Ambeth Ocampo with history teachers from the Western Visayas region during the PHA Regional Seminar on Teaching Rizal at the University of San Agustin in 2008.
One Unconventional Teacher
By RACHEL C. BARAWID
October 27, 2010, 11:12am
MANILA, Philippines – When he talks, everyone intently listens and hangs on to every word he says.
National Historical Institute (NHI) chair Ambeth Ocampo is no hotshot actor nor a shining pop star. But to many of his students, he is that excellent history teacher that every learner dreams of having.
A writer and a historian, Ambeth is first and foremost a teacher. He teaches the Rizal course to junior college students at the Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) twice a week, and once a week at the University of the Philipines. It is not rare that his classes are held at the auditorium of the Ateneo, jampacked as they are. Yet it is amazing how Ambeth is able to connect to each student and create the desired impact.
MENTORED BY THE BEST
Ambeth admits that he wasn’t a stellar student. But he was lucky to have been mentored by the best people in the industry, among them Doreen Fernandez, Teodoro Agoncillo, and Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc.
He says Doreen Fernandez taught him English and Philippine themes, Agoncillo gave him a crash course in history, and Magsanoc helped him hone his writing. Entertainment editor Ricky Lo, whom he sat next to when he was just starting his career in journalism, also had an influence on Ambeth and his writing.
“My degrees came from De La Salle University but my undergrad was from Ateneo. I went to all three universities, UP is the third. I wasn’t a stellar student but I was fond of history already,” reveals the 49-year-old Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) awardee for history in 1997. “That’s why in the beginning, I presented history to the reader in a different way – fun, gossipy and engaging. But academic historians were upset with me because of this. Sabi ko, the sources are primary, it’s just that the presentation was not academic. I have academic works which nobody reads. Why would you use an academic yardstick for a popular thing? To this day, I continue to give a light touch to my column.”
THE GREAT SLIDESHOW
Anyone who has become Ambeth’s student could attest to the fact that the showing of the “Great Ambeth Ocampo Slideshow” is the most awaited time of the semester. This is actually Ambeth’s presentation of Dr. Jose Rizal’s life in pictures.
“I’ve been showing it for 30 years now when a few years ago, one of my students raised her hand and said that the famous drawing of Leonor Rivera is not her. I said ‘Why who do you see?’ ‘That’s Michael Jackson after cosmetic surgery.’ Of course I laughed! But if you’re a normal teacher you’d say ‘shut up, that’s a stupid comment’ di ba,” he recalls.
Such humor has certainly endeared Ambeth to his students. He admits he is the “performer type’’ who would use humor to get his message across to his students.
“Some are wondering how Ambeth Ocampo, who talks in a monotone, can hold a class for hours. I keep on telling many teachers, my pedagogical method is that way because when students laugh, all their defenses are down and that’s the best time to get a message across. It works very well. You also have to know your material and make it relevant to them. History is relevant because you have to find a hook, a way in which to link the past and the present. So you have to watch TV shows, cable TV.
That’s the only way you can find a connection. To be good in history, you also have to be updated,” he stresses.
MAKING HISTORY EXCITING
Ambeth’s students also look forward to his field trips to historical destinations. When he was younger, Ambeth would bring his classes to Intramuros to see San Agustin Church, where Juan Luna was buried, and other interesting pieces of history.
Today he does not go with his many students anymore but he requires them to go on their own or with their friends to make learning more fun.
To make his lessons more relevant, appealing and exciting, Ambeth has also set up a blog where students may share their experiences after the field trip and post pictures.
Ambeth doesn’t use prescribed textbooks and instead uploads different readings, that include even literature and prose. Students may access it on his site and read it at home. He also holds online discussion with his students through the Yahoo e-groups and Facebook.
“There’s no reason to be uninteresting. The Internet has so many things. I’m allergic to chalk so I have PowerPoint, these social networking sites and more. It really helps but in the end, if you have nothing to teach, wala talaga. The PowerPoint is just a tool, it doesn’t replace your teaching, it just allows them to see things in a different way,” he points out.
THE OTHER JOB OF A TEACHER
Ambeth says he has also become more than a teacher, but a friend and confidante to his students.
“I am not touchy feely but there were a number of suicides last year, three of them are my students. So minsan nag iisip ako ako ba ang may kasalanan nun. One student of mine went to Spain and even brought home a Bible for me. Two weeks later, he committed suicide. I learned from his mother that I was one of his favorite teachers and talked about me most of the time when he comes home from school. So they looked forward to those days when he would recount what I told him in class, his parents learning from the lessons as well. This incident made me become more open to my students. I monitor their grades now and ask them if they have problems when their grades are going down. Kasama na talaga sa trabaho ng isang teacher ito,” he discloses.
Ambeth has received so many national and international recognitions already, the latest being The Many Faces of a Teacher award by the Bato-Balani Foundation. While it may be just another feather in his cap, Ambeth is proud of this recognition because he is acknowledged for being a teacher.
“I do so many things. I write for a newspaper, I’m chair of the NHI. But all of that is part of being a teacher. Teaching is the primary concern, everything that I do is basically teaching,” he notes.
Ambeth’s father was a former teacher at the UP College of Engineering who had to leave his profession to earn a living. The senior Ocampo was also a frustrated writer. So Ambeth says he is happy to be fulfilling all the dreams his father had for himself.
“I always tell people that the reason why I teach is because I learn so much more from the students than they learn from me. You see how they understand things, you have a sense of actually changing a life. It changes over time. I think that’s why teachers remain young because they’re connected with young people. Tignan mo yung magagaling na teachers kahit matanda na sila, there’s still a sense of youth in them. So in a sense, teaching is rejuvenating for us,” Ambeth ends.