The Three-Point Lecture: Bringing Magis into the PSHS

Delivered to students of the Ateneo Manila High School for KLIK 2010. The actual speech I gave was a condensed version of what follows. It was a challenging speech to deliver and one thing I took away is that an Ateneo crowd is very different from a Pisay one; apparently, I’ve been in Pisay for too long now.

Before I begin, I’d like to make a preface or two.

First, this turned out to be a surprisingly tricky talk to write. I’ve spoken to principals, teachers old and new, and this has been by far the most challenging one to prepare. And the question for me hasn’t been about where to begin – it’s about what the heck do I talk about at all. I can imagine that listening to another teacher talk for your alternative class day isn’t the most thrilling idea in the world. Neither am I prepared to be that guy who will reveal all our teaching tips, tricks, and secrets to students – though that would be an interesting talk indeed.

Second preface. But as I reflect on my breezy and effortless acceptance of the invitation to speak here today, I realize that this talk shouldn’t be difficult at all. In many ways, it is like coming home. It was 1996. I was a 13-year old high school student attending his own KLIK – just like you. I listened to a career talk on lawyering and I found it pretty good. That’s how I ended up with a Political Science degree, though I clearly ended up as something else. Therefore, this talk isn’t some call to arms. Our country needs more and better teachers, yes, but this isn’t going to be a career talk.

Thus, what to expect this morning? Given now that I’m not dispelling the secrets of the dark arts, or that I’m not rallying you to choose a certain career path, what do I hope to achieve? I’m told that the theme of this year’s KLIK is Balik-bayan and that these sessions should make you think a little deeper about how you can give back to society. That’s precisely what I intend to do today. Perhaps, my talk will make you see your teachers a little differently. That would be nice. But the most I’m hoping for is that you get to see yourselves a little differently too.

The title of my talk is very simple – The Three-Point Lecture. It’s up to you whether to take it literally or figuratively, but if you ask me it doesn’t really leave much to the imagination. I’m keeping it simple. There are no conjectures, postulates, and theories to consider today. I’ll keep the statistics, the formal studies, and the intellectual giants at bay. Just three points to remember. But behind each point is a little story. So let’s begin.

First off, I’d like to get a feel of the room. How many here are in first year? In second year (that’s the level I teach, by the way)? Where are the juniors? Finally how about the seniors?

Let me talk to the seniors for a bit. You guys are graduating in a few months. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this bug that’s been going around. Symptoms include anxiety over the future, regret over all the time you’ve lost in the past four years, and the unstoppable urge to just get things over and done with. I’ve heard it called senioritis. At once it was called the senior syndrome.

We had a case of this about two weeks back. It was the week before exams (which we had last week so we’re on break now) and something broke out in Facebook – yes, apparently that is where everything happens now. A student wrote a note that spread through the community pretty quickly. Everyone who saw it liked it, and the author received tons of comments. After all, when you’re one of the most popular and most well-respected students in campus, and you write an apology to the school, you’re bound to get attention.

But this is nothing controversial, mind you. She just happened to echo exactly what all the other seniors felt at the time, and she was able to say it in a way that inspired everyone to persevere and endure their last few months as seniors. What was she sorry about? That despite her best effort and her most noble intentions, she felt that she wasn’t good enough for the school. She felt defeated, tired, and that the pursuit of excellence was becoming a prayer she could no longer answer. She concluded that perhaps, she won’t be the scholar that the school wanted. But she redeemed herself by saying that what she learned goes beyond what the system has dictated she must learn. She may not be the best at calculus, she confessed, but she has had more than her fair share of honest math. She has been a person of honor, of passion, of effort, and of cause. She may not be a scientist, she thinks, but she has become something more.

I was one of the people she tagged in her initial note.

By the time I got around to reading it, it was already flooded with comments and there were exchanges about whether she is being too idealistic or not. They argue that eventually, she will have to measure up somewhere if she ever wants to be something in this world. I didn’t want to join in the debate. I stepped back and I wrote my own note too.

“An Apology to Our Students” the note went. Because I feel that whenever a student feels defeated or lost, teachers are partly to blame. But I thought about this for a while. What could I apologize for exactly?

For sure, I am not sorry for making them work hard. If ever they feel that they had to study to survive my class, so be it. I will not apologize for making them lose sleep or sacrifice their holidays. I will not apologize for the extremely high standards and expectations I’ve set. And what the joy, sadness or anger they feel whenever they see their grades are irrelevant to me – they get what they give. As I always tell new teachers, so long as you do your job well, there is nothing to apologize for.

But I know that doesn’t get me – or any teacher – off the hook.

In the same manner that students can argue that their grades don’t completely measure who they are, we teachers know that our jobs aren’t completely measured by how many exams we give, what percent of the course outline we accomplish, or what grades you guys ultimately get. We know, at an instinctive level, that what matters is that you discover who you are, that you come to realize your talents, and that you become persons of integrity, character, and purpose.

