'The Learning': Social Costs Of Teaching Abroad In the new film The Learning, four teachers leave their close families in the Philippines to work in Baltimore, where wages are up to 25 times higher than what's offered at home. They persist to overcome cultural differences, bring order to classrooms and form meaningful bonds with American students. The film reflects a shift in education — a century ago, Americans set up schools in the Philippines, but U.S. has now been recruiting Filipinos to teach in the states. Michel Martin hears from director Ramona Diaz.
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'The Learning': Social Costs Of Teaching Abroad

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'The Learning': Social Costs Of Teaching Abroad

'The Learning': Social Costs Of Teaching Abroad

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We turn to two subjects that we try to follow closely, education and immigration. And if you live in some cities or towns around the country and if your kids go to public school, then you've probably seen this trend for yourself.

There's been a striking turnaround in the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines. A century ago, American teachers went to the Philippines to establish the public school system there. English was established as the language of instruction.

But now some schools in the U.S. have been recruiting Filipino teachers to come to the U.S. A new documentary tells this story by following a year in the lives of four experienced teachers who left their homes in the Philippines to teach in Baltimore. It's called "The Learning." It's available as streaming video on PBS now.

And joining us is the director, Ramona Diaz. Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

RAMONA DIAZ: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What brought you to this story?

DIAZ: Back, I think, in '05, 2005, I had read a series of articles that was written by then education reporter here at the Baltimore Sun, Sara Neufeld, and she was following one of these Filipino teachers who were recruited from the Philippines to teach here in Baltimore City.

So I found it so weird that it was happening. First of all, that I didn't know about it. Around 100 teachers then in the system? And I'm very plugged into the Filipino-American community and I hadn't heard about it, so that was weird to me, and...

MARTIN: Now, just to mention that you were born and raised in the Philippines, but you have spent your adult life in the U.S.

DIAZ: Yes. And I've lived all over the U.S. too. You know, San Francisco, Boston, Baltimore.

MARTIN: But you're saying this story was hiding in plain sight? You hadn't heard about this?

DIAZ: I had not heard about it until I read about it the Sun. I contacted Sara Neufeld, who got me in touch with the teachers, who got me in touch with the city school officials and one thing led to another and then I was invited to actually film a recruitment in the Philippines.

So in February '06 I found myself starting to film this. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I just felt, you know - as a documentary filmmaker, I felt there was a story there.

MARTIN: Well, you know, the film makes the point that, while the motivation is obvious, the film does not shy away from this at all - while teacher salaries here might be considered meager by, you know, some people's standards, they are up to 25 times as much as the salaries that some of these very experienced teachers are making in the Philippines. So talk a little bit about the calculation of what it is that drives some of these teachers to come to the U.S. What are some of their circumstances, of the people you followed?

DIAZ: Well, I followed four Filipino teachers. You know, a lot of them are the major breadwinners in their families. So like Angel, the youngest one, was actually sending all her siblings through 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 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. And you have to realize that a lot of these teachers are - had, like, 20, 21 years experience teaching, so that meant that they were close to the ceiling of how much a teacher could earn.

And, you know, typically, here in Baltimore City, that's between, you know, 60 and 70 thousand dollars a year, so it's a lot of money.

MARTIN: You know, teaching is hard work under any circumstance. I think that we can all agree on that.

DIAZ: Yes.

MARTIN: But here you have some real cultural differences. I mean the teachers speak the same language, as we mentioned, that English is the language of instruction in the Philippines, but they speak the same language, but they don't really, you know?

DIAZ: Yes. (Laughing)

MARTIN: And for example, the teachers are used to a level of deference that they don't get often in the U.S.

So let me just play a short clip from some of the concerns that they had also about the way they would be able to relate to their children. This is Dorotea. Here it is.


DOROTEA GODINEZ: If I will be so mean with them, they might sue me or they might charge me with something which I never do, so I might just be in jail in America, which is - I don't ever dream of. Oh, my God.

MARTIN: That was one thing, but then also - and I must say, you know, as a parent - you're a parent also - the scenes of leaving their families, some of the people you followed - one of the teachers has an infant. You know, the children - some of the children that they're leaving behind are very small. That was hard to watch.

DIAZ: That was my initial interest. What is really the cost of all these women and men going overseas to work? Because in the Philippines, you have to realize that 10 percent of the population work overseas. So they're like around 10 million people who leave the country and work overseas all over the world. It's incredible, you know, number of people, so a lot of children are being left behind.

MARTIN: And husbands too and spouses.

DIAZ: And spouses, yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. And, but what about looking at it from the other direction? And, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the new PBS documentary "The Learning." It tells the story of four Filipina teachers who leave their homes to come to the U.S. to teach. They all land in Baltimore. The film is available on PBS now. Our guest is director Ramona Diaz.

But Ramona, I know that your particular interest, as you mentioned, you're Filipina-American and your particular kind of interest was the Filipinas who are coming here. But what about the students who have to adapt to somebody whose accent might be challenging, who might have very different expectations of them then they, you know, are used to? What about that side of the story?

DIAZ: You know, the language problem was, of course, that was very big at the beginning of the year. But after all, language is language, right? At some point you get use to each other's accents. The bigger challenge was getting over the cultural differences.

