It’s been five years since I walked up on stage, shook the hands of the rector, bade good bye to my block mates, and exited the convention center and made my way around “the real world”. In the years following my graduation from the university I have taught in 3 schools and did a short stint in a college. For most of the 5 years I have been teaching, I taught in progressive schools more than traditional ones, I’ve been a grade school teacher longer than a high school teacher despite graduating as one. In the 5 years I have been teaching what have I learned so far?
A Case of Traditional Schools vs. Progressive Schools
When I graduated I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t go into those small schools, I would aim for the big ones, the Catholic ones, the ones that pay higher. When I started out I entered one of the big Catholic traditional schools with a very good reputation, certainly a huge gig for a fresh graduate like me, and definitely a school with a lot of history and traditions. For a time I was happy, I was teaching High School, I was teaching history and I was living the dream. I clocked in at 6:30 and clocked out by 3:40. I was handling 4 sections at that time and on most days I would teach around 2 sections. It was easy. I only prepared 1-2 powerpoint lectures a week and most of the time my lesson plans were: refer to Week ___ Day ___ for lesson, since I had a serious backlog. I would “lecture” for 160 – 240 minutes a day, checked papers, submitted grades, and waited for the next payday. The whole experience was one big routine and I was coasting my way to each payday. I enjoyed the pay and I spent a huge chunk of it on books that I had difficulty buying when I was still studying. Then I was let go, despite my good performance, the school decided to let me go because of a huge misstep I did earlier in the year. I was out of a job and I was worried. At that time my family was facing a crisis and I needed to start earning money.
With the teacher job market acting weird at that time I decided to look for a small school. I landed a job in a local international school. At that time I didn’t know what it was, I heard it used the International Baccalaureate Programme and I heard about it but didn’t know what it was all about. I took the risk, signed a 3 year contract and jumped head on to a progressive school. The first
months year was a huge learning curve for me. I was in constant panic mode, learning the IB, learning progressive approaches, learning how to be a Math, English, and UOI teacher rolled into one. Everyday was a struggle for me, I saw what my colleagues were doing, I attended IB workshop seminars on Programme Implementation and Assessment, tried out the stuff I did and failed miserably. My first year was a huge shift in teaching method and practice and the worse part of it all? I was a homeroom teacher to 9 Grade 4 kids. My second year came along and I learned some more, I was still flawed, I was still trying, and I struggled all throughout. The breakthrough came when I was given the Humanities (History and Geography) job in the secondary department. I was in charge of the subject for 4 levels and I was in the zone. What I learned from the IB I implemented it and for some weird reason I finally understood the Inquiry cycle. I was able to do a cycle confidently and not worry about my student’s not getting it.
Then I let it go, after 3 years I bade good bye to and moved to another progressive school in Manila. Today I am happy where I am, for a while I considered going back to a traditional school. But every time I stepped inside one, I got this tingle in my spine, a sign telling me that I shouldn’t push through with it. Like always, I followed my gut and said no to their offers.
For a lot of people the term progressive school is a relatively new one. These schools started coming out of the woodwork during the early 2000’s and today there are a lot more. Traditional schools still outnumber progressive ones by kilometers but I chose to shun that all away. Why? Well here are some things I’ve picked up along the way.
Small class sizes
When I was teaching in traditional schools I taught 4 sections with 45-46 students in a class, put together I was teaching 170+ students. I knew their names but I didn’t know their academic standings, I knew if they were passing or failing but I didn’t really pay attention to the latter and always focusing on the former.
In progressive schools I was handling at most 18 students in a class and given the size, I knew students who were doing well, were alright, and those who were struggling. Instead of disciplining and lecturing 45 students I could group my 18 students into small manageable ones based on skill levels.
That means in a classroom, my students are grouped together and during class they are all working together. It is said that students from progressive schools are the most vocal and opinionated, I would have to agree to that because we want to foster
Which leads me to teaching, in traditional schools 1 powerpoint will last me the whole week and all four of the sections I was handling. In progressive schools that isn’t the case. They abhor powerpoint lectures and I have come to rely on this less and less.
Instead of lecturing, we like to inquire, we like to question, we like to investigate on a lot of things. Since I graduated with a degree in history, I absolutely love it when I tackle a new unit with my students. I’d start off with a short introduction: concepts and ideas, and then I would begin grouping my students to investigate deeper into the unit. I don’t have to lecture but I do have to prepare a lot of materials, go on field trips, and contact resource speakers. In a progressive classroom I am no longer front and center but I am with the crowd, moving with them as they go from one place to another. I pick up on their ideas, they pick up on mine and I never have to worry about a student sleeping in my class ever again.
