The library was empty when we arrived. There was a class earlier, but now the kids had gone back to their classrooms. But each opportunity they get, the Library Club members climb the stairs to the fifth floor of the crowded building, all eager to help out the librarian. When the bell rang, they arrived one by one, eyes twinkling with excitement as they catch a glimpse of the fully-made-up lady manning the room. "Ma'am, magpi-picture na po tayo?"
"Ma'am" is Sabrina Ongkiko, or Teacher Sabs, 32 years old, who has been a member of the faculty of the Culiat Elementary School in Tandang Sora, Quezon City since 2009.
Sabrina's decision to teach at a public school took a few friends by surprise. They thought she was pursuing a degree in Medicine after she finished her BS Biology course at the Ateneo De Manila University.
"I was taking the extra units [needed] to go to the Ateneo med school. It was before the deadline ng pagpasa ng application form when my teacher said to me, 'I see a teacher in you. I believe you can be a good teacher.' Hindi na ako makatulog pagkatapos." After much deliberation, Sabrina knew she only had to answer one question to make a decision: "Where can I be most loving? Saan ba ako mas magmamahal?"
"'What you think is a big choice in life isn’t actually a big choice; you’ve been preparing for that with the small yeses you've done, with the choices that you’ve made from the past. They all bring you to that big choice."
Her Dad's stories as pasalubong The Ongkikos do not come from a wealthy background. Sabrina's mother was a full-time housewife, while her father was an economist/agriculturist who struggled to send their three kids to school.
"Lumaki ako sa stories ng tatay ko. My dad is a very, very good story teller, so imbis na pasalubong, ang paborito kong inuuwi niya 'pag galing siya sa mga probinsya ay kwento."
Sabrina recalls, "For most of my childhood, [my Dad] would always be in farming communities teaching farmers technologies and how to use their land properly, how to use their budget properly, so I grew up knowing about terms like 'irrigation,' 'barangay consultation.' He would tell me how that affects the people in the community. 'Alam mo anak, nu'ng nagpatayo kami ng tulay, 'yung mga anak ng mga magsasaka hindi na tatawid ng ilog bitbit yung mga libro nila, sa tulay na sila tumatawid.' So lagi kong nai-imagine 'yung epekto sa tao ng isang mabuting gawa."
Lessons from her students Sabrina admits she has learned more about life from her students. Most of them come from underprivileged backgrounds, so being in school is a luxury than a necessity. In one of the articles she wrote as a volunteer for the Philippine Jesuits, she recalls an instance when her students' realities in life became very apparent to her.
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"I remember one poignant moment in class when we were discussing mixtures. Due to lack of time and resources, I opted just to do a demonstration. I had a small table in front of me and brought out plastic cups (because we didn’t have enough beakers), bottles of vegetable oil, soy sauce, salt, water, etc. It was all lined up so students could see what would happen when you mix these things. I was about to pour a tablespoon of salt on the vegetable oil when the students shouted, 'Ma’am huwaaaag! Sayang! Ipangkakain na lang po namin yan.'
"I stood there, holding the spoon of salt and a hundred questions ran through my mind. What am I doing? Is this really such a waste?"
Teaching three Grade 6 classes with 47 students each (she used to teach in Grade 5 too) and doing daily shifts as a librarian (which she volunteered for) has made her more hopeful about the future; after all, the future of the country lies in these 11- and 12-year-old kids.
"Meron kaming na-establish na sobrang 'astig' na kultura sa klase -- it's what we call a culture of excellence. Ganito yun: tuwing bago mag-quiz, ['yung mga bata] na ang kusang magtuturo sa bawat isa, at ang goal nila, lahat sila pumasa. May chant pa kami, 'Walang babagsak! Lahat papasa!' Ibig sabihin, walang maiiwan. Kung mahina ka sa subject na ito dati, aangat ka. Kung magaling ka na dati, gagaling ka pa.
"Natutuwa ako na 'yung mga nagturo, hindi sila proud sa score nila kahit na mataas sila; proud sila sa score nung tinuruan nila," she tells us, beaming with pride."
"Hindi kasing-halaga ng pagpasa ang pagiging mabuting tao. Kung hindi mo kayang tulungan yung ibang kaklase mong maging magaling, hindi ka pa rin magaling."
What makes a good teacher Asked if she could name one teacher who has made a significant impact in her life, Sabrina says it's hard to pick just one. But she did send the link to the video of her TEDxADMU talk to that teacher -- the one who told her "I see a teacher in you" -- with the note: 'Ma’am, here’s the story of how you 'ruined' my life.'
An honoree of the Bato Balani Foundation and Diwa Learning Systems advocacy campaign "The Many Faces of the Teacher" in 2015, which is a nationwide search for exceptional educators, Teacher Sabs describes the qualities that make a good teacher. "Ang isang magaling na teacher ay may nakikitang higit kesa sa nakikita niya ngayon. Dapat magaling kang umasa, kasi sa hope na 'yun papasok yung commitment mo to continue. Hope is something you work towards; kung walang action, walang pag-asa.
"A good teacher also has to have the courage to be vulnerable. Dati hindi ako iyakin. Pero when I started teaching, ibang klaseng vulnerability pala yun. 'Pag nakikita mong nasasaktan ang mga estudyante mo, nasasaktan ka rin. Pag hindi sila pumapasok at nahihirapan sila, nararamdaman mo yung frustration. You really get affected by the people you love."
Teacher Sabs with Grade 5 and 6 students from the Library Club (from left):Dessa, Angel, Laila, Nurhadidjah, Chelsy, Lars, Jerimae, Arcel, and Arriana
Parents as first teachers It is said the school is a child's second home, and the teachers are his second parents. But before he comes of school-age, his parents are naturally his guide and compass. And Teacher Sabs believes that shaping a child's mind -- and heart -- begins at home.
"What I learned from teaching kids is they pattern their dream as a response to what they see in the environment. Subconsciously, nagre-respond sila sa problema ng lipunan, at 'yun na 'yung nagiging pangarap nila. Halimbawa, 'yung isang estudyante ko gusto niya maging doktor pero alam mo kung bakit? Hindi lang dahil masayang magsuot ng white coat, pero kasi yung kapatid niya namatay sa sakit. Kaya niya gustong maging doktor, kasi subconsciously, nagre-respond siya na, 'Ayoko na 'yun mangyari.'
"Parents are teachers, too, kaya mahalaga saan mo ie-expose yung bata. The question for them to lead not just a successful life but a meaningful one also is to ask them, 'What kind of problem do you want to solve?' So surround your kids with good people, surround your kids with experiences where they can learn.
"Ako, because of my Dad's stories, I understood that I could help people. I hope [my students] will try to make life better for another person, whether it’s their family or some other random people."
Lastly, Sabrina underscores how important it is for parents to be consistent to raise good-hearted, upright citizens of this country: "Love [your children] consistently, care [for them] consistently."
Eight years ago, Sabrina let go of her dream of what might have been a lucrative career in the medical field. She hasn't looked back since.
"Kung naging doktor ako, [nag-] iisa lang ako na doktor. Pero dahil naging teacher ako, pwedeng maging lima o anim ang maging doktor sa klase ko, 'di ba?
"In the future, 'pag naging magaling nang doktor ang mga estudyante ko at napapasaya at napapagaling na nila 'yung mga bata, matutuwa ako pag bumalik sila tapos sasabihin nila sa 'kin, 'Ma’am! 'Yung pangarap mo ginagawa ko na!'"
Photos by Vince Coscolluela. Hair and makeup by Anne Castano.