“Patong patong ang ginagawa namin”: Why our teachers deserve more

Dispatches from the frontlines, from the poll workers working hard to keep our elections clean.

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On the evening of April 25, less than two weeks before the 2022 Presidential elections, elementary teacher Joyce Cajurao was working overtime at school, tirelessly printing pages and pages of modules for her Grade 6 students to study over the Department of Education (DepEd)-mandated election break.

Cajurao is a School Math Coordinator and Master Teacher 2 at the Luyahan Elementary School in Zamboanga City, Zamboanga del Sur. Located on a hill 30 minutes from the town center, it is one of over 37,000 public schools that will be used as a polling precinct on election day.

Unlike previous national elections that happened over the summer, this year’s election will take place during the school year, coinciding with the return to face-to-face classes in many public schools after two years of remote learning due to the pandemic.

Presumably, this break would give both students and teachers time to prepare. While DepEd has said that the two-week break was in their initial calendar for the school year as “National Election-related activities,” the announcement still caught many by surprise.

Joyce Cajurao is a teacher at Luyahan Elementary school in Zamboanga City, Zamboanga del Sur. This year, she is serving as a chairman of the Electoral Board. Photo by MOHD SARAJAN

“Mahirap ngayon,” says Cajurao when asked how different it is now given the circumstances. A teacher at Luyahan for the past 25 years, she has served during every election (both at the national and barangay level) since she started working. She’s seen it all — from the early mornings spent manually counting ballots, to the technological mishaps of Smartmatic’s PCOS machines in the first automated elections.

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“Patong patong ang ginagawa namin,” she said, citing how pre-election preparations coincide with their actual work (“gawa ka lesson plan, magtuturo ng mga bata, magpriprint ng CAVSLET [module], co-contact mo ang mga bata — 'yung mga hindi nagfa-face to face”), as well as their school’s upcoming vaccination drive for children. And yet, she remains proactive.

Seeing that the break would mean lost time for her 109 students — Grade 6 grades must be submitted earlier to make it in time for graduation deliberations in late May to early June — Cajurao and her co-teachers took the initiative to prepare modules for them to study. “We want to at least continue 'yung education ng bata kahit nasa bahay sila, kahit kami, nagse-serve for the COMELEC,” she reasons.

Serving the public

For regular citizens, May 9 will be the day we exercise our right to vote; the culmination of what is turning out to be one of the most turbulent election seasons in Philippine history. But for public school teachers like Cajurao, it will be another day in a long tradition of serving at the frontlines, sacrificing their time, and in some cases, their lives, in a selfless act of preserving the country’s democracy.

Public school teachers make up the majority of the electoral board (EB), which consists of a chairman, a poll clerk, and a third member per precinct. It’s been this way since 1986, when then-president Cory Aquino signed Executive Order No. 162, which stated that “the employment of teachers as watchers and members of the Board of Election Inspectors is vital to the preservation of the secrecy and sanctity of the ballot.”

“Kapag sinabing public school teacher kasi, nakapaloob na diyan ‘yung pagiging public servant,” said Roel Mape, a Grade 5 teacher at Apolonio Samson Elementary in Quezon City who has been serving since 2003. “Dito na pumapasok ‘yung pagiging makabayan ni teacher and kahit may mga challenges, nagvo-volunteer kami mag-serve. Kasi among all professionals, wala naman ibang tina-tap, nagse-serve tuwing elections kundi 'yung mga pampublikong guro na katulad ko.”

“Kapag sinabing public school teacher kasi, nakapaloob na diyan ‘yung pagiging public servant. Dito na pumapasok ‘yung pagiging makabayan ni teacher and kahit may mga challenges, nagvo-volunteer kami mag-serve."

The 2016 Election Reform Act has since made election service for public school teachers voluntary, but many veterans like Cajurao and Mape continue to serve.

Nationalism is one of the top reasons for teachers’ participation in the elections. But they also cite other benefits, including the increased honorarium, which now ranges from ₱3,000 (support staff) to ₱7,000 (chairman). They are also given transportation allowances (₱1,000) to and from training, and anti-COVID-19 allowances (₱500), other health insurance, and service credits that can equate to leaves.

Luyahan Elementary’s OIC, teacher Marnie Nono, is honest when she says that one reason she decided to serve again this year was the extra income and service credits. After her husband passed away a few years ago, she was left to pay off her house and car loans and to take care of their two young children alone. “It's a blessing from God na lang na magse-serve ako ng 12 hours, magkakaroon ako equal to my one-month [net] salary [minus payments for her loans]. ‘Yun lang iniisip ko, pero nakakapagod talaga.”

