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How the mountains called me to teach

By Ileana Cabochan Published Aug 05, 2022 5:00 am

When I was in high school, I was sure of becoming a marine biologist. I wanted to swim and do research. I wanted to explore the oceans and discover new things about marine life. So how did I end up in the classroom teaching Social Studies?

It all started with a college freshman year field trip. In one class, we were tasked to conduct interviews among the Aeta that lived in Zambales. While conversing with our group’s informant, I was deeply moved as I listened to her struggles as an Aeta mother. She told us about the discrimination Aetas encounter in schools in the lowlands because of their skin color or hair type. In some cases it is so extreme that it discourages some of their youth from continuing schooling. The field trip concluded with a gathering at the basketball court, wherein two Aetas, including our informant, demonstrated their skills with the bamboo. In a blink of an eye, they turned it into a complete dining set with just a knife!

Teaching is not just “reporting” what you know. It requires a different skillset altogether. I learned how to manage the classroom, intersperse lectures with learning activities, create assessments and give feedback.

Nothing against marine biologists of course, but at that time, I asked myself, did I really want to learn about fish? I had always thought that humans were too complex to study, and politics was a topic that gave me either too many sad and angry feelings or a headache. So yes, I wanted to just swim and study fish. But that field trip didn’t leave me with those feelings.

I realized that I always enjoyed conversing with people, especially learning from those with different backgrounds from mine. I realized, just like marine life and ecosystems, there is a big gap between what scientists know about indigenous groups and what is communicated to the public.

I learned about the life of people in the slums — why they choose to migrate out of Zamboanga and prefer to be beggars on the streets of Manila.

I eventually changed my course to BA Anthropology, where I read more ethnographies and conducted fieldwork among marginalized or minority groups. In the course of three years, I enjoyed conversations with the people of Bolinao, where we talked about their local names for animals, both extinct and living, and how these form local literature. We also conducted fieldwork among blacksmiths and devout Catholics in Bancoro, San Nicolas, Batangas. But the most memorable for me was my encounter with the Bajau migrants of Malate, Manila. From them, I learned about the life of people in the slums — why they choose to migrate out of Zamboanga and prefer to be beggars on the streets of Manila.

By now you might ask, “Why haven't we heard about their lives from the people themselves?” But how can one speak up if people before you have said that you have no rights over your own property? If your ancestors have been killed and uprooted, forced to migrate to the cities where life is so different from what they’ve known? I realized that one way we could amplify the voice of the marginalized is to close the gap between our worlds.

Teaching is not just “reporting” what you know. It requires a different skillset altogether.

In my last months in college, I grappled with the question: do I want to continue advocacy work, add to the research on indigenous peoples, or teach and inspire others to take notice of the lives the general public usually misses out on?

I decided to teach first, especially now that there is an “Understanding Culture, Society and Politics” subject required for senior high school students.

I was fortunate enough to get accepted to teach where I finished elementary and high school. Others might think that going back to my alma mater is like going back to the days I was a student there, or a step back from moving out of my comfort zone, but teaching, even in the same institution you grew up in, is a very different experience from studying.

Teaching is not just “reporting” what you know. It requires a different skillset altogether. I learned how to manage the classroom, intersperse lectures with learning activities, create assessments and give feedback.

In my five years, we were able to invite indigenous peoples as guest speakers to our Social Studies events.

As a teacher, you had to always dress, move, and speak in a dignified manner. I was highly conscious of this, but sometimes we just stumble and fall — literally! One day in my first year of teaching, I felt so tired after conducting four one-hour classes to 12-13 year olds. I was delivering the last lecture in my pencil skirt and heels, when I tripped on the platform in front of the whole class. It was, to say the least, VERY embarrassing. But the class and I managed to laugh it off. I told them it would be our little secret (for sure…), and we became closer because of that shared moment.

Although I did not originally plan to stay long in education, it is now my fifth year of teaching. In my five years, we were able to invite indigenous peoples as guest speakers to our Social Studies events. We’ve shown varied films about Philippine indigenous peoples, on top of inserting their life and struggles in our lesson plans. I catch myself almost crying whenever I read my students’ letters or reflections about our lessons and activities, or when parents tell me how much their children relay and apply our lessons in their daily lives.

I continue to stay on this path because being in the classroom has allowed me to challenge my students’ preconceived notions on history, our culture, and the concept of “being Filipino.” It has allowed me to share what I know and continue learning with my students.

(Teaching) is a profession that comes with many challenges, especially here in the Philippines.

Yes, choosing to stay took me far away from the indigenous peoples, but it has allowed me to bring them closer to people from different worlds. I bring their narratives and wisdom with me with every lesson I plan, and every time I face my students. I continue to dream of a world where they are free to determine how to live their lives. This dream might not be realized in my lifetime, but that is why I find so much hope in continuing to teach younger generations. At the moment, I enjoy being in the classroom, and I think it is where I need to be.

Every teacher has a purpose in continuing to teach. It is a profession that comes with many challenges, especially here in the Philippines. Some teachers I work with wake up at 3 a.m. to avoid the morning traffic, some ride the bike for 40 minutes to get to school, some commute daily from Laguna to Metro Manila, some teach online from the attic or climb the roof for signal. As for me, my purpose to keep going despite the challenges has and will always be clear: the bamboo cup made by my Aeta friend rests safely in my drawer to keep me grounded every day.