Thus we teachers should apologize if you feel that you haven’t been listened to. I apologize if I hurt you with what I said; I’d really like to know what you think. I apologize if I didn’t give you that opportunity to lead, let me make it up to you in the next activity. Is this task a little too much for you? Tell me how I can be of help to you. I’m sorry if I didn’t trust you; I am glad that you’ve proven me wrong.

In the hustle and bustle of high school life, we often forget that a lot of teachers signed up for largely idealistic reasons. We were all brought to this place in the hopes of changing the world, leaving our mark, and paving the way to a better future.

This is point number one: Students don’t have a monopoly on idealism. Teachers are dreamers too. (That’s point one. Let it explode in your mind for a bit.)

When the quizzes, long tests, and essays all pile up waiting to be checked. When meetings, conferences, and summits begin to crowd the schedule. When the students have a bad day and only insist on their way. When all these things happen it’s so easy for a teacher – for anyone, really – to succumb to the real world. The stress, the problems, the low salaries – these are all real. It’s a good thing teachers are dreamers too.

And this leads me to point number two: Being idealistic is hard work.

That may sound strange, so let me explain.

Two years ago, I was assigned as the Batch Adviser of the then 2nd year batch, 2011. Looking back now, it was an excellent school year all-around. As Batch Adviser I was in charge of handling events like the field trip, the family day, and other stuff such as outreach activities, parties, and what have you. I was a facilitator mostly, and I was responsible for keeping the batch council, the year level teachers, and the parents all working towards the good of the batch.

It was a pretty good year. The batch set an ambitious goal: a SophNight at the end of the year and a field trip to Mt. Pinatubo. Quite ambitious. But I implemented pay-as-you-go rules: if you want something, you have to work for it. I taught the batch council to be smart with their finances, that they can only spend if they get to raise, and that I don’t want anyone to ever feel left behind due to financial reasons. The batch, and I love them for this, stepped up. We had an incredibly successful Christmas fundraiser that would help subsidize the costs of our field trip and our SophNight. For a public school where requiring collections was prohibited, the batch was really able to come together. The batch, moreover, had purpose and resolve.

And then tragedy struck.

Our activities were scheduled to culminate the year in March, then the administration at that time decided to change the rules last minute. Due to a deep misunderstanding within the first year PTA council, the administration decided to change the rules last minute. The freshmen, like us, were scheduled to have their activities to end the year. However, a query from one parent on issues of collection and safety was blown out of proportion (suffice to say the person didn’t come through proper channels) and gripped the attention of the admin. At one point, the parent demanded clarity and threatened that heads will roll if she didn’t get her answers. This caused some in the administration to adopt a more conservative and protectionist stance. Henceforth, all activities scheduled for March were cancelled, and furthermore, prohibited. In the desire to contain the troubles caused by some in the first year, the admin deemed that the fair solution to everyone concerned was to disallow any extracurricular activities. It didn’t matter that our batch had nothing to do with the conflict and had everything ironed out. Fair is fair.

Those were the darkest days for me. Our school is great that it allows for teachers to pursue their own initiatives, though support can be spotty from time to time. But this was probably the worst case. Their decision killed me. At one point, I was ready to resign. All the advice I got was to just play by their rules and wait for things to blow over. There was one alternative but it was so crazy nobody has ever tried it: to push through with the activities regardless and be the sole one responsible for whatever may come out of it. The parents, teachers, and students were torn, but they were in agreement if that if ever we defy the admin, it won’t be my head on the platter. Those were the darkest days, and there was no light in sight.

During that time, we were already wrapping up our classes. It was the last week of regular classes before the final exams and it was at this point that teachers were beginning to say farewell to their classes. But I had nothing else in my mind than the turmoil that struck our batch. And then someone asked me a question on my way back from lunch. “Sir, I know you’re busy but there’s something bothering me.” He began. “Sir, is it true that as a person grows older he becomes more practical? He loses his ideals?”

I paused. The first pause I had all week. “Where is this coming from?”

“I’m just afraid that when I grow older, I’ll forget these things I want to do for the country.”

What do I say to that? I politely thanked him for his question and promised that I’ll get back to it. Truth be told, I had too much on my mind to really mull over his question but then it overtook me. It consumed me. I couldn’t escape it. Soon enough, it was the only question on my mind and everything else seemed secondary. Somehow, I felt that the solution to my problem was in my answer to his question.

So in the last day of my Asian Studies classes that year, I gave him my answer.

“The other day, class, someone asked me the most important question ever. It’s a Question with a capital Q – Is it true that as one grows older he becomes more practical and less idealistic?” I began. And I said:

Don’t for one second think that it is bad to be practical. There is nothing wrong with wanting a big house, a flashy car, innumerable foreign trips, and your first million before you hit thirty. There is nothing wrong with that. And many people have lived meaningful lives, full of friends and family, in aspiring for goals such as those. But what I do request – no, hope – for is that if ever you feel called to be something else, to do something else, and to answer to an aspiration higher than yourself, don’t ignore it. Give it a chance. Figure out what it is saying. And if you end up believing in it, then never let it go.

