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I live and teach in the Philippines, where intermittent internet connections are just some of many obstacles faced by teachers. Many times each year, our nation’s educational system is challenged by both man-made and natural calamities, including such events as typhoons, flooding, power outages, and even war.

During the last few years, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for including a digital dimension to our teaching has been magnified. Even seasoned educators continue to struggle through daily preparations of digitized versions of their lessons, some which they mastered years ago. Additionally, the lack of teacher support, closed lab spaces, isolation requirements, and other difficulties have further compounded the challenges faced by teachers.

Whether you find these challenges unimaginable or even impossible to solve, please allow me to take you on a trip to the other side of the world (without the need for a plane ticket) to share about the experiences of teachers in the Philippines. I hope to provide my colleagues in the chemistry education community with a glimpse of how our community of teachers continues to battle difficult challenges with creative solutions, and to support one another through each challenge we face.

A unique position … and lots of problems to solve

The Western Institute of Technology (WIT) is a formal education institution offering post-secondary degrees in many STEM fields, as well as a senior high school academic track for 11th and 12th grade students. Located in the Western Visayas region of the Philippines, I serve the school in several capacities.

As WIT’s Pollution Control Officer (PCO), I organize groups of students to become “greenducators.” These students undergo training in the environmental sector of the government and in return, they help me with student-centered environmental management activities in our school. Additionally, I organize school environment-focused activities, sponsored by fellow instructors, to promote environmental stewardship among our students.

Meanwhile, as head of the R&D department for the College of Arts & Sciences, I organize school-based training workshops to prepare our students for jobs in industry upon graduation. In addition, I use knowledge about lab instruction and instrumentation trends gained from attending seminars and conferences, as well as my previous industry experience, to develop training for our laboratory teachers.

Both roles require me to conduct and initiate schoolwide activities. To plan these activities, I frequently consult and collaborate with various government agencies and stakeholders, including parents, administrators, and other teachers. Recently, I also enrolled in a Ph.D. program, which has provided me with a scholarship and support to attend various math and science conferences, seminars, and workshops. This scholarship requires recipients to return service. To do so, I share my knowledge with educators at WIT itself as well as at other schools — and I’ve been fortunate to get support that has allowed me to offer free lectures and trainings to reach even more educators.

Problem #1: Limited technology support and resources

In the Philippines, government support for public education is very limited, and not all schools receive the same learning resources. Although tablets are provided to public schools, offering basic education, digital learning is still ineffective, due to lack of technical assistance to teachers. And while there are other free resources and webinars available online to empower struggling teachers, intermittent internet connections often prevent them from consistently learning on their own.

Study or learning modules have been identified as the immediate and most feasible solution for students with limited internet and technology access. But government support to schools in terms of computers, printers, photocopiers, and related supplies is limited. Before the pandemic, widespread disparities in teacher-student ratios were already a problem, and they have been magnified by the lack of learning materials.

Teacher-driven solutions and workarounds

Teachers in the Philippines have developed a number of workarounds to produce the learning materials they need. Many solicit private donors for the funds needed to buy paper, ink, and other supplies, while others use their own money. When neither of these approaches are sufficient, teachers group students according to their accessibility, allowing students from the same area to learn together and share resources.

In my role with WIT, I have worked to address this challenge by connecting with various schools that lack access to online resources to offer free lectures and training services on technological literacy. Where online access is unavailable, I’ve also traveled to remote schools throughout the country to deliver such items as USB sticks and printed modules that can be delivered to students’ homes. To support schools located in calamity areas, I’ve even helped deliver a range of other goods, ranging from healthcare equipment to photocopying machines.

Problem #2: Geographic and other physical obstacles

Figure 1. Walking through rugged terrain to deliver learning materials.

Another significant issue relates to the distribution of printed materials to students without access to web-based and digitized learning materials. Despite government efforts to get supplies to all schools, distance and other factors make access to these supplies unequal. To name one common challenge, some schools become literally inaccessible during our rainy season, due to floods, damaged bridges, and muddy roads.

Teacher-driven solutions and workarounds

Through my positions at WIT, I’ve had opportunities to attend many conferences, and have grown my network while learning about new trends in education with fellow academicians. As I can, I use my network of educator contacts to remedy the lack of technical support for teachers. In a way, traveling from one town to another to offer free educational services has become my personal act of patriotism.

Personally, I’ve spent many hours walking, crossing rivers, and journeying though mountainous terrain to help support educators by delivering supplies, printed materials, and donated items. Recently, I led a small group of my college students as we travelled almost 60 miles (~ 95 km) to share research and environmental-focused instruction materials with primary school teachers. To deliver these materials, our journey included a 2-hour bus ride, a 30-minute motorcycle ride, and 1 hour on foot! (see Figure 1.)

But I’m not alone; in fact, through my network of fellow educators and scholars, I’ve learned of others who have also travelled through dangerous regions, neighborhoods, and even war zones just to deliver supplies, learning materials, and scholarship forms. The wonderful feeling of being able to provide help to schools in need has been priceless! 

