(My Journey as a Teacher – 3)
One of my favorite poems is W.E. Henley’s “Invictus.” The part I love the most are the last two lines – “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” It taught me one very simple yet strong guiding principle in life – that I am in-charge of my own destiny. It influenced me to subscribe strongly to the notion that “man’s destiny is the sum total of all the decisions he makes.” Thus, I never decide hastily.
Just like when I made a very important career decision. For the skeptics among my loved ones and friends, it was a very unpopular move. For me, it was something that I ought to do, something carefully planned. It seemed to be a leap of faith. The outcome, however, is something that I did not consider as unknown but anything – except failure.
“Why turn your back from a tenured position and a good salary?”
That was the common question my colleagues, friends, and loved ones asked me after hinting that I wanted to leave an institution ran by one of the country’s largest religious congregations. They didn’t seem able to tell me directly to my face that I was a fool. My wife did not disappoint me however. “You’re out of your mind.” Those were her exact words. “Why not wait another year so you can get the school’s share of the retirement fund?” she suggested.
I knew where my wife was coming from. She’s a very practical person. I was nearing the end of my ninth year in a Catholic institution at that time. Leaving the school without completing at least ten years would entitle me only to a refund of the total amount deducted from my salary over the years I had stayed there with nothing from the organization.
On top of that, travel time from our house to the workplace was only less than 20 minutes. That convenience I may be giving up should I leave and not find a work in the same area.
She told me, “Just for once put aside your pride.” My response was, “NO! This has nothing to do with pride.” Then we had a lengthy debate about the financial ramifications of my decision and the corresponding uncertainties it would bring. I had a full understanding of the decision I was about to make and what the consequences would be. At that moment there was something I valued more than convenience and money – my dignity as a person and my role as a professional in my chosen field as an educator.
What exactly brought me to the precipice of this major decision?
I had a lot of issues with none other than the head – the Sister President – of the congregation school where I thought I would be staying until my retirement age. It’s a conflict between the religious and the “not-so-religious” me.
As a I was leaving the Cashier’s Office one morning our paths crossed. “Good morning, Sister. I greeted her warmly. “What’s good in the morning!” She answered grouchily. You see! You might say that it’s just a minor incident. Maybe I got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, or maybe it was that this slight was just the last in a long line. Her response and attitude irked me. It confirmed what I thought were just hearsays about her shrewish tendencies. Images from History class about the abusive clergy during the Spanish occupation flickered through my mind – so long gone, or so I thought. She had hit me hard where it hurts.
That response was cliche for me. I had read it in stories and even heard it said many times. I never thought somebody would actually blurt it out right in my face. Those words were delivered not jokingly. At that moment she was like a boxer swinging a mean uppercut to my unsuspecting jaw with the intention of knocking the living daylights out of me. She almost succeeded. It was not quite a knock-out-punch. I didn’t crumble to the ground but rather stood there momentarily stunned at how rude a woman wearing a habit could be. By the time all of this transpired she was already a meter or so past me. Before the referee could finish the standing eight count, I regained my composure and some small shred of my pride. I was deemed fit to continue to fight. I followed the Sister to her office.
The secretary tried to stop me from entering the President’s office for protocol requires that I should have a prior appointment before I could see the head of the institution. That day nobody could prevent me from doing what I wanted to do. I ignored her and went straight inside. The Sister President was seemingly surprised to see me standing in front of her. We entered into a tepid discourse.
I refused when she asked me to sit down. “What’s the problem, sister?” I asked calmly but emphatically. “Why did you respond to me that way in the hallway earlier?”
“Sir,” her use of the honorific successfully retained the ambient temperature of our conversation, “I was just trying to discourage you from discussing any matter earlier. You’re holding a stack of paper so I thought you would talk to me.” I responded by saying that common sense dictates to me that I should not discuss any matter with persons in authority in the middle of nowhere unless they otherwise ask me to do so.
