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My Life in Cebu: School Days

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School has started now in Cebu and once again there is more traffic at certain times of the day, but that’s all tolerable. It’s nice to see all the kids in their school uniforms; in my neighborhood, there are yellow, blue and white, pink and sort of a checkered green thing going on in the world of uniforms. They move in packs, the girls hanging together and the boys full of “Boy Bravado” pushing and shoving and laughing their way down the sidewalk. The little ones arrive on the backs of motor scooters with their dads, and large groups of mothers line the sidewalks in front of the schools. It is a “chika chika” ritual for the moms, a huge social event in their lives as they brag about their kids and position them for success in Filipino society. Filipinos strongly believe that education is the answer to a better life, to freedom from poverty, to opportunity. They are right in this belief.

In the US, where I taught for 35 years, a common question parents asked me was “Is this a “Good” school?” I always found the question interesting. The parents asking the question were genuinely concerned that their son or daughter got a “good” education which of course meant a lot of different things depending on how the parents saw and understood schools.

How to Move to the Philippines Manual

What exactly do you mean by “Good” is a pretty important question. I often answered, “Well, it depends. It has a lot to do with which teachers your son or daughter gets.” Some teachers are “better” (another vague term but I think it means, “Have more skills”) than others. Some teachers connect with the particular person your child is, better than others. I think most of us who are parents and grandparents understand this.

But what is your definition of a “Good School?” Does it mean that my child can go on to the next stage of schooling…? Primary to Secondary? Secondary to College? Does it mean that my child learns essential skills for entering the job market here or abroad? Does it mean that my child is both nurtured and challenged and that the school understands who she is as an individual? Does it mean that my child learns to get along with and work with others and that she becomes a positive, contributing citizen? Probably all of these are a part of the “Good School” definition.

My experience with Philippine schools is mixed. It is mostly with teaching in private schools but also observing the local public schools in my wife’s barangay in Samar and some of the schools in Cebu City. There are certainly differences between primary and secondary schools. Primary or Elementary school classes are generally smaller; kids at that age are more willing to do what a teacher asks, and the curriculum (what a child studies and what is taught) has been in place longer.

One thing I will say is that the teachers I have observed in the Philippines work hard and are a caring lot. They really do try to help kids individually and collectively and they understand that success in school is the true path for being able to move out of poverty and function in Philippines society.

Secondary schools are more mixed. Older kids are harder to teach. Older kids have “teenage wills” and other things besides school are calling for their attention. These are not always good things. The Secondary curriculum in The Philippines has changed enormously with the addition of two years of secondary school, to require 12 years of school for graduation rather than the former 10. Much of this curriculum and how to teach it is still being invented.

In addition, in public schools, class sizes become enormous, especially in the cities. It’s crazy. In Cebu City, the largest public secondary schools have 5000-6000 students with class sizes often at the 60 student mark.

I know from having been a classroom teacher and having trained teachers at the university that a teacher’s goal must be to have most of the students engaged in the learning activity that you are working on, most of the time. With this many students in a class, many who are “reluctant learners” who may be there more for social reasons than learning (teenagers you know…) getting kids to pay attention or to be engaged with the learning activity is almost impossible.

Young people are different, in interest, in skill level, in motivation and in their abilities and interest in doing what you are supposed to do in school. Thinking that every 15 years old would be the same is like thinking that all 15-year-olds would wear the same size clothes. It’s just not true. Recognizing individual differences in kids and delivering the lessons in the curriculum takes some real and thoughtful teaching skills. So, like I said above, a huge part of the “Good School” idea depends on who your child’s teachers are and what their abilities are to do these things with young people.

So, I think a lot about just what is it that school kids do all day? What is it that they learn (or don’t learn?) How is school here in The Phils similar or different from schools overseas? And, I guess, huge parts of my answers to, “Is this a good school?” lie in my questions about these areas of school life.

The Curriculum and How It is Taught

The School Environment including Class Sizes

The Teachers: Their Skill levels in Working with Different Kids and Their Subject Matter Knowledge

The Outcomes and Skills Kids Actually Learn. What is it that a Student Can Do with Information They Have Studied?

Most of us who read LIP are parents and many are grandparents. Some of us are raising or have raised second families. The Philippines, being the large and diverse place that it is, has thousands of schools; school life is diverse and it remains one of the centers of family life here.

So, I am very interested in your stories, experiences and thoughts about schooling and education where you live in the Philippines. What has been good for your family? What has been not so good? I truly hope to read some of your comments about what school here has meant to you and yours.

