Eyes of the Blind
Metrobank Outstanding Teacher Evelyn Caja oozes with passion and enthusiasm for her work. She reveals why there is no greater satisfaction than teaching her visually impaired students.
Roselle Ambubuyog graduated Summa Cum Laude and valedictorian from the Ateneo de Manila University with a degree in Mathematics. She now works for a company based in Spain that develops software and provides training for the blind to gain access to technology.
Carolina Catacutan is a Cum Laude graduate of Mass Communications from the University of the Philippines. She is a professional writer, teacher, and founding member of ATRIEV or the Adaptive Technology for Rehabilitation, Integration, and Empowerment of the Visually Impaired.
Roselle and Carolina are both visually impaired and successful in their fields—but their similarities don’t end there. Both were also students of special education teacher Evelyn Caja at Ramon Magsaysay High School.
Seeing for the Blind
Growing up as a pastor’s daughter, Evelyn lived a simple life. Every other year, her family would move from one place to another, depending on where her father would be assigned. She says, “Medyo hirap yung elementary, high school, and college days ko because my father did not earn much, but I survived. I’ve always believed that poverty is not a hindrance to success.”
Evelyn graduated with a degree in Elementary Education from the Philippine Normal University in 1967. “I chose that course because teachers were in demand at the time. It was also the only course my father could afford. My tuition fee was only 60 pesos a semester. Coke only cost 10 centavos at the time!”
It was during her college days when Evelyn first encountered a blind student. “When I was doing my practice teaching in PNU, there was a blind student mainstreamed in the class where I was assigned. Ang galing galing niya even if she was totally blind! It was my first exposure to a blind student in the regular program.”
It wasn’t until six years later when she pursued her interest of teaching the blind. She was employed at a public school in Zamboanga del Sur when she heard of a scholarship program for a master’s degree in Special Education, Teaching the Blind. “I decided to take the exam. Fortunately, I passed and was sent as a government scholar to PNU in Manila.”
Evelyn was supposed to go back to Zamboanga del Sur to start the program for the blind after finishing her graduate studies. However, due to Martial Law and the war in Mindanao, she decided it would not be safe to go back. Instead, she was hired as a SPED teacher by the Philippine National School for the Blind.
She recalls, “I enjoyed teaching there, but it was different from what I saw in college, where the blind students were mainstreamed with the seeing students. At PNSB, classes are composed of all visually impaired students.”
After 10 years of teaching at PNSB, the mother of a newly blinded child in grade four came knocking on her door. “It was Carolina’s mother,” Evelyn shares. “I told her I couldn’t enroll her daughter at PNSB right away because she needed to learn Braille first to cope with the work.”
Evelyn spent the summer teaching Carolina and enrolled her the following school year. “Magaling yung bata,” Evelyn recalls. “I knew she had the potential to be enrolled in a regular school together with seeing students. In the school for the blind, there was no challenge, no competition for her since they are all blind. So after she finished elementary at PNSB, I mainstreamed her in Ramon Magsaysay High School, which was the only school in Manila that had a program for the blind at the time. They didn’t have a SPED teacher then so every time Carolina would have an exam, she would call me and I would go there to administer it.”
When Carolina graduated in 1984, Evelyn became the SPED teacher in Ramon Magsaysay High School. “We have hearing impaired and visually impaired students. They are fully enrolled, fully mainstreamed together with regular students. I help the blind with their work, like a tutor. They report to me after their classes or during their vacant periods. I administer their exams and help them with their assignments after school. My priority is mathematics since it’s highly visual.”
Passion for Work
Evelyn believes that if you truly love your work, you can overcome any challenge. She says, “I wouldn’t be staying this long in the program if I am not enjoying my work. There is no greater satisfaction in life than seeing my blind students transform and succeed in their work.”
When Roselle Ambubuyog came into the school, Evelyn already knew she was an exceptional student.
Evelyn fondly recalls, “When I started working with her, I saw that she was really one of a kind. I believe she had all the factors needed to succeed—good genes, a good family support system, and a positive attitude towards work. She was not affected by her loss of eyesight. Instead, she took it as a challenge.”
In the four years Roselle spent at Ramon Magsaysay, she and Evelyn grew very close. Evelyn says, “In the morning, she would attend her classes. In between periods and during breaks, she would bring her baon and eat with the SPED teachers. I spent almost every afternoon working with her on her assignments.”