When she told me I was so sensitive, I said, “I am Sister. Please don’t do that to me again.” That was my own version of a mean uppercut and I added the following as if delivering an overhand punch for a coup de grace, “I’ve got job to do. I must go. Thanks for your time Sister.”
I saw how her face turned crimson as I delivered those parting shots.
I knew I had just voluntarily written my name on her list of endangered species – that I had become a marked man, but I had to do what I ought.
Our encounter that day became news all over the campus. Somebody told somebody who told somebody else. It wasn’t me. It was either her or the secretary… or perhaps there was a hidden CCTV camera that caught the action and beamed the drama live all over the campus.
Later, one of my colleagues gave me an unsolicited advice, “Bear in mind that the sisters don’t stay in a particular school forever. Sooner or later they will be transferred to other schools within their congregation. Just learn to co-exist with that sister until such time she leaves.”
That I know. She may be transferred to another school – or get an extension of another three years (and maybe a bonus of an extra year) just like her predecessor, whom I wish had not been replaced.
I found myself responding, “I can’t bear another year with her. What if she gets a term extension of three years?” For me, that would be like an eternity.
I felt like I stopped growing personally and professionally since she took over as head of the institution. Her leadership style and interpersonal skills, for me, was plain awful and downright unacceptable. I could not stay longer and expect to be productive and effective in the performance of my job. I kept questioning her policies and her moral ascendancy to lead. So, one of us ought to go. And of course, it wasn’t her.
“Where do you go from here?”
That was another question I repeatedly heard. My better half asked me another question in her pointed and direct fashion, “What will happen to us when you leave that school?” It seemed that my wife had forgotten that I don’t make hasty decisions when it comes to anything that would affect my family and my career. That’s the thing about major decisions. I know it would affect not only me but also my loved ones.
I also have parents depending on me so I could not afford to mess up. Even my siblings come to me once in a while to ask for help. In short, I always need to be gainfully employed. To ensure that, I need to have set goals and a definite plan of action to achieve them. I always tell my students and friends that planning on anything involves the preparation of possible alternatives so that when, for example, plan A doesn’t work then you still have a plan B or a plan C. The more alternatives the better.
I have a three-pronged career path to follow. Such is the offshoot of my dreams, education, training and experience.
First – run a school of my own. That’s my dream. I want to have a school of my own. That, I guess, is the dream of many educators.
Second – occupy the highest academic position… Dean of a department… College Dean… or probably higher such as University President. I am not ashamed to admit that I want to occupy any of the said positions. I want to supervise at a school and, yes, teach at the same time. I simply cannot be divorced from teaching.
Third – work overseas as an English teacher.
“Trust me. I know what I am doing.” That’s the way I reassured my wife when she got too worried about me leaving the Catholic institution. Any of my decisions relative to work should always fall within the sphere of my career path, and include those other things important to me. I did not veer away from that path with the important decision I was about to make.
I walked the career path I paved for myself. I became a part of the management teams of the schools where I worked during my mid-20’s. The first administrative position I had was director of academic and student affairs. But my dream school remained in the pipeline. I needed an investor for it to become a reality. What I envisioned was a tandem of capitalist and industrialist partners with the latter being me. Most of my friends who have their own schools either inherited them from their parents or they opened schools supported financially by their moneyed parents or siblings. This was not an option for me.
I have no rich parents or affluent siblings or relatives capable of financing my project. The most viable option for me was to find capitalist partners. I actively searched for people I could convince to finance my dream school. All they needed to do was invest their money and I would take care of everything else, or so I thought!
During the early 1990s, the town adjacent to my father’s birthplace was a good site for a computer school. There were none there then. With information technology starting to take a hold in the world at that time, there was strong demand for expertise and skills related to computers and IT. That was the time when computer schools started to mushroom all over the country. It was the best chance for my dream to have a school of my own to become a reality. I created a feasibility study and presented it to several people I knew had money. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to convince any of them.
Just a couple of years after that, a local businessman opened the first computer school in that locality. The big players in computer education also opened branches soon after.
