MANILA, Philippines — “When I’m in front of my students, I don’t even notice that I’m working. It just feels like I’m so alive even though [the job] is difficult.”
This was how Lou Sabrina Ongkiko, a public school teacher for 12 years, described her personal vocation. The educator from Culiat Elementary School in Quezon City was named earlier this month as one of Metrobank Foundation’s 10 Most Outstanding Filipinos for 2021.
She was cited for her accomplishments that included overseeing the school’s learning continuity program for distance learning; strengthening science, technology, engineering and mathematics education; and boosting students’ support environment.
Ongkiko said that after her initial reaction of crying tears of joy and gratitude, the pressure kicked in. “I have been marked as ‘outstanding’ and it doesn’t mean that I can already rest easy because I’ve done my best.”
She added, “How do I also make my coteachers outstanding and how do I help to make our education system outstanding? That is the meaning of that award.”
The “transformative teacher” from Quezon City originally thought of pursuing a medical career after earning a degree in biology. But even in her formative years, Ongkiko was always the teacher during playtime, giving quizzes to her friends and jotting down their scores in a record book she bought from a bookstore.
Her choices and decisions as a college volunteer and after graduation also “always [led me to] education,” she said, as she got involved in nongovernmental organizations with links to children and learning.
Despite being in the field for over a decade, Ongkiko said she did not anticipate that the challenges she faced as a teacher would be multiplied due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For so many times, I had to acknowledge that I was tired. I had to go to counseling and I am not scared of saying that because I need to be an advocate for mental health,” she said.
According to her, “you have a right to be weak and admit that you are tired because what makes us outstanding is every time we stand up and do our responsibility.”
She noted that the pandemic also made it hard for teachers to create a “classroom environment” to separate students from problems within their families.
Undaunted, Ongkiko oversaw the planning and implementation of a learning continuity program for distance learning for Culiat Elementary School.
She spearheaded the strategies to come up with the plan—from consulting experts, data gathering and formulating a matrix that the Department of Education’s Central Office recognized and included in a guidebook distributed to different schools.
The matrix took into consideration students’ gadgets, internet connection and reading ability.
“We then decided, what is the platform that everyone knows? And that was Facebook messenger,” she said.
With the help of AHA Learning Center, a nonprofit organization focused on helping underprivileged children in poor communities, Ongkiko assisted in piloting the school’s Facebook messenger classes.
With classes scheduled to start again next month, she said their team was eyeing improvements and changes to the system to cater to the needs of students.
“[What we realized is that] for children to learn, they need a supportive and caring environment … Grades are not important in times like this. What matters is how they are doing because even if they are smart and excellent, if there is a heavy weight that they are carrying, that would be a hindrance to their education,” she said.
According to Ongkiko, she intends to use this school year some of the concepts she learned from journal articles such as “social identity priming.”
During a Zoom interview with the Inquirer, she showed her neatly arranged notes on her research on how to further improve the learning environment and explained that the idea of social identity priming was that people act in ways that were consistent with the identities they associate with or aspire to be.
“So for example, if I repeatedly refer to the Grade 6 students as ‘graduating students’ or ‘candidates for graduation,’ it would be a great help. Because when you call them like that, it reminds them of the person they aspire to be: a graduate,” she said.
Outside of the classroom, Ongkiko got involved in the pandemic relief efforts of TOWNS Foundation by becoming the purchasing head of the organization’s personal protective equipment (PPE) project.
“When the pandemic hit, aside from school and beyond my role as an educator, I think my role as a human being called me to respond,” she said. In her own capacity, she helped deliver around 800,000 PPEs to hospitals nationwide, even in far-flung regions.
She also started radio shows and COVID-related comics for children with the help of her friends and the Ateneo SALT Institute, on top of working with the Center for Integrated STEM education in the Philippines to advance STEM learning.
Ongkiko underscored the importance of partnerships in conducting the initiatives, saying that “these things are beyond the scope of my responsibilities as a teacher but never beyond the scope of being human.”
“I think we don’t aspire to be outstanding just because. You become outstanding for a reason and that reason will always be something that is bigger than you,” she said.
The other recipients of the Metrobank Foundation Outstanding Filipino award for 2021 are Jason Albaro, a teacher from the Muntinlupa National High School Main; Maria Minerva Calimag, a professor from the University of Santo Tomas; Iris Thiele Isip-Tan, a professor from the University of the Philippines Manila; Technical Sergeant Jake Belino; Lt. Col. Elmer Boongaling; Col. Augusto Padua, Police Senior Master Sgt. Mary Joy Ylanan; Police Lt. Col. Gerard Ace Pelare and Police Lt. Col. Jonathan Pablito.
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