How the Mountain School Kids Moved Me

Education–a not so fancy word which has led you to this stage in your life. Have you ever realized how your education has taken you to where you are today? It is one of the constants in the world we live in. An inevitable part of life which has eaten up about a quarter of your life already.

During my most recent homecoming to Zamboanga just this year, I got the chance to experience a once in a lifetime kind of trip that has totally changed my perception on our country’s education system.

It all started when I sat down for a chat with my cousin, Agnes. We haven’t been able to leave each other messages online while I was away, let alone talk! So I spent minutes talking to her when I arrived. I asked her how she was doing with work, and then she told me that she’s now working as a public school teacher up in the mountains! Yes, I have heard news about her teaching in a far-flung area, but I didn’t know it was on a mountain! A real mountain, that is. Because in Zamboanga, mountains aren’t that accessible. Thanks to our local government who’d rather tear of fall the paved roads in highways, only to rebuild them back, instead of extending the already existing roads and paving more ways leading to the mountains. It reminds me of a Twenty-One Pilots song where they go “I’m driving here, I sit cursing the government for not using my taxes to fill holes with more cement.” All right, back to my cousin Agnes. Well, she has always wanted to become a teacher. I remember how we used to play teacher-student with other kids back in the day and how when we were young, she’d tell me how she would really love to wear a teacher’s uniform someday. I honestly thought of becoming one, too. In a country like the Philippines, that is one of the most conventional vocations there is–that is, apart from being a Nurse, an Engineer, a Doctor or a Policeman and all the other ambitions found under graduates’ names in yearbooks. (Except for my best friend Tom, whose dream was to become a Superstar in our high school year book).

That night, Agnes told me that she was going to report to work the following morning. And like the ever spontaneous girl that I was, I asked her if I could come with her because I so badly wanted to hike! She said yes… and that was how my adventure begun.

Morning of January 25, Agnes’ dad drove us by motorbike to the foot of the mountain. It was a challenge for Uncle Toto to drive Agnes and I considering our weight and of course the nasty road condition that I was just telling you about. Uncle Toto had to drop me and Agnes off the foot of the mountain because we still had to cross a river by bridge and walk through steep cliffs. The only way to get to the mountain, Agnes said, was by foot. And so we trekked…

We walked past this signage that says Tribal Area. Members of the Subanon (literally, river people) tribe inhabited this part of the mountain.

They even have this makeshift basketball ring a few feet away from a cliff.

We crossed another makeshift bridge made out of bamboo and a tree trunk.

We were joined by Agnes’ students on the way up. She told me that it has been their routine already. With her also was her PA. She has always had a yaya while growing up, up until she reached college, and even now that she’s working. Such a baby, but I love her. (Haha, hi Neg!)


Five kids trekked with us on our way up. The younger one was about five, while the eldest was about thirteen–thirteen and still in fourth grade. They didn’t wear uniforms, contrary to those students who wear khaki shorts and jumper skirts in other public schools. They were dressed in what seemed like house clothes. And even my cousin didn’t wear high heels unlike other teachers because… duh. Who would wear high heels on a hike? But I should give it to her for wearing slacks. 

We walked for about 45 or so minutes and I didn’t complain about my heavy bag, but my cousin’s PA (whose name I forgot) noticed. She offered to carry my bag for me and I tried to refuse, but she insisted. I almost laughed at the look on her face when she carried it on her shoulders. She must have not expected it to be that heavy. My mom packed lunch for me and I brought two tumblers of water because I have an unquenchable thirst for water and that makes me pee  a lot (but that’s a different story).

Halfway through our trek, we took a quick rest atop big rocks.

The rocks up there were massive! There was even one gigantic boulder the size of a hill I saw on our way down (dog for scale):

I was already sweating out all the liquid out of my body, hoping we were nearing the school already. But we walked for another more mile or so. But I don’t know, I haven’t got a sense of direction and distance.

Before we reached the school, I was expecting for at least a cemented building with paved floors–the kind of buildings in other public schools across the city. But lo and behold, this was what greeted me in Monte Central Indigenous Peoples Elementary School:

This was the very shack where classes were held.

And these were their improvised armchairs made of scrap wood. I reckon that these were made by their parents since logging was their major source of livelihood, apart from farming. They didn’t even bother painting them. Aesthetics wasn’t a priority in a town like this when there’s barely enough food to eat. Agnes told me that most–if not all–of the students would come to school with an empty stomach. Some would bring packed lunches, with nothing else but rice, some would substitute rice (the staple food in the Philippines) with sweet potatoes, whilst some would spend their one hour lunch break playing around instead just to forget that they’re starving.

Also, their classroom floor was neither tiled, nor paved. It was plain solid ground. The kids didn’t mind them, as what I’ve seen. They have never gone to a real classroom to know the difference.