The school I wanted to have was not within reach. I would have a couple more rejections after that. So, I focused on my teaching and supervisory job and put my dream of having a school of my own on the backburner for a while.
Then I received an invitation from a religious to join her team and lead their Education department. It was an offer so difficult to refuse – salary and opportunity-wise. I resigned from my job and decided to work in the school ran by sisters.
Under the tutelage of the first Sister President I worked with, I learned so much. I swear that I learned from her much more than I had learned from several years in Graduate school. She was my mentor… one of the best, if not the best education supervisor I worked with. The seven years we were together were my Golden Age. She set the standards that unfortunately her successor could not measure up to. I felt that that institution had entered its Dark Age when my mentor left and before I could completely revert back to my barbaric ways I seriously considered leaving the school.
When the next Sister President came, with all the negative information about her circulating in the campus, I was afraid that things wouldn’t be good. I suddenly actively pursued my dream of having my own school again. I targeted a school site in a town in the province where I had settled down with my family. I created another feasibility study and started presenting it to prospective capitalist partners.
My most heartbreaking experiences came a couple of years before the resignation I was planning to make. I came so close to the realization of my dream – so close and yet so far.
In 2009, I presented my proposal to a Briton. I was able to convince him of the merits of my plan and he asked me to start doing both the legwork and the paperwork, which I did. We were supposed to start operating the school June, 2010. He promised to provide the initial investment in November, 2009. Finally, my dream school would become a reality… or would it? The Briton lost his job in Oman in October, 2009. Much to my consternation, he decided to back out from our project.
Of course, I was so disappointed. I did not give up on my dream though. I had already laid out the plan and been working on the paperwork. I had also already talked to the owner of the building we were targeting as a site for the school, so I searched for another capitalist partner. I found another one, an Australian, who was working in a bank in his country and was the fiancée of one my friends in a local gym. He agreed to finance the project.
Unfortunately, I did not find the terms he set for the partnership acceptable. He wanted the initial profit sharing to be 80-20 with him getting the lion’s share. He also demanded that he got back in full whatever amount he invested after five years. I did not agree, even when he added that my share in the profit would increase annually until the profit-sharing became 60-40. My offer was nothing less than 50-50 and that he was not supposed to get back the amount he had invested. That was to be his investment. Mine would be to get the school up and running and operating successfully. Neither of us budged. Thus, even though I knew I was letting go of a dream that was about to come true, I did not pursue the project with him.
That was the closest I got to having my dream school.
Those were heartbreakers, but life has to go on, I moved on and vowed that I will just keep trying. My dream to have a school of my own did not die. For as long as I am breathing, that dream will remain alive. This brings me back to the Catholic institution and the important, possibly life-changing, decision I was about to make.
“Do you think you can still find a better school?”
That was my mother. She added, “Leaving that school was like letting go of a very stable job to face the uncertainties of finding a new one.”
When she told me those things, it became apparent that my wife asked her to convince me not to resign. In that moment I recalled what I had once read – “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” I never doubted my chances of finding another job should I really decide to leave.
I had to explain the situation to my mother and at the end made this request – “Just pray for me mother dear.”
I revisited my career path. I looked at the different directions I set seemingly so long before.
It’s clear that the opportunity for the realization of my dream to have my own school had not come knocking yet. So I thought of building a door where opportunity could knock. I thought it was time for me to consider working as an English teacher overseas so I could earn more and save money for my dream.
Thus, I set my mind on pursuing a teaching career abroad. I was told that it would be easier for me to be employed as an English teacher overseas if I was certified in “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).” I searched the Internet for institutions that offered TESOL training and started looking for job openings for ESL teachers abroad.
My search for ESL jobs abroad validated what my friends had been telling me all along – that most schools abroad, particularly in Japan and South Korea, hired only native English speakers as teachers. But I knew that there were also Filipinos teaching English in the aforementioned countries. If they got hired, I thought I would also have a chance to get hired.
