Raison d’etre

When Sachiko Terada won 5th place in the 1998 Japan YMCA National All English Speech Contest, I felt that she was the real 1st Prizewinner in that competition.  Sachiko was the first beginning level ESL student to make it to the Top 5 in the contest’s 100- year history.  It was her first time in Tokyo despite having lived all of her 24 years in a small town just outside the capital.  It was her first time to leave her parents’ house without them by her side.  It was her first time to join any form of competition.  It was her first time to speak about her life and her dreams, in public at that.   You see Sachiko is a quadriplegic from birth with just enough mobility in two fingers to operate the buttons on her wheelchair.  But what she lacked physically she more than made up for with her firm determination to succeed in whatever she did. It is this same determination that I saw in her that first day she joined my ESL class.  “To get out of this wheelchair,” was her response when I asked all students to tell me why they wanted to learn English.  And that’s exactly what I set my mind to do for her.

My career as educator began right after college when I accepted a teaching position in a small town, south of the Philippines, then later in my alma mater, St. Louis University (Baguio, Philippines).  But in those days teaching for me was just a means for getting food on the table and had there been more high-profile jobs available, I would have grabbed them without second thoughts.  Then in 1986 when the “People Power Revolution” ended the 20 year-rule of the notorious Filipino dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, my attitude towards teaching changed.  The idealism that permeated the air during that defining moment in my country’s history ignited in me the desire to do my part in making the world a better place.   Suddenly teaching was no longer just a job but a means to touch lives.  So when images of Indochinese refugees fleeing their country, many dying at sea as they made their way to the promise of a better life, filled TV and newspapers, I knew exactly where I needed to be.  

The Philippine Refugee Processing Center was one of several refugee camps in Southeast Asia.  With a degree in English and some actual teaching experience, I was confident that teaching ESL to Indochinese refugees would be easy enough for me to learn.  Well, learn I did but easy it wasn’t.  I developed ulcers during my first years at the camp from the stress of preparing lesson plans and creating my own teaching materials.  Teaching English to Filipinos who have been exposed to the language since birth, valued education, and generally led peaceful lives with their families did not compare with teaching the Indochinese refugees who were still recovering from the trauma of fleeing their country and leaving behind some of their loved ones and whose access to education, much less English instruction, have been a matter of chance.  I was tasked to give ESL classes in the context of Work Orientation to students old enough to be my grandparents.  And the program supervisors of the agency I worked for, the International Catholic Migration Commission, made sure that all teachers performed in accordance with the highest standards of American Education through frequent unannounced observations and monthly evaluations.  But through rigorous training and comprehensive feedback from my superiors, I was able to let go of my old teaching style and embrace the ESL way of teaching wholeheartedly.  By my third year at camp I was ready to take on greater responsibilities and the desire to make more of a difference in the lives of the people we were helping led me to the Preparatory for American Secondary Schools or PASS program.  In those days I would hang out in the homes of my adult students and get to meet their kids.  We’d spend hours talking about their dreams for their children as well as their anxieties over the uncertainties of living in America.  My students used to be doctors, engineers, and businessmen in Vietnam but they have resigned themselves to working as janitors and waiters once they get to the US.  Their children, however, are to go to college and earn degrees and become professionals.  Definitely the future was for the young and I resolved that in the same way that a priest from my hometown provided me the guidance and encouragement to rise above my family’s poverty when I was a teen, I would make sure that these Indochinese kids got a decent chance at making their family’s dreams come true despite their limited English and general lack of education.  And so for the next 5 years I worked at PASS, first as teacher, then later as supervisor, then finally as Curriculum Developer.  Of course I again found myself agonizing over lesson plans and making materials because it’s one thing to teach adults and another to educate hyperactive teens and pre-teens.  There was also the additional challenge of handling  “Amerasian” teenagers – children born to American fathers they never even met and most of them accompanied by strangers who bought them from their biological relatives so they could have visa-free entry to the U.S.  Needless to say most of these “Gold Children” (so called because they were most likely paid for in gold jewelry) were not in the best of emotional health, suffering from depression over their past, anger at being forced to go to school when they used to roam freely in the streets of Ho Chi Mihn City and anxiety about their future in America.  So how do you get these kids to focus on learning English, science, and math five days a week like they would in the typical American public school when their lives have been far from typical?  Fortunately for me, I was part of a team of young and innovative teachers willing to put in extra hours and do extra work in order to create an environment more conducive for learning.  Our team decided to put up a Learning Resource Center in one of the empty classrooms and once we got our principal’s approval and support we spent several after-school hours cleaning, repairing, and recycling anything that could be used for our project.  We created activity corners and reading nooks.  We gave the room a festive atmosphere through carefully-crafted decorations that also served as conversation starters. We also had American magazines, videos, and cassettes available thanks to the generosity of friends who were willing to part with their old stuff. And whatever little furniture we managed to come by were strategically arranged to allow for independent or pair work.  The LRC was a hit with our students and our team worked out a schedule for taking turns managing the place and bringing in our classes.  Soon we were using “a trip to the LRC” as a form of reward to students who were able to stay focused on their tasks while the best students were even allowed to work as volunteers.  In time the LRC became an official facility of the program and teachers from other teams were able to bring their classes in as well.

