OUR TEACHERS, OUR MODERN-DAY HEROES

I and another colleague went to Calbayog City in Samar last weekend ready to turn over the teacher’s kits to the 250 public school teachers that our group, Team Pilipinas, had managed to raise a sufficient fund for. (The recipients were mostly assigned in the remote and far-flung schools either in the islands or the uplands of the province.) We were ready to serve as the bridge between our generous donors and our chosen recipients. We were ready to have a personal encounter with our teachers who are largely overworked, underpaid and unappreciated. We were ready to celebrate with them the National Teachers’ Month and the upcoming International Teacher’ Day on October 5.

What we were not ready for were the stories that they generously shared with us – stories that tugged at our heartstrings and made us realize anew why our teachers should, indeed, be put on a pedestal as our country’s modern-day heroes.

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David Refuncion teaches in Mabini I Elementary School, a school situated in one of Calbayog’s farthest mountains. His first assignment, he has been teaching there for three years now.

David, along with seven other teachers from their clustered school, has to travel for eleven hours just to get to his students – two to three hours aboard a multicab, then a habal-habal and, finally, a boat, before he would have to walk across rivers, rice fields and hills for another six to eight hours. Their travel becomes longer, riskier and more challenging when they do it under the pouring rain because the water in the river rises and its current becomes strong, and the mountains and rice fields they navigate become murky and slippery. Armed conflict between members of the NPA and the private armies also poses a serious challenge to them and the entire community.

Adrian Benecario, from Calilihan Elementary School, has to regularly contend with landslides during his 5-6 hours of travel on foot just to reach his students.

Both young teachers are witness to how their students are living in abject poverty.

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The supplies that Sir David brings with him from the city to the barrio.

They have students who walk miles barefoot and are used to attending classes on empty stomachs. There are those who can’t afford to buy something as basic as paper and pencil, and just have to rely on the generosity of their classmates. There are those who use plastic grocery bags for their school bags. (There was this one time when the teacher was cleaning up after his last class. He saw a crumpled plastic bag and, thinking that is was trash, he put it in the trash bin. A few moments later, one of his students went back and asked in their local dialect, “Sir, have you seen my bag?” to which the teacher replied, “I didn’t see any bag here. What does it look like anyway?” “A plastic bag, Sir.”) There are those who have to skip classes because their parents need an extra hand in the farm. And when someone in the village gets sick, the parents automatically turn to the teachers for medicines because the nearest health center is miles away.

There’s also no electricity in their place so the teachers have to use flashlight or kerosene lamp when they are working on their Daily Lesson Log (DLL).

However, the worst and most heartrending story that they shared is that of some of their female students, the youngest of which are in Grade 3, who have to quit school altogether because their parents are forced to marry them off. They do it for two reasons: to rid themselves of the burden of feeding another mouth, and for the “payment” that they will receive from the man who will be their daughter’s husband. For P30,000 (which is usually given to them in installments) and a small pig or goat, these little girls are given away to any man who has the capacity to pay.

As a mother myself, that is the story that really broke my heart.

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The call in the wake of Typhoon Usman that nearly wiped out the barrio where Ma’am Mary Jane and Ma’am Mariah Kim teach.

Meanwhile, Mary Jane Ebardone and Mariah Kim Oite are co-teachers in Cag-Anahaw Elementary School. Previously, they would reach their school by bamboo rafting for four hours, climbing four mountains, and crossing a treacherous river that snakes around those mountains. But since the river has gotten shallow due to landslides, they now have to walk all the way to the barrio where they teach. They have to be extremely careful, though, as paths can be steep and slippery, and one misstep can cause them to stumble down cliffs.

Cell signal is weak and unpredictable in the village so they attach a string to their mobile phones and hang them to anything that is high enough for them to get a signal.

Last December 28, 2018, the barrio was wiped out by Typhoon Usman.

Their school, that sits atop a plateau, is one of the few structures that survived the catastrophe. The floodwater, though, still managed to reach the roof of the covered court. It was only through the bayanihan of the neighboring communities that Barangay Cag-Anahaw was able to slowly rise back up.

Although it was hard for the two young teachers to accept that their students could not go to school because they had to be with their families in picking up the pieces of their shattered lives, they fully understood the situation. After all, given the choice between education and survival, any one of us will certainly choose the latter hands down.

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The church that also serves as the school for Sir Ricky’s students

Another two teachers that we talked to, Ricky Balat and Rhio Amor both teach in an island where illiteracy rate is among the highest in Calbayog. Their barangays also belong to the poorest.

Between the months of August and February, when the most intense monsoon winds blow, the islands get more isolated from the rest of the city because no boat dares to head to the open sea. During that season, there is scarcely any food. People have to make do with wild grass and any available root crops.

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Fried camote, Sir Ricky’s lunch during the habagat season when no boats dare leave the island.

Aggravating the teachers’ situation in the islands is the seeming lack of support that they get from the government. They do not have a school so they teach their students inside the church. They do not receive any books, too.

The students’ houses are a long walk from the “school” and the unpaved roads that they tread are typically rough and muddy. Sometimes, there are even snakes slithering about.

My fellow Filipinos, the monthly salary of our entry-level teachers is only Php20,000. Some of them, like Sir Ricky and Rhio, do not receive regular hazard pays or hardship allowances despite the risks that they are made to face on a daily basis just to do their job. They are even required to make cash contribution for unit meets, competitions and other events. And they buy their supplies from their own pockets.

After all the deductions for taxes, GSIS, Pagibig, and all sorts of loans that they have previously availed, the teachers are left with a meager take-home pay. Yet, they still try to help their students in any way that they can.

Asked what they would request for should there be generous souls who would be ready to grant their wish, none of them expressed a desire for themselves.

School supplies for the students.

Slippers for the students.

Playground for the students.

Classrooms for the students.

Books for the students.

Asked why they continue to do what they do, they have a ready answer. They love teaching, they love their students, they love the community.

For them, it is enough that their students greet them with happy faces and toothy grins whenever they reach the village after a very long trek. The fruits and vegetables generously given to them in exchange for the medicines and other supplies that they provide for the parents are more loaded with sincere gratitude than the automatic thank yous that they are used to receiving. But, most of all, it is the realization that, in their own ways, they are making a difference in the lives of the children and their families, that keep them going. Day after day after day.

If that is not heroism, I don’t know what is.

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