The downside is it entails a lot of preparation and a complete mind shift from what one is used to. Before I would be comfortable lecturing for over 80 minutes, when I started in progressive schools I had to slowly shed away with that practice. I had to get out of my comfort zone and give my students the chance to find out for themselves. I was so used to spoon feeding lessons to them that giving students a voice was a totally alien idea to me. Instead of lecturing I prepare, I print out articles for students to read, I look for resources, invite people, go on field trips and try to make the lesson as meaningful for students as it can be. I still fall back to direct teaching from time to time, because it’s the most convenient, but I realized I cannot go back inside a classroom of 45 students and lecture for an hour or more. In the words of my friend I don’t want to bore my students to death.
So what’s it like then? In a traditional school my day was based on lecturing, I was wary of being creative, I followed the traditions set by the older and more senior teachers. I had to weave my way through the petty politics and squabbles of many teachers, being a probationary teacher I was expected to sing and dance during events. Knowing myself these were the two things I absolutely hated. In my year in a traditional school I had to sing, I had to dance, I had to perform in front of students during a faculty variety show just so the association can raise money for an outing. These things were absolutely pointless, if I didn’t participate I would get that stern look from my colleagues “You’re a newbie, conform and follow since we did that” and I didn’t understand how performing would make me a better teacher. I believe I signed up to teach because I was doing it for the students and not for some fundraiser.
In the other end of the spectrum the teaching load was really light, if I had memorized my lecture for the first class I only needed to tweak it for the other 3 based on how I knew them. Since I was only handling 4 classes I didn’t have to think about clubs and I looked for opportunities to substitute for classes to earn a little money on the side. The thing with traditional schools they have a lot of money, the salary isn’t big but the monetary perks are there and help pay the bills.
For progressive schools work is loaded, my colleague once remarked that a day or 24 hours isn’t enough to finish all of the paperworks needed. This is of course true, I would leave school to come home to online planners, I would go to school to find more papers to check, reports to file, and parental/student matters to attend to. Work was unceasing and it followed me even when 3:30 came and went.
But then there are those moments that make it light, field trips most especially. When we were studying our field trips were usually in Biak na Bato, a museum here and there, and the worse was going to a mall for a field trip. My days in progressive schools are filled with ways on how to help students learn and understand concepts and ideas. When it was time for the Finding Out part of the cycle, we’d go on field trips to places linked to our unit of study. Field trips had purpose and meaning and not for the sake of “bonding” and “outing”, my students were going on trips, having fun and learning at the same time. When the students are out, there were workshop seminars and professional development sessions to attend to. I had a love-hate relationship with these seminars, at times they would be too complicated but most of the time they would be fun. Seminar-workshops facilitated by the IB were the best, instead of listening to a wizened old teacher show off his videos, his work, and boast about his credentials, IB workshop leaders engaged us in activities designed to make us do what we want our students to do in class. We moved, we colored, we presented and it all made sense to our teaching practice; from the theoretical to application while having fun and linking up with educators from around the world.
Why Teach in a Progressive School?
Why not? It’s a no brainer question. In the 5 years I’ve been teaching, I have met some of the brightest, most creative, and most innovative students there is. I have learned theories and practices that I never picked up when I was studying. I’ve been to places that only senior traditional school teachers have access to. In my short teaching life, I’ve brought my students to provinces and countries, I’ve attended seminars in another country as well. The perks are fun, the connections built are lasting, and there’s a sense of fulfillment when students move up from one level to the next without having to think about honors and the whole meritocratic foundation that traditional schools have built which promote competition and the idea of privilege. These ideas put students who aren’t built for academic rigor at a disadvantage. Education then becomes a factory of conformist, reward-driven students versus students who find out on their own at their own pace, students who are driven by their natural curiosity, and studying in an environment that promotes their natural curiosity.
But don’t get me wrong, traditional schools have their strengths and I am a product of the traditional school system. But I remember one anecdote my officemate told me “we are all products of a traditional school system, but what if we weren’t?”. I’ll leave that idea hanging there for now.
After 5 years of ups and downs I am at a juncture where traditional expectations tell me to get an MA so I could teach in the university. But after staying in the IB program for quite some time, I was given another option, the option to be a workshop leader. Just recently I tried out for the position of examiner for Cambridge International Examinations and I was accepted to mark external exams for Cambridge.
Five years ago I started out with this vision of my career, work in a school for 5 years, work on my Master’s degree while I’m at it, and hopefully get into a university. But with my exposure to the newer side of education in the Philippines, I envisioned that this is something I want to do. I don’t want to fit into the “publish or perish” mind set, I want to be in a field where I am teaching students and adults at the same time. I want to travel and learn at the same time, I want to engage with educators from all over the world and use it in my classroom.
In retrospect I never imagined I would spend a large part of my profession in a progressive school. A lot of people still don’t believe in the system or the methods, but I believe in it. For all the stress and the added weight it has given me, I don’t think I would have it any other way. So here’s to another 5 years and dreams and whatever road this will lead me.