Rob Ashley

After travelling to the Philippines and SE Asia perhaps 15 times between 2007-2011, I decided to retire in Cebu and moved here in August 2011. Things changed fast. A month after I was here I met my wife Rachel; In 6 months I decided I was bored after having taught high school English and in a graduate school of education at a Portland, Oregon university for 30+ years; I looked around; I was hired as the Head of the English Department at a Cebu international school. Rachel and I got married; we bought a condo in Cebu City; we got two cats. After 3 years here I was offered a similar position at a Japanese international school, so we went to Japan. After two years there I was offered another position of Coordinator of Languages at a Vienna, Austria international school. Living in Europe was nice, but Rachel said, “It’s too cold here.” So, finally last August, we returned to Cebu for good, and I really am retired. I have learned that you pretty much take your life with you wherever you go. I have a PhD from the University of Oregon and I’m a diehard Oregon Ducks fan. Likewise an NBA Portland Trailblazers fan, so I am often up at 3 am on Sundays or Mondays to watch football and basketball games. Cebu is home now and many thanks to Bob Martin for LIP and the services and opportunities he offers us Expats.

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Luke Tynan
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Luke Tynan

Rob, Very good article and you cover a lot. My wife and her family are teachers here and I have had several discussions on teaching and I am have a question that you might be able to help me with as I am not a teacher. When I was going to school my teachers taught me 2 things along with my parents that I see lacking in the class rooms today hare and in the US. 1) The love of reading and 2) The love of learning. I learned the passion for reading books in school and at my parents… Read more »

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Hi Luke: Thank you for your comments and questions. I would say it is hard to generalize. In every school I ever worked in there were good (high achieving/interested/hard working) students and I would say that comes from family expectations. The number 1 predictor of whether or not a student will go to college is if he has heard it in his family, since Day 1, “After high school, you’ll go to college….” Kids who get that message, go to university. The world has become a bit more complex for young people and they get their information from other sources… Read more »

PapaDuck
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PapaDuck

Rob,
I really don’t have any knowledge about the schools here other than supporting 2 of my wife’s 2nd cousins education. One thing that is going on now at many US colleges is the lack of tolerance for an opposing point of view. I thought free speech was big at colleges? At least it used to be. Makes you wonder what is being taught. Hoping that change never infests the colleges here. Take care

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Papa: Free speech should continue to be big; one of the things I liked about college, back in the day when I was an undergraduate was walking out on the quad and seeing 15 card tables set up with people talking about and handing out everything from “Get out of Vietnam” to “Support the US in Vietnam” to “Save the Whales” to “Donate to the UN Children’s Fund” to “Short People for a Better Tomorrow…”and everything in between. Of course you didn’t agree with many of the ideas but the fact that people could have all these different ideas was… Read more »

Mike
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Mike

This is an excellent article Rob and it clearly shows you as a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher. I was also a secondary school teacher. I have a step-child in a Philippine State Secondary School and I have very negative opinions: My main insight into her classwork is through examining her exercise books – mostly they are rubbish. As much work is done in a year as I did with my students in a month; the work is disorganised and VERY rarely marked. Teachers appear to spend a lot of time wandering around inside the school and outside and being in… Read more »

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Mike: I’ll bet you could write a good curriculum. I think trying to understand the “quality” of Filipino schools is impossible because there is so much diversity. The Philippines is a country of over 100 million people and thousands of schools, public and private. I do think you can gauge and have effect on the quality of your local school and certainly the classrooms where your kids or grandkids are. The best way to do this is by establishing relationships with the teachers and school leadership and being both supportive and gently demanding. In other words, be a presence there.… Read more »

Paul Thompson
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Paul Thompson

Bob; I can’t see my child failing or even doing poorly in school. I may have worked in other fields (That I’ll not mention) but took I the time to help educate our two daughters here in the Philippines (And spend quality time with them) and when it occurred to me that as hard as the teachers in the Philippine Public School tried, they lack the tools (Do to budgets) to help the students succeed and I moved ours to private school swiftly, where they thrived. I heard other expats complain, yet took no action to help. But they did… Read more »

Cordillera Cowboy
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Cordillera Cowboy

Today, June 19th, is the birthday of Jose Rizal. Your article reminded me of a statement made by Filipino author and historian, Ambeth Ocampo. “Rizal’s greatest misfortune is that he wrote so much for a nation that does not read.” My observation of the general attitude toward education among the masses is that they remember the information long enough to pass the test. Then, never bother with it again. That piece of paper at the end seems to be the goal. Not the information learned along the way. Then there is the family next door to my mother-in-law. On the… Read more »