Roel Mape, a Grade 5 teacher at Apolonio Samson Elementary in Quezon City who has been serving during elections since 2003. This year, he will be serving as a chairman. Photo by JL JAVIER

This year, the honoraria were increased by ₱1,000, but will be subject to a 20% tax, which is four times the amount collected from them in the past. The Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) partylist and other teachers’ groups have been calling for the removal of said tax, with a bill pending approval at the Senate level.

An April 6 report from the Philippine News Agency quoted DepEd Undersecretary Alain Pascua as saying that amendments needed to be made to the law for this to be approved, but lawmakers were unable to amend the provisions in time, even with the support of COMELEC.

The Department of Finance and the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) have since stated they disagree with the proposal, citing fairness. “Exempting one kind of activity, in this case, the electoral services that our teachers provide, will be inequitable to other similar activities that provide the similar kinds of benefits,” said Atty. Anne Loraine Garcia of the BIR's law and legislative division. “It’s like saying we want to prefer one service and give exemptions to them, to the detriment of others.”

The training process

But groups like ACT beg to differ. Election preparations, they say, extend past 12 hours. They claim that teachers work for a total of 24 hours on election day, equivalent to three of their eight-hour workdays, and should thus be given the proper compensation.

In a series of interviews last April 27, DepEd Public Affairs Office director Marcelo Bragado Jr. assured the media that all public schools and teachers are “ready” for the elections after completing the required training sessions and exams organized by COMELEC in partnership with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

This year, Cajurao, the math teacher from Luyahan, will be serving as a Chairman in her precinct. While her main duty on election day will consist of overseeing the electoral process and transmitting the results using the Vote Counting Machines (among other tasks), preparation also comes days before May 9.

In Taguig’s Maharlika Integrated School, teacher Jamila Alih is fresh out of the two-day training that ran from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m at a hotel in Makati when she sits down for our interview. A former call center agent, Alih switched careers after realizing it was her vocation to teach.

This year will mark her first time serving as a poll clerk in a national election, with duties that include voter identity verification and writing of the narrative report that will be submitted to COMELEC. Apart from nationalism, it was her “amigas” from work that convinced her to volunteer, saying that it would be a fun experience to serve their community.

Jamila Alih is will be serving as a poll clerk at Maharlika Integrated School in Taguig on May 9. Photo courtesy of the respondent

Like the teachers from Luyahan, Alih finds that things have been quite hectic for her work-wise. “March is our third grading period. Sumasabay habang kami nagkaklase,” she says. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the trainings kept getting rescheduled, with the final venue being relocated multiple times.

But these, she continues, are all sacrifices she and her co-teachers are willing to make for the country. 

Alih also observed that the preparations this year fall under Ramadan, which began on April 1 and culminates with Eid'l Fitr on May 3. Relaying an announcement she’d seen about how some of this year’s Metro Manila-based training sessions would fall during their holy month, she added “Naaawa po ako sa mga Muslim teachers na nandoon.”

After the training, all EB members — regardless of whether or not they have served in previous elections — are made to undergo a two-part exam: a practical exam where they must prove that they can properly operate the vote counting machines (VCMs) to be used on election day, and a 40-point online exam that they can take remotely. Volunteer teachers will only be permitted to serve as EB members if they have passed both parts.

Approved volunteers would have also gone through a stringent screening process. They are strictly not allowed to be part of any political group, and are even disqualified if their surnames are the same as any candidates. Other considerations for approval include their home address — it must be near the school they are serving at — and full vaccination status.

Election day

After reviewing for and passing the training exams, teachers then get to go on duty on May 9, the main event. While voting formally opens at 6 a.m., the EB arrives at school an hour to two hours earlier to pick up the election paraphernalia. There are no breaks during the 13-hour voting period, so sometimes teachers are unable to even eat.

“During election day, ‘yung isa pang sakripisyo ng teacher ay hindi ka makakain kasi walang noon break kapag elections,” says Apolonio Samson teacher Mape. “Even ‘yung pagpunta sa CR ay minomonitor ng mga watchers. Tsaka ka lang kakain, pag medyo magaan ang tao.”

And while the polls officially close at 7 p.m., the EB stays until late at night (and at times, early morning the next day) to transmit the results and seal the boxes. After this is completed, they will then have to take the COMELEC or barangay-provided transportation to the barangay or city hall for receiving. COMELEC does not provide transportation back to school, so oftentimes teachers end up walking home, with some even opting to spend the night at city hall.