I got the information I needed for the TESOL training I was planning, and a bonus – I saw the advertisement that had been posted by a city college searching for a College Dean. I had the necessary educational qualifications and experience for the position, so I took the plunge. The college was run by a city government which meant that should I get hired I would become a part of the public school system. Not a bad idea considering the fact that private school teachers were starting to flock to government schools because salaries and benefits in public schools were beginning to get better. Public schools offer teachers better opportunities and a more secured future. My plan A was now to find ESL positions abroad with plan B being to find administrative positions in other colleges or universities. It seemed plan B was shaping up.
I happened to be on the dance floor when an opportunity was looking for a dance partner. I offered my hand.
While pursuing my application to that city college, I enrolled for a 120-hour TESOL training program.
“You are resigning from your present job then you will be spending money for that training?”
My wife again! I just nodded in response. I knew what she was trying to drive at. She wanted us to save money. After all, if I was really quitting my job just how sure was I that I could immediately find my next source of income? My wife knew however, that even if she disagreed with my plans I would still push through with them.
I enrolled for the TESOL-certification program. I also applied on-line for ESL jobs in South Korea, Indonesia and the Middle East. Then I was invited by the city college and two prospective employers from the Middle East for an interview, all of those in the same week. All these opportunities presented themselves while I was still finalizing my decision to cut ties with the school headed by the religious order.
Bright lights lit up the directions I had paved for my prospective career paths. It was very clear. If I decided to leave, I could either work as a teacher overseas (plan A) or be the College Dean in the city college (plan B). But what if I failed in all three interviews? Should I opt to forego of my plans to resign?
“Is your decision final?”
That again was my wife making a last-ditch effort to sway me from making that decision. She asked me that question when she saw me sifting through a box of documents I brought home that night. She noticed that I was already slowly bringing home my personal belongings from my office.
Then again I gave my wife what became my classic response – “Trust me. I know what I am doing.”
While going through the files in that box, I came across the printed materials of a lecture delivered by a certain Dr. Bien. I recalled how prolific he was as a speaker. I started reading the materials he discussed during that seminar. I began to wonder why those materials did not affect me when I heard them delivered and expounded by Dr. Bien personally in the same way that they did when I read them. Perhaps I was not focusing on his talk that time.
Reading those old lecture notes made me finally see something that was kept from my view in the many years I had been teaching in that institution – the enormity of the role of a Catholic educator. It was not as simple as I thought. It is a difficult responsibility, something transcendental. It is not the subject areas that are being taught, it is the Gospel. It is not fusing the Gospel into a subject but the other way around.
I began to question what I had done in all those years I spent in that Catholic school. Those lecture notes made me feel uncertain as to whether or not I deserve to be a Catholic educator. The materials I read made me realize that only those who possess the fruits of the Holy Spirit can be efficient in carrying out the functions of a true Catholic educator. Honestly, I didn’t think I bore the fruits of the Spirit. I did and said things that made me unworthy to be a teacher and administrator in that institution.
I was eaten up by the hatred that I had fermented towards the Sister President. My deeds and words, and my ways of thinking about and doing things make me unworthy to be a torchbearer in Christian education. I couldn’t be “the blind leading the blind.” Pretense and hypocrisy tore my soul apart. Suddenly, my decision to leave just became final. I had to leave not because I don’t have faith in that religious as head of the institution but because I am weak. I am sinful.
Two months before the end of the school year I filed my resignation. There was no more turning back.
A week after filing that resignation letter, I received e-mails informing me that the universities in the Middle East decided not to hire me because I was not yet TESOL-certified. Those rejections came two weeks before I completed my TESOL training.
It was not meant to be. I did not inform my wife about it because she was already so disheartened when I resigned from my job. Telling her that my first two applications abroad ended up in failure would make her even more worried.
Then a few days before my resignation from the Catholic institution officially became effective, I received a call from the city college where I applied as College Dean. I was home at that time watching TV with my wife. After hearing the first sentence from the one who called, I was already sure of what he would say next. I asked him to give me a second. I told my wife to turn the TV off while I turn on the speakerphone. I wanted her to hear something special.
