A Filipino teacher follows her dream on an island in the Bering Sea


Hailing from Cotabato City, Jayson Guerrero currently teaches high school math in Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. CONTRIBUTED

If ever one needed proof of how committed Filipinos are to seizing opportunities when they come knocking on their door, it’s 33-year-old Jayson Guerrero. Guerrero, a native of Cotabato City, had already proven this before he even started his first day of teaching in a small town called Gambell, Alaska.

The American Village is located on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait in Alaska. Guerrero’s flight to his teaching assignment in August 2018 was a grueling 14 hours from Manila to Los Angeles, followed by a five-hour layover at LAX before departing for a six-hour flight to Anchorage. From Anchorage, he took a 90-minute flight to Nome where he took his final 45-minute plane ride to his destination, Gambell.

Growing up, Guerrero decided to become a teacher. His pedagogy builds real relationships with his students. Hearing the daily struggles of his students allows him to better understand them. This approach makes it easier to manage your class. He also wants to learn from his students and believes that creating an environment where teaching and learning are part of the same experience is the best way for students and teachers to understand each other, especially when it comes to backgrounds and Culture.

Jayson Guerrero has two Filipino roommates, also his fellow teachers, who have become a major support system.  CONTRIBUTED

Jayson Guerrero (right) has two Filipino roommates, also his fellow teachers, who have become a major support system. CONTRIBUTED

Prior to coming to the United States, Guerrero worked in politics and governance for a non-governmental organization that works closely with the Philippine Department of Education. The opportunity to teach abroad was suggested to him by his friend, who had already spent a year in the United States as a teacher. There is a great need for teachers for various neglected American school districts.

For Filipinos, the initial appeal of teaching in the United States is, of course, a higher salary that generally cannot be matched in the Philippines. For example, a public school teacher’s monthly salary in Alaska is comparable to a teacher’s annual salary in the Philippines.

Along with the financial benefits of working abroad, Guerrero believes education in the United States can help him grow personally and professionally. He strives to learn new and different teaching techniques and strategies from these experiences.

Also, as an avid traveler and adventurer, he plans to visit all 50 states. For the past two summers, during school vacations, he had been on road trips with his friends, hoping to achieve this goal. He has already visited 40 of the 50 states. He wants to inspire others and show that dreams can come true. “I remember dreaming of going on a road trip when I was still in Cotabato.”

The process

It took Guerrero about four months to complete all the required paperwork before he was allowed to fly to the United States. Sharing his experiences with other Filipinos about obtaining a teaching job in the United States, Guerrero says, “The first step is to find a school district that hires foreign teachers. then complete an online application to get a job offer from the school district of your choice.

The next step is to find a sponsoring visa agency and apply for a certificate of eligibility. After gathering these documents, you can apply for a US visa. He says that although the application process was rigorous, if you have all your documents ready, it makes everything easier.

He was granted the Nonimmigrant Exchange Visitor (J1) visa which allows a person to participate in work and study based visitor exchange programs. This visa grants him a maximum of five years of teaching in the United States. After completing that five-year visa, he can continue teaching if a school agrees to sponsor an H1B visa, which allows someone with a “specialty occupation” to work in the United States for three years.

Life in Gambell, Alaska

Guerrero was part of a student cultural exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State when he attended Northern Illinois University in 2010. Although he had lived in the United States before his current position, working and living in Gambell, Alaska, only scratches the surface of his direct experience of America.

The village of Gambell has a population of approximately 800 people called the Yup’ik of St. Lawrence Island. The Asian Eskimo group collectively called Yupiit are widely known for their carvings of walrus ivory and their subsistence hunting of bowhead whales.

The village has no cafes, cinemas or shopping malls to visit after school. There aren’t many activities to take part in, and he admitted to spending a good deal of his free time watching movies and TV shows on his home computer. He is also studying Spanish.

One of the biggest adjustments he had to endure was the extreme cold of Alaska. The prolonged dark hours of winter also took a huge toll on his mental health. The village has an average of only 4-5 hours of daylight in winter. “It can be depressing when it feels like it’s always dark.”

Although living on a remote island can sometimes feel isolated, Guerrero is grateful that there are other Filipino teachers in the school and the district. He has two Filipino roommates, also fellow teachers, who have become a major support system.

