The Day I Spent Teaching In The Philippines (Without Any Warning)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Day I Spent Teaching In The Philippines

What does one do when thrust into the unexpected situation of teaching a class of 57 children in the capital of the Philippines? Why, sing, of course.

A trip to the Philippines is always an education, but this time I’d planned on taking things easy. Rather than sail out into the wilderness and explore some of the 7,000-plus islands that make up the archipelago, the idea was simply to stay put in the capital, visit some friends, grab a few bargains in the vast malls and generally avoid the unusually harsh European winter.

It isn’t long, however, before I’m tempted out of my 35th-floor hideaway in the grandly named Global City district of Manila (once the site of a vast American military base called Fort Bonifacio, today it is an upmarket assemblage of corporate skyscrapers, plush apartments and overpriced restaurants) and into the altogether wilder environs of neighboring Taguig.

I hand the taxi driver a piece of paper with the scrawled address of the Captain Jose Cardones Elementary School — where I’m meeting a friend — and he assures me he knows exactly where to go. Soon he’s stopping every few minutes, thrusting the note at every other pedestrian, “just to check, sir.” Meanwhile I sit helplessly in the back, watching the meter tick up and wondering why I still fall for this trick after so many years.

Mind you, I can understand his confusion. Taguig is a maze of ramshackle markets, makeshift eateries and tiny sari-sari stores, where men in string vests and baseball caps reach between rusting iron bars to make micro-purchases of Nescafe sachets and rough local cigarettes (sold singly, rarely by the packet). A welcome, cool breeze is doing its best to disperse the ever-present fog of pollution, and it seems like the entire city is outside, haggling for vegetables, chewing on chicken kebabs, playing tongits to win a few pesos, or somehow sleeping through the din of traffic and the warbling efforts of unselfconscious videoke singers. The shiny saloons of Bonifacio are gone, outmaneuvered by overloaded tricycle sidecars buzzing down the narrow lanes, causing scrawny dogs to leap for their lives.

As we pull up in a cloud of dust, I briefly wonder whether the taxi driver will ever find his way out again. Then every head in the street is turning magnetically towards me; very few foreigners have cause to come here. Fedila, an old friend who happens to be an English teacher at the school, is waiting to greet me at the gates. Her daughter is currently in a music class; before we go to dinner, would I care to sit in?

As we make our way along the shiny stone corridors, passing a compact clinic, computer room and library, I hear the first excited cries of “Americano!” from kids who have spotted a visitor through the slatted glass windows of their classrooms. There would be little sense in pointing out that I’m from England, actually (numerous previous trips to the Philippines have taught me that in this country, if you’re white, you’re an Americano — end of story)

Soon we reach the music room where Mrs. Chonchita Savedra is teaching a new song to a class of first-graders. There’s a quick exchange in tagalog — a language spoken by about 22 million Filipinos — of which I understand little, but from the frequent glances and nods in my direction, I sense something is being agreed. Then Fedila disappears, thanking me somewhat cryptically for “helping out.” What, exactly, am I helping out with, I wondered?

“This is Carl, he’s my new boyfriend,” says Chonchita, getting a big laugh from the class, whose lesson has just taken a very unexpected turn. “We’re very lucky to have him with us today. He’s going to teach you all some English songs. Carl, over to you.” And with that she scoops up a stack of exercises books and marches off to catch up on some grading, leaving me with a lot of eager five-year-olds and no idea what to say to them.

It’s hard to say what comes as the bigger shock: the fact of finding myself in front of a class for the first time in 20 years (I once taught English, rather ineptly, to Italian language students during university holidays), or the mortifying prospect of singing in public. There’s no time to dwell on that, though, with 57 expectant faces studying me intently as my mouth opens and closes like a goldfish. Instead I play for time, dredging up a couple of long-forgotten name games and finding out what some of them want to be when they grow up (doctors, astronauts and soldiers mostly).

As I’m going through this routine, some animal pictures on the wall catch my eye, and the old standby, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” springs to mind. I ask them to list some animals for our farm, expecting them to come up with the usual: cows, pigs and sheep. Instead they call out monkeys, flying foxes and water buffalo — a menagerie not many kids from the West would recognize. After a boisterous rendition, complete with all the right noises, we’re on to “Once I Caught a Fish Alive,” providing an opportunity to practice counting and past tenses.

Just as I’m getting into my stride, Mrs. Savedra comes back, having finished her grading. There’s just time to take a group photo of my five dozen new best friends. As I’m saying my goodbyes, some of them press the back of my hand to their forehead in the pagmamano gesture of respect. Then I’m being ushered along, like some visiting dignitary, to the principal’s office.

As one of her colleagues places a plate of pork adobo in front of me, Rebecca fills me in on the bigger picture: 3,230 children aged between six and eleven are enrolled at Jose Cardones. With 75 teachers to look after them, they attend in two shifts of 6 a.m. to noon and noon to 6 p.m. All of their teachers are female (which accounts for their animation in meeting not just a foreigner, but a man to boot). The curriculum encompasses tagalog, English, math, social studies, science, music, religion, home economics and physical exercise. Thanks to a recent and enlightened government “Education for All” initiative, basic primary tuition is free. In a relatively deprived neighborhood like Taguig, though, many parents struggle to afford the miscellaneous charges for books, packed lunches, uniforms and so forth, and all too frequently, a child halfway through his or her school career will be taken home when the money runs out.

Those fortunate enough to attend benefit from a clear code of conduct, spelled out on posters around the classrooms: “Be Helpful”, “Respect Your Parents and Elders”, “Love Your Country” (“Lupang Hinirang,” the national anthem, is solemnly sung, hand on heart, at the start and end of every week). Other placards instruct the reader to “Worship the Lord Jesus,” and (my favorite) “Obey Signs Such as Keep Off the Grass.” I’m still wondering where this fabled patch of grass might be in the concrete capital.

The school day over, and it is with some reluctance that I head back out through the teeming alleys of Taguig towards the posh end of town. The real life of the city, I now realize, is going on down here, not up in my air-conditioned bubble. Even as a grown man, an afternoon in a children’s class has certainly taught me a thing or two.

By Carl Thompson


About the Author

Carl Thompson has been writing for travel publications and guidebooks for many years, mainly with the intention of avoiding a proper job. For the full story of a misspent decade, please visit

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