The Joy of 40 years of Teaching

Note: I wrote this first in 2010 but have revised it several times since then. To celebrate Teacher’s Day and to incorporate my experience of teaching in the pandemic, I rewrote it again today – 5 October 2021.

There are five things I am immensely grateful for in my life. These are, and not necessarily in this order: First, the education I have been fortunate to have, the best in the world I would have to claim; Second, my Christian faith and belonging to the Catholic Church which, even as it is imperfect, has never failed me in the more important matters like dealing with suffering, sickness, and death; Third, my nuclear and extended family – the fact that I am a husband, father, son, brother, cousin, uncle and friend which makes everything I do in law, governance and politics personal; Fourth, my role as a governance practitioner, social innovator and mediator of public disputes, an amazing place to be in a conflict-ridden society with problems that keep repeating themselves; and Fifth and last, but definitely not the least, which unifies many of the hats I wear, my being a teacher.

Called to be a teacher

Why did I become a teacher? The answer for me is simple and clear. It is about paying forward and making a difference. Teaching has always been a call, a vocation.

Teaching is paying forward. I consider myself to have been very fortunate in the fact that I went to the best schools in the Philippines and the world – Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro for my basic education, Ateneo de Manila University for my philosophy degree, University of the Philippines for my first degree in law, and Yale Law School for my masters and doctoral degrees. These schools taught me skills and more importantly values that I in turn now share with my students. 

From Xavier University, I learned the basics of writing and computing (I was not very good with the latter) and instilled in me a love for reading. As early as grade school, having a Headmaster like the late Fr. Theodore Daigler SJ showed me how music and drama could bring a mind and soul to faraway places, making one dream traveling to unimaginable great places (turns out I ended up being able to visit many of those places). How could I forget Miss Teodoro who, in second year high school, made us read Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince? 

With religion teachers like the late Fr. Tony Cuna SJ who surprised our senior high school class one day by teaching us the meaning of the Eucharist while actually celebrating the sacrament, Xavier University gave me the first experience of what my faith and religion really meant. And how could I not be grateful to the young Jesuit Scholastic Alex Benedicto who was my first guide when I got conscientized and became aware of the social problems and conflicts of the Philippines.

Philosophy in Ateneo de Manila

From the Ateneo de Manila, I was taught to think and about thinking (an amazing experience, the first time you became aware of and understanding thinking) and how to apply that thinking to real life problems like I-thou relationships and social and political problems (plenty of them in the Martial Law years). 

The most important lesson I learned from my years studying philosophy in Ateneo comes from Fr. Roque Ferriols SJ., who taught me Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and introduced me to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Because Fr. Roque also taught or inspired the professors who influenced me the most – Dr. Ramon Reyes, Dr. Leovino Garcia, Prof. Ramon Sunico, Dr. Manny Dy, Fr. Joel Tabora SJ, and now Court of Appeals Justice Pablito Perez – I consider myself his student not only in these two subjects but in many other subjects as well. 

Fr. Roque, through Sulyap/Glimpses, his memoirs as a young Jesuit during World War II, has been my most important teacher during the pandemic. We are living in wartime conditions now and Fr Roque is guiding me in this time, especially in dealing with death, suffering, and grief, as well as in seeing hope in the darkness.

I still remember that day when Fr. Roque lectured about truth as aletheia (disclosed or revealed Being) as understood by the Pre-Socratics and by Socrates, emphasizing how little the truth was compared to the whole of reality but because truth was our only connection to reality, there is a demand to be faithful, even die for it. I do not exaggerate when I say that this lecture by Fr. Roque changed my life and sent me to many quests and pilgrimages seeking the truth and what is right. 

I consider my crossing to law a necessary detour and not the end point of my professional journey. I still hope to end my working years as a philosophy teacher and give this same gift of insight to students as Fr. Roque and my philosophy teachers gave to me.

I am proud of many of my first philosophy students. Many are leaders now in society, including in government, politics, and business, in Jesuit universities and other academic institutions, social development organizations, etc. Quite a number also joined the Jesuit Volunteers, inspired in part by what they saw in me, and continue to be close to me.

Teaching in Diliman

Paradoxically, because law is an instrument of power and can be a weapon of oppression, this commitment to the truth was reinforced when I decided to become a lawyer and studied first in UP Law and then later in Yale Law School.

In UP Law, I was taught by professors like Professor Haydee Yorac, former Supreme Court Justice Vicente Mendoza, Prof. Owen Lynch, Prof. Alfredo Tadiar, Prof. Ruben Balane, Dean Merlin Magallona, Dean Pic Agabin, Dean Salvador Carlota, Prof. Araceli Baviera, Prof. Samilo Barlongay, Prof. Myrna Feliciano, Prof. Popo Lotilla, Prof. Domingo Disini, and others. There are many things I can say about these teachers – that they are opinionated or sometimes too passionate for example – but definitely one thing they taught me was the importance of intellectual honesty and personal integrity in the way we behaved as law students and future lawyers. 

