March 18, 2009

Filipino Teachers Learn Tough Lessons About American Students

Filipino exchange teacher Ferdinand Nakila landed in Los Angeles expecting "Pretty Woman" scenes of swank Beverly Hills boulevards and glittering celebrities. What he got was Inglewood, where he stayed for two weeks in temporary housing and encountered drunkards, beggars, trash-filled streets and nightly police sirens.

It got worse. In training sessions about American classrooms he received in the Philippines, he was told his students might not be quite as polite and respectful as those in his homeland. Nothing, however, prepared him for the furious brawl that broke out in one of his Los Angeles classrooms, where two girls rolled around on the floor clawing at each other while the other students jumped on the desks and cheered.

But Nakila said his American sojourn has transformed him into a far better educator than when he arrived in August 2007. In the Philippines, he was imperious and demanding, throwing students out of his classroom for inadequate preparation with little thought of their plight.

In Los Angeles, his daily encounters with students struggling to learn despite shattered homes, sexual abuse, physical violence or hunger have humbled him into a new vision of teaching.

"I realize we are servants and teaching is more about touching lives and helping students own their own learning," said Nakila, 38, a special education teacher in English at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.

Nakila is part of a recent wave of foreign exchange teachers from the Philippines, who are primarily being recruited to fill chronic teacher shortages in math, science and special education throughout the United States. More than 100 school districts, including at least 20 in California, are recruiting from the Philippines, said Los Angeles immigration attorney Carl Shusterman.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has hired 250 to 300 teachers from the Philippines -- the largest contingent among more than 600 foreign exchange teachers overall, a district official said.

The statewide budget crisis and impending layoffs, however, have prompted L.A. Unified to suspend its foreign recruitment this year, said Deborah Ignagni, a district human resources administrator.

Pay is an incentive

Ignagni said the L.A. district first began recruiting foreign exchange teachers in the 1980s from Mexico and Spain to help with bilingual elementary education. But it shifted to the Philippines and Canada for math, science and special education teachers in the last four years, she said.

L.A. school officials have tapped the Philippines for several reasons, Ignagni said. The higher education system is similar, so credits are easily transferable for U.S. teaching credentials.

The Philippines has an abundance of teachers, which allows U.S. recruiters to avoid perceptions that they are taking educational resources needed by Filipinos, Ignagni said.

And most Filipinos speak English and can understand some Spanish, which is embedded in the Filipino language as a result of Spain's 300-year colonization of the islands.

Many of the teachers themselves say they jumped at the chance to work in the United States, lured primarily by far better pay. Most teachers in the Philippines earn $300 to $400 a month, less than one-tenth what they can pull down in Los Angeles.

But high processing fees from recruitment and visa sponsoring agencies have strapped many with debts of $10,000 or more.

Some, such as Gelacio Aguilar, sold land in the Philippines to finance their ventures. Others scraped up money from family and friends; still others took out loans.

To be hired in L.A. Unified, the teachers must pass basic skills exams and interviews, fulfill the requirements for a California teaching credential and have three to five years of successful teaching experience in public schools.

The teachers had hoped for work visas that would potentially lead to green cards. But L.A. Unified brings them in on three-year teacher exchange visas known as J-1s because they are easier to obtain, Ignagni said. The district is now applying for work visas for some teachers whose exchange visas have expired.

Rocky beginnings

Once the teachers arrive in Los Angeles, school officials give them a two-week orientation and offer job fairs to connect them with schools. But many describe a rocky start: loneliness, befuddlement over bus routes, apartment hunting, dealing with U.S. currency, American-style resume-writing. And, once in the classroom, utter shock.

Asked to describe his first year, Garcia leaned back in his chair, covered his face with his hands and murmured, "Oh, God."

His ninth-graders' average math skills were sixth-grade level. While he was trying to teach, students roamed the classroom, applied makeup, chatted with one other, tuned out with iPods. A hallway fight started spilling into his class, and when he tried to push the brawlers back out, he said, he was reprimanded for touching them.

During a recent evening interview at his Washington Boulevard apartment, Nelson de la Cruz pulled up his shirt to reveal a black and blue bruise. He got it, he said, after a student threw a book at him. Another teacher suffered injuries after a chair was thrown at her, said Daniel Gumarang of the Filipino American Educators Assn. of Los Angeles, which is aiding the teachers.

Some teachers have given up and headed back to the Philippines, but Ignagni estimated them at "less than a handful."

Nakila, for instance, said he learned something every day about how to handle his students. One lesson: be sensitive to their backgrounds. Aiming to inspire them, he presented Latino success stories and asked students to write about their own heroes, but the reaction was negative, even angry. When he told them about his own heroic father and asked them to describe their own, Nakila said one lashed out, "I don't even know his name, and I don't want to know."

Now he avoids lessons that might cause them to feel inadequacies in their own families.

He keeps cookies in the classroom to feed students who come to school without breakfast, a situation he said he never imagined he would find in wealthy America. He calls parents to ask why they're giving their children Kool-Aid rather than something more nutritious. He tells students he will never give up on them, even if they show their worst.

"I used to wake up thinking 'Oh, my God, let me survive this day,' " Nakila said. "Now I wake up excited, eager to meet my students."

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