POV “The Learning”

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— A Century After American Educators Helped Create Public Schools in the Philippines, Filipino Teachers Are Returning the Favor – In America's Inner Cities—

POV's The Learning tells a surprising tale of immigration, globalization and America's shifting position in the 21st century. When the United States took possession of the Philippines in 1898, American teachers set up the islands' public school system. English was established as the language of instruction and remains so to this day. Today in the Philippines, there is a large pool of trained, motivated, English-speaking teachers, especially in high school math, science and special education. In their country, these teachers receive poverty-level salaries, making them prized recruitment targets for many U.S. school districts, especially those in cash-strapped inner cities. While a salary in one of these urban districts may be low by American standards, it can be as much as 25 times a teacher's salary in the Philippines. POV “The Learning” airs Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 10 p.m. on Eight.

As a result, in recent years there has been a trend of Filipino teachers seeking a better life by braving America's urban schools and their poor, often troubled students. In Baltimore, 600 Filipinos account for 10 percent of the teaching force. The Learning is the story of four Filipina women facing their first year in Baltimore's schools, where learning is a two-way street marked with disappointment and inspiring breakthroughs.

“‘ The Learning' is like no other teaching film — it sensitizes you in fresh and unexpected ways to the transactions between instructors and students.” – Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

In documenting a very special year in the lives of Filipina educators Dorotea Godinez, Angel Alim, Grace Amper and Rhea Espedido, The Learning captures these women's individual experiences, their hopes and their daily classroom struggles, while also exposing the issues that plague many American public schools. Declining school funding, urban poverty and crime have given these teachers a golden opportunity — and delivered rude shocks as the women are thrust into the heart of America's educational crisis.

Chronicling the women's determination and unshakeable belief in education, The Learning is a bracing and timely evocation of a teacher's indispensable work.

As they prepare to leave the Philippines, it's easy to see that economic need is driving the four women to leave their families and students. Filipino public-school classrooms may be rudimentary and the teachers' methods traditional and rote by modern standards, but the students are motivated and disciplined — and the teachers are respected. Most strikingly, an extraordinarily warm and familial feeling reigns in Filipino public schools, without impairing discipline. Dorotea weeps at her farewell party, explaining apologetically to students and colleagues that she'll be making 25 times her Filipino salary in America.

The women share the sorrow of leaving their homes and families, as well as a giddy sense of possibility. For Dorotea, whose children are almost grown and whose husband is unemployed, the parting is sad but necessary. For Grace, the opportunity to improve her infant son's future means separation. Rhea, whose husband is in prison, declares herself all too ready for something other than the hard life in her native country. The youngest, Angel, who supports five of her seven siblings, has the most gilded dreams about what America will offer.

In Baltimore, the women meet welcoming, beleaguered colleagues at the four schools to which they are assigned, Harlem Park Middle School, Renaissance Academy, Lockerman Bundy Elementary School and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (one of the highest-ranked public high schools in the state). They also find disorderly classrooms jammed with mostly African-American students, many behind in their studies and barely motivated to learn. One of the provocative subtexts of The Learning is the way poverty has such different effects on young people in the two countries. In Baltimore, the kids test the teachers with outrageous behavior, so different from the mannered orderliness of Filipino schoolchildren. The teachers alternate their familial skills and emotional appeals to the students' better natures with attempts at stern discipline. They find themselves stymied by culturally different classroom rules — in Baltimore, they are not allowed to hug the students freely!

One might expect disaster from such a disparate combination of teachers and students. Yet, slowly, the students' curiosity gets the better of them and they begin to be impressed by these foreign women who are so determined to teach them. Indeed, the very unfamiliarity of these not-quite-identifiable Asian women helps the black students open up. For the Filipinas, a window also opens: They let go of their cultural expectations and begin to work with the students on American terms.

The story moves back to the Philippines, where the teachers return for the summer holidays to a hero's welcome. As they regale their former colleagues with stories of life in America, they see how their year abroad has changed their families and themselves. Will teachers imported from a poor country prove to be part of the long-term solution to the struggling U.S. education system? That remains to be seen. And just outside the frame of the film lingers another question: How will the migration of some of the best and brightest teachers out of the Philippines affect the future of education there?

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