You know, there are different social expectations of children in the Philippines. In the Philippines, children are seen but not heard. But in this country, children are expected to speak up. You're expected to voice your opinion, you're encouraged - otherwise, you know, you'll be left behind. So that was, I think, one of the things that the teachers found challenging. You know...

MARTIN: And what about the race piece? Let's just go right there.

DIAZ: Okay.

MARTIN: What about the race piece, the fact is that Baltimore city, which is where these teachers were - the ones that you were following were - is a predominantly African-American system, and it has some pockets of excellence, of course.

DIAZ: Yes.

MARTIN: But there are also some challenges. There are a lot of kids dealing with a lot of issues. What about the race, class piece?

DIAZ: Well, you have to understand Michel, that they didn't have that cultural baggage, the Filipino teachers. They came to this country and realized okay, it's an African-American population, they're American children. There isn't all that baggage, if that makes sense.

MARTIN: So you think in some ways you're saying that you think it might have been an advantage that they were from overseas because they didn't bring a lot of the cultural expectations about performance that you think other people might have had?

DIAZ: Absolutely. I think so. But, of course, as they lived here and, you know, talked to other local teachers, they saw a bit, you know, they were exposed to the bigger picture. But initially, that's how they treated the kids. And I think the kids appreciated it. You know...

MARTIN: Well, you know, there were some really moving scenes where some of the teachers said, you know what? I'm like your mother. I love you.

DIAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: My children aren't here so you're going to be my children. But some of the teachers had some real problems with - we'll just say classroom control and, you know, that became an issue.


MARTIN: And kids, you know, breakdancing in their class and doing all kinds of mess. What did you observe? Now I know that you're not an instructor by training yourself. I am curious about what you observed about why some of the teachers were able to really form some powerful bonds with their students and really connect with them and some of the teachers weren't.

DIAZ: I think the teacher who was able to was Dorotea, because it's just the way she handled her 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. Well, in the 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 pushed back. But at that point she also formed other personal bonds with each of the students that she did that to.

MARTIN: Well, let me play a clip from that, where the young lady that Dorotea seems to get really close to, she, by the end of the film she's calling her my girl. Hello, my girl.


MARTIN: And here it is.


GODINEZ: I'll be going home in June. Will you miss me?


GODINEZ: Are you sure?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yup. You're not coming back?


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I wouldn't leave my family if I was you. Ssh. I still wouldn't.

GODINEZ: Uh-huh.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Do you like it in the Philippines?

GODINEZ: Mm-hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: You like it over here better?

GODINEZ: That's a very tough question.


DIAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, yeah. It is a tough question. Ramona, what, how do you think these teachers were changed by the experience? And how do you think their relationships with their families were changed by the experience? As you mentioned, many of these women were the breadwinners in their households. And there's some also some really tough scenes where you've got family members well, I'll just say, demanding more money, you know, from them...

DIAZ: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: ...when they're already, you know, working really hard to send money home. How do you think that they're - how do you think they were changed both as people and also their relationships with their families as a result of this experience?

DIAZ: I think that they realize that they couldn't be breadwinners forever because, you know, although they spend - they're earnings 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, you know, I can't be the only one who supports this family; you have to help as well. And I think her year here helped her to come to that stage where she could say hey, listen, I can't be the only one doing this.

MARTIN: To stand up for themselves a bit more?

DIAZ: Yes. Yes. And that's very tough. You know, in the Philippines you don't do that because you are expected. The person who leaves and goes abroad to earn money is the person who supports everyone else.

MARTIN: Hmm. What effect do you think that they're having on the country?

DIAZ: You know, it really props up the Philippine economy. So you could say like for every teacher who leads the country they send money home so their siblings could be educated, so it really is an investment in the future. But at the very present day, there is a brain drain...

MARTIN: And they're also leaving children to be raised often by well, there are other family members there but that's really hard. I mean leaving a baby behind. Then now there's Skype and there are things that weren't there...

DIAZ: Yeah, but it's not the same, as you know.


MARTIN: But it's not the same of...

DIAZ: Yes.


DIAZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: What effect do you think that these international teachers are having on the districts in which they teach and on the students they teach?

DIAZ: You know, I can only speak about Baltimore. I think the teachers stay in the schools. Dorotea is still teaching at that same school. This is her sixth year there. She seen a whole cohort of girls go through high school, graduate and some go on to college. And that is a big thing in public schools. You know, the year and half that I filmed 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 is this continuity that the kids will see them next year is itself a success story.

MARTIN: What would you like people to draw from this film?

DIAZ: I just want people to like meet women that they would otherwise not meet and experience what they would otherwise not experience. It's very experiential, the film. It's very observational. So that's what I want to do, like walk in these women's shoes for a year.

MARTIN: And they do. And you do.

DIAZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: Ramona Diaz is the director, producer and writer of the documentary "The Learning." It is streaming on PBS until October 20th. She was kind enough to join us from Baltimore. If you want to learn more about the film, we'll have information about it on our website, just go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

Ramona Diaz, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DIAZ: Oh, thanks for having me.

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