One school year has come and gone and another is well underway for Shelby Special Ed teacher Mary Eme Manda. One of four Filipino teachers in the Shelby School District, Manda embarked on a new teaching adventure the Fall of 2016. She is not only teaching in the United States, but in rural Montana. Manda has had the opportunity to try new things, make new friends and overcome some challenges. While there are some similarities between school in Shelby and school in the Philippines, there are also some big differences.
“Off the bat, I’d just say that it is very different the way special education is dealt with here in the United States than in my home country (Philippines), in the way it is systematized, agreed upon, and recognized by different institutions, and made official as part of the school system here,” explained Manda. “Teaching Special Ed in the U.S. is legally mandated through laws like No Child Left Behind and IDEA. Since it is mandated by the government, it is recognized, supported, and funded. There is a legal process and accountability involved. There are also different agencies that support and collaborate with the school public system, like Early Intervention and Proper Placement.”
Manda explained in the Philippines the procedures are not as well put as to how to handle and implement special education to students with special needs. That has major effects, especially in terms of variability in how institutions deal with the students and their families, the teachers and their program.
Manda shared that the differences in Shelby Public Schools compared to public schools in the Philippines goes beyond the Special Education program. The schools in Shelby have more capacity to provide resources like Chromebooks for the students or smart boards for the teachers.
“It is still very much paper and pen back home and it’d be rare to find a public school room with at least one computer for the class,” she said. “A lot of times the rooms would only have a limited number of textbooks and so a number of students would share a single textbook. They’d have to take extra care, as that textbook would be passed along to the students of the following school years.”
Teachers in the Philippines also have limitations when it comes to the school facility itself. Manda explained it’s not unusual to see teachers having to teach in makeshift classrooms in various areas, such as the basketball court or under a tree. This is done in order to work around the limited number of rooms and the large number of students.
Class sizes, especially in urban areas, can run from 50 to 100 students at a time.
“That presents a whole bag of challenges for that one teacher handling that big of a class—you would have to have fairly strong vocal cords or have a microphone and lapel always in tow.”
Another big difference here is the ability to provide children in need with breakfast and lunch. Due to restricted budgets in the Philippines many children go to school hungry and have to work through the hunger.
“My sister, who teaches in the public school back home, would say it’s heart-wrenching knowing that many of her students would walk several miles to school on empty stomachs every morning and just have to get through the hunger,” recalls Manda. “She tries to bring fruits, when she can; but I also know the teachers there are strapped, too. They have big hearts but finite resources.”
Big hearts are something the teachers in the Philippines and the teachers here have in common. Manda praised her colleagues, from administration to her teammates in the IEP teams to the co-teachers for being so supportive. She credits them as the number one reason why her transition was easier.
“The high level of mutual support, encouragement and collaboration that goes into doing our work has been a joy to have,” she said.
The students in comparison are also fairly similar. Manda has noticed the kids in Shelby are friendly, kind and caring, same as home. She also sees the same hunger for learning, affection, recognition and belonging, stating that they want to develop their skills and they also have challenges, difficulties and concerns.
“But basically they’re the same human beings and have the same needs.”
Outside of school, day-to-day life is fairly similar to what it was prior to coming to the U.S. A major difference though, is the weather. Manda has learned the weather dictates what activities are available, but has also learned the cold shouldn’t be a limiting factor.
“It’s all about having the right clothes on to be able to enjoy and/or function,” she smiled. “And there are always workarounds. For instance, I enjoyed working out and playing games with my family back home, but these things I’ve also been able to do through indoor options within the Civic Center.”
She continued, “Another big difference, but really related to the first, is having snow! My kids had their first rides in a sled and I know they had fun building some snow structures. They tried sculpting miniature wonders of the world, i.e. the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China, in the backyard; so things like that, you only get to enjoy if you have snow.”
Manda has enjoyed a lot of firsts since being in Shelby. She has learned to make cookies and bread, thanks to Pim, Mrs. Tokerud and Mrs. Val. She also had her first visit to Glacier Park, thanks to Mr. Thad White, and was finally able to conquer her anxiety and learn to ride a bike, thanks to elementary principal Mrs. Allen. Right now she is looking forward to another first, roller-skating at the Civic Center!
Her first year here Manda prayed constantly that her family would be able to join her, and that prayer was answered. Her family has arrived and is enjoying all the “firsts” with her now. A recent favorite was a family trip to Glacier National Park. It was after coming to Shelby that Manda really learned how to drive and she was happy to use that skill to take her family to Glacier.
“I would say one of the greatest experiences I had here was driving to Glacier Park with my family,” she said. “I don’t know which it was that made it more memorable, the beauty of Glacier or the experience I had with the winding roads. I know at first I had my hesitations, but it was definitely and figuratively a mountain I felt I was able to overcome and I felt the better for actually going for it. It’s amazing the beauty one finds when they take that step of faith and courage. I’d say that step was a similar step I took when I flew from Philippines to teach here in Shelby.”
While she is happy to be here, Manda said there are some people and traditions she wishes she could bring to Shelby with her. She wants to share the beauty of Montana with her mother and her best friends from home. Now that it is Christmas she finds herself longing for some Filipino traditions.
“This Christmas season, I wish I could bring some of the Filipino Christmas cultural practices like the incessant caroling by different groups of kids going from house to house, singing heartily despite sometimes, oftentimes the wrong lyrics.”
Manda added, “I have always reminded myself, though, as I came here to Shelby, that what I constantly bring around is myself and who I am as a person. I try to carry with me the goodness of Filipinos through the traits I have and, as much as I could, the goodwill and love I have for the people around me.”
Manda not only has a great support system at work, but a strong internal support system in her family, especially her mother-in-law, who is also a teacher. Having her husband and children join her this year has made the transition a lot easier as well. She is also grateful for the Filipino community here and the new friends she made at church for making life a bit easier to adjust to.
“Their presence and kindness has, at various times, pushed me through, especially when my family still wasn’t here,” she said.
With her family by her side Manda is looking forward to more “firsts” and being a part of things in the community. While she does miss home she has hopes for remaining in Shelby and teaching for years to come.
“If it was up to me, I hope I get to teach here in Shelby for a long time,” she concluded. “I feel there’s so much room for growth and learning, for both the students as well as myself, here with the Shelby Public School community.”