Few real-life narratives can be more involving or inspiring than a teacher’s impact on students. Ramona S. Diaz’s “The Learning” compounds that impact by adopting the perspective of several women from the Philippines, who leave children, husbands and native culture behind to fill posts far from home at Baltimore public schools. Packed to the gills with human interest, this thoroughly engaging documentary premieres on PBS in September. Further international fest dates and select offshore broadcast sales are likely.
A century ago, American teachers were sent to the Philippines (then a U.S. territory) to teach children the language of their presumed future, English. Now, despite the tough U.S. job market, there’s a shortage of qualified instructors in math, science and special education, so recruiters draft Filipinos whose below-poverty-level wages at home will be hugely surpassed even by wages that would hardly be considered enviable in many First World nations. An enormous chunk of the Philippines’ economy now consists of income sent home by an estimated 10 million guest workers abroad.
The four women we meet here are leaving home in order to significantly raise their families’ living standards. Dorotea Godinez, whose students and colleagues weep when she bids farewell, notes she’ll earn 25 times her salary doing the same thing in America; she leaves behind an unemployed husband and four children. At least her kids are fairly grown, like those of Rhea Espedido, who says she’s “emotionally prepared” to leave because of the trials she’s endured in her home country, and indeed looks forward to her first dose of independence in two decades.
Two younger women are markedly less happy about the move. Grace Amper will be separating herself from her infant daughter, and Angel Alim-Flores’ family thinks she’ll be living in a mansion where “the dollars are from,” an attitude that informs their subsequent selfish attitude toward the funds she sends home.
Coming from tightly disciplined schools where students must wear uniforms, the teachers are in for a shock dealing with their boisterous classrooms of largely African-American students. Godinez in particular experiences a learning curve of her own, initially thinking she can sentimentally appeal to her new students’ emotions, then becoming a frustrated disciplinarian before finally realizing that concepts of respectful behavior are simply different here. Espedido finds her special-needs pupils “tiring but fulfilling,” while Alim-Flores and Amper are sporadically successful in their attempts to connect with students as they did back home. Yet despite various speedbumps during the pic’s yearlong timeframe, all four produce above-average results from kids who may complain, yet still appreciate being urged to excel.
Despite various family crises back home in the Philippines, “The Learning” offers potent uplift on several fronts — not least for reminding that few things are more valuable, yet undervalued, than a truly devoted schoolteacher.
Assembly is expert, with lensing notably bright and colorful.