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Article of Interest - Education

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Helping Pupils, Other Teachers
Sara Neufeld, Baltimore Sun, October 13, 2005
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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 beautiful 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?"

At the end of the day, Mercado has a few observations: the large number of police officers and hall monitors ("I'm wondering, how can it be a dangerous school with all these people here?") and the African-American girls' hairstyles ("I really like their hair and the way they put it up.").

Her first week at Highlandtown brings challenges, as all first weeks do. She's trying to track down copies of pupils' individual education plans. A few of her pupils have yet to show up. The classrooms are hot and stuffy, and the kids are often thirsty. Mercado fans them with paper. With the water fountains shut down because of lead contamination, there's supposed to be bottled water, but the cooler in the sixth-grade office is sometimes empty.

There's no time to dwell on that. Mercado is praying for the Filipino teachers who were working in New Orleans and are displaced by Hurricane Katrina. And she's doing all she can to help her peers in Baltimore.

Some are staying up much of the night preparing lessons they don't get to deliver because their classes are out of control. They've been called Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Miss Hong Kong and Miss Japanese, cursed at by students for the first time in their lives. The children in one middle school locked a mentally retarded boy in a cabinet.

During lunch breaks and evenings, teachers are calling the Philippines crying. A few would go home if they could afford it, but they've each spent $5,000 to get here.

At a prayer service concluding the first week, Mercado asks someone to share something good. A kindergarten teacher volunteers: "My student said, 'This is the best school I've been to and the best teacher I've had.'"

Mercado then asks the teachers to describe, in two sentences or less, their worst moment and how they handled it. One tells of asking a boy to hand over his cell phone and being handed a condom. Another shows a bruise from breaking up a fight.

"We like to be sweet teachers," Mercado says. "We like to hug. I think we have to be a little tougher." As she closes the service, she tells them: "I believe in you, teachers. I hope when we meet again next week, we will have more good stories."

And they do, thanks largely to intervention from Cheryl Curtis and George Duque, school system administrators who look after the Filipino teachers and regularly attend their Friday-night services.

The second week, one teacher is transferred to a more manageable assignment at her school. Another has her class of nearly 30 children with behavior problems split in half and gets to pick which ones she'll keep. (That setup will prove unsuccessful, and the teacher will move to another school.)

Curtis and Duque also arrange for extra training in classroom management.

Still, there are new problems. A teacher's cell phone stolen, a bulletin board defaced. At the second week's prayer service, one teacher asks how she can teach her students not to use vulgar language when their mothers do.

Week three, Mercado asks the teachers to pray for one of her pupils. He just showed up to school a few days earlier. "Whenever I approach him, he says, 'I don't need you. I know what to do,' and when you look at his paper, he has no answers," she says.

But for the most part, the kids at Highlandtown want Mercado's help and are eager to learn more about her. One asks whether she knows karate, another whether she goes home to the Philippines each night.

Waiting in the hall one morning with a group that's getting restless, Mercado asks, "Do you want to know about my country?"

"Do you have streets?"

"Do you have cars?"

When the kids are writing about childhood memories in language arts class, Mercado shares a story about her family fleeing a volcano. Another day, the kids are pretending they're an advice columnist they call "Pam Flanders," writing tips on fitting in to a new student with a different accent.

"I have a different accent," Mercado tells the class. "What advice can you give me?"

My advice to you is to get some one who is an American to help you learn how to talk more English so you could be under stud better.

Mercado is assigned to work with 15 special-education students in language arts and math. She's also taken under her wing a Somali girl named Hakima Ahmed.

Hakima does not receive special-education services, but she speaks little English. Mercado uses multicolored gambling chips she bought to teach Hakima how to count and add.

Mercado gets her first experience in American school discipline one day when she learns that two girls snatched Hakima's head scarf at lunch. She helps Hakima identify the girls and escorts them to the assistant principal's office, where they are suspended.

As the first month of school draws to a close, Mercado is excited that she's getting regular visits after school from her pupils. She has fun raiding a room filled with new library books, looking for the easy ones her pupils can handle and devising a game to teach multiplication tables.

She was looking forward to introducing herself to her pupils' parents at back-to-school night, but only one shows up.

Mercado is spending hours to keep up with the paperwork associated with special education, and she's seeking extra training in the system's language arts and math curricula.

Her responsibilities as the Filipino teachers' coordinator are growing, too, as 45 teachers held up on visa problems start arriving and three Filipino teachers in New Orleans relocate to Baltimore.

On Sept. 21, Mercado rides with Curtis and Duque in a school bus to pick up 33 teachers at the airport. That night, the new teachers file into Mercado's apartment for a prayer service, where the traditional Filipino dish of longganisa, a pork sausage, is served alongside Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Mercado has the teachers take turns introducing themselves and stating their birthdays, so she can plan celebrations accordingly.

The teachers pray for those who are lonely and those whose students are behaving badly.

"I have to be honest," one of the "veterans" tells the new arrivals. "Brace yourselves."

"I cannot think of any way to handle the classes you are describing now," a new arrival says.

Mercado's advice is to "expect the worst but hope for the best."

"Don't fear," she says. "We have each other."


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