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“If money were not an object and you were given the opportunity to do something with a guarantee that you will not fail, what would you do?”
In the midst of teaching fourth graders from middle and upper middle-class American families in Granada Hills, California, someone asked me this strange question. One of my answers was to build preschools in every barangay in the Philippines, and to train the best of the best teachers to teach there, and pay them well enough so that they never want to leave because of financial need. Crazy question, crazy dream.
My teaching journey began informally in the Philippines a year before university almost two decades prior, teaching children in the slums of Mandaluyong with Bible stories as part of the Sunday School program of the Bible College I was enrolled in.
I enrolled in university after that year. When I graduated, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with a degree in psychology. In a span of two and a half years, I conducted what I would call my grad school and corporate experiments – the former in the field of mass communication, and the latter in HR administration and development. I had a pretty successful run in both fields, but I didn’t feel fulfilled.
In 1993, a close friend informed me of a job opening for a preschool teacher in the school she owned. I decided to give teaching a year, and that one-year trial period turned into 25 in the field of education! I taught preschool at Prep Camp in the Philippines for six years. I left for California in 1999 and enrolled in a Montessori teacher certification course. I also got married that year. A year later, I taught preschool again at Casa Montessori, Northridge.
My husband and I were trying unsuccessfully to have children, and after two years of seeing toddlers that I could not have, I quit teaching and became a fitness trainer for one year. It is funny how God directs your path, especially if decisions were made out of hurt and lack of faith. One of my most adorable clients was a 78-year-old stroke survivor, who also happened to be a Latin professor. We had the best time naming every muscle and bone that she moved in Latin, in its correct pronunciation – which made me miss teaching.
In 2003, a parent from the Montessori school where I had taught her daughter informed me to attend the open house and apply for a teaching job at the school her daughter was moving to in Granada Hills so that I can be her teacher again! At this point, I was missing teaching kids so much that I did what she suggested. Though her daughter ended up enrolling elsewhere, I returned to teaching at Hillcrest (now Heritage) Christian School in Granada Hills, where I taught fourth graders for nine happy years! That’s when I was faced with the question posed to me at the start of my story.
After 13 years of being away, my husband and I returned to Manila in 2012. Starting over, I tried the business side of education and took over a pediatric therapy center which became Here We Grow Child Development Center, which offered school programs for children who were either not ready for mainstream classrooms, or who needed special education and therapy before attempting inclusion or mainstreaming in regular classrooms. The school grew quickly, from 35 students to almost a hundred in a span of two years. But as it grew, I became less and less involved in the classroom, and more and more involved in the school’s management and administration.
…. and Coming Full Circle
In 2014, I responded to an invitation to take on a nine-month contract as a missionary and education strategy director for International Care Ministries (ICM), a non-profit organization that works with churches to help the poorest families across Visayas and Mindanao. That nine-month stint has turned into four years!
Initially, ICM ran kindergartens across six areas in Visayas and Mindanao, reaching up to 3,000 children a year in the most isolated, impoverished areas, to prepare for formal education. When the public school system scaled up its K-12 programs across the Philippines, ICM shifted its strategy by creating Family Academy – a two-generational approach to early education to help the most impoverished households in very poor communities. For 15 weeks, parents go through a program called Transform, in which they receive weekly training in values, health, livelihood, and early childhood education. An ICM-trained Family Academy coach visits parents with preschool- and kindergarten-age children twice a week to conduct coaching sessions, equipping parents with the knowledge and skills to become their child’s first teachers. ICM believes that when parents are invested and engaged in their child’s learning from the start, the family appreciates the value of education and seeks ways to make the most of it.
Having worked with children of different age groups and unique abilities, and with their families who come from a wide variety of social, cultural, economic, and religious backgrounds, I have discovered that parents who succeed in being their children’s first and most important teacher demonstrate the following traits:
- They make time to communicate with their children. They set aside talk time and listen to what their children say.
- They are very responsive. They immediately and appropriately recognize and commend behaviors they want their children to learn, and ignore or immediately address what need to be corrected or extinguished.
- They are openly affectionate – physically and verbally. They let children feel that home is a safe haven to ask questions, learn, love, build friendships, and find comfort when things go wrong.
- They encourage their children, cheering them on when they try to learn something new and do things on their own; and when they fail, tell them to keep trying.
- They enjoy learning and create learning opportunities for themselves and their children. Learning is not the same as “school work” and children know that does not stop when the bell rings. They ask questions, and encourage children to ask them.
I never did become a mother, but I am still a teacher. My journey has come full circle. My teaching journey that began in the slums has taken me to ministry where we can equip churches across the Philippines to teach the most impoverished parents to teach their children a better way of life for a better future!
Anna Carlos-Alegre is an educator with more than 20 years of experience in teaching and curriculum design for levels K-5. She is currently the Director of Education for International Care Ministries. She has been married to her best friend, Venjoy Alegre, for almost 20 years.