"When children get overwhelmed by life events, they may not be able to articulate it. And so they cope in various ways."
Lou Sabrina Ongkiko had finished her BS Biology at Ateneo de Manila University and done one year as a Jesuit Volunteer when she made a surprise announcement to her parents, crossing her fingers that they would understand: She was not going to medical school as planned.
She wanted, instead, to study education so she could teach poor children. And so she went back to school, through her own efforts, and thereafter started teaching at Culiat Elementary School on Tandang Sora Avenue, Quezon City.
More than a decade after this crossroad, Ongkiko was named one of 2021’s Outstanding Filipinos by Metrobank Foundation.
“I am grateful, but I am also scared,” Ongkiko, who teaches science and English, said in a Zoom interview last week. “To be branded as ‘outstanding’ carries a lot of weight. I know it’s a bigger mission.”
Learning from students
She had anticipated the massive workload, but in her first year of teaching, 12 years ago, Ongkiko was shocked at the realization that so many things were out of her control as a teacher.
“You want the best for your students, but they themselves have to deal with many issues: Family conflict, poverty, hunger, the need to work at a very young age to help their parents,” she said.
“If I only had to teach inside the classroom, that would be easy. But I realized that these external things also determined the way they learned – and there is nothing I can do about them.”
Her daily interaction with her students opened her eyes to the stark reality.
“I used to walk with them after school, and during these conversations, I made an effort to really get to know them.”
She treasured the “lectures” they gave her during these walks. “’This is our life, Ma’am. Have you tried eating rice with salt and soy sauce?’ They talked about these things in a matter-of-fact way – without self-pity. And so I took notes. I understood why they couldn’t perform well – they did not have sufficient nutrition.”
She grappled with a profound sense of helplessness. “That is what is magical about the love of a teacher. You care so much about other people’s children and you get so affected by their aspirations, hopes, sufferings. If you get involved in their lives, you will find the load heavy, you will feel exhausted.”
And then COVID-19 came.
Her school first made a survey of how many among the students had gadgets and internet connection. What is the level of reading ability if they chose to use modules? How could they reach those who did not have smartphones?
These circumstances brought on by the pandemic – parents losing jobs, families not knowing where to get their next meal – made life generally more difficult for students. These realities now overlapped with the difficulties of learning. In response the school created a way to still deliver online learning – through Facebook, which one could still use for free even if one did not have mobile load. This complements other ways of delivering education during this difficult time. Ongkiko also heads the school’s learning continuity program.
A system of care
One of the most glaring gaps that emerged was poor attendance – even though the sessions were held via Facebook Messenger – and non-submission of requirements. The problem was consistent with the observations of teachers in other schools.
“We refused to believe that all of those who were not showing up just decided to throw away the opportunity to learn,” Ongkiko said.
And so they consulted experts, who offered insight into the workings of the children’s minds: Children become so overwhelmed with the changes that they are experiencing because of the pandemic, and they are unable to articulate this. Thus, they cope in various ways, distracting themselves. Learning is not necessarily at the forefront of their response.
The school’s response was to build a system of care and compassion. “Taking care of children means more than their academics. This is not just mental but also psycho-emotional. We must have other things to support them and help them cope,” Ongkiko said.
But what does it mean to be truly compassionate? Extending deadlines for missed requirements, for instance, may be seen as a compassionate act. “But the extension is not itself compassion. Compassion is, instead, taking the effort to get to know why this particular student’s performance is slipping, and asking how you can help.”
Ongkiko has simple advice for teachers who may have a dilemma in managing their students. “Always ask: What is the loving thing to do?”
In a TED Talk delivered before Ateneo Senior High School students just before the pandemic kicked in, Ongkiko posed the question: What Do You Want To Be? The most common response to this question is a profession — lawyer, doctor, engineer — but before that audience of kids with options, starkly different from her own students in Culiat, Ongkiko emphasized that it was more important to envision the kind of person one wanted to be. She herself had always wanted to be a loving person – and her profession is her way of manifesting this love.
She says this love abounds among her colleagues, Ongkiko says, who show acts of compassion and heroism in their own ways. Some are more obvious, while some are more quiet than others. “I am sure this is not unique to our school. There are many more like them. They are my idols!”
The pandemic highlighted that learning is a community effort, and that the task is to multiply the teachers’ sources of learning for their students. The virtual space, for instance, showed it is possible to invite people from other places to share their knowledge. This is just one thing educators could carry to the next normal.
Ongkiko knows her job is far from done. She wants to study even further – specifically, how human behavior and education intersect. The longer she stays at her job, the more she acknowledges that there is a lot more to learn.
Of course it is difficult, and it will continue to be difficult – for her and all other teachers who care too much about the children under their wing. Ongkiko has had anxiety attacks, burnouts, and almost went into depression. She is lucky to be able to surround herself with people who love her, with whom she can talk and eat and unwind, and who remind her why she started doing this in the first place.
When things get unbearable, Teacher Sab tells herself: “If a small, invisible virus can change how we live, how much more a small thing done with great love?”
And then she rises to begin another day.