“It’s always good to go home,” says Yvette Uy Tan, who returned to her native Philippines to work on the Education Quality and Access for Learning and Livelihood Skills Project (EQuALLS2), a USAID-funded initiative in the southern island of Mindanao, home to a large Muslim population.
“I grew up during an interesting time in Philippine history. The People Power Revolution ended martial law in 1986, and a series of military coups followed. Despite all the political uncertainties, our life at home was pretty sheltered. My mother, who ran a preschool, taught us the importance of being multilingual. We learned in three languages: Filipino, Chinese, and English. I went to college in Manila and studied business management. Then, I taught Asian history at my high school before coming to the United States to study bilingual education.
While at Harvard Graduate School of Education, I became interested in how technology could be used in instruction. After interning at AOL-Time Warner, I was hired by EDC in 2001 as a technology assistant. I worked on a variety of projects—developing online math activities for Columbus public schools and professional development courses for PBS TeacherLine, among others. I enjoyed making online courses more visually entertaining and educational.
When EDC became the lead coordinating agency for the EQuALLS2 Project, I joined the international team and headed back to the Philippines. It was a great opportunity for me to explore international development work in my own country. I knew it was going to be very different from the work I’d been doing.
I’d never been as far south as Mindanao until I worked for EDC. There’s a lot of poverty, and many school-aged youth are not in school. I went there to be a technology specialist, but it became clear that many schools were not ready for technology. Some of the schools didn’t have electricity. It was a reality check for me.
One of the biggest problems is that kids don’t get their own textbooks. There may be only one copy of a textbook for 50 kids, and that’s the teacher’s copy. So she copies from it onto the board every day.
We observed that when donated supplementary textbooks trickled down to the schools, they were often the wrong books. For example, crates of college textbooks get delivered to an elementary school and go unused. Or books showing women in shorts or pictures of pigs—pig being a typical English beginning reading word—would be culturally inappropriate in conservative Muslim areas. So teachers spend their own money buying low-quality books at the bookstore, while roomfuls of brand-new donated U.S. supplementary textbooks go to waste.
We changed the distribution process for donated books. Last year, we held a series of book fairs and invited the teachers to attend and choose from among the donated books. We made them a partner in the process because they already knew what they needed. The U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines attended as did U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It made so much more sense to let the teachers choose and then bundle enough copies of books together for them.
Now EDC works directly with Brothers Brother Foundation, the book distribution agency. The teachers are so excited to have new books they can use. We also distributed 50,000 English dictionaries to more than 700 schools in conflict-affected areas as part of World Dictionary Day. English is the language of instruction here, so a simple book like a dictionary can open up new worlds of understanding for students.
My experience as a teacher has helped me adapt to the challenges in Mindanao, as I put myself in the teachers’ shoes. I talked to them to find out what made them excited and happy about teaching. It’s our belief that the people we work with are already empowered. The teachers knew what they needed. They needed age- and culturally appropriate textbooks. It was up to us to figure out how to match them with those resources.
Aside from basic resources like books, teachers also expressed the need and a strong interest in gaining basic technology skills. EDC partnered with Microsoft Philippines to train up to 1,000 teachers in basic computer skills. Most teachers we work with have never used a computer before, so whatever skills they get, they have to be practical and useful. If they can type a lesson plan in Microsoft Word, or create a student certificate in PowerPoint, or use Encarta to find an illustration of the digestive system—then that’s a start. It’s all about educators empowering themselves to become better and more effective teachers.”
Originally published on April 15, 2010