Running on empty, these teachers still get the work done

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For World Teachers’ Day, we look at the daily plight of public school teachers who have spent decades in the profession despite the challenges they face in and out of the classroom.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 4) — Teaching may sound like a thankless job, but it’s what keeps 43-year-old Sara Marie Baria going.

Baria has been a teacher for 17 years now, braving the daily grind of lectures, checking papers, and acting as second parent to her students. It’s been her go-to job even if life took her from Caloocan City in Metro Manila, to Bicol, and now, in Bulacan – and she has no plans of changing careers anytime soon.

She began as a social studies instructor in a private high school for a couple of years, only taking a break when she began a family. But about three years ago, she decided to transfer to a government-run senior high school in Meycauayan, Bulacan.

At first, she made the jump in pursuit of better pay and benefits – it’s known that work in the public sector pays bigger pensions and perks compared to private institutions. It’s not a substantial increase either, but Baria went with it anyway.

Kung sa personal lang, I just need bigger benefit, salaries,” Baria told CNN Philippines.

Sara Marie Baria teaches senior high school students at the Academic Senior High School of the City of Meycauayan.

She later on found meaning in teaching these teens, most of which had barely enough money to attend classes daily.

Kapag nasa public, talagang hikahos, hirap ang mga bata… Doon ako na-motivate,” she said. “Hindi lang para pang-personal, I have a calling. Laking public din ako, it’s time to give back. Iyon na ang objective ko.”

[Translation: In a public school, the students are really impoverished. That’s what motivated me – it’s not just for the personal gain, but I have a calling. I also came from a public school and it’s time to give back. That’s my objective.]

She recalled how she used to get extra pay whenever she’s given additional tasks like overseeing a student club or acting as class adviser when she was with her private employer. Now, she calls it a “buy one, take all” deal with the Department of Education – she earns nothing more but thanks.

Baria is a Teacher II, which runs at ₱22,938 monthly based on the latest tranche of the government-wide salary increase that took effect this year. It’s just enough to meet the needs of her husband and two kids, but it does take a lot of sacrifice.

Nasu-sustain naman pero ‘yung mga pleasure, mga luxury, hindi namin 'yun naa-attain. It’s enough for the needs, but not the wants,” said Baria, who also handles economics subjects. She admits though that the 13th month pay and mid-year bonus given each year lets her splurge by just a little.

More than a job, it is a mission.

October 5 marks World Teachers’ Day this year, but what has the country done to ease the burden of the country’s nearly 830,000 public school educators? 

Salaries not enough

Despite their ever-changing roles – from supervising student groups to serving as election officers during national polls – teachers remain silent workers, running on empty despite the heavy load.

Louie Zabala, a Grade 10 teacher who has spent 22 years in the service, faces pretty much the same issues he had when he was a newbie instructor. In fact, he’s grown used to using the school’s comfort room as the faculty lounge – something he saw even when he was a public school student.

But Zabala is a tad luckier than others: as Teacher III, he earns about ₱25,232 in a month. This is definitely better than the entry-level rate of ₱20,754 for young teachers, but he said this is still far from the ₱35,000 monthly budget he projects for a comfortable life.

Napakaliit ng sweldo talaga, talagang hindi makaagapay ang sweldo ng teachers base doon sa cost of living,” he said. 

Zabala is also executive vice president of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers – Metro Manila chapter, which actively lobbies for better pay for their profession. They have been persistently calling on the government to raise the entry-level rate for teachers to ₱30,000. 

READ: Duterte renews promise to increase teachers' salaries

But Malacañang has appealed for even longer patience from teacher groups demanding an across-the-board pay hike worth ₱10,000, saying it would mean a ₱150-billion bill which the government needs to foot. Presidential Spokesman Sal Panelo said if at all, the salary increase long promised by President Rodrigo Duterte could be done by installment.

Acting Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado has promised a fresh pay hike for all state workers in 2020, beginning with a ₱31-billion provision in the proposed national budget. He added that his agency will soon propose a fifth Salary Standardization Law (SSL) to Duterte, which would grant salary hikes for the next three years.

But even the SSL wouldn’t be the best fix, with Zabala citing history that improvements have not been substantial especially for lower salary grades. These cover teachers who do the heavy lifting, more than school administration officials.

At least 30 bills pending before the House of Representatives and five Senate proposals seek to drastically raise teachers’ salaries, but all remain pending at the committee level as of this writing.

For the kids

There’s a lot that can be done to improve teachers’ pay. Even Baria thinks the government should grant better wages and benefits for teachers, which they can use for continuing education as they catch up with latest teaching strategies and equipment.

Zabala would like to see teacher perks granted in other countries to be copied here: some nations grant grocery allowance and even free or subsidized housing options to educators.

What makes teachers so special, you ask? These demands are not just theirs to enjoy.

“Aside sa kanyang gastusin sa pamilya, bahagi ng misyon ng teacher ‘yung tulungan ‘yung mag-aaral hindi lang sa academics, pero ‘yung maitawid ‘yung kalagayan ng kawalan. ‘Yan ‘yung unique sa teachers,” Zabala said.

Even the yearly chalk allowance at ₱3,500 isn’t enough – in a digital world, teachers are forced to buy their own laptops to upgrade their teaching style and keep up with the tech-savvy kids in front of them.

READ: 4 Filipino teachers who prove that educating the youth is more than a job

As if ingrained in their system, teachers would not be able to turn a blind eye when they have a hungry student during recess, or a kid who couldn’t buy their own school supplies, Zabala said. Sometimes, advisers have no choice but to shell out personal money just to spruce up classrooms ahead of a new school year.

While the wait stretches longer, these teachers keep on with their daily duty, changing lives one lecture at a time.