Since the Yupiit depend on hunting and fishing, there is only one small native store on the island. Everything must be flown in, including groceries.

“When you’re off the road, the prices for gas, groceries, and other important things go up dramatically.” Even with an Amazon Prime account, it will still take around two to three weeks for packages to arrive on the island. The acquisition of necessities must be planned. There are only two flights a day, morning and late afternoon from Anchorage to Nome. Then three flights a day from Nome to Gambell in a ten-seater plane via Bering Air.

Teach in Alaska

According to US News’ 2019 “Best States” ranking, Alaska ranked 49th out of 50 in education competitiveness despite high government funding and support ahead of New Mexico. Guerrero teaches in a school with a population of 230.

“For two consecutive years, of all the students who graduated from high school, only one went to university. University is never a priority here. After graduation, most students enter the

labor at minimum wage or start their own family. Many families here live below the poverty line.

Guerrero instills in his students an appreciation for how lucky they are with the generous resources provided by the U.S. government. Public school students in grades K-12 generally receive free breakfast and lunch daily. School supplies are also often subsidized. Most schools also have good school equipment and facilities.

In Alaska alone, “the government spends an average of $17,000 per student in the state while the national average is just $12,000. That’s around Php850,000 per student,” Guerrero explained.

As the US public school system continues to struggle with cramped classrooms and a shortage of teachers, some school districts are opening their doors to foreign teachers, and Filipinos are still the best choices. Guerrero is proud to be a Filipino teacher. He attributes the advantage of Filipino educators to the fact that English is the second official language in the Philippines.

“Filipino teachers have always met state-imposed requirements to teach in the United States – college degree, teaching experience, and teaching license. Filipinos have a high level of commitment.

Guerrero is one of the pioneering Filipino teachers hired by his school district in 2018. He holds a major in mathematics from BSE from Notre Dame University in Cotabato City and a master of arts in education major in Educational Leadership and Management from De La Salle University Manila.

Guerrero teaches algebra, geometry, and precalculus to students ages 14-18. He enjoys using games to engage students in his math teaching process. His average class size is 10 to 12 students for each subject, and he holds five classes a day. He must arrive at school before 8:00 a.m. He has one hour of preparation before classes start at 9:00 a.m. He enjoys a 30-minute lunch break before resuming the school session, which ends at 3:00 p.m.

“I can say that the workload here is less stressful compared to the Philippines, where we have to be in school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

At the start of the pandemic, Guerrero, like all of humanity, experienced anxiety and depression. Internet connectivity is unreliable in the village, so e-learning has been ruled out. Most families don’t have computers at home anyway. Thus, their options were limited to the implementation of “distance education”.

As in the Philippines, they use the “modular model” of learning. Prepared packets are sent to students every week. It was a big adjustment for Guerrero; he was unfamiliar with this type of learning modality. It was a steep learning curve to say the least.

To be a Filipino educator

It is common knowledge that teachers in the Philippines are overworked, underpaid and undervalued. Guerrero shares that this reality hits particularly hard knowing that the average monthly salary for a teacher in the Philippines is Php20,000 (US$400).

“I love my country [the Philippines] but I believe we need to take responsibility before we can give back to the community. Save and gain more experience and pursue higher education abroad, then decide if you want to return to the Philippines. We have our own way of giving back to the community.

Guerrero sees himself retiring to the Philippines, but he is not closing any doors on the possibility of living permanently in the United States. He knows his goals may change over time, but currently thinks being a college professor when he returns home would be a meaningful way to give back and recognize his roots.

Recently, Guerrero was able to invest in a property in his hometown of Cotabato City thanks to the hard-earned money he earned while teaching in the United States. He dreams of completing a doctorate. in one of the American universities if an opportunity arises. Although it is a difficult decision to leave the Philippines, Guerrero encourages fellow Filipino educators to explore teaching in the United States as long as there is a demand in the job market.

“Be ready mentally, emotionally, financially and physically. Teaching in the United States is a whole different experience. Once hired, manage your finances well, but don’t forget to treat yourself and spend on yourself. Take the opportunity to travel to the United States.

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