A Must-See Immigration Documentary: Ramona Diaz’s “The Learning”

Much has been written about the army of high-tech workers who come to the United States each year to work in the IT industry. It’s less well known that school districts across the country increasingly are turning to overseas talent to fill teaching vacancies in math, science, and special education – areas in which there is a shortage of homegrown qualified teachers. Many of these teachers are recruited from the Philippines, a country with an enormous expat workforce, lured overseas by wages that vastly outstrip what they can make at home: in a few years, they can make what it would take a lifetime to earn in the Philippines – but not without incurring debt for airfare and visas, and enduring the sacrifice of long separations from family, friends, and all things familiar.

The steep tradeoffs of this situation are illustrated vividly in The Learning, a poignant and illuminating new documentary by filmmaker Ramona Diaz. In advance of its premiere on PBS’s POV (Point Of View) program, several members of the Murthy Law Firm attended a sneak-preview at Stevenson University in Owings Mills, Maryland, last week, sponsored by Filipino organizations Katipunan Maryland and Katarungan DC. The film was very well received, and rightfully so.

The Learning tells the story of four women who leave their teaching jobs in the Philippines to take contract positions in the Baltimore city schools. The film starts in the Philippines, when they sign on the dotted line for a visiting recruiter, say goodbye to their families, colleagues, and students, and set off with hope and enthusiasm for their new jobs. Arriving in Baltimore, the teachers are buoyantly optimistic as they settle in and look forward to a year of thickly remunerative paychecks. The difficulties set in during the first weeks of school, as they struggle to cope with homesickness, problems back home, and the shock of dealing with tumultuous classrooms that little resemble the quiet, orderly ones we see during the leave-taking sequence in the Philippines.

About 600 Filipino teachers currently are teaching in the Baltimore City School district, according to PBS background materials on the film; this is about 10 percent of the total teacher workforce in the city, and about half of the number of Filipino contract teachers employed statewide. (See The Learning in Context, premiere date 20.Sep.2011, PBS.org.) According to PBS, these contract positions have flourished because they meet pressing needs both for the Filipino teachers and for the school districts that hire them:

“Teaching abroad is an attractive option for many Filipino teachers, who stand to earn as much as 25 times their standard salaries in the Philippines. In Baltimore, which has been actively recruiting in the Philippines since 2005, Filipino teachers earn as much as $45,000 a year, as compared to an average of $3,500 earned for teaching public school in the Philippines (and slightly more for teaching in private school).

“Typically, interested teachers apply through a for-profit recruitment agency and pay $5,000 to $8,000 in fees to cover transportation to the United States, immigration certification and housing assistance.

“For school districts such as Baltimore’s, recruiting abroad is efficient and cost-effective. Studies conducted by the Center for American Progress and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future show that teacher turnover rates are highest in the nation’s poorest areas, leaving many low-income urban schools in constant need of new teachers. According to a Maryland teacher staffing report, 60 percent of new teachers in the city of Baltimore leave after fewer than five years. Teacher attrition is estimated to cost Maryland approximately $42 million annually.”

Far from taking jobs from Americans, these nonimmigrant teachers accept the challenge of working in schools where many native-born teachers fear to tread: in the under-resourced schools of urban and rural America. They bring with them an immigrant work ethic and a hard-bitten determination to tough it out, even when the going is decidedly rough. As The Learning shows, these Filipino contract teachers have powerful incentives to do so; their U.S. wages will not just support their immediate families, but will pay school fees and provide other necessities – even some luxuries – for their extended families as well.

The four Filipino teachers strive to make a difference in the lives of their students, but with mixed results. One science teacher begins the year promising to love her students like a mother, but as her story unfolds, we see precious little of that love returned, her frustration mounting as students wise off, ignore, and talk over her during class, behaving in ways that would make all but the most determined teachers run up the white flag. She has little choice but to stay, and stay she does, in the process gaining a small measure of respect and cooperation from her students.

Another Filipino teacher in the film has better luck. Her work with special education students looks exhausting, but rewarding, and we see her having more success with her young charges. At the end of the year, one of her students gives her a beautiful smile and tells how much he enjoyed her class, because he learned so much. He says he hopes she’s back next year.

Diaz tells these stories with grace and sensitivity, and without being overtly didactic; the film packs a hard critical punch, but never loses its wry, offhand sense of humor. One memorable sequence shows a Filipino teacher packing for home after her first year in Baltimore. She is sorting through boxes upon boxes of new shoes, and the sly little jab at Imelda Marcos is unmistakable, but the audience is brought up short when she begins checking off names on a list. She’s not buying shoes for selfish reasons; these are gifts for her loved ones back home!

To some extent, the documentary suggests, these gifts are expected – and therein lays a problem. The families of these women are still poor, so that the newfound wealth seems limitless when converted from dollars into pesos – but it isn’t limitless, as the families quickly find out. One father complains to his daughter, via Skype, that his allowance simply is not enough. He has spent it all (again) and needs more. The daughter tries to explain that it’s expensive to live in Baltimore, but the father persists.

Another scene, back in the Philippines, shows one recently returned teacher at a supermarket with several relatives – and shopping carts – in tow. She asks them to stop adding things to her shopping carts, but to no avail. She arrives at the cash register, carts piled high with sweets, gifts and other non-essentials that everyone expects the rich “American” auntie to pay for. She reminds them she still hasn’t repaid the loan for her air fare and work visa, but dutifully puts over 10,000 pesos worth of goodies on her credit card.

A later scene shows a returned teacher having a difficult conversation with family members about the limits of their newfound wealth: she tells them she’s happy to help raise the family out of poverty, but doesn’t want to do it on her own. If the family wants to go “from rags to riches,” she says, everyone will have to work hard! It’s an uncomfortable moment of truth: she tells them she has dreams of her own to fulfill. Her point is well taken, both on the family level, and in the macroeconomics of the Philippines: remittances are a mixed blessing – at best – if they lead to unsustainable consumption rather than investments in the future. They’ll have gained nothing from her hard work in Baltimore if the family doesn’t learn to manage their money.

Despite these struggles, one gets the clear sense that nothing will stop these strong women from pulling themselves – and their families – out of poverty. They show the kind of grit, determination, and immigrant work ethic that historically has been the ticket to a better life. Even as nonimmigrant contract workers, with feet planted in two cultures, they already are living the American dream. True to its name, The Learning provides lessons for us all!

Programming note: The Learning premiered on the September 20 broadcast of PBS‘s POV (Point of View). It will air in the Baltimore metropolitan area on MPT-2 at 10:30 p.m., Sunday, September 26, and will be available online from September 21 to October 20 at http://www.pbs.org/pov/learning/. Check your local PBS listings for showings in your area.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.