Marnie Nono is Luyahan Elementary's OIC. She is the focal person for this year's election and will be serving as chairman of the EB. Photo by MOHD SARAJAN

As Luyahan’s OIC, Nono is committed to having their elections be free from hijinks despite the circumstances. She says that teacher volunteers like herself are using past experiences to aid them with preparations, but the looming threat of COVID-19 has made it more tedious.

The COMELEC-mandated health and safety measures include the wearing of face masks at all times, as well as the limit of 10 voters in the precinct per time period. They will also be providing sanitation stations and voters who have high temperatures will be asked to vote in isolation rooms.

Efforts in addition to these are up to the teachers themselves. At Luyahan, Nono and the rest of the faculty are setting up entrance and exit markings, as well as social distancing labels and barriers inside their classrooms. They have oriented poll watchers about their plans for crowd control and the DOH’s health and safety protocols.

The teachers have also formed their own health protocols to protect themselves from the virus. “Sabi ko, I'm really afraid to serve, kasi I will face different kinds of people coming from different places na hindi ko alam if they are fully vaccinated, if they are boosted, if they [are] the carriers,” she says. “Kasi pag uwi ko ng bahay may baby ako na four years old. I have also my personal plan. Right after the election, sinabihan ko 'yung mama ko na doon muna [kasama niya] ang anak ko para pag uwi ko, ako lang mag-isa sa bahay. I-isolate muna hanggang bukas 'yung sarili ko para wala siyang transfer of virus.”

The downside to these measures, her co-teacher Cajurao says, is that there is no more opportunity for small talk with members of their community. In the past, elections were the only times she would get to be reunited with her former pupils. “Dati, makita mo sila, sasabihin mo ‘Wow, estudyante ko, professional na talaga!” she says with a look of pride on her face. “Ngayon, hindi ko man makita kasi tinatakpan 'yung ilong nila, mata. ‘Yung walang pandemic, nakikipagkwentuhan pa kami, kahit in a short while [as they fill up forms].”

Harassment and violence

The Philippines is notorious for its numerous cases of election-related violence. In a report from 2021, the PNP said that cases have gone down by 60% compared to 2016, presumably due to factors like the reduction of “private armed groups (PAGs) and gun-for-hire groups of some candidates.” The switch to automated Vote Counting Machines was also instrumental in reducing harassment teachers face over the past few years.

In Mindanao and other high-risk areas, PNP and marines escort teachers’ transportation from the school to the city hall. Teachers from a school in Talitay Village, Pikit, North Cotabato, backed out from serving this year because of the constant armed conflict caused by “rido,” or clan wars in the area. The town is marked red on the COMELEC’s list, which means that it is a high risk area. PNP personnel will be serving instead of teachers.

Armed officials are not allowed inside precincts — only outside. This means that it is up to the teachers to maintain peace and order inside the rooms. With COVID-19 still out there, this now also entails crowd control.

Apolonio Samson Elementary Grade 4 teacher Maricel Bognot decided to serve as a poll clerk instead of chairman this year due to past bad experiences. Photo by JL JAVIER

All of the teachers we interviewed mentioned that poll watchers are also another problem they face on election day. While they welcome these watchers as they aid teachers in keeping elections fair and clean, there have been many cases of harassment and disruption of order.

Having served at both the local and national level since 2009, Apolonio Samson Elementary Grade 4 teacher Maricel Bognot has had her fair share of election mishaps. She recalls one incident during a barangay election with a poll watcher that left her and many other teachers traumatized. As a member of the Board of Canvassers (BOC) that year, she was assigned to bring the tally sheet (which was inside a sealed envelope) to the BOC in a lower floor. She recalls, “Hinarang na ako ng mga watchers or kung sino mang mga tao sa baba [and tinanong nila ako] kung saan ko dadalhin ang balota. Magnanakaw daw ako ng balota. Eh alam naman nila, kanina pa ‘yung balota, binilang na at nandudun na siya sa ballot box.”

To her surprise, one watcher threw scalding hot water at her, burning her back. “Ang ginagawa ko noon, tumakbo ako sa principal's office and kumuha ako ng water sa water dispenser para ilagay sa likod ko kasi sobrang hapdi 'yung mainit na tubig. Nalapnos 'yung likod ko nang bahagya. And wala kaming [medic] na sumaklolo sa amin.”

Since then, Bognot opted out of serving at the barangay level.