 This was their library.

It says Baloy nog Kotowan which literally means House of Knowledge. But it was closed by the time I was there. Even Agnes doesn’t have access to it. She said that the doors to the library were only open to students if the school was visited by its founders, the Ateneo de Zamboanga Univeristy’s Center for Community Extension Services; representatives from the Department of Education; and other non-government organizations. In other words, Baloy nog Kotowan is nothing but a mere accessory to the school. How are the kids supposed to benefit from the proverbial ‘house of knowledge’ when they’re deprived of the treasures found within?

Soon as they started classes, Agnes’ students walked inside the classroom and I felt a little uncomfortable as all eyes were fixed on me. Agnes just smiled at me and told me that these kids weren’t used to seeing new faces.

Meanwhile, these were some of the educational materials found within the four corners of their classroom:

Top: Days of the Week / Bottom: Months of the Year


I liked the idea of it being in their native dialect Subanen as most, if not all, of the students don’t understand Tagalog which is the basic mode of communication in schools throughout the country. Now with the Department of Education’s implementation of the Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education, it’d be easier for them to adapt to their lessons as they are able to freely express their ideas in their own dialect and are able to fully understand their teacher’s discussions as well. More importantly, this can also help preserve their linguistic heritage which is an integral part of the Philippine culture. In the Philippines, out of about 120 dialects, only eight are identified as major languages and the Subanen dialect is not even one of them.

Every scheme has its own drawbacks, however, and with the mother tongue based instruction, students may find it hard to cope with the higher education curricula later on as most syllabi in universities are English-based.

Just imagine how it would be like to solve a mathematical equation if Tagalog was the mode of teaching:

“Square root of X raised to the power of 10.”

“Parisukat ugat ng ekis itaas sa kapangyarihan ng sampu.”

Another downside of the mother-tongue based learning is its effect on the students’ career once they step out of school, what with all the development in international relations. Not only that, English has been the language of the corporate world in the Philippines which will make it hard for students of the mother tongue based curriculum to make it through job interviews.

It may be true that this new mode of learning can be beneficial for students in their thought process and that it, too, may contribute to the preservation of endangered languages in the Philippines, especially Chavacano which I find really classy (well, only in some cases).

In just a matter of minutes upon arriving from an hour of trekking to the school, Agnes went on with her daily class discussion. She didn’t take even five minutes to rest, whereas I, all sweaty, thirsty and exhausted, have failed to look for someplace to rest my legs.

There was no hint of exhaustion in her. She even managed to teach two groups of students at once because the school only employed three teachers (which includes the principal). She shifted from one room to the other as the room was only divided by a thin panel made out of woven bamboo splits. Just imagine the noise you have to endure when the other class is engrossed on a loud discussion whilst your class is taking a quiz. The struggle is real.

Agnes told me pre-hike that she was both the grade 3 and 4 teacher which made me assume that the grade 3 sessions are held in the morning, while the grade 4 sessions are in the afternoon, or vice versa. What I didn’t know when we got there was that she teaches them all at once at the same class period!

So here was how it happened…

She started the day by writing math equations on the Grade 4 chalkboard. The little kids started pulling out their notebooks from their backpacks and wrote the numbers written on the chalkboard without Agnes telling them. Soon as she finished the items, she told them to answer the mathematical equation in silence. Afterwards, she walked towards the other side of the room (literally, the other side), pulled out one of the bite-size chairs, sat on it and started reading a story in Chavacano. She translated animal names from Chavacano to English.


I haven’t really grasped the plot of her story as I was on the other side of the room (literally, the other side), supervising the Grade 4 class. They were on multiplication and division and like all other students when their teacher is out, the kids peered through each other’s notes. I was quick to interfere and told them that I was their teacher for the day, but still, some of them (in a class of 15), if not most, have shared their answers with their seatmates. That is one concept of education which I cannot fathom. I don’t get why students compromise learning for good grades. Didn’t they come to school to learn? Shouldn’t we all? I don’t mean to sound like Ms. Goody Two-Shoes, but I remember back in college, some of my classmates would slay and go to the ends of the world to get high grades, and if that would mean they had to cheat, then they would. Where’s the fun in that? Learning should be fun. You should get pleasure out of learning. I like learning. I like learning a lot. 

Anyway, I taught one of the kids how to do math… division, that is. And because I wasn’t trained how to teach basic math to kids, let alone anybody, I taught him the sticks and circles technique. (Pretend that I’m speaking eloquently from here on.) The sticks and circles method is basically just grouping sticks together and drawing circles to group them into what they call, divisions. Hah! The kid quickly grasped my concept so he started doing his own equations on his paper.