Figure 2. A local courier picks up boxes of donated goods from the author’s office for delivery to the victims of the Taal Volcano eruption. Donations included items ranging from books to clothing, personal hygiene supplies, and even nebulizers.

Problem #3: Lackluster labs

During the pandemic, my sense is that laboratory classes have often been affected negatively — even when teachers redefine their approach to lab class by incorporating web-based videos and simulations. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, the students simply don’t get the same kind of experience, skills, and knowledge they do in person.

To mention just one example, I know of a first-year chemistry teacher who had to simply hand out printed copies of laboratory activities to their students, because it was impossible to deliver an actual hands-on experience. These students, who were often enrolled in chemistry for the first time, encountered unfamiliar names and images of laboratory equipment and materials. The technical writing format of these documents increased the challenge, especially since the students also lacked access to and familiarity with an actual laboratory setting.

Teacher-driven solutions and workarounds

Figure 3. Testing an at-home laboratory activity about electrochemistry.

To assist teachers in their laboratory classes, I provide them with lab activities that students can perform at home. Each lab activity was developed with a procedure and a report to be completed by the students. The activities required items that are commonly used at home. This solution was, admittedly, difficult. Finding indigenous and “green” alternatives to laboratory materials was the most challenging part.

A few words of advice for teachers creating their own at-home lab material. Remember that it is not necessary for a given activity to be technically perfect … but the correct representation of fundamental science or chemistry ideas through the activity is a must.

Problem #4: Personal struggles

Teachers in the Philippines, much like teachers everywhere, face a variety of personal situations that can make the already challenging job of teaching even more difficult. These can include unfamiliarity with technical processes, such as digitizing learning materials and submitting documents to and from their school’s servers or learning management system. The teachers can also struggle with intermittent internet connections, preventing them from receiving school instructions, or reaching out to students and colleagues. Academic challenges, indeed, know no age, gender, or years in service.

Teacher-driven solutions and workarounds

Like many of the teachers I know, I believe the “no student left behind” policy promoted by the Department of Education can also be applied to teachers, as in “no teacher left behind.” I’ve known teachers who encountered social isolation in their jobs and who found this mantra to be a guiding principle. For example, I met a group of high school teachers who developed a novel arrangement in which they live together in the same house. It may be self-evident that sharing a living space with colleagues who are in the same field as you can support your professional growth. But learning to live with others who are from different professional fields can be even more rewarding. This scenario has become more profound due to the pandemic, but was also viable before that time as well.

Interestingly, for these teachers, living together eventually helped them develop a deeper sense of commitment to their work. Their personal differences, strengths, and weaknesses complemented each other’s, such as when the younger teachers helped the older ones with technology and other challenges. Lesson preparation required less time, as more heads joined together. Misunderstandings were minimized as the various individuals had more time and space to discuss professional and personal concerns. Physically, emotionally, and psychologically, they established a support system. Their common home became everyone’s safe haven, with each member choosing to become part of a solution.

Teachers also support one another by making small changes at their school or local community. For example, in one school I work with, a math teacher came up with the idea for an “honesty store”, allowing teachers to purchase basic items in the nearby community, eliminating the need to travel a great distance to the closest grocery store. As the name suggests, the store requires the buyer to simply drop his or her payment in the cash box after selecting the items they need, without anyone else needing to be involved.

I also know of a language teacher who expressed her love for her colleagues by establishing indoor and outdoor vegetable gardens for everyone to access. With the help of a science teacher, the vegetables grew well, thereby meeting some of the teachers’ basic needs. Gardening also served as a unique team-building activity, and harvest time was something that everyone looked forward to.

Figure 4. This group of WIT Senior High School teachers chose to live with colleagues in order to help each other.

Inspiring a continuum of problem-solving

While it’s true that teaching is a noble profession, it is also true that teachers are often overworked and underpaid. Most of the teachers whom I have met face serious financial struggles. The situation worsens when a teacher is assigned to schools outside their home city. Some substitute teachers in the Philippines even work without pay, in the hope that they will soon get a permanent position.

When I worked as a chemist in industry, a supervisor once told me, “Our profession, if used properly, can help us to become more innovative and resilient.” As for me, I tell my students in graduate school to make practical use of their Master’s degrees by mastering their own selves. This way, they will know when to magnify their positive qualities and when to minimize their negative habits for their own survival.

Figure 5. Merchandise available at the Honesty Store.
Figure 6. A school vegetable garden, ready for harvest.

Though I may not achieve my dream of winning a Nobel Prize anytime soon, I have found great reward and inspiration in my experiences as an educator. Supporting other teachers and students by actively helping to solve important problems has been greatly fulfilling. I encourage you to look at your local teaching community, or even think bigger, to see how you too can have a positive impact in assisting fellow educators.