A League of her Own
Public school teacher Alethea Florido recounts her struggles and successes, working abroad and fulfi lling her dreams.
I fell in love with teaching at an early age. Since both my parents were physics teachers, I grew to love the subject. I also liked the feeling of fulfi llment and happiness that I saw in both of them, especially when they met former students who were already professionals but still remembered them and respected them.
I spent my Elementary and High School years at Canossa, Sta. Rosa, Laguna, and I pursued my dream to become a teacher at the Philippine Normal University, where I got my BS Physics for Teachers degree under the DOST (Department of Science and Technology) Scholarship in 1998.
Early Teaching Years
I worked for a year in Colegio San Agustin, Biñan, Laguna while I prepared to take my Licensure Exam for Teachers. I passed the exam and was one of the Top 10 board passers. I then applied for a teaching position at the Division of City Schools of Manila and was assigned to V. Mapa High School to teach Physics.
On my fourth year of teaching at V. Mapa, I was tasked to do a demonstration lesson in physics where I had to show other teachers innovative teaching strategies infused in my lessons. After my demo, a fellow public school teacher approached me and told me to apply for the Visiting International Faculty (VIF), an international-exchange program for U.S. schools and teachers worldwide. Because of all the class work, I forgot about it. The thought of going abroad never really crossed my mind, because I had other plans at the time.
After a few months, I met the teacher again when we became classmates in an enrichment physics course at De la Salle University offered for free to public school teachers. During lunchtime, she dragged me to the nearest Internet café, showed me the website, and urged me to apply. I fi nished the application online and went home.
On the Road to the U.S.
Less than two months after I applied online, VIF called me at home for a phone interview. After answering their questions about teaching, they said they liked me and scheduled me for an interview for when they visited the Philippines for recruitment.
On May 5 (my birthday!), I was scheduled to do a demo class in Westin Philippine Plaza. Our car broke down on the way there and I was late. I did my best even if I was sweating from running. Luckily, I was picked by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) HR representative from North Carolina. There were 10 applicants but only two of us were chosen. After the demo, we had to enter another room to be interviewed by a panel. Questions about classroom management, teaching, and many more were asked. Before I left, I signed a hiring contract with CMS. I rode the bus on my way home to Laguna, hardly believing what had just happened.
That same month, I received supporting papers from VIF for my visa application. I was scared because I heard of cases when teachers were denied a visa. During my interview, I was asked several questions about why I wanted to go to the U.S. and I was also asked to demonstrate a lesson on the three laws of motion. After explaining everything, the consul said. “I believe the students in the U.S. will love you! Good luck! I am giving you three years in the U.S.”
The Journey Begins
I left for the U.S. on July 25, 2004. Mixed emotions churned inside me. I was scared to travel by myself—I had five connecting fl ights and I was afraid I would miss one and fail to reach my destination. I also felt sad about leaving my parents and my sister. I lived with them for all my 27 years and this was the fi rst time I would be separated from them. I was excited about everything that was going to happen, but also terrifi ed of the things I wasn’t accustomed to doing.
Many fears and apprehensions clouded my mind the week before I left. As I packed my suitcase, I thought about whether or not I made the right decision. I had a full life in the Philippines—friends, a loving family, a good career. I was afraid of going to the U.S. and leaving everything behind. I also had a fear of failure. What if I was just a great teacher to my Filipino students? What if I wouldn’t be good enough for my students there?
I arrived in the U.S. and was assigned to teach in Garinger High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. I taught grades 9 to 12, the high school equivalent in the Philippines. The students in the U.S. were very different from my students back home. The school I was assigned to was a Challenge school, catering to low-income families and inter state city kids. The school was located in a dangerous side of town.
During the fi rst few weeks, I met the administration, my colleagues, some parents, and students—they were not friendly. I was so scared of them at fi rst. I was living with other VIF Filipino teachers at the time; they were in nice schools and the staff was friendly to them. At fi rst I thought I was so unlucky. But I told myself that God would not give me things I couldn’t handle.