When Agnes got back, she collected all papers and I volunteered to check them. I must admit, the kids were pretty impressive.

One thing that caught my attention, though, was how their names were spelled. I don’t want to sound judgmental, but their names, although derived from already existing Western names, were spelled a bit odd. Like, Brinda, for example. The Western name Brenda is spelled with an E, but for some reasons, Brinda’s was spelled with an I. But I’ll leave it at that.

Before they hit lunch time, Agnes has announced to the kids that that was her last day with them as she was assigned by the Division Office to another school. Although I know it was hard for her, she didn’t show one bit of emotion. Before sending them off to lunch, she told the kids to come back to class with letters addressed to her… goodbye letters. I was moved by the effort that the kids put on their letters. Some made paper bouquets and filled them with flowers, while some wrote her cute letters like this one:


In my short visit to Monte Central, I have witnessed how the kids were too fond of their teacher Agnes. Even the kids’ parents who we crossed paths with on our way to the school loved her.

I have also seen how she cared for the kids amidst all the stress she’s been dealing with everyday that she even celebrated her birthday with them back in November.

Photo taken from Agnes’ Facebook account:

My respect for my cousin Agnes intensified when I saw the kids and when I realized how hard being a teacher in a far flung area is. I have been working for three years now, and my greatest concern when applying for a job is how convenient the travel is going to be, knowing that I will have to go through it everyday. I asked her why she took the job, and she told me that she had to because that was the only way she could get an Item. That was their term for landing a regular spot in the Department of Education. That entitles them to the same perks regular teachers are getting like year-end bonuses, and all other monetary and non-monetary benefits. 

Currently, as per the Official Gazette, teachers classified as Teacher I are getting a monthly salary of PHP19,218. It doesn’t matter where the teachers are assigned. But for a licensed educator to get an item, one has to go through hell first. I remember an old friend, who happened to be my teacher, used to work as a volunteer. I don’t know what the formal job description was in the teacher world. He had spent more than two years working as a volunteer teacher before being officially listed in the roster of teachers. Throughout those years, he shelled money from his own pocket to pay for his expenses, including the materials he used for teaching. That was how hard the teaching profession is. It’s no different from the nursing profession where newly-licensed nurses had to go through many many holes–holes as tiny as that of syringe needles–before they get the job. Some, if not most nursing graduates, even had to pay to work! Oh the irony. The rationale behind that is because they need an experience to get an experience and to get an experience means they have to start from the bottom for who knows how long.

In 2015, the Education sector has received the highest allocation from the Government which was a massive PHP367.1 billion compared to the departments that followed after. The Department of Public Works and Highways came in second at PHP303.2 billion; whilst all the rest are below $200 billion including the National Defense, the Interior and Local Government, Health (which I reckon should be among the top three), Social Welfare and Development, Agriculture, Transportation and Communications, Environment and Natural Resources and finally Science and Technology with only PHP17.8 billion.

With that said, the Philippines has reported an impressive 96.3% literacy rate in 2015, as per UNESCO. However no one has yet predicted whether there would be a change in the country’s standing now that the K-12 has been implemented when the President signed it into law in 2013. It may be that the Government seeks to provide students who couldn’t afford to go to college a chance to be employable as they graduate from high school; but in the real world, employers always favor applicants with higher educational attainments so it doesn’t matter how good a high school graduate is because for people in the corporate world, what matters is what’s written and stamped on paper.

The Government has fed parents with hopes that there would be jobs available for children who will be finishing high school in the K-12 curriculum, not considering the fact that the private sector offers more jobs than the Government does to which the Government does not have any say. I am not writing this to underestimate the capabilities of High School graduates, but my point is that if I were either a massive company, or even a small enterprise, I’d choose the applicant with the higher credential no matter how good the other one is as the paper says it all. Diplomas are now the validation of one’s skills and knowledge. Common sense.

I commend the Ateneo’s initiative of bringing education within reach to those who could not afford it, especially to those kids whose families would never think of sending them to school, not knowing how basic arithmetic and reading skills could help them get by.

It was not until this experience that I was able to appreciate the sacrifices of my former classmates in Graduate School who were most, if not all, teachers. Some of them, like Vanessa, practice teaching at an island barangay. She would relate to us stories of how it is like to work in an island barangay–of having to deal with children who cannot speak her language, of not having potable water, of not being able to see her family for weeks, and of the perils of working in a far-flung area swarmed with terror threats.

The mountain kids have made me realize that we have become too self-obsessed and too caught up in our selfish ways that we forget to value the little things we have; and that the world has become far too advanced for these people to catch up. I just hope that the Government would stop stealing these native people’s rights to their land.

I envy the kids for they live a happy and contented life, appreciating the small things in life. I wish I was a kid again.


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