Life at Gamot Cogon School
Gamot Cogon School is located in Barangay Libongcogon, Zarraga, Iloilo on the island of Panay in West Central Philippines. Libongcogon is a primarily agricultural village with a high incidence of poverty. We currently have 199 children from kindergarten to Class 11. We have 22 teachers, not including high school block teachers. Our teachers carry more than a full load with 20 contact hours plus many hours in meetings, mentoring and other responsibilities involved in running a fairly new school which is growing rapidly. We have three staff members who are parents and who serve in a volunteer capacity, mainly in administration. We average 15 children per class but one class has 25 children and some of the upper classes only have 6 to 10 children per class. 35-40% of our children come from economically poor families.
I am Anna Slater, the advisor of the pioneer class: class 11. I also teach English, Literature and Drama to the upper classes. I am the acting High School coordinator and have been with the school for 6 years with my husband who is the Class 9 advisor and History teacher.
What is your motivation to get out of bed in the morning?
I love the subjects that I teach and I get particularly excited about Main Lesson. I feel privileged to be able to teach blocks like Poetry, Drama, and Parzival. To the surprise of many, I also love English grammar. I am not an expert at it, but I love the rules and the different ways to teach grammar in a fun, meaningful way. I love preparing something the day before and seeing it evolve in the classroom before my eyes! How can I stay in bed with that kind of day ahead of me? My work is also incredibly meaningful to me. The school I work at makes it possible for underprivileged children to have a wonderful childhood and a bright future. I try to align what I can offer to the world with what the world needs. I love telling stories and seeing the faces of my students – even in high school, with bright eyes-- listening, thoughtful. I also love humor and seeing the students laugh. And coffee also helps!
Why are you a Waldorf teacher?
I used to be scared of children. When I first came to this school, all I knew was that I wanted to help with its mission to bring Waldorf Education to the grassroots. The idea of teaching really frightened me because I felt that I did not understand children and, therefore, felt in a sense “unworthy” to be teaching them. I felt I wouldn’t have the patience and the understanding to deal with difficult situations such as tantrums, misbehavior and the like, which I experienced once in teaching English to children in Thailand. So I took teacher training courses, but with a view of doing administrative work. I did admin work for a year and was contented with that. Soon after, though, there was a need for someone to do Extra Lesson with some students.1 I started reading up on Extra Lesson to decide whether I could do it. Then, what changed my mind about being a teacher was actually a book entitled, ‘’Working with Anxious, Nervous and Depressed Children’’ by Henning Köhler. I read about the children’s angels and our conscious devotion to each child’s destiny. I experienced a very deep, emotional moment of clarity when I read about the image of a troubled child who was like a butterfly flapping its wings in distress. I kept this image for days and thought about what my concept of tantrums and misbehavior were and realized my error. After that, I felt that I could finally see the children. From then on, I knew I could be patient for the children, and, only then did I feel that I had finally earned the right to be a teacher.
How do you include Steiner's work in your daily teaching practice?
Keeping Steiner’s work in my daily teaching practice and in my life is like anti- burnout maintenance. It happened many times in the past that I had gotten so overwhelmed in the day-to-day matters of the school, getting through task checklists which never seemed to get shorter, that somehow, deep down inside something would feel very wrong. And I realized that this only happened when I put studies of Steiner’s work and doing the daily exercises or meditations low on the priority list, for ‘practical purposes.’ I knew then that I wasn’t working spiritually and wasn’t keeping in mind the purpose and responsibility of this great teaching task. The studies, the meditations and the discussions with colleagues are energy-giving and spiritually uplifting. There is a truth behind Steiner’s words and exercises which heals and awakens inner faculties. Without it, I feel I am just implementing “teaching tricks” in the classroom which lack foundation and depth.
What are the challenges your school is faced with?
Our school is always struggling to financially make ends meet. Because of lack of funds, there haven’t been enough classrooms, enough teachers, and other facilities that are urgently needed such as a library/study room, cafeteria and a covered court. We have students craving for books and we can’t provide them as many books as we would like. There is no cafeteria at school so everybody brings their own lunch and eats in his or her own classroom. This adds to the teachers’ load because each classroom has to be monitored during lunch breaks. The court for playing sports and games is not covered and this creates problems in a tropical country wherein it is often either too hot to be under the sun or it is raining.
The teachers in our school earn very little compared to the public schools and yet work so much harder. Because of this, we also have difficulties finding teachers. The ones who find us sometimes decide not to pursue their applications because the salary wouldn’t be enough. We have also lost teachers because what they earn and what the job demands doesn't seem to work for them.
Lastly, our school is growing rapidly and we find we need more support than ever before; from parents, friends, and others who believe in our mission. We are a relatively young school with many young teachers who desperately need mentoring and guidance. We face new challenges now with 200 students in the school—challenges that we have never encountered before. So we need professionals such as doctors, lawyers, government officials and others to share their expertise and to share the responsibility so that we may continue serving the needs of the students.
What are your personal challenges?