One Struggle After Another
I had a difficult time during my fi rst year of teaching. I was still getting used to everything in the U.S. and my classes were driving me crazy. I came to the U.S. with all my Filipino strategies and I realized that they couldn’t work on their own. The kids here were very different. In this school, you either sink or swim. My main problem was classroom management. As the weeks passed, there were more and more fi ghts. My class was worse than those in movies such as Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds. This was real. I saw blood on the fl oor of my classrooms. It was a jungle. I was on the verge of giving up and quitting but I did not want to go back to the Philippines a failure.
After two months, I observed other teachers’ classes to see how they handled their students, studied books on management, attended training sessions, and asked other teachers for help. I was determined to do whatever it took to succeed. After those times of change, my students saw a different me. Even I saw a big difference in me—I became strong, consistent, and firm. I gave them tough love.
My first year was probably the most dramatic and most challenging—but it made me a better person and a better teacher. I began to understand why my colleagues never smiled. They needed to instill discipline in the kids. Most of our students are from broken homes, have learning disabilities, or are considered “drug babies.” Many girls are pregnant and most kids just hate the world. In our school, you won’t get anything across unless you earn the students’ respect. Smiling at them and being nice to them doesn’t work. Being consistent with your rules and being fi rm with them—that will make them respect you.
During my second year, I had a different struggle. Since the school came from a low socio economic class, the students also had low scores in achievement tests. Because the students felt like nobodies, they didn’t care if they graduated high school or not. Fighting this problem was worse than instilling discipline. Giving my students hope was one of the most diffi cult things I had to do.
I told them stories of my students in the Philippines—how some would walk miles just to get to school, how they didn’t have individual books, and sometimes, they would even ask for my lunch because they were hungry. I told my students it wasn’t their fault that they were poor, but if they die poor—that was their fault. They were given free education. The only reason they wouldn’t succeed was because they chose not to.
I was assigned to handle the Science Olympiad Team. It was hard at fi rst because a few teachers told me that we didn’t stand a chance—that joining competitions was only for “the intelligent schools.” We joined a few events, brought home fi ve medals, and advanced to state level. When we came back, it brought a lot of hope to the Garinger kids. We went on to the state competition and placed 12 out of 60 schools in the state of North Carolina.
In Garinger, I learned not to be so close to the kids, but I know they felt how much I cared for them when they saw how I prepared for our lessons or competitions. I know I’ve touched their lives and I always tell them that they have touched my life too. I always tell them, “I don’t care about the color of your skin but the color of your socks!” Some kids treat me like a friend or a mom. I know they feel that even if the world does not believe in them, I believe in them.
During the graduation of my students, one of them told me that she never imagined she could do anything great, that I opened a lot of opportunities for her. A parent cried and embraced me when we won at the Science Olympiad. She said, “These kids need more teachers like you to make them understand that they can make it through life.”
One of my last projects was to bring all the physics classes and my science team to Carowinds, an amusement park, to learn physics. I asked for help from the district and Carowinds management and they gathered all their engineers to answer the students’ questions and tour the water park and rides. The Supervisor of Science in CMS thanked me and told the kids that she was proud of me. The media was even there to fi lm our trip. My kids were so excited; they felt like celebrities! I felt I gave them a lot of memorable experiences during their high school years. I knew my students had a lot of potential. Somebody just needed to remind them to do something about it.
Looking to the Future
In Garinger, they gave me a Wildcat award. It’s an award for teachers who did something excellent for the school. I also won as one of the Cultural Educators of the Year for VIF. This award was given to teachers who shared their culture with students, parents, teachers, and the community. I felt honored by these awards, but more than that, I loved that I learned and grew during my stay in the U.S. and I am happy to have shared a big part of myself with others. I know I did not only make my family proud, but my country too.
Right now, I am still deciding whether I will go back and teach in the Philippines or stay in the U.S., since in the three years I was part of the VIF program, I met someone. He is also Filipino but he was born in the U.S. (But that’s another story!) Right now, I am still praying for the future.
This experience has been one unexpected, unplanned part of my life that changed everything. Wherever I will be in the next few years, I still wish to become a better person and to help more people in education.