POV’s The Learning tells a surprising tale of immigration, globalization and America’s shifting position in the 21st century. When the United States took possession of the Philippines in 1898, American teachers set up the islands’ public school system. English was established as the language of instruction and remains so to this day. Today in the Philippines, there is a large pool of trained, motivated, English-speaking teachers, especially in high school math, science and special education. In their country, these teachers receive poverty-level salaries, making them prized recruitment targets for many U.S. school districts, especially those in cash-strapped inner cities. While a salary in one of these urban districts may be low by American standards, it can be as much as 25 times a teacher’s salary in the Philippines.
As a result, in recent years there has been a trend of Filipino teachers seeking a better life by braving America’s urban schools and their poor, often troubled students. In Baltimore, 600 Filipinos account for 10 percent of the teaching force. The Learning is the story of four Filipina women facing their first year in Baltimore’s schools, where learning is a two-way street marked with disappointment and inspiring breakthroughs.
A scene from The Learning. Credit: Courtesy of The Learning, directed by Ramona Diaz
In documenting a very special year in the lives of Filipina educators Dorotea Godinez, Angel Alim, Grace Amper and Rhea Espedido, The Learning captures these women’s individual experiences, their hopes and their daily classroom struggles, while also exposing the issues that plague many American public schools. Declining school funding, urban poverty and crime have given these teachers a golden opportunity — and delivered rude awakenings as the women are thrust into the heart of America’s educational crisis. Chronicling the women’s determination and unshakeable belief in education, The Learning is a bracing and timely evocation of a teacher’s indispensable work.
As they prepare to leave the Philippines, it’s easy to see that economic need is driving the four women to leave their homes. They will miss not only their families, but their students as well; an extraordinarily warm, disciplined and familial feeling seems to reign in these teachers’ classrooms, one they will try to replicate in America. When Dorotea weeps at her farewell party, explaining apologetically that she’ll be making 25 times her Filipino salary in America, her students and colleagues cry with her.
The women share the sorrow of leaving their homes and families, as well as a giddy sense of possibility. For Dorotea, whose children are almost grown, the parting is sad but necessary. For Grace, the opportunity to improve her infant son’s future means separation. Rhea, whose husband is in prison, declares herself all too ready for something other than the hard life in her native country. The youngest, Angel, who supports five of her seven siblings, has the most gilded dreams about what America will offer.
Dorotea Godinez’s return to her former school in Bogo, Philippines. Credit: Miguel V. Fabie III (1968-2010).
In Baltimore, the women meet welcoming, beleaguered colleagues at the schools to which they are assigned, Harlem Park Middle School, Renaissance Academy, Lockerman Bundy Elementary School and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (one of the highest-ranked public high schools in the state). They also find disorderly classrooms with mostly African-American students, some with special needs. Confronted with occasionally outrageous behavior from the students, the teachers alternate their familial skills and emotional appeals to the students’ better natures with attempts at stern discipline. They find themselves stymied by culturally different classroom rules &mdash in Baltimore, they are not allowed to hug the students freely!
One might expect disaster from such a disparate combination of teachers and students. Yet, slowly, the students’ curiosity gets the better of them and they begin to be impressed by these foreign women who are so determined to teach them. Indeed, the very unfamiliarity of these Asian women helps their American students open up. For the Filipinas, a window also opens: They let go of their cultural expectations and begin to work with the students on American terms.
The story moves back to the Philippines, where the teachers return for the summer holidays to a hero’s welcome. As they regale their former colleagues with stories of life in America, they see how their year abroad has changed their families and themselves. Will teachers imported from a poor country prove to be part of the long-term solution to the struggling U.S. education system? That remains to be seen. And just outside the frame of the film lingers another question: How will the migration of some of the best and brightest teachers out of the Philippines affect the future of education there?