In Mindanao in Southern Philippines lies the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao or BARMM, one of the poorest regions in the country. BARMM is the only autonomous region with a majority Muslim population in a predominantly Christian country. It has faced almost five decades of armed conflict and rebellion between Muslim separatists and the Philippine armed forces. This region has the country’s poorest education learning outcomes.
In August 2021, the Madaris Volunteer Program tapped our center, the Ateneo Teacher Center of the Ateneo de Manila University in Metro Manila, to develop and deliver a series of training workshops for asatidz (plural for ustadz, or Islamic school teachers) from madaris (plural for madrasah, or Islamic school) in the BARMM. Many madaris offer instruction only in the Arabic language, the Qur’an, and Islamic values. Some madaris, however, offer the national curriculum during the week and the Islamic curriculum on weekends. A college degree is not required to become an asatidz. They are qualified to teach as long as they themselves have the equivalent of a high school education in the Islamic curriculum.
The Madaris Volunteer Program (MVP) aims to build an environment of shared learning and cooperation between and among Islamic and Catholic schools and help improve the quality of education in the madaris. It is a collaboration between the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines and the Ateneo de Davao University, a Jesuit university in Southern Philippines. For several years, it has successfully conducted training workshops for the asatidz and co-curricular programs for students of the madaris. It also provides volunteers teachers who teach in the madaris for at least a year.
We at the Ateneo Teacher Center (ATC) were therefore very honored to be invited by the MVP to help in their year-end asatidz training initiative. We got right to work in tapping resource speakers from across the university, mainly from the university’s Gokongwei Brothers School of Education and Learning Design (for the first 10 sessions on teaching strategies) and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology (for the subsequent 8 sessions on applying cultural competence skills in the classroom).
Who would have known that a virtual professional development space could generate such enriching conversations! Resource speakers and participants had the opportunity to have honest conversations about the challenges that asatidz usually face in their classrooms—from core teaching practices like generating student engagement to the application of cultural competence skills in dealing with their culturally diverse groups of students.
It was not easy for many of the asatidz to join the synchronous sessions. Often, the asatidz would have to wait for rationed electrical and/or solar power allocations. Internet access was intermittent and very choppy. The asatidz from the islands had to contend with the inclement weather during these two months as they crossed to the mainland to find an internet connection. It was not uncommon to see 4 or 5 asatidz huddling around one cellphone, eagerly straining to see and hear the speaker. Nevertheless, the asatidz were determined to attend. Their dedication to learning more about their craft and completing the webinars despite the odds was edifying.
The workshops on cultural competence were eye-opening and enlightening, not only for the asatidz, but also for the resource speakers and the MVP and ATC team members who were listening in on the talks. One powerful realization was that teachers already carefully avoid culturally insensitive behaviors but are often not aware about their implicit biases that seep into their language, the way they deal with some students, and even the choices they make in what and how they teach.
They also realized that, because they lived and worked in all-Muslim communities, there was a tendency not to be aware that that they had their own stereotypes and lack of cultural awareness of the practices and contexts of fellow Muslims who belong to the other Muslim ethnolinguistic groups. Being able to speak on the videoconferencing app with cameras off somehow made the asatidz feel safer and less inhibited. Some shared stories of when they failed to be inclusive or when they had been the object of culturally insensitive remarks or practices. It was in fact surprising that their questions and comments were more about the diversity within their own Muslim communities and less about the decades-old, often violent, Christian-Muslim conflicts in the region. Rich discussions also ensued around the concept of what an inclusive curriculum and instruction could consist of. For example, they were asked if the stories, songs, and dances taught in class over a school year were representative of all the students’ ethnic groups in that classroom. In these classrooms which are supposed to be safe havens that are conducive to student learning and well-being, did the teachers’ practices and the words uttered in class exclude and marginalize some students?
At the end of the series, the ATC and Sociology-Anthropology teams all agreed that they were rewarded a hundredfold by the experience of meeting teachers from way down south—of a different religion and different culture—yet feeling very united as fellow educators who are all passionate about their students’ learning and well-being. The asatidz commitment to providing the best education possible for their students and for caring deeply for them, amidst the most severe constraints, was uplifting, inspiring, and a much-needed sign of hope for all weary teachers in the Philippines who have not yet been allowed by the government to return to campus for almost 2 years and who still plod on despite there being no end in sight for the pandemic.