When I decided to do this work, I was saying yes to lowering my standard of living and changing my lifestyle. I don't regret it, although I struggle sometimes to defend my decision to others - or at least feeling like I have to. For most of my life, growing up, I lived quite comfortably and could travel almost anywhere I wanted to or buy anything I wanted to. I had high-paying jobs which kept getting ‘'better'' all the time. After becoming a teacher here, my savings quickly declined, my travels need to be funded and I don't enjoy the same luxuries as before. Many people whom I grew up with or who knew me from long ago wonder why I am not ‘'successful'' anymore. It is a challenge to remember that maybe not everyone understands or agrees with my decision, and to remember that that is okay. It is a challenge to remember that I don't have to deny myself some enjoyment and pampering every now and then just because I am teaching in this school. It is a challenge to separate the essential from the non-essential considering my background, my individual situation, and my future.
Ultimately, though, I love the challenges. I love having to struggle with myself to face them and overcome them. So far, I have been successful.
Which changes would you like to see at your school?
I really look forward to a time wherein the teachers are looked after more. This is not possible now due to lack of funds. However, one day I hope that we could provide teacher housing for some of our teachers who live far away; also for the dedicated teachers who live in substandard homes (dirt floors, no electricity, etc.).
I also really look forward to more involvement from the parents in school concerns and development. This has already started in some way due to a small group of dedicated and supportive parents, but the constancy is not yet there.
How has your school changed since you first started teaching?
When I started with the school, it had a vision to become a full school, but at the time there were only around 50 students and the school was only up to class five. It was a small initiative and a small community of parents and teachers. Now there are 200 children. There used to be only four classrooms on the whole campus. Now there are 12 classrooms, a teachers’ lounge and an administration office. There were only 7 teachers when I started and now there are over 20. The school has grown so much in the last six years and along with it, the feeling of responsibility. I fell in love with the highest class of students and we couldn't just abandon them to the mainstream, so two years ago we started the high school. The children keep coming. They keep finding their way to us and this is so wonderful, but sometimes I think to myself, “Do we really know what we are doing here? Can we handle this?” and, well, when we see the joy in the students’ eyes and we hear how much they love the school, we just keep going forward, trusting that we can rise to every challenge, carry the responsibility and honor the task.
What is the particular strength of the culture in your country?
Filipinos really put up with a lot. There is overwhelming poverty, blatant corruption in the government and continuous natural (and man-made) disasters. Our school alone has dealt with a dangerous grass fire, three damaging floods, a number of typhoons and frightening earthquakes. This recent typhoon (Haiyan) has shaken the whole country and the world. It is not easy and sometimes quite scary. Yet, somehow we persevere. Not only that, but everyone is still smiling. The many hardships over years and years have made us strong as a people.
This can be a strength, although there is a thin line between strength and weakness. Because when people put up with something horrible and treat it as nothing, it could also lead to indifference and inaction. It leads to many Filipinos losing hope and going to other countries to not have to deal with the issues. I feel that we as a people have been through this stage of indifference and inaction, though, and things are starting to change. The “hardiness” is starting to be used for standing up for rights and change. I have much hope for our country. People are starting to wake up.
Filipinos also have a cultural strength of family and community and getting along in a group. Many foreigners who come here really appreciate how much we value family and how we have a strong sense of feelingfor the other. On the other hand, this can be difficult in the aspect of finding one’s own individuality.
Do you remember any “best“ or “worst“ teaching moments?
I have so many amazing teaching moments that it is difficult to think of just one. My favourite ones often involve students who all of a sudden surprise me by doing or saying something completely unexpected. One recent event had to do with studying “Antigone” by Sophocles in one of the high school classes. Now, some students in our school really come from economic backgrounds and neighborhoods wherein reading anything, much less Sophocles, is just not that common. Some of the parents are illiterate or cannot understand English. I was worried about how the class would take the difficult language of an ancient Greek play. I asked them to read a couple of pages over a weekend. When we returned, a number of them complained to me about how they didn’t understand anything. I decided then to put everyone in a circle and I assigned roles to each of them. We did a reading and slowly their eyes lit up with comprehension. I then told them how plays are meant to be performed and so it is easier to understand them if they read out loud or in a group. A few days later, one of the students from the local community ran to me and said, “Ms. Anna! I read the whole thing! Wow! What a great story! Is there a part two? I want more!”
It is difficult for me to explain what a wonderful moment that was for me.These are the kinds of moments which remind me of what I am doing and why I am doing it. It happens a lot, but each time it makes my heart soar.
What keeps you from not giving up?
The thought of giving up has hardly ever occurred to me. I have definitely thought of taking breaks or adjusting my working load here and there based on my situation at the time. Giving up totally presumes that the work ‘through me’ is done; but I find I am only just beginning. When the going gets rough -- the eye bags get bigger, the meetings heavier or the checklists longer – I allow myself a couple of minutes to take deep breaths, vent to my husband or even have a little cry. Then I get on with it. I entered this kind of work knowing it would not be easy. The first time I picked up a Steiner book and tried to read it, I knew I would be in for a wild roller coaster ride. But I get it. How can we evolve and self-transform if in a constant state of comfort or ease?
One of my favourite quotes by Steiner sums it up, “If there is something more powerful than destiny, this must be the human being who bears destiny unshaken.’’ 2 I can’t say I haven’t become shaky sometimes, but I don’t plan on simply letting go.
2After the fire [which destroyed the first Goetheanum on New Year's Eve 1922/23] Rudolf Steiner quoted a friend who had said to him, “If there is something more powerful than destiny, this must be the human being who bears his destiny unshaken.”
Grosse, R. (1984) The Christmas Foundation; Beginning of a New Cosmic Age. Steiner Book Centre. p.81