The models for me for public service continue to be the way Professors Yorac, Barlongay, Baviera, Tadiar. and Disini lived and died. They were teachers to the end. To this day, Justice Mendoza, Deans Merlin and Agabin, Professors Lynch, Balane and Lotilla, and others continue to teach me. It makes me so proud that they consider me their friend and peer.

Yale Law School, the best law school of the world

Yale Law School was a wonderful experience, and continues to be the best academic experience I have ever had. In Yale, honesty and integrity were a given, expected from all of its professors, students and staff. Brilliance too was a given. It was a memorable experience being told by then Yale Dean and now US Court of Appeals Justice Guido Calabresi, when he welcomed first year JD and LLM students with the conclusive statement that we were the best and brightest in the world and we did not have to prove anything in Yale as our Professors, also the best and brightest in the world, knew this. But brilliance was not a reason for pride, certainly not a means to hurt other people. 

For me, more than the knowledge and set of skills I learned from Yale Law School, the great take-away was the realization that you can be a great lawyer and still be always kind and compassionate.

This combination of great minds and good hearts are what I saw in my first Yale adviser Prof. Jay Katz, the readers of my dissertation former Dean Harold Koh and Prof. Donald Elliott, and above all in my dissertation and international law mentor Prof. Michael Reisman. Prof. Reisman, in his devotion to his own mentor, the late Professor Myres McDougal (who himself mentored a generation of Filipino lawyers), and in his dealing with foreign students like me, exemplified what Thomas Merton calls an “apostolate of friendship”, a relationship that I too strive to have with my own students and mentees. 

Having been taught by these great teachers and others in Yale Law School, having lived the New Haven experience, I became a much better teacher and human being when I came back to the Philippines.

More than a sum of my student experiences

When I teach today, I bring with me the sum of all my experiences as a student and as a teacher together with the sum of all my experiences in the worlds of law, policy and social conflict where I am immersed. 

My teaching experience begun 40 years ago in 1981 when I was a Jesuit Volunteer in Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro teaching philosophy and continued in the 1980s when I taught philosophy to a generation of Ateneans in Manila and religious workers in Mother of Life Formation Center and a number of seminaries all over the country. Today, I teach philosophy again in Ateneo de Manila and in San Carlos and Redemptoris Mater seminaries. Nothing is more fulfilling than the creative repetition experiences that comes with doing this.

In the 1990s, after law school, I moved to UP Law and taught my first generation of law students. And when I became an Undersecretary at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources from 1996-1998, I was joined there by a group of young lawyers who looked up to me for mentoring and professional guidance. 

Those lawyers are now in the prime of their careers in the Philippines and globally and continue to reach out to me for guidance and occasionally I serve as their professional references when they apply for new positions.

Since those DENR days, even in my years abroad as an OFW professional, I have mentored dozens of young people in the fields of environmental law and policy, governance and politics, and social entrepreneurship.

In the World Resources Institute, in Washington DC, where I worked from 1998-2006, I mentored young professionals on policy issues as well as project management. I am in touch with most of those colleagues and provide mentoring and references when requested.

I have also taught special courses/seminars in John Hopkins University, Yale University, University of Denver, Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia, University of Adelaide, and Central European University. I hope to do more of these visiting professorships after the pandemic. They enrich my experiences and I would like to think I am able to provide foreign students with unique and fresh perspectives.

Coming home 

When I came back in 2006 to the Philippines to become Dean of the Ateneo School of Government, I taught four distinct groups of students: (a) JD students in UP and Ateneo de Manila at first and expanding eventually to DLSU, Xavier University, Lyceum, PUP, FEU, University of Makati, Ateneo de Zamboanga, Liceo de Cagayan, and Rizal Memorial Colleges in Davao City; (b) Overseas Filipinos in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hong Kong, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Singapore under the Ateneo LSE of Life program; (c) undergraduate students in the environmental science, political science, and philosophy departments of Ateneo de Manila University; (d) graduate students (MPM, MA, MS, LLM, JSD, PHD) students in the Ateneo School of Government, Loyola Schools of Ateneo de Manila, and the graduate schools of law of San Beda, PLM, and San Sebastian. 

I am also the Chair of the Jurisprudence and Legal Philosophy Department of the Philippine Judicial Academy.

In all these groups, I also take on quite a number of thesis or dissertation mentoring assignments. It gives me immense pleasure to help students land their academic projects well and get their well-deserved degrees.

In addition to these groups of formally enrolled students, I continue to mentor groups of young professionals who have worked or currently with me in the Ateneo School of Government and the Manila Observatory. I mentor climate justice experts and advocates, social entrepreneurs, and human rights lawyers. 

