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How one teacher built a virtual classroom for thousands of students

"We can be the change that we are waiting for. This is how we are going to win the battle against this pandemic."

When one of Jaton Zulueta’s young students tested positive for COVID-19 in early April, his teachers at AHA! Learning Center in Tondo immediately sent the student’s family a small bag of groceries and medicine.  At the center, the child was known to have a temper, often acting out in the classroom. Returning to the online after school program upon recovering, he became one of the more behaved students. Always present, highly participative, and among the first to submit his homework.  Struck by the transformation Zulueta asked the young boy what had changed, “Hindi niyo po kami naiwan, at naramdaman naming yung inyong pagmamahal.”  Zulueta says that it’s moments like this that keep him going despite the 12-hour days he’s been putting in since the Luzon-wide lockdown in March. A good part of his day is spent in calls—to his students or the mothers of his students.  A community organizer at heart, Zulueta, a 2019 TOYM awardee and 2019 Obama Foundation Leader, wasn’t about to let the shift from face-to-face interaction to distance learning translate to isolation or loneliness. The AHA team still personally checks on their students through regular phone calls; once a week at the very least. “When you’re teaching kids, nothing can replace the immediacy of getting them together in a classroom, but barring that, the regular follow-ups are important so that the kids don’t feel cut off from their teachers,” he says.

AHA Learning Center began as an after-school learning program for public school students and has remained committed to its mission to provide enriching quality education for Filipino children even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zulueta says that the support provided by San Miguel Foundation has allowed them the freedom to continue serving. 

Pre-pandemic, the Philippines school system already struggled with a shortage of classrooms, overworked teachers, poor access to the internet, and expensive learning materials.

COVID-19 only amplified these problems and created new ones—the absence of digital resources and platforms that could be accessed remotely.

Yet, Zulueta continued the AHA! program among his students in Makati and Tondo, he expanded it to reach even more students in need.  As soon as the lockdown was announced in March, Zulueta quickly worked on addressing the challenges of distance learning, shifting his after-school program to fully virtual platforms.

Unequal access to anything resembling a stable internet connection was a huge deterrent. Still, AHA! Learning Center combined text-based learning, phone calls, television and radio programming, and video chats to make sure that students could continue learning despite the lockdown. In two months, Zulueta and a handful of other trainers had conducted two-hour tutorials with 54,000 teachers on how to use Facebook chat, (which is free), to conduct online classes. The resulting product was AHA! Eskwelang Pamilya—a free, accessible virtual program featuring tutorials and new modules on COVID-19 information for students and their families. “Part of our program includes free doctor’s consultations via text.”

An Obama leader and TOYM awardee, Jaton has been an educator since the age of 19, having devoted nearly half of his life to teaching young children from low-income families.

AHA! Learning Center in Better World Tondo might be shuttered for now, but the work continues, more urgently perhaps than before.

Eight months since the lockdown, AHA can claim that it’s reached roughly two million students who—together with Zulueta—are navigating the shift to this new way of teaching.  

Beyond the more obvious challenges like connectivity, Zulueta is also working with other educators to adopt a new curriculum that integrates critical thinking, teaching values, and aspects related to self-care and health.

Despite his reach and impact, Zulueta says that he is proudest of how he and his fellow teachers have gone the extra mile for their students. “Our teachers translated learning materials in different dialects. Our team has gone through hundreds of books in their library to find that one book that they know a specific student of theirs will love,” he says. “At AHA! we always say that those who have the least in life should get the best in education; what I'm most proud of is not the numbers of teachers or students reached, but the fact we try to give the best in whatever situation.”

“We felt like we were allowed to serve the country and I feel so lucky and privileged to be in this kind of work.  This was the year that I was given the chance to do something bigger and to change things,” Zulueta says.

Through his many years of service, Zulueta has learned how to see life through the lens of the poor, “When people look at the poor, they see what they lack, or what we can give them, instead of seeing who they are as individuals.  Who they are is more than just people in poverty."

"They are just like us. I am new to fatherhood, and I talked to a father who did his best to uplift his children’s spirit during this difficult time.”  Zulueta recalls how one family, inspired by a story about kites that the teachers had read to the children, decided to make their own kites and climbed up to the roof of their small house to fly them. “To me, it was a reminder that life goes on and that parents will move heaven and earth to make things seem even more magical even if it isn’t,” Jaton said.

Knowing that the pandemic may yet drag out till the next school year Zulueta is working to ensure that AHA! students stay on track so that once schools re-open, it won’t be such a jolt to their system.  They are already working on the next set of workbooks and plan to make reading and learning materials more accessible by hiring tricycle drivers—many of them the fathers of their students—to distribute them. 

In everything they do, Zulueta and his team are guided by their belief of empowerment and agency. “Tayo ang pagbabago na ating hinihintay”—a lesson he tries his best to impart to teachers and students alike.  “If you are allowed to serve, don’t wait for an institution, or government, or invisible, magic hand. We can be the change that we are waiting for. This is how we are going to win the battle against this pandemic.”

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