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'The Learning': Foreign Teachers, U.S. Classrooms

Oct 16, 2011
Originally published on October 19, 2011 8:59 am

When the United States took control of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1898, one of the first things the U.S. did was send in American teachers. The goal was to establish a public school system and turn the Philippines into an English-speaking country.

It worked so well that two centuries later, American schools started traveling to the Philippines to recruit teachers to come here.

In a new documentary called The Learning, filmmaker Ramona Diaz follows four teachers on their journey from the Philippines to classrooms in Baltimore, where 10 percent of the city's teachers — about 600 — were Filipino in 2010.

"At the height of the recruitment, which was in '05, '06 and '07, they were recruiting from overseas because there was a shortage of math and science and special-ed teachers," Diaz tells Rebecca Roberts, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered.

New Country, New Classroom

One of the Filipino teachers profiled in The Learning is Grace Amper, who decided to teach in the United States because she wanted to improve her infant son's future. But Amper had to leave him and her husband back home for the first year.

In addition to dealing with the anxiety of separation, Amper said, there was quite a culture shock.

"Back in the Philippines, teachers were treated like gods and goddesses and students would keep their mouths shut and they don't make scenes inside the classroom," she said. In Baltimore's inner-city schools, it was normal for students to talk back.

"During my first days, students would say, 'What are you talking about? Why are you doing this?' It was a little shock for me," she said.

But Amper, as well as the other Filipino teachers Diaz profiled, stuck it out. In fact, they are all still teaching in public schools in the U.S. today.

Choosing To Stay

Diaz shot the documentary two years ago, but this summer, in nearby Prince George's County, foreign-born teachers got caught up in a dispute between the schools and the Department of Labor. Hundreds of foreign-born teachers will have to leave the U.S. by the end of the year. And as unemployment and budget pressures have risen, foreign recruiting has stalled in schools across the country.

Amper has four years left on her visa before she might have to return to the Philippines with her family.

"If I want to stay here [I have to] look for a district that will sponsor me for a permanent residency visa," she explains.

Now that Amper's family is here, including her sister who is also teaching, she says it would be hard to go home.

"I'm happy here, I don't want to leave."

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REBECCA ROBERTS, HOST:

When the United States took control of the Philippines at the turn of the 19th century, one of the first goals was to send in American teachers to establish a public school system and turn the Philippines into an English-speaking country. It worked so well that two centuries later, American schools started traveling to the Philippines to recruit teachers to come here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LEARNING")

ROBERTS: That's a scene from a documentary called "The Learning" by Ramona Diaz. The film follows four teachers on their journey from the Philippines to classrooms in Baltimore, Maryland. Last year, about 600 Baltimore teachers were Filipino. This summer in a nearby Maryland county, foreign-born teachers got caught up in a visa dispute between the schools and the Department of Labor. It could force hundreds of teachers to leave the U.S. by the end of the year.

And as unemployment and budget pressures have risen, foreign recruiting has stalled. But Ramona Diaz says just a couple of years ago there was a rush to the Philippines.

RAMONA DIAZ: At the height of the recruitment, which was in '05, '06, '07, they were recruiting from overseas because there was a shortage of math and science and special-ed teachers.

ROBERTS: When the Baltimore recruiters allowed you access to come with them to the Philippines for them to make their pitch, what did they say? What was the recruiting like?

DIAZ: It was a lot of people. They interviewed more than 400 teachers in few different cities.

ROBERTS: Wow. For how many spaces?

DIAZ: I think they recruited 100. So that was only one trip. You know, they just kept going back to the Philippines.

ROBERTS: Ramona Diaz, your film, "The Learning," profiles four women who come to Baltimore. One of the women profiled in this film, Grace Amper, is also here with us. Welcome to the program.

GRACE AMPER: Thank you.

ROBERTS: When the Baltimore recruiters came, what was it that made you go listen?

AMPER: I have to admit it. The salary there is very low. It's just like $300 a month. And teaching here, I will really get a lot, and I can prepare a better future for my son. I had a 3-month-old son when the interview was done there in the Philippines.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LEARNING")

ROBERTS: Ultimately, you did come. How was that first year?

AMPER: I was just a little shocked with the culture. Back in the Philippines, teachers were treated like gods and goddesses, and students will keep their mouth shut and they don't make scenes inside the classroom.

ROBERTS: I imagine that must have been hard. You're walking into new classrooms, a new city. It's a new, pretty harsh, culture. And there's a scene in the documentary where one of your fellow teachers is trying to deal with unruly kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LEARNING")

AMPER: During my first days, students would say, "What are you talking about?" "Why are you doing this?" So it's like, it was a little shock for me.

ROBERTS: And your family was able to come join you after the first year?

AMPER: Yes, after the first trip. But not after my son rejecting me for one month.

ROBERTS: There's a hard scene in the documentary where he - you have just come home and he won't look at you. He prefers his auntie.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LEARNING")

ROBERTS: Grace, did you ever consider hanging it up and going home?

AMPER: During my first year, yeah, first few weeks, but after that - life here is easier. Yeah. And my family is here. I gave birth to another son three years ago, and they're all here. So I'm happy here. I don't want to leave.

ROBERTS: Grace, did you come over on a temporary visa?

AMPER: I came in on a J visa. That's a teacher exchange. It was good for us because after three years, we changed it to the working visa, and we have a cap of six years. So I can stay here for nine years. So now, I have four years left. If I decide to go home after four years, I can. But if I want to stay here and really look for a district who will sponsor me for a permanent residency visa, then I have to go to another district to be sure.

ROBERTS: Grace Amper is a native of the Philippines and a math teacher at Baltimore's Polytechnic School. Thank you so much.

AMPER: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Ramona Diaz is an independent filmmaker. Her documentary "The Learning" is available streaming on PBS's POV website until October 20th. Thanks so much.

DIAZ: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.