More recently, I have worked closely with the teachers and students of the Lumad Bakwit Schools and with youth and student activists. To this last group, I am more of a legal shield and spear but I would like to think they are also learning from me as a teacher even as I learn from them.

A pedagogy 

It has been a great pleasure seeing the fruits of my teaching and mentoring – with many of my students and mentees now overtaking me in stature and knowledge. For a teacher, nothing is more satisfying than this experience of knowing that the people you taught, trained and coached are now better than you.

I emphasize to them that with me as their teacher they are getting something that is a mixture of theory and praxis. I both do and teach, act and theorize. I keep crossing back and forth the worlds of academe, social development, law, politics, and governance. I share with my students my belief that while the real world is tough and fraught with challenges, it is possible to do good, indeed to be good – in what you do and as a human being. 

I teach them skills of course – depending on the subject I am teaching – but beyond skills, I would like to think that I teach to my students an approach, an attitude to work and to life that will do them well later on.

To illustrate this approach, I have developed a teaching methodology that encourages my students to work in teams and work collaboratively with each other to solve problems based on real life situations. This stems from my belief that, in the world today, good work is usually no longer a solitary product but a result of solidarity and collaboration. 

Certainly, this has applied to the work that I do – I am able to accomplish a lot because I have many partners and co-workers who make it possible for me to do a range of things. At the core of a collaborative approach or attitude however is honesty and integrity. If you are to work collaboratively, you have to trust each other. 

If I encourage my students to work together, if I work closely with others, it is only right to expect the sharing of both burden and credit. Ethical fiber is more needed in a situation where you are continually interacting with each other, unlike the situation when a student is working mostly alone and is in a sense answerable only to her conscience. Indeed, collaborative work requires a code of ethics based not only on intellectual honesty but also in sensitivity and respect for each other. 

Let me be clear that I am not a perfectionist. I have a high tolerance for mistakes. I actually think such a high tolerance is a good quality for teachers. This is because I too am imperfect, have made many professional and personal mistakes, and know I will continue to make such mistakes. I also strongly believe that humility and acceptance of error and limitations is a necessary insight for anyone to reach her full potential. I am, as a person and as a teacher, accepting and find it easy to forgive.

I probably err on the side of giving high grades for my students. I would have no problem forgiving a student who plagiarizes a paper or who cheats in an exam so long as there is admission and contrition. There also needs to be an acceptance of some kind of appropriate penalty. 

Overall, I give high grades, including quite a lot of 1s, 4s, 100s, and As. Students have to work hard to fail in my classes. I motivate students well so thankfully I do not fail many students.

In sum, I teach because of the difference I think I am making when I am working on and with my students so they can become the best they can be.

The mission of teaching during a pandemic

For the issues I care about – protecting the environment, combating climate change and achieving environmental and climate justice, ending poverty through new approaches such as social entrepreneurship and a base of the pyramid approach, fighting social inequality and social justice, advocating human rights, ensuring permanent peace in Mindanao and our country, and achieving a just and well-governed society – teaching is the most effective way to make a difference. 

These are huge issues, large problems, and almost insurmountable challenges. These battles cannot be won in a generation. We must outrun them, go far ahead of the problems, and find effective solutions early so that they do not repeat themselves in the future. 

All these problems need a new generation of leaders, scientists, lawyers, social entrepreneurs, and activists. That is why I teach – so I can help foster and support such a generation, a new community of changemakers. 

The pandemic has been a mixed experience for teaching. In a way, the experiences of the pandemic are teaching my students directly and all I need to do is to facilitate their learning. But the burdens of studying and teaching virtually are real. While the pandemic allowed me to scale up my teaching last year to 20 universities, 10 courses, and 30 classes, with over a thousand students, I realized that it was not sustainable to continue on this path. 

In the second year of the pandemic, I decided to take only one third of my previous teaching load (I also have to do a lot of climate and pro bono election work next year) even as I continued to experiment on what teaching under wartime conditions required.

Even after 40 years of teaching, I am still nervous when, at the beginning of a semester or course, I meet my students for the first time. I still worry whether I will be a good teacher to the class, whether I can deliver to them the skills and values I want to impart. 

At the end of the semester or course, I still shout for joy when I realize, from their exam answers or from private messages they send to me, that my students have truly learned and they will be/are better professionals and persons because of it. And I do jump, yes literally jump, for joy when I see former students, many years later, living what I have taught them. 

I do not of course take credit for what they accomplish and what they have become. But I have to say that I beam with pride in seeing my students live good lives. Those moments are really the joy of teaching.

Whenever someone asks me, during speaking engagements, how I would like to be introduced, the standard phrases I suggest are: “Teacher, thinker, lawyer, social entrepreneur, and good governance, human rights and environmental advocate”. But if they press me to choose only one; without hesitation, quickly and with conviction, I would choose, “teacher”. It is a title I hope I will always deserve.

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