“Please continue sir.” I said.
“The President would like you to know that we have decided to hire you. Can you come here tomorrow?”
My wife smiled. She tried unsuccessfully to prevent tears to roll from the edges of her eyes. The opportunity that knocked on the door I built was not a chance to work overseas as ESL teacher but to continue as school administrator.
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?
That’s Peter in Matthew 18:21 asking the Lord Jesus Christ.
As the school year (and my nine-year stay with the Catholic institution) drew to a close, I attended my last Basic Ecclesial Community (BEC) activity. BECs in the congregation schools are intended to make the faithful live in communion with God and with one another. Such activities are like mini-retreats. They are designed to make the participants examine their conscience and reflect on their relationships with the Almighty and their fellowmen.
The central theme of that particular BEC activity was forgiveness.
Chance would have it that I and the Sister President shared the same table. She was already there when I came. I wanted to think that the organizers of that particular BEC set us up.
Courtesy dictated that I should acknowledge her presence.
“Good morning, Sister.”
Then I added the standard greetings of the congregation.
“Praised be Jesus and Mary.”
“Hello sir. Praised be Jesus and Mary.”
I could see how my friends and colleagues on that table were smiling on the pleasant exchange between me and the Sister President. I wasn’t sure if those smiles were expressions of amusement or happiness seeing that I and the religious matriarch were at the same table and talking. They knew everything that had transpired between me and the Sister President. They knew that I supported the formal complaint lodged against her, a complaint that reached the office of the Education Ministry of the congregation.
I didn’t use any camouflage in expressing my dissent against her during those times. I don’t operate that way. I don’t like stabbing my opponents on the back. I want them to see when I draw my sword to give them a chance to prepare for my assault. I openly talked to the teaching and non-teaching personnel she had offended in one way or another. I encouraged them to complain. She had loyalists in our ranks and I was almost certain that through them she came to know about what I was doing. She summoned me one time to her office and asked me to explain. We had an unpleasant exchange then.
Then the head of the congregation’s Education Ministry came to listen to the first-hand accounts of the people complaining against the Sister President. That was a week after I read Dr. Bien’s handouts. I told her everything I needed to say – how ill-tempered she was and how her grumpy ways led me to wonder if indeed she was a senior representative of a religious order. After hearing my litany, she asked me point blank.
“What do you want us to do with her?”
I wasn’t able to respond immediately.
I was not really surprised by the straightforwardness of the question but by the response I wanted to give. I thought I hated her and her ways so much that I wanted her removed from her office.
There seemed to be an eternity between the question and the answer I gave. I knew I was not the only one the head of the congregation’s Education Ministry had talked privately with about the Sister President. I wondered what they had said when asked the same question?
Before I responded I recalled how she took time to accompany me to the office of the congregation’s lawyer when I needed an attorney for my defense in a case filed against me by two students who felt offended when I just tried to carry out my concurrent function as prefect of discipline dutifully. The case was eventually dismissed for lack of merit. Nonetheless; at the moment when I was faced by that question I realized that it was difficult to just dismiss the fact that the Sister President could have decided to simply endorse me to the lawyer by calling him. But she had opted to accompany me personally. I recalled her reason.
“Sir, I wanted to make sure that everything would go well. I noticed how troubled you have become after learning about the case.”
That happened before we had that encounter in the hallway. I was hurt by that so much so that all I could see from then on was everything bad about her. I chose not to consider the good things she was doing for the institution. She may not be as good as her predecessor, she may be ill-tempered, but she was very much a capable administrator. It was when she took over as Sister President that the department I was leading had more students.
“Is that question difficult to answer?”
I apologized to the sister talking to me for taking too long to respond. Then I said what I had to say.
“She has been trying her best to lead the school sister. Just please tell her to improve a bit on her interpersonal skills and avoid hurting people with her words.”
Then came that BEC that day.
“Congratulations sir on your new job! You deserve it.”
