Imagine you’re an educated person with a professional job, but that job—and any other you’re likely to find in your entire country—pays below the poverty line, and everyone you’ve ever known your whole life is desperately poor. What if you had a chance to make life better for your entire extended family? But there’s a catch: You have to work in another country for nine months of the year in a job that makes many run scared.
Ramona Diaz’ s documentary The Learning explores just this scenario for four math and science teachers from the Philippines who are recruited to teach in Baltimore’s underserved schools. The film follows their first year away from home. Growing up surrounded by crushing poverty despite their education, Dorotea Godinez, Angel Alim, Grace Amper and Rhea Espedido make the heart wrenching move to the United States—away from their beloved students, husbands, children, parents and friends—to become the breadwinners for their entire extended families.
This is possible because the United States has a hard time recruiting and keeping math and science teachers, especially in famously rough schools like the ones in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. And the women make about 25 times more than they were making as teachers in the Philippines: Godinez says that where she used to make about 180,000 pesos a year, she now makes over 3 million.
What Diaz lovingly shows throughout this documentary is the emotional and physical toll that transcontinental work takes on women whose usefulness to America’s children inevitably comes at the cost of breaking up their own families. And although the film illustrates this injustice clearly—especially in the epilogue, which makes explicit that the Philippines’ recent economic boom grows on the backs of its women’s transcontinental labor in the form of money sent back home—it’s disappointing to hear the four women display and recite the tenets of the American dream since it flies so violently in the face of their reality. When Alim encourages her students to never give up on their dreams by showing them footage of her trip to a Disney park and emphasizes to her family that she wants to dedicate her salary to their education so they can have a better life, it contradicts the terrible bargain she had to strike to escape poverty as an educated person.
These four women are clearly compassionate, talented educators who are taking every chance they have to make life better for themselves. It’s just unfortunate that they have to make that choice to begin with.