John Reyes
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John Reyes

Hi Pete – I think one of the major problems with Philippine education is that the medium of instruction is often conducted in the English language. The immediate problem with this is, it is not the home language of Filipinos. They are raised speaking and understanding Tagalog. So, even if they do read, do they understand what they’ve read? If you look around us in Southeast and East Asia, the national language is likely the preferred method of instruction among state-run institutions of learning. In the Philippines, not many students in the public schools, even at some state universities, have… Read more »

Mike R
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Mike R

Bit off topic here (my apologies) … but I wanted to use the chance (given by ” …. but did we even understand a single word of the poems we recited (He: Desiderata) …. ) to print ‘Desiderata’ here as it contains so many messages we need to take inside ourselves: GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too… Read more »

John Reyes
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John Reyes

I agree. The poem has a way of lifting your spirits when you feel down. I read it from time to time.

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Mike: Really interesting that you posted and talk about the poem Desiderata as I had put it aside to write about sometime in the future. Even though they made a dorky song about it in the 70’s and that made some people think it’s trite, it really is a very good philosophical statement with lots of “life wisdom.” You beat me to it. Good for you. -Rob

Mike R
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Mike R

Hi Rob – You should still do your article on ‘Desiderata’ as I only quoted it. There is much to dissect and analyse and I know you will do a good job of it. It would give readers a chance to think about their inner peace and how they best achieve it and, in so doing, give pointers to all of us.

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

John(above): I don’t disagree with you about making sure kids are fluent in their native language. I am on the fence a bit about the English as the language of instruction. This varies of course, depending on where you are in the Philippines. The fact that English is the language of instruction in schools means that most? many? Filipinos speak some English. The Philippines has really taken over the Call Center business in the world (mostly from India) and it is because many Filipinos speak pretty good English and because of this they are able to promote tourism and do… Read more »

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Pete and John: Bingo on this. Most of the kids in my wife’s Barangay in Samar, quit school after Grades 5, 6 or 1st year. She is the first to have graduated from high school and gone to college. And there reaction to her hard work is mostly…”Good for you. can we have some money?” Again, the lazy life in The Provinces doesn’t require education. Nobody in this part of The Provinces works in society. What these people discover though is that when they get older and they do want to “find work” in Cebu or Manila or Pampanga, they… Read more »

Cordillera Cowboy
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Cordillera Cowboy

“I think one of the major problems with Philippine education is that the medium of instruction is often conducted in the English language.” John Reyes. I agree with that. I understand the reasoning behind it, but to use it across the whole spectrum of students is problematic, as you described. Even using Tagalog/Filipino would have some, although fewer, problems outside the Tagalog speaking provinces. But here, Filipinos seem to pick up other Filipino dialects rather easily. Our place in Nueva Vizcaya is historically a hodgepodge of ethno linguistic groups. Just last week, I saw a news report entitled “We are… Read more »

John Reyes
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John Reyes

Hi Pete – In my opinion, a firm grasp of the national language, (ie, Filipino or Tagalog from which Filipino is derived after four centuries of colonial rule) is hardly a problem among Filipinos dispersed across the length and breadth of the Philippine archipelago. As you pointed out, Filipinos are adept at picking up other Filipino languages (and dialects) rather easily despite, may I say, their multi-ethnic, multi-cultural makeup. What is needed is a firm grasp of the English language (perhaps Mandarin, as well, with the way geopolitics is evolving), not only in order to be competitive internationally, but more… Read more »

Rob Ashley
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Rob Ashley

Cordillera and John: Really good discussion about the merits of native languages and English and Mandarin here. The world has gotten so much smaller because of the internet, and if you are a country like the Philippines, dependent on doing business with other countries and cultures, you have to pay attention (or at least somebody has to) to communicating with foreigners. This includes language as well as understanding customs and business practices. You guys both raise some ideas I haven’t thought about. I will. Thanks. -Rob

Cordillera Cowboy
Guest
Cordillera Cowboy

John, et al, My thoughts on making Filipino the primary language of instruction stem largely from observations of the rural laboring class here in Nueva Vizcaya. It is possible that many of the dropouts that I’ve observed may have stayed in school had they been able to understand the information being imparted. From that base, English could be added. The earlier, the better. And actual instruction on how to speak and read English. Not the total immersion of “here is your science lesson in a language you don’t really understand. The test is Friday.” One difference I’ve noticed between the… Read more »

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