Even after she graduated from Magsaysay, Evelyn and Roselle kept in touch. “Mrs. Ilacad [Roselle’s other SPED teacher at Magsaysay] and I were invited to her college graduation at the Ateneo,” Evelyn recalls. “When I saw her graduate, I was on cloud nine! We were very proud to have been a part of her life.”
Teaching Special Children
While working in Magsaysay, Evelyn also became a teacher at the Center for Developmental Intervention Foundation in 1987. CDIF is a special education school based in the Philippine Children’s Medical Center. In 1996, she became the school principal. “Since my work in Magsaysay starts in the afternoon, I come here in the morning. As an administrator, I supervise the school, the teachers, and placement of students.”
The school currently has 110 special students and 23 regular students in the junior kinder and senior kinder levels. Evelyn says, “Our special students have autism, mental retardation, seizure disorder, cerebral palsy, ADHD, and language disorders. True and true, I deal with special kids from day to night.”
Evelyn explains that once doctors assess the special children at PCMC, they are referred to CDIF for education and intervention. “All our students are patients of the hospital. After the hospital does assessment, they give us their evaluation so we can plan what kind of program would be appropriate for the child.”
Evelyn loves dealing with special children, but she admits that it can be challenging to deal with their parents. “I understand that it is not easy to have a special child. Our number one problem is acceptance. Parents think we can cure their child, but what he or she has is a lifelong disorder. This is why the hospital also has parent education to help parents understand their special child.”
A Truly Outstanding Teacher
For her work with visually impaired and special children, Evelyn has been granted numerous awards. Most recently, she was conferred the 2009 Award for Continuing Excellence and Service (ACES) by Metrobank Foundation. Because of her impressive work with the visually impaired, she has even been dubbed as the “Anne Sullivan of the Philippines” (Sullivan tutored the famous deaf-and-blind American author Helen Keller). Evelyn was also recently inducted into the DepEd Hall of Fame for the teaching profession.
Evelyn attributes her numerous awards to God. Being a pastor’s daughter, she has always been very spiritual. “I believe God is rewarding me for all the work I have done for special kids whom He loves, and for staying in the Philippines instead of working abroad.”
There was a time when Evelyn also dreamed of joining the migration of teachers to other countries, where the pay is higher. “I already had the opportunity to work abroad,” she shares. “I had passed the written and oral exam, and I was about to sign the contract. It was 1995 and I was teaching at Magsaysay, where I was handling around nine visually impaired students. When I told them I was leaving, they were all crying and begging me to stay.”
That night, Evelyn prayed hard about whether or not to sign the contract. “I prayed, ‘Lord, help me decide. You know what’s best for me,’” she shares. “My family told me they would support whatever decision I made, as long as I was happy. When I woke up the next morning, it was so clear to me! I felt so lighthearted and ready to return the contract. There was no doubt in my mind.”
Until today, Evelyn has not regretted her decision to stay in the Philippines. After winning the Metrobank Search for Outstanding Teacher (SOT) in 2001, she won the Thomasite Centennial International Visitor Award and was sent to the United States for free in 2002. “I visited almost nine states and I was able to observe their special education program,” she shares.
For her work as a special education teacher, Evelyn truly deserves all the awards she has received. Though she has never been married, she considers all of her students as her own children. Roselle and Carolina are just two examples of the many students whose lives she has transformed. No doubt, there are so many more out there who will always be thankful for the love and guidance she has given them. Evelyn believes that any teacher can be successful as long as they have love and passion for their work. “Kapag mahal mo ang trabaho mo, mamahalin mo rin ang estudyante mo. ‘Pag mahal mo ang estudyante mo kahit may kapansanan siya, lahat magagawa mo.”
Evelyn also gives seminars and workshops for teachers of visually impaired and special students. She gives this advice.
- Love your work. “It all starts with love. If you love your work, nothing is impossible. All the other qualities you need will follow—you’ll be more patient, creative, resourceful, and committed. You’ll have the right attitude towards work. If you don’t like your work, you’ll only see the negative aspect. But when you love it, you feel light and happy when you go to school and see your students.”
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. “The Department of Education has recently released a memo stating that we now have an inclusive education. All students have to be admitted in the school, even special kids. If you encounter special children in your class, you can always ask for help from your superior if you’re not sure how to deal with them.”
- Open your heart to spececial kids. “Be thankful you are healthy and that you can help these children. If you immediately have a negative attitude, you won’t succeed. Give them a chance, open your heart and your door to them, and little by little you will understand them, and learn how to deal with them.”