Award-winning Filipino teacher nearly gave up American Dream
Ronie Mataquel, 43, from Initan, Sibalom, Antigue, never dreamed of teaching in America. He was at the peak of his career in the Philippines, the youngest Master Teacher 1 and a District and School Math Coordinator Math Trainer in the Division of Makati. Everything changed when a friend told him about a job interview for prospective teachers in the United States.
“Out of curiosity I applied without even thinking that I was getting married on that day,” Ronie chuckles.
At 2 p.m. of May 28, 2001, Ronie was interviewed by an agency. He passed the interview and was hired to teach in Atlanta, Georgia. But first things first; he could not miss his civil wedding at 5 p.m. before a minister in Pasay City.
Opportunity knocked twice
After a year, Ronie got a call from the agency. Since he had already passed the interview and submitted all the documents, he was issued with an H1B visa and a plane ticket.
“Though it was quick, I did not have $6,000 placement fee. I was not able to fly the next day,” Ronie says.
Ronie’s mother-in-law provided some land titles as a collateral for his loan application. Thinking of a better future for his four-month-old daughter, he left the Philippines on August 30, 2002 with only $200 in his pocket.
Ronie was hired to teach in Sacramento, California. However, the recruited teachers had to apply to different schools in the district. Although the agency provided apartments and a month’s supply of groceries there was not enough money to pay bills. Ronie waited for his social security number before he got his relocation allowance.
‘Afraid of their students’
“Some American teachers asked why California hires teachers from other countries especially from the Philippines. I said Filipinos are English speakers and we have world-class quality education and experiences,” Ronie recalls.
New teachers were given classes with difficult students. Ronie dealt with behavioral problems resulting from ADHD as well as with suspensions, anger issues, repeaters and non-readers.
“Teachers are just happy to survive every day. They are afraid of their students. You just don’t know what to do. Students don’t listen. I felt useless. I woke up in the morning and I experienced palpitations,” Ronie relates.
Due to stress, Ronie developed allergies. He was giving up. He spent one-third of his salary on phone cards. His wife, Justeena, motivated him to hold on for their daughter.
Ronie resigned after three months.
Ronie, without papers, found work is human resources at the Dodgers Stadium and also in a computer company in Los Angeles.
“My employer promised to provide an H1B visa. But I found out that they were just paying my allowance and just wanted me to work illegally for pay below the minimum salary,” Ronie says.
Ronie demanded his salary for three months. But his employer threatened him with deportation. He wanted to report the company to the authorities for giving undocumented immigrants’ jobs but changed his mind because most of the Filipinos working there were either tourists or waiting for sponsorship.
Ronie went to New York in 2003. He was hired by John Bowne High School in Queens. He passed the licensure examination and was granted a permanent license to teach grades 7-12. While the New York Board of Education was processing his work visa, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) found out that he was working without authorization. Fortunately, USCIS approved the HIB petition, but asked him to leave to have his visa stamped in the Philippines.
Ronie thought it was the end. In April 2004, he arrived in the Philippines. He had an appointment for a visa interview at the US Embassy. He was granted a working visa and dependent visa for his daughter and wife.
Ronie’s perseverance as teacher has won recognition. Pan-American Concerned Citizens Action League (PACCAL – Jersey City) gave him the Excellence in Teaching Profession Award in 2012. He was the 2014 Most Outstanding Overseas Foreign Worker chosen by Team United Maharlika Foundation Inc. (New York). In 2015 Ronie was Ulirang Guro Awardee given by United Federation of Fil-Am Teachers (UNIFFIED). On April 28, 2017, he was given the Academic High School Excellence in Education Award by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a teachers’ union in New York State.
Ronie is currently the president of UNIFFIED. The organization comprises different chapters all over United States with a vision of dedicating their skills to promoting excellence in teaching and providing community service through projects that benefit their communities and the Philippines.
As a way of giving back to the Philippines, UNIFFIED will hold Salindunong or balik-turo 2017 from July 28-29 in Region 13 and August 4-6 in Koronadal City. The group will conduct free workshops for teachers.
Foreign teachers in America are given more opportunities and benefits like retirement and medical benefits. However, Ronie believes that the US government should provide teachers with green cards instead of H1B visas, thus giving them security.
“Most locals don’t want to venture into the teaching profession. Foreign teachers are hardworking and well-trained. They can survive even in very difficult circumstances. There is also a shortage of math, science and special education teachers in America,” Ronie adds.
“The Philippines should invest more on teachers; provide them with decent salaries, safer workplaces and sufficient teaching materials. Incentives for excellent teachers will motivate them to stay.”
On April 21, 2017, Ronie pledged allegiance to the United States. His three daughters are American citizens while his wife is a green card holder.