Dilapidated, crowded classrooms, shortages in textbooks, overworked and underpaid teachers, and stinking comfort rooms characterize most public schools in the country. But a grade one classroom in Talusan Elementary Schools stands out because entering it would make one feel that he is inside one of the more expensive private schools in the country.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
BALINGASAG, Misamis Oriental — Upon entering the classroom of grade one teacher Judith Cocamas, one would not think that Talusan Elementary School is a public school. After being used to seeing dilapidated, bare, and crowded classrooms in public schools all over the country, Cocamas’s classroom, with its newly-painted bright green walls with cartoon characters and quotes about learning, is indeed a breath of fresh air. The classroom also has its own restroom and a sink where students could wash their hands and brush their teeth.
Cocamas believes that it takes more than just a ‘school’ to make a classroom conducive for learning. Her efforts bore fruit but she has to dig from her own pocket to help create a learning environment.
Cocamas said she has to make creative visual materials for her students not just because she has to deal with very short attention spans of grade one students but also due to the poor textbook-student ratio.
“I can see myself in my students,” she said in a mix of Tagalog and Visayan language, adding that this is one of her inspirations in teaching.
A Lesson in Poverty
After a day’s work, Judith checks her class record to track her students’ performance. (Photo by Janess Ann J. Ellao / Bulatlat.com)
Cocamas is no stranger to public school education and to poverty. She is second eldest of 10 siblings. They used to live in Malaybalay in Bukidnon where her father farmed a small plot of land. “Our life there was much better. But because our school is roughly three kilometers from our home, my parents decided to move to Balingasag and live with my mother’s relatives,” she told Bulatlat.
Her father, Benjamin, worked as a photographer for a printing press in Balingasag. When the printing press closed down, her father had to dry unmilled rice for a living, earning roughly P0.25 ($0.005) per sack.
“I went to school without slippers so I hopped, especially when the weather was really hot,” she said, “I used to have a pair of slippers, which we teasingly dubbed as Ororama-Gaisano because one was color red and the other was blue.” Ororama and Gaisano are the biggest mall chains in Misamis Oriental. “We would rather buy food than slippers,” she added.
She finished both her elementary and high school years studying in public schools. There are no state colleges or universities in Balingasag so her parents sent her to St. Peter’s College, a private school, to take up an education course. They had to pay roughly P4,000 ($89) for her tuition every semester.
Her father paid for her tuition so the young Cocamas took the initiative to work on the side to support her everyday needs as a college student. She worked as a vegetable vendor in various villages in Balingasag and nearby municipalities.
During her later years in college, she was employed as a vendor in a market stall. Out of her meager income, Cocamas was also able to occasionally buy school supplies for her younger siblings. “From their papers to their projects,” she told Bulatlat.
She also helped her family in drying unmilled rice. During her first year in college, a papaya tree fell down on her back while she was selling slippers. She did not have any serious spine injury but her back was deformed, giving Cocamas a very poor posture. It does, however, serve as a reminder of the hard work that she had to endure.
Dedication and Eradicating poverty
Cocamas graduated in college with honors. She spent two years teaching in St. Peter’s College right after graduation. But in 1996, she applied and was given a teaching post in Talusan Elementary School, where she teaches grade one students.
“My classroom trash can is a witness,” she said. Every morning, Cocamas would check her students for their hygiene. She said she would sometimes give her students a bath or clean their ears. Cocamas used to have students whose ears were blocked by big balls of earwax.
“I come to school either Saturdays or Sundays to clean the school,” she said, adding that she is sometimes accompanied by her husband Cerilo, who has been very helpful in improving her classroom. She said it is very important to transform a classroom into a conducive place for learning, especially amid the shortages in textbooks and learning materials.
Cocamas sometimes spends up to P2,000 ($44) whenever the classroom needs to be re-painted. “Our visual aids should always be colorful because I am dealing with grade one students.”
But no matter how much she tries, Cocamas said, she cannot do it alone. She needs help.
“When I have students who are sleepy, too talkative or not paying attention in class, I would pull them out of the class room and ask if they ate their breakfast. “Oftentimes they have not,” she said, adding that when she has extra money, she would buy the student a chocolate malt drink.
Cocamas said the proposal by President Benigno Aquino III and the Department of Education to extend the number of years of basic education from the current 10 years to 12 would not improve the quality of education in the country. “What would the students learn when their stomachs are empty?” she said. Nothing less than the eradication of poverty would lead to the improvement in the quality of education in the country, Cocamas said.
She said there is a need for more books for the students, not just textbooks but also story books that can serve as supplementary materials for their reading classes. “Educational television would also be of help,” Cocamas added.
“Any teacher would want their new salary grade (under Salary Standardization Law 3) to be implemented this year,” she said. Cocamas said teachers would also appreciate more trainings and seminars, especially on computers. “The school was given a computer set but no one uses it because no one is confident enough,” she said.
While waiting for genuine change to happen under the new president, Cocamas said, she would continue doing her share as a public school teacher and as a citizen of the country. “Helping other people is one thing that I cannot stop from doing.” (Bulatlat.com)