Helping Pupils, Other Teachers

A Filipino educator working in Baltimore schools thrives - and tries to help her colleagues do the same


One in a series of occasional articles.

It was in language arts class, four weeks into the school year, when Aileen Mercado saw the impact she was having on American children.

As usual, her sixth-grade pupils were spending the first 10 minutes writing in journals. Unprompted, Elizabeth Mendoza decided to write about her teacher.

I am going to tell you about Mrs. Mercado she is a very nice person and she is a beutiful lady. Then also Mrs Mercado is really helpful to me and every one in the school.

"I almost cried," Mercado says later. "It affirms that I'm doing my part somehow."

Mercado, a 34-year-old special-education teacher who left her husband and three young children in the Philippines to teach in Baltimore, is just what city school system officials were looking for when they turned abroad to fill vacancies in some of their toughest schools.

At Highlandtown Middle, which has some of the state's lowest test scores, she is thriving. She inspired a boy who usually ignores directions to do his homework and helped teach an immigrant girl to count in English.

She has also been thrust into something of a second job, as the elected coordinator of 58 Filipino teachers who arrived in Baltimore in June and a group of 48 just arriving. The majority, including Mercado, live in the same downtown apartment building. She spends hours there listening to other teachers' troubles adjusting to American classroom life.

Many have been stunned by the lack of student discipline, and some have contemplated going home. So far, none has. To inspire them, Mercado has been renting movies like Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver.

"The No. 1 problem is culture shock," she tells the teachers at the end of the first week of school. "We're not used to being disrespected."

She often wonders why she has not had as much trouble as some of her friends. She has a good relationship with her principal and her American colleagues, but so do the majority in the group.

A key difference, she's decided, is class size. There are about 20 children in each of Mercado's classes. Some other Filipino teachers have classes of 40 and more. Classes are smaller at Highlandtown because many pupils transferred after it was hit last school year by fires and vandalism, and the state put it on a list of "persistently dangerous" schools.

In addition, some of the Filipino teachers struggling the most are alone in classes of children classified as emotionally disturbed. Mercado works with her pupils in general education teachers' classrooms, where there are also children without disabilities.

On Aug. 28, the night before school is to begin, Mercado reassures her nervous colleagues, all veteran teachers who came to this country as much for the professional challenge as for money. (Teachers in the Philippines often earn $10,000 a year or less.) "It's only a matter of geography," Mercado tells them. "We've been doing this a long time."

The next morning, Mercado rises before dawn and sends a cell phone text message to the group, quoting a verse from Deuteronomy: Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the one who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.

Outside before 7 a.m., the teachers are excited as they wait for their car pools and taxis. None has a car, and many will rely on public transportation - one of Mercado's roommates spends three hours a day getting to and from Northwest Baltimore's Cross Country Elementary - but today there is too much to carry.

Mercado is one of three Filipinos who get a ride from a Patterson High School teacher, an American. The car is packed with classroom decorations they've purchased with their own money.

Arriving more than an hour before the kids, Mercado fills a basket on her desk with mints, lollipops and strawberry chews. On the wall of her classroom, which she will use only to test pupils and give them extra help, she hangs stenciled letters to spell out words such as respectful and safe.

For sixth-graders and their teachers, the day begins in the auditorium, where the assistant principal goes over the school rules. Uniforms must be worn at all times. No cutting class. No food or drink outside the cafeteria. No cell phones. No fighting in school, on the way to school, on the way home from school or at any time on school property.

In each class that follows, teachers repeat the rules, to the point that kids ask when the real work will start. Mercado moves from class to class introducing herself to the pupils she'll work with.

"I would like to tell you where I came from," she tells the kids in Homeroom 610.

She holds up a laminated world map and asks, "Where is U.S.A.? ... Who can tell me where Baltimore is? ... And who can tell me where the Philippines is? Where's my country? ... Can you imagine how far that is? How long did it take me to get here?"

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