A Century After American Educators Helped Create Public Schools in the Philippines, Filipino Teachers Are Returning the Favor — In America’s Inner Cities
A Co-production of CineDiaz and ITVS in Association with The Center for Asian American Media
“‘The Learning’ is like no other teaching film — it sensitizes you in fresh and unexpected ways to the transactions between instructors and students.” – Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun
POV’s The Learning tells a surprising tale of immigration, globalization and America’s shifting position in the 21st century. When the United States took possession of the Philippines in 1898, American teachers set up the islands’ public school system. English was established as the language of instruction and remains so to this day. Today in the Philippines, there is a large pool of trained, motivated, English-speaking teachers, especially in high school math, science and special education. In their country, these teachers receive poverty-level salaries, making them prized recruitment targets for many U.S. school districts, especially those in cash-strapped inner cities. While a salary in one of these urban districts may be low by American standards, it can be as much as 25 times a teacher’s salary in the Philippines.
As a result, in recent years there has been a trend of Filipino teachers seeking a better life by braving America’s urban schools and their poor, often troubled students. In Baltimore, 600 Filipinos account for 10 percent of the teaching force. The Learning is the story of four Filipina women facing their first year in Baltimore’s schools, where learning is a two-way street marked with disappointment and inspiring breakthroughs.
Ramona Diaz’s The Learning has its national broadcast premiere on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011 at 10 p.m. on POV (Point of View) on PBS. (Check local listings.) The film will stream in its entirety on the POV website, www.pbs.org/pov/learning, from Sept. 21 to Oct. 21. American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, an IDA Award for Best Continuing Series and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers’ 2011 Award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity.
In documenting a very special year in the lives of Filipina educators Dorotea Godinez, Angel Alim, Grace Amper and Rhea Espedido, The Learning captures these women’s individual experiences, their hopes and their daily classroom struggles, while also exposing the issues that plague many American public schools. Declining school funding, urban poverty and crime have given these teachers a golden opportunity — and delivered rude shocks as the women are thrust into the heart of America’s educational crisis. Chronicling the women’s determination and unshakeable belief in education,
The Learning is a bracing and timely evocation of a teacher’s indispensable work.
As they prepare to leave the Philippines, it’s easy to see that economic need is driving the four women to leave their families and students. Filipino public-school classrooms may be rudimentary and the teachers’ methods traditional and rote by modern standards, but the students are motivated and disciplined — and the teachers are respected. Most strikingly, an extraordinarily warm and familial feeling reigns in Filipino public schools, without impairing discipline. Dorotea weeps at her farewell party, explaining apologetically to students and colleagues that she’ll be making 25 times her Filipino salary in America.
The women share the sorrow of leaving their homes and families, as well as a giddy sense of possibility. For Dorotea, whose children are almost grown and whose husband is unemployed, the parting is sad but necessary. For Grace, the opportunity to improve her infant son’s future means separation. Rhea, whose husband is in prison, declares herself all too ready for something other than the hard life in her native country. The youngest, Angel, who supports five of her seven siblings, has the most gilded dreams about what America will offer.
In Baltimore, the women meet welcoming, beleaguered colleagues at the three schools to which they are assigned, Harlem Park Middle School, Renaissance Academy, Lockerman Bundy Elementary School and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (one of the highest-ranked public high schools in the state). They also find disorderly classrooms jammed with mostly African-American students, many behind in their studies and barely motivated to learn. One of the provocative subtexts of The Learning is the way poverty has such different effects on young people in the two countries. In Baltimore, the kids test the teachers with outrageous behavior, so different from the mannered orderliness of Filipino schoolchildren. The teachers alternate their familial skills and emotional appeals to the students’ better natures with attempts at stern discipline. They find themselves stymied by culturally different classroom rules — in Baltimore, they are not allowed to hug the students freely!
One might expect disaster from such a disparate combination of teachers and students. Yet, slowly, the students’ curiosity gets the better of them and they begin to be impressed by these foreign women who are so determined to teach them. Indeed, the very unfamiliarity of these not-quite-identifiable Asian women helps the black students open up. For the Filipinas, a window also opens: They let go of their cultural expectations and begin to work with the students on American terms.
The story moves back to the Philippines, where the teachers return for the summer holidays to a hero’s welcome. As they regale their former colleagues with stories of life in America, they see how their year abroad has changed their families and themselves. Will teachers imported from a poor country prove to be part of the long-term solution to the struggling U.S. education system? That remains to be seen. And just outside the frame of the film lingers another question: How will the migration of some of the best and brightest teachers out of the Philippines affect the future of education there?
“In my 2005 film, ‘Imelda,’ I tried to understand how Imelda Marcos, in her role as first lady of the Philippines, was able not to steal power from the Filipino people, but to use their fascination with myth and symbols, their pride and their deep insecurities, to coax power from them during the years of martial law,” says filmmaker Ramona Diaz. “In The Learning, I wanted to look at power from another vantage point. Whereas Imelda Marcos was charming and ruthless in her pursuit of power, the Filipina teachers in this film are women cornered by economic circumstances.
“While I was born and raised in the Philippines, I’ve lived my entire adult life in the United States. I’m both an insider and an outsider, which allows me to have a distinct point of view.”
The Learning is a co-production of CineDiaz and ITVS in association with The Center for Asian American Media, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and American Documentary | POV.
About the Filmmaker:
Ramona Diaz (Director/Producer/Writer)
Ramona Diaz is a Filipino-American filmmaker whose credits include “Spirits Rising,” a feature documentary about women’s role in the 1986 People Power revolution in the Philippines. The film won a Student Academy Award, the Ida Lupino Directors Guild of America Award, a Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival, a Certificate of Merit from the International Documentary Association, and a Gold Apple from the National Educational Media Network. “Spirits Rising” has been screened internationally and broadcast on public television stations in the United States and Australia.
Ramona’s documentary “Imelda,” about the former first lady of the Philippines, won the Excellence in Cinematography Award for Documentary at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and the ABC News Videosource Award from the IDA. The film was released theatrically in the United States and the Philippines, screened in more than 50 film festivals internationally and broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens in 2005.
Her other directing credits include “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” (2010), about the band Journey, their new lead vocalist Arnel Pineda (discovered on YouTube) and his homecoming in Manila. She is in development on “Pacific Rims,” based on the book of the same name by Rafe Bartholomew that looks at the Filipino national character through the country’s obsession with basketball. Prior to directing, she was an associate producer for Cadillac Desert, a PBS series about the quest for water in the American West.
Ramona lives with her husband, Rajiv Rimal, and daughter in Baltimore. She is a graduate of Emerson College, Boston, and holds a master’s degree in communications from Stanford University.
Director/Producer/Writer: Ramona Diaz
Executive Producer: Tony Gloria
Cinematographer: Gretchen Hildebran, Gabriel Goodenough
Editor: Leah Marino
Total Running Time: 86:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
Director of Production and Programming: Chris White
Series Producer: Yance Ford
Awards and Festivals:

  • AFI/Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival, 2011
  • Maryland Film Festival, 2011

Independent Television Service funds and presents award-winning documentaries and dramas on public television, innovative new media projects on the Web and the Emmy Award-winning weekly series Independent Lens on PBS. ITVS was created by media activists, citizens and politicians seeking to foster plurality and diversity in public television. ITVS was established by a historic mandate of Congress to champion independently produced programs that take creative risks, spark public dialogue and provide for underserved audiences. Since its inception in 1991, ITVS programs have revitalized the relationship between the public and public television. ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. Visit www.itvs.org.
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