Courage, Compassion, Commitment

9896_10151517953842670_1392640369_nThis keynote message was delivered to Batch 2017-B cohort of Teach for the Philippines.
Congratulations Batch 2017-B!

Today I was asked to share with you my fellowship experience and how I’ve continued to leave my mark.

I was told that your batch’s signature hashtag is #puso – quite fitting especially since the TFP team has shared a little bit about you and your experience during your pre-fellowship training. Since we’re in the subject of hearts, allow me to start with a love story.

Several years ago, I was having my own version of my quarter-life crisis. I decided to end a 7-year relationship, was on the brink of quitting my job, and was generally starting to become unhappy with the person I was turning out to be. It was during this time that I started to go back to attending weekday masses and it was there that I met my husband. During this tough period, when we were also getting to know each other, he wrote me this letter:

Over the past few months that we’ve been around each other’s lives, I found myself loving myself more.

I read more. I always wanted to, but no one really “pushed” me to. I wrote more, not because I can write well, because I realized that I became more confident in sharing myself and my thoughts because you’ve made me believe in myself a little bit more. I dreamed more. I never considered that things i read about or watch can actually be cues to help me do more things. I felt more alive at the prospect of actually being able to do them. I spoke more about things that I care about- like politics, or other nerdy stuff, even if not many people do, because when I did, you listened, and that mattered a lot. In the same way, I saw you become more of you, and as I saw that, you became more beautiful to me each day. I hope that in the course of you finding that someone who you would want to spend your life with, you do not lose who you are…even if you always say that people don’t get you, or that you think you’re weird…because that is who you are, and  I don’t think that’s worth giving up.

The first thing I want to share to you is Courage. That’s probably the first thing I learned when I allowed my husband to love me then – to have the courage to be myself. In his book, Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer says:

Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be.

You teach who you are. You are what you teach. I hope you remember that no two teachers are ever the same. You are unique in your own way. Do not be afraid to share and be yourself in the classroom. There is no “super teacher” after all. It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself with other teachers, and fellows even. At times, you may even ask yourselves why you don’t have those profound, heartbreaking stories to share. Why haven’t I experienced my miracle breakthrough stories? As one of our co-fellows said, “Teach. Don’t be a hero.” – This is probably one of the best advice I’ve heard, and one of the most grounded and most humbling.

The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able… We lose heart, in part, because teaching is a daily exercise  in vulnerability.

What’s the thing most people fear more than death? Public speaking. When you think about it, part of a teacher’s daily job is to speak in front of a group – no wonder stress levels are high because we always put ourselves in a vulnerable spot. There is something about standing in front of a crowd that makes you feel undone, exposed, vulnerable. And because of this, you tend to focus on yourself – your strengths, mistakes, anxieties, that you easily lose sight of the other – your students.

If the first thing we talked about is courage, the next thing I want to share about is Compassion. The teaching-learning process is, of course, not complete without the students. Oftentimes, we get too caught up with ourselves and ironically we forget about our students.

I met Charlie on the first day of school. I asked him why his left eye was bulging and swollen. He told me, “‘Cher, nakagat ng ipis. (Teacher, it was bitten by a cockroach.)” His sando underneath his polo shirt was tattered and  yellowish. His pants were held by a makeshift belt that was tied together by wires and a fork. He would constantly move from his seat and quite literally, swim on the floor. I asked him questions and he would give me a blank stare. I asked him to read a few words and he only shook his head in response. I let him go and with a quiet sigh, I knew he would definitely be a challenge this school year. By the end of the day, all his classmates knew who he was because I kept on calling his attention.

It’s easy to miss things when the school days go by so quickly. One morning, I found myself consumed by paperwork and deadlines, when I realized I almost missed out on this boy. He almost had perfect attendance. He would religiously come to school earlier to attend remedial classes. When I look back, I don’t think a single school day passed that I didn’t scold (yes, scold!) him for misbehaving. Yet at the end of each day, because he insisted on being a cleaner, he would diligently fix the chairs in the classroom, sweep the floor with his bare hands when our broom is missing and still say goodbye to me with a smile.

Compassion for our students – to see the world through their eyes, to see yourself in their eyes, and to understand their hearts’ desires and sorrows. To have compassion for our students means to be in solidarity with them. To share in their experiences – to get to know them, what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what makes them excited, and so on. At the heart of our vocation should be the desire to get to know our students. When you teach, you don’t just deliver lessons – you handle lives.

Rita Pierson said that every kid needs a champion – I hope that you could be that champion in their lives, even if it’s just for a brief moment. And while we can teach our kids about grit and hard work, I hope you also remember to allow them to experience success in their lives. Just like what Auggie Pullman, the lead character from one of my favorite books, Wonder, says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.”

Courage, compassion… and the last thing I want to share with you is Commitment.  

Angela Duckworth defines Grit as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” What it means to be committed – I think this phrase captures it well. A few months ago, I stumbled upon old papers I wrote in college. It’s been 10 years since I graduated and what surprised me is that my goal as a teacher then remains the same today and that is: I want my students to be happy. I want them to know what they’re good at, not so good at. I want to know their hopes and dreams and help them achieve them. And part of that is to also include others in their dreams.

What I’ve come to realize over the past decade is that what matters most to me as a teacher is the relationship I have with my students. I realized that it wasn’t important to me to groom students to become valedictorians, math wizards, bookworms, etc. I just want them to be happy and to learn how to help others along the way.

Last week, my boss asked me if I was still enjoying my job. Currently, I work for a corporate foundation and I run our scholarship program. This program has allowed me to get to know more than 100 scholars – future teachers, engineers, and accountants and more than a hundred employees as well who volunteer to be their mentors. I do, in fact, love my job. And I realized that even if I’m outside the classroom now, I still get to do that part of teaching that I love most – building relationships with students.

I bring this up because we all have our reasons for joining the fellowship. It’s important to remember your why because this will serve as your anchor and inner compass for the next two years. And while we may have different goals and commitments in mind, I hope you remember these two things:

First, is the commitment to learn. You are all extraordinary individuals but I hope you allow yourself to become a beginner again when you start this fellowship. You think that you may know a lot about schools, children, and education – but whatever it is you think you know, prepare to let go. Learn first. Listen first.

Second, remember that you’re not making this commitment on your own. You have this wonderful team from TFP, your family, friends, and co-fellows with you. If it takes a village to raise a child, then I must say that it also takes a village to raise a great teacher.

This picture here is a gift that my husband gave me right before I started the fellowship. Inside the box are materials for school – post its, pens, stickers, pins, etc. As a bonus, he also filled it with random notes. He told me to pick a note for each bad school day. I don’t exactly know how many notes were there but maybe there were about 50. At the end of the fellowship, I didn’t even open half of them. What does this mean? It just means that I had so many good days that they outweighed the bad ones. The fellowship was tiring but what I’ve learned is how to ask for help – from my community, my support system. I hope you remember that you’re not entering this fellowship alone and that it’s important to take care of yourself – it’s the only way to keep the passion alive and burning.

Courage, compassion, and commitment – I hope you remember these three things as you go on your fellowship.

Since I started with a love story, let me end with a quote about love as well:

What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

Remember your WHY and what you are in love with. Good luck with the fellowship and congratulations!