In 1992, the need to expand my horizons brought me to Nagoya, Japan.  The YMCA hired me to teach ESL and given that Japan is a rich and highly-industrialized nation, I had assumed that my teaching life would be routine and that I would no longer be investing so much of myself into my students’ lives.   Sachiko, among others, proved me wrong and once again I found myself championing my students’ dreams.   Though my Japanese students did not need English to ensure a materially-secure future for themselves and their families as my Indochinese students did, they needed it for their self-esteem.

In 1999, marriage and fatherhood brought me back to the Philippines.  This time I found myself teaching English, not ESL, to rich Filipino kids and while I was still able to exercise a positive influence on them and motivate them to make full use of all their talents and resources as when they ended up creating a short film on “Romeo And Juliet” for a simple class project, somehow the “high” I got from teaching was, well not as high.  So by 2001 it was off to Houston, Texas and the students that greeted me on my first day at Fonville MS made me want to go back to the Philippines.  Again I had assumed that students in a rich nation like the good ol’ USA would be easier to teach because one, they are surrounded by “English” 24/7 and two they did not have to worry about material comforts.  But my students are not the typical young Americans from “Brady Bunch” or “Eight is Enough” or “The Cosby Show,” or any of those TV shows I used to watch in the Philippines.  Like some of my former students at the Refugee camp, they came here upon the bidding of their parents, trading a life they probably regarded as perfect or at least “good enough” for one that requires both their parents to work, money for everything, and no time to just watch the world go by.  And so once again it is up to me to make them realize that through English the dreams they had in their home countries are still available for them to pursue.

In 2004 I got the opportunity to work at HISD’s Curriculum Department and to say that I enjoyed writing Model Lessons for ESL classes is an understatement.  Finally, I got the chance to share the ESL strategies I’ve honed over the past 24 years.  I was looking forward to seeing other HISD teachers implement the techniques I painstakingly described and the materials I artfully crafted for their use.  I made sure that everything they would need to ensure a successful lesson was there regardless of the ESL level of their students.  Thus, I was not ready for the rejection and complaints when they came.   The teachers complained that the Model Lessons were too difficult for their students and the objectives unrealistic.  Well, I took their feedback as a challenge and to prove them wrong I went back to the classroom, this time teaching at Lee HS. 

Having only started in August 2005, I did not expect to be named ESL Teacher of the Year at Lee HS, much less ESL Teacher of the Year West Region that same year.  And while the admiration of my peers in the teaching profession puts a smile on my face, it is the respect and gratitude my students expressed, in fractured English, at that, that leaves a more lasting glow in my heart.

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