Lessons Far From Home

Prince George's County needed teachers. Mabel Ventura left the Philippines to fill the gap -- and earn a paycheck to help her family back in Manila.
By Phuong Ly
Sunday, August 3, 2008


Lips pursed, Flora Gaskin took a step toward the 130 new Prince George's County teachers sitting in the lecture hall. Mabel Ventura was perched in the last row, but even she leaned back as if pushed by the force of the towering woman's voice.

"No." Gaskin repeated, her dark curls shaking.

This, the former Prince George's school principal told the group, was how firm and confident they must be in their classrooms if they were going to survive the school year. The new teachers had been recruited from the Philippines, where such stern voices aren't usually necessary.

This was the fourth year that the county had hired teachers from the Philippines, an increasingly popular source of manpower for U.S. school systems. In Prince George's, the Filipinos were scattered throughout the county, teaching pre-kindergarten through high school, and all topics, from special education to math, science and gym. Mabel, a 46-year-old petite mother of three, was assigned to teach first grade at Samuel P. Massie Elementary in Forestville, where six other Filipino teachers -- one-fifth of the school's classroom instructors -- were posted.

To many school officials, Filipino teachers are ideal job candidates. The mostly female recruits speak English, hold advanced degrees and pass internationally recognized teaching exams. And they see the salaries offered here as small fortunes. But for all their enthusiasm and experience, they first have to learn how to manage unruly American students.

"I noticed your way of doing things is very meek and very quiet," Gaskin, now a consultant for the school system, told the new teachers, who had gathered for a Saturday seminar last August, just after the first week of the 2007-08 school year. "That doesn't work here. You have to get that authoritative voice when that nice voice isn't working. Don't be afraid of them. Don't be their friend. You are in charge of that classroom."

Mabel had never yelled at a student during her 25 years of teaching, but she nodded and took notes in her careful print. The Catholic school where she'd taught in the Philippines was all girls and so elite that its alumni include the country's president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

In Prince George's, two-thirds of Mabel's students were boys. Sixty-five percent of the kids at the school were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Samuel Massie Elementary once was on the Maryland watch list for failing to meet state benchmarks, although it had dramatically improved in recent years.

When Gaskin asked the teachers to write down one negative thing that had happened to them in their classrooms that first week, Mabel poured out a paragraph. She wrote that she'd asked one boy to collect textbooks for her to "divert his energy." When a classmate refused to hand him a book, he'd exploded into a tantrum, screaming and flailing on the floor.

The other teachers at the seminar were quick to raise their hands and voice their problems.

"The first day of school, we had a fight in class."

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