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A century ago, American teachers went to the Philippines to establish the public school system there. English was established as the language of instruction. Now some schools in the U.S. have been recruiting Filipino teachers.
The new documentary The Learning takes a closer look at this trend, following four experienced teachers who left their homes and families in the Philippines to teach in Baltimore, where students are predominantly African-American. The foreign teachers fought to overcome cultural differences, bring order to classrooms and form meaningful bonds with local students.
The Learning is available for streaming on PBS.org until October 20.
Award-winning director Ramona Diaz talked about the film with Tell Me More host Michel Martin.
On circumstances driving the Filipina teachers to America, and the social costs of leaving home
Ramona Diaz: "A lot of them are the major breadwinners in their families. Like Angel, the youngest one, was actually sending all her siblings to school. And not only do they support immediate families, but extended families. And that's very common in the Philippines. So when they realized they were going to earn like 25 times more here — because I think the teachers there earn like $300 a month — and so when they did the numbers, it was a lot of money.
"You have to realize that a lot of these teachers had like 20, 21 years' experience teaching. So that meant they were close to the ceiling of how much a teacher could earn. And you know, typically here in Baltimore City, that's between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.
"In the Philippines, you have to realize that 10 percent of the population works overseas. So there are around 10 million people who leave the country and work overseas all over the world. It's an incredible number of people, so a lot of children are being left behind."
On these experiences affecting the teachers, the economy of the Philippines, and the students in Baltimore
Diaz: "I think they realized that they couldn't be breadwinners forever. Because although they're earning in dollars, they're also spending in dollars here. So for example, one of the teachers, Angel, when she goes back to the Philippines, she has a talk with her family. You know, she's never had the kind of conversation with her family where she tells them, 'I can't be the only one who supports this family. You have to help as well.'
"It really props up the Philippine economy. So you can say, like for every teacher who leaves the country, they send money home so their siblings can be educated. So it's really an investment in the future. But in the very present day, there is a brain drain.
"The teachers stay in the schools. Dorotea is still teaching at that same school. This is her sixth year there. She's seen a whole cohort of girls going through high school, graduate, and some go on to college. And that is a big thing in public schools. You know, the year and a half that I filmed in the city schools, I witnessed teachers leaving in the middle of the year — you know, fleeing to better-resourced school districts in the suburbs. So the fact that they're staying and there's this continuity that the kids will see them next year — is itself a success story."
On challenges in the classroom, and connecting with students
Diaz: "The language problem was ... very big at the beginning of the year. But after all, language is language, right? At some point, you get used to each others' accents. The bigger challenge was getting over the cultural differences. There are different social expectations for children in the Philippines. In the Philippines, children are seen but not heard. But in this country, children are expected to speak up.
"I think the teacher who was able to [form powerful bonds with students] was Dorotea. Because it's just the way she handled the class. You know, there was a workshop right before the beginning of the year. The administrators — the school officials — told the new recruits, the Filipino teachers, not to touch the kids. Because there's going to be pushback, and it might not be appropriate. But in Philippines, we're very tactile, you know, so they touch, they reach out. And Dorotea could never get rid of that. But she found at some point that even when she did it, she didn't get pushback. But at that point, she also formed other personal bonds with each of the students that she did that to."