That was the Sister President. Apparently, somebody had whispered to her that I had already been hired by another school. I told only a few of my friends about it. They may have told their friends too until the information reached the President’s office.
“Thank you sister” I replied.
I heard a lot of stuff about forgiveness that day. More importantly, I experienced it.
As a culminating activity, the BEC coordinator that day gave each of us ¼ sheets of short bond papers then instructed us to write there the name of the persons who hurt us and what they did.
I guess I need not say whose name I wrote on that paper and what she did. The final instruction given was to fold the paper and approach the table where there was a candle burning. We would set the paper on fire, throw it into the urn beside the candle then watch it burn.
“Sir, let’s do this together,” said the Sister.
“It’s my pleasure sister.”
The Sister President and I approached the table where the candle was. The aromatic scent wafting from the candle wrapped us as together we made the pieces of paper we’re holding kiss the candle’s lighted wick. We watched silently as the flame consumed the paper in the urn. It turned from white to black… then gray. It turned to dust the way I would long after I breath my last.
“Sister, sorry for all my shortcomings.”
I said sorry for I know I offended her in many ways. I said sorry for I know that I did not do well as a Catholic educator. The Sister President smiled and laid a hand on my shoulder and let it stay there as we walked back to our seats.
I left the institution I served for nine years without any emotional baggage. That was the more important decision I made… more important than my moving to another job. That way I found it easier to turn the pages to the next chapter of my life.
One morning, seven years after I left that congregation school, I was at the Incheon International Airport waiting for the bus going to the university where I’m currently working.
Yes, eventually I was hired as an ESL teacher by a university here in South Korea. What happened? I worked only for one year as the College Dean in the tertiary institution where I transferred after leaving that congregation school. Thereafter, I became a Principal in a basic education school.
Those two schools were so unlike the Catholic institution where I worked. The systems, the values, and the people were totally different. Honestly, I experienced a “culture shock.” The pay may be higher and I had lesser work, especially when I was a Principal, but I missed the professionalism, the strong sense of direction, the personal and professional development, and the academic ambiance that I got accustomed to for nine years. That resulted to job burnout and identity crisis. I must admit – I started to regret leaving the congregation school. I didn’t tell my wife about it because I know what she would tell me. I did not tell my mother that I failed to find a better school. I faced a dead end.
Then came the answer to a prayer – I got a call from a university here in South Korea. That was just what the doctor ordered. The job burnout and the subsequent identity crisis took a lot from me. It led to some personal problems as well. To be given a chance to teach in another country was the fresh start that I needed. Here in South Korea, I had the career reboot I wanted and a wonderful bonus – I rediscovered my passion for writing. As to whether I would be able to save enough money to finally start a school of my own, remains to be seen.
While enjoying a cup of hot caramel macchiato at the airport, I tried to look back at my long career as a teacher. That morning I just came back from the Philippine where I spent my winter break. At that moment, my heart was drowned with gratitude at the thought that I am so blessed to be given the opportunity to become an ESL teacher in another country. Then suddenly I recalled that incident that morning when the Sister President rudely responded to my greetings. Had she not done that, would I consider resigning? Would I be here in South Korea?
While as I was thinking about all those things, something hard to believe happened. A familiar face entered the coffee shop. It was the Sister President. Indeed, ours is just a small world. I could have easily decided to just pretend I didn’t see her but I just found myself standing from my seat and allowed that our paths cross again.
“Good morning, sister!” I warmly greeted her the way I did on that fateful morning many years ago when we had that unfortunate encounter. She did not respond grouchily the way she did then instead she called out my name so loudly and excitedly that she drew the attention of the other people in that coffee shop.
I gently put her hand on my forehead. After that she embraced me.
She was both surprised and delighted to see me there.
While her companion went to the counter to order, we stood there excitedly chatting, just like two old friends who have not seen each other for a very long time.
Before they left for they had a bus to catch, we both took pictures of that special moment we had together. We both made sure that that special moment would be preserved for posterity.