control them. You can?t allow them to get to that point.?

The Filipino ?accent? also creates problems on occasion. Avenida says she?s had recruits who were asked to leave simply because their American students couldn?t fathom their English pronunciation. It?s not exactly ungrammatical, but lacking in the ?rolling? character of the American tongue.

?It?s just difficult to understand,? she says.

Despite the scary stories, Filipino teachers continue to flock to Avenida?s orientation seminars in the hope of landing jobs in the US. From her end, she says she makes sure that those who will be tapped by her company would eventually be hired by school districts in the US. At the eve of their interview with American school officials in Manila, applicants get a last-minute coaching session from Avenida herself.

Little things mean a lot

She reminds them about little things that could spell the difference in their application. She tells them, for instance, that Americans usually start a conversation by saying ?How ya? doin??? and you can jazz up your response other than just saying, ?I?m fine, thank you.?

Avenida gives ?insider? information too, meaning what certain school districts specifically need and want to see from applicants during interview.

?My advantage is I know what they are looking for?you take care of the children, help them achieve, and you?ll be their most valued teacher,? she says.

Copyright 2015 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.




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