Risks and the mental burden

Despite everything, the biggest fear, teachers say, is not the virus, or violence on the day itself, but the pressure of not making any mistakes that could lead to an electoral offense, or even worse — imprisonment.

“Nandoon din po ‘yung kaba na what if magkamali ako or what if magloko ‘yung machine,” said Maharlika teacher Alih, referring to how no amount of preparation will help if the VCM of their precinct malfunctions, or if the signal is weak when it is time to transmit the results.

Apolonio Samson teacher Bognot came close to that nightmare when serving as a chairman. After a relatively smooth national election last 2019, she was called by COMELEC in February 2020 because the Voter Registration Verification Machine (VRVM) tablet from her precinct was missing.

“‘Yung pag-aalala namin, ‘yung anxiety, 'yung trauma. Gayun naidudulot sa aming mga teachers na kami na nga ang nag-serve, kami pa ‘pagbibintangan.”

“Nawala ‘yung tablet sa box namin kasi unsealed na daw,” she said. Frightened by the prospect of being sued by COMELEC, Bognot and her fellow EB members quickly came up with the documentation needed to prove their innocence, which consisted of a written narrative explaining all of their actions from receipt until sealing and surrendering of the paraphernalia. She reasoned that all this was done without issue in front of poll watchers and submitted and accepted at the city hall. They included photos taken by their principal to strengthen their case.

“Hindi namin magagawa nang ganoon kadali ang mga ibinibintang sa amin,” said Bognot of the experience. “‘Yung pag-aalala namin, ‘‘yung anxiety, 'yung trauma. Gayun naidudulot sa aming mga teachers na kami na nga ang nag-serve, kami pa ‘pagbibintangan.” This time around, she decided to serve as a poll clerk to lessen the responsibility — and possible stress that could come from being chairman.

Still, she and her co-teacher Mape hope that they are given more support from DepEd in case this happens again.

Preserving their dignity and affording them respect

It is not commonly known when or why teachers are the only default employees to serve, but the teachers we interviewed had their guesses. Maharlika’s Alih and Luyahan’s Cajurao pointed to the teachers’ familiarity with their community of voters. Apolonio Samson’s Mape thinks that it has a lot to do with a teacher’s job description and characteristics.

“Siguro si teacher kasi, ang katangian kasi ng isang guro ay mapasensya. Mahaba ang pasensiya,” he says. “Kung nagagawa namin sa bata, magagawa din namin sa araw ng eleksyon.”

Adding that their mindset as public servants is really to serve the country, he says, “So pinapatunayan namin na wala kaming hinihindian pag dating sa trabaho kaya kahit may mga challenges ay tinatanggap namin ang trabaho bilang EB tuwing eleksyon.”

When he was a teacher at Diosdado P. Macapagal Elementary School — one of the biggest schools in the Fourth Congressional District of Quezon City — he recalls an incident that left him feeling underappreciated.

He says, “Sumakay kami sa truck ng basura. ‘Yung mga nagdadala ng basura sa Payatas — ‘yun mismo ‘yung sumundo sa mga teachers. Sila ‘yung naghatid sa amin sa city hall [to return the election paraphernalia].”

He laughs about it now, but he describes feeling degraded at the time, especially after all they had gone through on that day. “Doon kami, kung saan nilalagay ‘yung basura. Alam mong mabaho siya pero wala kaming choice kasi ‘yun ‘yung pinadala nila? ‘Yung kinakanta nga namin noon, “Naranasan mo na ba sumakay sa truck ng basura?”

With less than a week until election day, teachers like Cajurao, Nono, Mape, Alih, and Bognot are preparing for the final testing and sealing of VCMs at their respective schools. There is still a lot of paper and prep work to be done to make sure that we are all able to safely cast our votes on May 9, but they power through, aware of the impact that their sacrifice will have on the nation.

“Ang laging blame ay nasa teacher,” says Mape. “Wala kaming ginagawang masama. Nagpapdaloy lang kami. Nagfa-facilitate, ginagampanan namin nang maayos ang aming trabaho. Kung magkaroon ng dayaan, never na manggagaling ito sa teacher. Kasi talagang ginagawa natin na may katapatan 'yung aming trabaho.”

All they ask in exchange is to be treated with respect. “Sa mga tao, be considerate sa mga teachers during election season,” says Cajurao. She asks that voters be patient and kind to their poll workers and one another in the case of long lines and slow processing. “Wag murahin ang mga teacher kasi hindi man din namin ginusto na ganoon ang magiging happening.”


Produced by GABY GLORIA