by Maridol Bismark
Success did not come easy for Ram. He had to eat humble pie and let his tears fall before he earned back-to- back honors: the Big Apple Award for educators who inspire students, model great teaching, and enrich their school communities, and the Hometown Heroes in Education Award for teachers who touch students’ lives. Ram’s journey as a teacher in the Big Apple began in early 2002. Demand for English-speaking international teachers was on the rise. Ram’s wife Jane saw an ad in Bulletin Today and urged her husband, who was then teaching Math in La Salle Greenhills, to apply. With a wife, a son (Raphael, now 17) and daughter (Julienne, now 15) to support, the family man was looking for greener pastures.
“We took the risk,” recalls Ram in an interview at the office of his friend, Family Matters adviser Fr. Drans Nolasco, SDB. The couple spent almost $6,000—a fortune then and now. Fortunately, Ram’s brother who owned a lending agency lent him money sans interest, of course.
Ram’s apprehensions vanished when a member of the school board came all the way from New York to interview him in the Philippines. He passed the interview. But his fears returned because Jane and he had to wait a long time for Ram’s work visa to be delivered. He finally arrived in the USA in September 2003, shortly after the new school year opened. His baptism of fire in the classroom came soon after.
True to its tough neighborhood, the public school in Hollins, Queens, proved to be a test of patience even to the resilient and mild-mannered Ram. “It was 50% Afro American, where the likes of rapper 50 Cent and Nicki Minaj grew up,” Ram describes the site of his first job. Thirteen years of teaching in the Philippines had not prepared him for his first day of school.
“It was back to zero, even negative. Students wouldn’t listen. They were telling stories to each other. They could hurl a notebook at you behind your back. Scold them and they would ignore you. It was a class of 30 students, but I felt I was in front of 150 people. You were happy if two students did the homework you assigned.”
Ram, a product of the Don Bosco Seminary, Canlubang (Laguna), asked for divine intervention. “I prayed for snow so classes would be canceled.” He could have marched to the Principal’s office and report the problem, but he would have had to wait for some time before help could arrive. “Members of the NYPD (New York Police Department) come over. They have metal detectors with them. And you can’t touch the students.”
The thought of his family, his passion for teaching, and his huge debt kept Ram from walking out of his class even if his whole being wanted to. He went on as if nothing happened, and consoled himself with the thought that no student stepped out of class. But even the best of people have their vulnerable moments. He realized that students in the USA are not totally to be blamed for their indifference to education. Young people could always get a job even without a college degree.
“Education is not a priority. So they lack family support. Media also plays a big role,” observes Ram.
Moreover, understanding his students and suffering at their hands were two different things. After a week, Ram could not take it anymore. He broke down and found himself asking for help at the assistant principal’s office. The school administrator understood. For a time, a big-bodied mentor stayed in Ram’s class and checked bad behavior. But all hell broke loose again as soon as the guy left the room. Later, Ram found out that even American teachers went through this kind of agony. So non-Americans like him were bound to suffer the same fate.
The school must have appreciated Ram’s patience. It hired ten more Filipino teachers after a year. But the stress in teaching remained. It was only after four years that God heard Ram’s prayers. By then, Jane and the children had already joined Ram in New York.
On that fateful day, Jane got a call from Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, right across their apartment. Unknown to Ram, Jane had sent his resume to the school in a bid to ease her husband’s burdens. She set the interview appointment, and the rest is history.
Ram bloomed in Jackson Heights. Given free rein to run the class, the 47-year-old teacher connected with his students by incorporating what they loved best—singing, dancing, and rapping—in his lessons. He ordered the books he wanted, and did videos inspired by music icons like Psy of Gangnam Style, Justin Bieber of Despacito, and Silento of Nae Nae fame to teach Math.
It was so successful that some of his students volunteered to star in the videos. They imagined that they could become famous stars because of Ram gives much of the credit to his long-time training as a Bosconian who learned to love Math and Science as an elementary and high school student. Don Bosco - Mandaluyong also taught him that mingling with the young and speaking their language would be the surest way to their hearts.
In the seminary - he thought of becoming a priest but realized later that he was meant for something else) - Ram learned to play the guitar and appreciate music, the lingo of the young. Furthermore, Salesian education taught him to discover the world of young people. What kind of music do they listen to? What apps do they download? What are their favorite techie toys? Getting the answers endears Ram to his students and enhances their learning curve.
Today, Ram is as much at home in the classroom as he is in getting honors for a job well done. He received his Big Apple Award from New York mayor Bill de Blasio himself. His photo is in a place of honor at Renaissance Charter School.
ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol announced his twin victories—with a videoclip of him in action—for all the world to see. The future looks just as bright for Ram’s fellow Filipino teachers. He says: “When she visited New York, I told Dep-Ed (Department of Education) Secretary (Leonor Briones) that in ten years, we will see a demand for almost 10,000 teachers. My advice for the young is to take up college courses and pursue masteral degrees in Education. Focus on Math, Science, and English. We Filipinos have a good track record.”