Just know this: it’s going to be difficult.

There will be many who will say “No, you can’t.” “Don’t bother.” “It’s not worth it.” But dealing with the naysayers is easy compared to comprehending the amount of sacrifice required to stand up for what you believe in. Just don’t give up. Being idealistic is a lot of hard work.

After that it became clear to me what I had to do. We ended up defying the admin. I rallied everyone together. The parents and the teachers gave their full support to make our SophNight happen outside school. We pursued our contract with Lakbay Kalikasan and carried on to Mt. Pinatubo. Throughout the activities we pursued the most thorough precautions possible. Everyone was on board on a purely voluntary basis, no one who felt uneasy was compelled to join. Above all, the parents, teachers, and students all took responsibility and liability for themselves and each other.

Maybe you’re curious what happened to me. Well, let’s just say that the administrator who instigated the thumbs down is now retired, and right now I am serving my second year as Batch Adviser. I’ll let the facts speak for themselves.
But to the admin I made it abundantly clear that they must never underestimate their teachers. We love our students, and we work insanely hard – especially those among us who want to keep the dream alive.

And now I reach my third and final point. First, a review.

Point one: Students don’t have a monopoly on idealism for teachers are dreamers too.

Point two: Being idealistic is hard work.

Now, point three: He who does the work learns the most.

I am almost done with my talk and I am sure that a lot of you here wonder what I’m really like in the classroom. No, I don’t give speeches like this all the time.

I teach second year Social Studies, or Araling Panlipunan as you have it here. And for second years, it’s Asian Studies. I teach the subject because it’s the one I enjoy the most. I can work my way around the history of China, India, and the Middle East faster than I would go through European and American. It helps that I love Asian food, movies, philosophy and culture as well, and that I’ve travelled to many of the countries I talk about in class helps a lot in making the course as interesting as I can.

At the beginning of every year, I issue a stern warning: I am here not to teach you how to take a test. I am here to teach you how to think.

And I’m tough. I divide the school year into two: the first half (the first two quarters) doesn’t differ much from a traditional history class. There’s a lot of reading. Quizzes every day. Objective type questions. They memorize but it doesn’t really matter. Just when they think they got the hang of what items I tend to ask, I throw in an all-essay quiz that messes with their minds. I avoid Facebook and blogs during the first two quarters. It’s not that I get negatively affected when I read “I hate that Sir Martin’s quizzes are so blaaaarrrrghhh.” It’s more that I don’t want to develop compassion. They fail a lot but for some reason, they keep on trying.

Perhaps it’s because I promise them a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I constantly remind them that things get drastically different in the second half of the year, and that if they don’t develop the ethic of reading and studying social studies now, they’ll have a hard time later. When my students fail, I just smile. And I actually ask them to trust me.

Because in the second half, I hardly lecture. There are hardly any quizzes. Essay questions are now the norm. Recently, we’ve concluded our mock trials on Imperialism. Instead of me talking about how the West came to Asia and drastically affected our societies, I make them come to that conclusion (or other conclusions) on their own. A class of thirty is divided into six teams, and two teams face against each other in a randomly assigned topic such as the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the 100 Days of Reform in China, and the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Students adopt the role of judges and lawyers, then they derive witnesses from actual historical characters. They then duel over a contentious proposition, and I grade them individually not just on their knowledge of their facts, but on how well they communicate, how confident they are, whether they take initiative, and whether they play nice with others.

This January we’re having a Middle East Summit where they will attempt to solve the conflicts in Israel and Palestine, and in February we’re capping off the year with a Model ASEAN where each student comes in as a delegate from an Asian country.

Suffice to say, all this is very hard work. They put in tons of effort and the results often surprise even me. These activities are structured enough to give them a sense of direction, but loose enough to allow them to improvise, innovate, and experiment. My activities actually improve every year because of something they themselves discover in it.

I realize that I’ve diverted a bit. I apologize if I suddenly became too technical, but I promise there’s a point here. I’ll let you guys in on a secret. This is something that not even my former students have heard from me during a speech in the last day of class. Listen up.

Once, I was asked by a fellow teacher if I’m asking the impossible from my students. Trials? Summits? Conferences? A little too much, isn’t it?

“Maybe.” I replied. “But I believe in them.”

I believe in them.

He who does the work, learns the most.

This simple mantra I picked up from the one and only education class I ever took in my life. I owe this to Mrs. Vicky Tantoco, an incredibly amazing mentor who predicted (perhaps correctly) that I’ll be teaching for a long time to come. And in my six short years of teaching and working hard, what I learned above all is to believe.

That’s why I work hard; that’s why we teachers endure and hold on to our dreams.

To end, I’d like to tip my hat to everyone here. This has been quite a homecoming for me. I graduated from this school more than ten years ago now. And as I carry on with my work, there is no doubt where some of my most fundamental notions have come from – never settling for mediocrity, always aspiring for something more, and devoting your life to a cause higher than yourself. In these walls we call it The Ateneo Way. Ten years since, I just call it the story of my life.

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